UK: Hampton Court exhibition revels in the misogyny of women’s lives during reign of Charles II
September 25, 2012
PUTTING A ‘SPIN’ ON REALITY OF UPPER CLASS WOMEN’S LIVES DURING REIGN OF CHARLES IIMy thanks to South London Fawcett Society activist Jennifer Drew for this guest blog
I recently visited Hampton Court Palace’s temporary exhibition ‘The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned.’ Publicity material for this exhibition states ‘Kings, Queens and Courtesans swept away the Puritanical solemnity of the mid-17th century and attempted to rewrite the moral code of social behaviour.’ However the exhibition focused primarily on sexual behaviour/attitudes of women at the court of Charles II. Same publicity material states ‘The rewards for being beautiful were never more plentiful for those who were prepared to compromise a little of their virtue along the way. Court life was glamorous and lucrative. It was the most important source of employment, honours and influence in the country. It gave women similar opportunities to their husbands, if they managed their beauty and gambled with their sexual favours.’
But this statement ignores relations of unequal power between the sexes because men did not commonly use their ‘sexuality’ in order to gain access to political power and influence. Given men have always viewed women in relation to themselves and men have for centuries accorded themselves power and socio-economic status whilst simultaneously denying and controlling women access to the same rights and privileges. The only option available to women was by sexually aligning themselves and this is precisely what women at the court were forced to enact. But these actions were not those of powerful women in their own right.
Following demise of the Commonwealth and restoration of the monarchy this supposedly resulted in a brief period of ‘sexual libertarianism’ but for whom? Not for women because men continued to maintain male control over women and female sexuality. During Charles II’s reign men’s sexual double standards concerning women and their sexuality were openly acknowledged instead of remaining hidden from the public gaze. There are similarities between how our society currently portrays women and how powerful men treated/perceived upper class women during Charles II’s reign. Men of high rank and power openly viewed women at court as available for their sexual use not as men’s equals. A similar situation exists today whereby mainstream media and popular culture promotes the misogynistic lie that women’s and girls’ sole value is their sexuality which exists to serve men.
The same publicity material states that ‘women were empowered’ but this term in relation the exhibition is a meaningless one, because majority of women at Charles II’s court were enacting what men demanded which was to be men’s disposable sexualised commodities. Real female empowerment did not exist because the power structure of male control over women and their sexuality remained unchanged. The exhibition provides numerous examples of men’s sexual double standards in relation to women. It was seen as acceptable for men of high rank to engage in sexual liaisons with women of high rank but only the women were subjected to men’s misogynistic sexualised insults and denigrated as ‘whores or sluts.’ Women’s reputation was focused on their ‘sexual respectability’ whereas men’s sexual proclivities were irrelevant. Men’s respectability was defined by their public actions.
Furthermore, majority of paintings in this exhibition are portraits of court women and they were not commissioned for public viewing. High ranking men including Charles II, commissioned these paintings specifically for their private sexual titillation and pleasure. These portraits depict women in various stages of undress and/or totally naked and are for the benefit of the ‘male gaze.’ These paintings are 17th century versions of men’s pornographic magazines such as FHM, Nuts, Zoo and Maxim. Interestingly the exhibition has a number of high ranking male portraits and focus of these portraits is to show the man’s wealth and status. The men are clothed not semi or wholly naked and are not portrayed as ‘sexualised commodities.’ The contrast between how women and men were portrayed, shows that men then were the subject and women are viewed in relation to men as ‘sex.’ Charles II and his court did not create this misogynistic view of women, because it has existed for centuries and continues today as evidenced by mainstream media and popular culture.
Young women of rank who were presented to Charles II’s court knew the only reason they were there was to either marry a rich powerful male in order to increase their family’s power and status or engage in (hopefully) a long-term sexual liaison with a wealthy man and accrue some measure of wealth and power via this liaison. But the second option was not one wherein women held the same socio-economic status as the man, because all too often he discarded her for another younger woman. The discarded woman was ostracised by society because of her ‘sexual immorality,’ whereas the man’s sexual proclivities were considered irrelevant to his social position and status. One such male at the court of Charles II was Lord Rochester. The exhibition contains a portrait of Lord Rochester and the label accompanying this states
‘Lord Rochester delighted in chasing the court ladies.’ Lord Rochester was a well known serial male sexual predator, who delighted in preying on young women recently arrived at the Court and were inexperienced concerning how the Court System operated.
Because women at Charles II’s court were dependent solely on their physical attributes, various beauty aids were made available to these women so they could hopefully retain their youth and sexual attractiveness to powerful men. Similarly today the Cosmetic and Beauty Industry is a very profitable one directed at women and girls, because just as during Charles II’s reign; a woman’s sole value lies in her physical sexual attractiveness to men.
Following the death of Charles II; court life began to change whereby open acceptance of powerful men’s sexual libertarianism was no longer condoned or publicly accepted. A climate of (pseudo) sexual respectability began to prevail. In reality, powerful men’s right to engage in sexual liaisons with women at the court continued as before, but these liaisons were conducted in a discreet manner. As and when scandals occurred; men publicly denounced the woman as a ‘whore or slut’ and she, not the male was punished and ostracised from polite society. Whilst ‘sexually respectable women’ condoned such demonisation of these supposedly immoral women; they themselves did not create men’s sexual double standards. Because women were not accorded socio-economic power in their own right they knew their respectability and reputation was fragile. The difference between ‘sexual morality/immorality’ was a very fine one, given men believed it was their innate right to have sexual access to females as and when the opportunity arose. This is why so many women sought to distance themselves from those other women who supposedly transgressed men’s definition of appropriate female sexual morality.
This exhibition is not a celebration of women’s (pseudo) empowerment but demonstrates how male control over women is maintained for men’s sexual/socio-economic benefit. Just as women at the court of Charles II were viewed as men’s disposable sexualised commodities. Just as in the time of Charles II we are currently experiencing what is now a global misogynistic male-centric claim that women’s and girls’ sole value lies in their sexual attractiveness to men. Men have always claimed they are the default human and women are what? Just sex!