Posted by: siobhananderson | November 10, 2010

Masks of Masculinity: Beauty and Munby’s Working Class Women

After reading Reay’s interpretation of Munby’s documents and McClintock and Pollack’s theories, and after our discussion last week about advertisement and beauty ideals and depictions of women in the Victorian era I began to wonder if the idea of “beauty” or “femininity” itself was at a crossroads of sorts during this time. Munby seems to be the voice of masculine desire and fetishism in his drawings and poetry concerning the figure and form of the working-class woman. At the same time that he fetishes however, he also continually returns to the established notion of Victorian beauty: the pale hands and face, the rosy lips, the white teeth. An interesting thing to note is that Munby in fact almost seems to use the idea of “femininity” interchangeably with “beauty”. Was femininity beauty? Is femininity beauty? Though many of the women are cloaked in dirt or callouses, Munby always seems to find a pearl of femininity (beauty?) tucked away in some part of their appearance. For example as he examines and describes the nature of  a trouser-wearing clay covered girl he moves on to say that though clearly bearing a masculine appearance she was “not unfeminine” and had hands “though broad and thick were delicate looking…”

It seems as though Munbys clear sexual and intellectual curiosities concerning these women had as much to do with their resemblance to men as it did their questioning of common beauty ideals and ultimately how these ideals relate to Victorian femininity.

I’ve attached some pictures that contrast working Victorian women and more upper class women. One can clearly see where themes of beauty seem to stem from delicacy and purity and where dirt and power become totems of a new sort of animalistic and masochistic fetishism on the part of Victorian society.


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