"Death and the Maiden"

By Jonathon Keats


Salon Staff
March 7, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

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In his article on the corset Jonathon Keats makes the classic (and I can only assume intentional) mistake of most "sex commentators." He writes as if sexuality exists in some world of universals, and isn't surrounded by a cultural context that defines it. Thus statements such as "tight clothing objectified men as well as women," with its apparent assumption of "equality" of objectification, is patent nonsense. Men can never be objectified in the same way women can, because the entire social attitude that encompasses them is different. Thus, for all the historical background ostentatiously paraded in the article, it manages to carefully avoid recognizing the key point -- corsets are about displaying female sexual attributes in a way that determines women as solely sexual, thus carefully excluding them from challenging masculine authority in other areas.

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Keats' disingenous bewilderment about why "feminist orthodoxy" can't celebrate the female form can only be understood through his willful ignorance of this distinction. As a specialist in Victorian culture, I find it more than a little telling that Keats carefully avoids mentioning the dominant ideology of the period -- the idea of "separate spheres." The fascination with languid, dying heroines, and their pale, sickly skin, was essential in suggesting that women simply didn't have what it took to enter the "public world" of masculine endeavour, and therefore had to remain in the "private sphere" of domesticity. Attempting to avoid this specific cultural purpose by waxing eloquent on the eternal eroticism of death is, again, nonsense. To the extent that corsets both ensured that women retained this (literally physical) "immobility," while at the same time encouraging Victorian commentary on the dangerous, improper female sexuality that needed to be contained, they reinforce a vision of femaleness that kept women safely out of politics, religion and business. The kind of retroactive "empowerment" that writers like Keats (and others) attempt to create for objectification is only available to someone in the early 21st century who, ironically, can employ various feminist arguments in ways that attempt to undercut feminism. It would be humorous, if it wasn't so depressingly common.

--Richard Nemesvari

I have long been interested in historical costume, and have consequently witnessed many episodes in the great corset wars. It amazes me how much popular mythology there is about this piece of clothing. A few points:

A well-fitted corset need not reduce the waist at all, or cause breathlessness. Its purpose is to smooth out the line of the waist and ribs (any reasonably buxom woman knows what kinds of odd lines and bulges are caused by bra straps) and to provide support for the breasts. While I know people in the fetish community who wear corsets designed to partially immobilize, I have worn corsets with spiral steel boning and turned sommersaults in them. They can be far less restricting than is often assumed.

Corsets also often provide better support for large-breasted women than do bras. (As a martial artist with DDD cups, I keep current on the state of the art in bras, believe me!) Bras provide lift for the breasts by putting all the weight on the shoulder straps, which are in turn supported by the strap in back. The back strap must be fairly tight not to slide, and if your breasts are large, this is an awkward arrangement. Corsets, on the other hand, push from below, and the weight of the breasts is distributed over the waist and hips.

I'll admit I don't wear corsets for martial arts use (they don't deal with twisting through the waist well, they are not made of wicking fabric and they tend to be pricey), but I would rather wear a corset than a bra under most any evening gown, especially if I'm going to spend the evening on my feet.

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--Catherine Harper

I appreciated the article on corsetry and the various arguments against it. Personally, I'm for them, and I consider myself a feminist. It helps that I'm free to wear them as I choose, of course, and I'm not into tight lacing, but to each her own.

I love my corsets -- they make me feel sexy, alluring and vampish. They're simply fun to wear. Plus, it's incredibly hot to wear one for an evening and then to be unlaced by my lover.

In fact, the only thing that keeps me from wearing them more often is that they restrict my movement more than I'm willing to put up with on a regular basis. Otherwise, they give me a nice shape, as well as better posture than I normally have without them. Bring on the corsets!

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--Laurie Brunner

Keats' article about corsets is appalling, and truly could only have been written by a man. There are many problems with objectification: While it does happen to men, it mostly happens to women. The woman is reduced to the sum of her parts, her physical parts. Admiration of the physical form is one thing; equating the physical form with the worth of another human being is totally different. My objection to corsets is that they attempt to construct the female form into one "desirable" shape. It is not that they somehow enhance what a woman already looks like; it's that they attempt to alter that appearance by restricting, pinching and pushing. Perhaps Mr. Keats should experiment by wearing a corset himself. I wonder how liberated he would feel by the experience.

--Kerry Mockler

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I am writing to express my dismay about what Jonathon Keats overlooks in his article on corset fashion. The corsets in Victoria's Secret, for example, are undeniably sexy to this male writer. However, they are so in part because they fetishize not only the female body but also the idea of erotic binding/constriction whose sexiness, even in fun, almost certainly draws from the sexual hierarchy of a patriarchal culture, and romanticizes a past that was often truly oppressive to women.

Simply put, in criticizing the "feminist academic orthodoxy," Keats overlooks the basic criticism it makes: that corsets are distressing because, at a certain level, they valorize the subjugation of women. Keats' characterization of said "feminist academic orthodoxy" is dismal and inaccurate, speaking as a feminist academic. The very use of the word "orthodoxy" is inappropriate, as feminist academics are likely to have views that vary just as widely as the general public's on the subject of female sexuality. To imply that all feminist academics desire to hide the female form in fashion is insulting, and I highly doubt that the author Keats singles out is truly possessed of this opinion. Sexuality and bodies are not necessarily seen as oppressive by feminist thinkers, as Keats suggests. Most of the ones I know, and certainly the one I sleep with, are quite sex- and eroticism-positive. However, a single acceptable body image demanded and regulated by a patriarchal society can still be oppressive, even if it "feels good" and even if it is less physically damaging than commonly thought. Keats' "so what" attitude to the fainting and circulation problems of old-fashioned corsets, as well as his tacit support of an erotic mind-set that, when taken to its extreme extension, would find a woman most attractive when she looks dead, is both disgusting and sexist. It is here that Keats most creepily overlooks the ambivalence of the objectifying aspects of our sense of sight. In the end, the gaudy fetish corsets of today's lingerie catalogs are simply less constrictive and ergo less oppressive than their whalebone forebears. Moreover, they are genuinely liberating in the sense that they are for pleasure, play and dress-up more than a required fashion uniform. The freedom to enjoy one's sexuality on one's own terms was not as available in the past as it is to today's lingerie catalog shoppers, and Keats crucially fails to make this distinction.

--Nathan Day

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