Can We Talk about Those Faux Victorians?

Can We Talk about Those Faux Victorians? December 14, 2015

By now you’ve probably heard about Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman, who’ve decided to live as though they are in the Victorian era. They’ve fitted their house out with original 1890s appliances and dress in clothing from the era—Sarah even wears a corset. I’ve been avoiding writing about them because they originally seemed to be outside my usual topic material, but with their recent comments on feminism and women’s rights they’ve suddenly become very relevant. The quotes below, which I will comment on, come from an interview with writer Lisa Hix of Collectors Weekly

I want to be clear upfront that I don’t have a problem with Sarah or Gabriel buying antiques or dressing in clothes from a century ago. I like cosplay just as much as anyone else! What bothers me is both that they portray themselves as historical experts while getting things very wrong and that they lionize the Victorian era without fully grasping the breadth of that era’s fault. I’ve seen the word “privilege” used in discussions of the couple, and it’s very apt—they appear unaware both that they are recreating a very privileged version of the Victorian era and that the fact that they have recourse to modern convinces (and things like medicine) should they decide they need them sets them apart from what it was actually like to live in the Victorian era.

I’m reminded of women who claim they experienced what it was like to be a Muslim woman who wears the hijab by donning a headscarf for a specific period of time. What these women miss is that they can take the hijab off any time, no harm no foul, while hijabis can’t. And actually, Sarah and Gabriel are an even more extreme example of this, because a hijabi technically could remove their hijab but a person living in the Victorian era couldn’t cease to live in the Victorian era.

Let’s start with Sarah and Gabriel’s approach to history:

Collectors Weekly: What inspired you to do this experiment?

Sarah: The real turning point for us was when Gabriel gave me my first corset as a birthday present back in 2009. Up until that point, I had heard all the stereotypes and misconceptions about corsets, and I’d believed them. I’d suspected he was thinking about giving me a corset, so I told him not to. But he did. I tried it on just to humor him at first. I realized right away it was comfortable, I could breathe, and that blew a whole host of stereotypes out of the water for me. I started asking myself, “Well, if I was so wrong about this one aspect of Victorian life, and if everyone I’ve ever talked to has always been so wrong about just this one thing, what else have I been wrong about?”

Gabriel: We’d already been interested in this period. But we hadn’t realized how much that we were missing about it while we were relying on modern writings, as opposed to going back to the primary sources, in terms of both text and artifacts, and seeing what we could learn from those.

Sarah: When we were just reading the modern books about the period, it was like the children’s game that people now call “telephone,” where something gets misinterpreted along the way. By going back to the original 19th-century books, magazines, diaries, and letters and all the physical artifacts, we’ve been able to learn a lot more than just listening to the rumors.

Let’s leave aside the fact that Gabriel gave Sarah a corset even though she explicitly told him not to and hone in instead on those last two paragraphs. Sarah calls historical works on the Victorian era “rumors.” The sheer lack of understanding of what history is or how it works is astounding. A layperson can’t read the historical sources and then claim to understand the era better than a trained historian. Historical training is important, because it provides needed context and tools.

I’m reminded of a Christmas several years back when my mother showed me a conservative hagiography of one of the founding fathers and claimed it was the most authoritative book on the topic because its amateur author had spent twenty years reading the primary sources. That is not how it works, but it seems to be how Sarah and Gabriel think it works.

Sarah and Gabriel aren’t just trying to live as though they were Victorians, they’re also claiming that they understand the period better than trained historians. They’re rejecting current historical knowledge of the period despite the fact that neither of them are trained historians. And on that basis they’re uplifting the period and denigrating our own.

Let me start out with two minor examples:

Collectors Weekly: So [corsets] weren’t that expensive then?

Gabriel: They were remarkably cheap.

Sarah: In fact, by the 1890s, they were in the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog. The average model cost 25 cents, which was the cost of a dozen eggs at that point. If you think about what a dozen eggs costs now, that’s cheap for something you’re going to wear every single day.

