Ibsen and feminism 1

This is a topic that will come up many times over the course of our work on this play. I wanted to dive in by looking at recent news story about controversy over girl’s t-shirts sold at J.C.Penny. Here’s the design that has been pulled from the store’s online stock after public protest.The Village Voice‘s Runnin’ Scared blog chronicles the whole saga as does this piece from Jezebel.com that uncovered yet another suspect offering after JCP pulled the above shirt above from online sales.

It’s probably no surprise that this news item put me in the mind of Nora and the kind of “pretty doll” act she has been encouraged to cultivate (first by her father and then by Torvald). Certainly, this kind of cultivation of a particular kind of feminine beauty and behavior wasn’t new to the nineteenth century. Nor is it an identity that is ever offered to all women equally. Helene, Anne-Marie & Kristine don’t have the luxury of skylark twittering. But it remains an enduring and encouraged image of womanhood as these t-shirts attest. In fact, it has almost become a point of pride. Take My Super-Sweet 16 the MTV show where moneyed young women (and men, but mostly women) are lavished upon by parents who themselves might be suitable candidates for a show in Bravo’s Real Housewives of … franchise. And it’s here where the world of a particular kind of femininity merges  with a particular kind economic position and it’s easy to see how “on the pulse” Ibsen was of his and our own time even though he shied away from accolades about his contributions to the late nineteenth-century’s “wave” of the women’s movement:

I thank you for the toast, but must disclaim the honor of having “consciously worked for the women’s right’s movement’ … True enough, it is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others; but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.

— From an 1898 speech given at a banquet in Ibsen’s honor by the Norwegian Women’s Rights League.

Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to read/discuss an article by Joan Templeton that places Ibsen’s “disclaimer” in a broader context. Templeton argues that his speech is not so much a rejection of the feminist themes in Doll’s House as much as it might be a sign of his own particular predilection to reject organized movements and the spectacle of social reformer campaigns. She discusses Ibsen’s close relationship with women, particularly Laura Peterson Kieler, the Norwegian journalist who inspired the plot of A Doll’s House, and concludes that despite this above oft-quoted speech, Ibsen was acutely aware of and inspired by the particular struggle of women of his time. And, who knows? Maybe another 30+ years of this play being performed we might some day see JC Penny offer t-shirts for young girls emblazoned with

First and foremost, a human being.

Heck, I might just take it upon myself to make one for my daughter right now.


1 Comment

  • Jules Odendahl-James says:

    News that this kind of sexism isn’t limited to little girls clothes, the “Runnin’ Scared” blog on *The Village Voice* just posted word that Ricky’s (an online costume chain) was selling an “Anna Rexia” skeleton outfit for Halloween (only in women’s sizes but also, interestingly, with “plus size” options). Who knows whether any outcry or bad publicity caused them to pull the item (which they did http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/09/rickys_is_selli.php) but the whole situation reminds me that as much as I believe that interrogation of gender roles is an activity that should be undertaken by those who identify as male and those who identify as female, I still think there are unique and enduring pressure on women that must be acknowledged and fought.