Gabriel: It’s one of those many instances where we wish we could place an order from the Sears, Roebuck catalog from 1895.

Sarah says that in the 1890s corsets were the same price of a dozen eggs, and then uses the current price of a dozen eggs to prove that that means they were cheap. What Sarah apparently doesn’t even consider is that eggs were almost certainly significantly more expensive in the 1890s than they are today. Upon reading this bit I told my husband, who has some background in economics, that a corset cost the same as a dozen eggs in the 1890s, and his immediate response was to comment on how expensive that suggested a dozen eggs must have been.

Next look at this bit:

Sarah: . . . When I wash my hair, I get into the clawfoot bathtub, and I use castile soap from a company that’s been around since 1837, a bar of soap that I have to lather up. The castile-soap trick is one I got from a ladies’ magazine from 1889. I’ve found that because it gets my hair so much cleaner than modern shampoos, the hair is not as slippery, and it’ll stay in the Victorian updos is a lot better.

Sarah’s hair isn’t as slippery when she uses castile soap instead of modern shampoo because the soap is stripping the natural oils out of her hair, not because it’s “cleaner.” I also seriously hope Sarah isn’t trying every trick she finds in Victorian era ladies’ magazines. That could be downright dangerous.

But let’s turn to look at how Sarah and Gabriel discuss their relative privilege:

Collectors Weekly: In terms of class, what do you imagine yourselves at this time period?

Sarah: We try to be middle-class people.

Gabriel: Our income now doesn’t match up with what middle class is defined as anymore. Which fits very well into what the Victorian era was. People at the very bottom of middle class tried desperately to seem like they were toward the top of middle class. It’s amazing how many people will look at us and what we do and be like, “Oh, you must be independently wealthy.”

Throughout their writings and interviews, Gabriel and Sarah appear oblivious to the fact that they are living lives the average Victorian only dreamed of. They respond to people pointing out their relative privilege by arguing that actually, they’re pretty poor thank you very much, when the reality was that the middle class was tiny during the Victorian era, and that even being in the lower middle class meant you were incredibly privileged compared to others at the time.

Several years ago Sarah wrote a book about corsets. According to a blog that reviewed her book, Sarah never mentioned child labor or tuberculosis, and mentioned racism only twice—once to bemoan the fact that people reject the racism in Gone with the Wind but don’t similarly question the book’s rants against corsets, and once to note that “those who denounce contemporary cultures are denounced as xenophobes or racists . . . yet we have no word for those who treat the cultures of the past in the same manor . . . it is difficult for many people to grasp that lifestyles may have been different in the past, and yet still completely satisfactory to those living them.” I’m sure child laborers slowly dying in mines and factories, abused women without recourse to divorce, and black sharecroppers living in fear of lynching were completely satisfied with their lot. Apparently pointing out these problems is the equivalent of racism. Except, you know, not.

This lack of understanding comes into play in their discussion of feminism.

Gabriel: Also, it depends on your definition of feminist. We don’t hate all feminists. But we think that there are more—how to put it exactly?—constructive things that feminists could be focused on.

What even is this “We don’t hate all feminists” thing?

Collectors Weekly: Sarah, do you think you would have been a Suffragist?

Sarah: I have a lot more sympathy with Frances Cleveland [wife of President Grover Cleveland] and the anti-suffrage movement. They felt strongly that women had a lot of power, which they would lose if they got the vote. It ties into the concept of Separate Spheres, which most modern people don’t understand. It’s a complicated concept—the idea that women are better at some things than men and men are better at some things that women. Right now and since the 1960s, it’s politically allowable to say women are better at some things than men, but it’s very unfashionable to say men are better at some things than women, even though that’s the natural corollary. You can’t have one without the other. The Victorians felt that men were physically more powerful, but that women were the morally superior sex. They thought women were inherently more intelligent about family issues and had better insight into spiritual and social issues.

And here is another person who doesn’t have any actual understanding of modern feminist critiques. What things is it “politically allowable” to say women are better at? Childrearing, presumably. What Sarah is apparently missing is that that is a relic of the separate spheres ideology, not something modern or different, and it is something most modern feminists are working to dismantle. We would like to move past “women are better at X, men are better at Y” completely and move toward a world where individuals are allowed to be better or worse at this or that.

Note, though, that Sarah says she has more sympathy with the anti-suffrage movement than with the suffrage movement. She doesn’t explicitly say she doesn’t think women should have the vote, but she very clearly says she would have opposed giving women the vote had she lived in the 1890s. But this isn’t the end of it.

Collectors Weekly: I know the Temperance movement started in part because women were being beaten by their drunken husbands.

Sarah: Drug abuse and alcoholism are still big issues now. It’s just the human condition. These are problems people have always faced and unfortunately, sadly, probably will always face.

Gabriel: The Temperance movement was one of the big reasons men didn’t want women to get the vote is because women, by a heavy majority, would have voted for Prohibition.

Again, today, there are plenty of women who are stuck in bad marriages with bad husbands and have difficulty getting out. I don’t think it was necessarily that much worse then. The laws were a little bit more complicated and social norms about divorce were a little different. But divorces did happen. There were plenty of women who managed to divorce men and go on to live solitary lives happily.

Apparently it was just as difficult for women to get out of abusive marriages when they had to prove their husband had committed some gross wrongdoing in order to get a divorce as it is today, when women can get a divorce for any reason or no reason at all. Because that totally makes sense. Except not. And that’s not even getting into issues with women owning property, restrictions on the sorts of jobs they could have, and a whole host of other problems. Oh, but Gabriel covered all that that when he said “the laws were a bit more complicated,” right?

Collectors Weekly: In terms of reproductive rights, it doesn’t seem like there’d be a lot of options for women to be in control of their bodies.

Sarah: Actually, quite the contrary. They had condoms, which had been around since ancient Egypt. In a period newspaper from our town, on the front page, they were advertising pennyroyal pills, which was a known abortifacient.

Gabriel: The code word in a lot of these patent medicine advertisements was “for married women.”

Sarah: Probably the Victorian abortifacients most well-known to modern audiences are from a folk song that was covered by Simon & Garfunkel back in the 1960s, “Scarborough Fair.” The reason “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” is the chorus is that as essential oils taken in large quantities, those herbs can induce abortion. These are things that were passed down as folk wisdom.

Okay first of all, Sarah and Gabriel seem to be unaware of the Comstock Law, which was passed in 1873 and banned distributing information about birth control or abortion. Doctors weren’t allowed to mention birth control, advertisers weren’t allowed to advertise it, and newspapers weren’t allowed to list birth control. Gabriel speaks of advertisements using a “code word” but never explains why that was necessary. Also? Condoms were expensive and relied on male participation, and pennyroyal pills and other herbal methods were dangerous. Many women died attempting illegal abortions.

Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in the early 20th century specifically because women did not have access to information about contraceptives, or to contraceptives themselves. She spent time working as a nurse before this, and she watched women die of self-inflicted abortions, and saw women beg the doctor she assisted for information about birth control, but to no avail, because he was not legally allowed to provide such information.

I feel the need to point out that, given that they live in the modern era, Sarah and Gabriel have full access to all forms of birth control and Sarah has access to safe and legal abortion. They do not actually live in the Victorian era, and if they did they would likely be far less sanguine about their access to these these things.

And so I’m frustrated. I have no problem at all with the Crismans cosplaying the Victorian era, but I have a very big problem with them claiming to understand the era better than historians and then presenting a version of that history that is overly rosy to the point of being ahistorical. In their version of the era, women had access to birth control and abortion, child labor and lynching aren’t worth mentioning, and women totally didn’t actually need the vote. And yet they can’t understand why so many people have reacted negatively to their writings.

That’s privilege for you.

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