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Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes
So it turns out that Sarah Chrisman, the woman living her life as a wealthy Victorian whose Vox piece went viral yesterday, was interviewed on The View a couple of years ago when she was promoting her book on corsets. It’s short and worth a watch. Chrisman is camera-ready, displaying a bubbly personality well-suited for the kind of so-soft-it’s-porous “journalism” that passes for content on The View. The segment, illustrated with video of Chrisman doing various Victorian-ish tasks around the house and showing off the curves that her corseted life have given her, might as well be called “Slimming down the 1890s Way!”
In other words, the deeply misogynistic ideals of daytime television actually line up quite well with Chrisman’s pseudo-Victorian ideals. It’s super creepy if you start thinking about it for too long.
So I saw Ed link to the Vox piece yesterday. I read it, clicked over to Chrisman’s website, saw the deep wells of rich white privilege demonstrated all over the place, and posted it to my personal Facebook. Several of my friends (whose opinions I respect) pushed back a bit on my posting with some really good questions. This blog, then, is meant to respond to those criticisms in a single place rather than piecemeal among Facebook comments.
First, a caveat
Nothing that I write below is intended to in any way bully, harass, or damage Chrisman (or her husband). In the Vox piece (and on her website, again absolutely worth a visit to understand Chrisman and my criticisms of her) she makes claims of being harassed, assaulted, and insulted, even quoting a death threat. Any comments on this post (or on my Facebook wall, or anywhere else I have control) that veer towards the line of hateful speech towards Chrisman will be summarily deleted. I am not here to bully Chrisman, and frankly don’t care much about her as a person. I’m far more interested in the ideology she espouses, and the way that ideology is hidden by and allowed to fester by the bubbly persona you see on her website and in the video above.
On the Shoulders of Giants
I was going to go through and demonstrate with references exactly how problematic the lifestyle of the Chrismans is, but a ton of other writers did that job much, much better than I could. Lots of people have shared this Rebecca Onion piece over at Slate, and a few have shared this Storify by Creeping Krisandry. They are both worth reading, especially the Storify. Krisandry also posted a second Storify, responding to some critics and sharing a bit more context about herself and her criticisms. In that second Storify, Krisandry links to a blog post by Angus Johnson of Student Activism which is worth reading, and several of his tweets in which he shares passages of interest from one of Chrisman’s books. It turns out that Chrisman’s Victorian style isn’t just skin deep: she’s kinda meh on women’s suffrage and isn’t so much a fan of feminism generally. At one point, after being accosted by a rude and smelly hippie, she wonders aloud who the real oppressors are.
I recommend that readers go through the links above, looking especially at the sections from Chrisman’s book. Then watch that video from ABC again, and look at the way that casual internalized misogyny is part and parcel of Chrisman’s worldview. The obvious defense of Chrisman is that she is an eccentric young woman who has found her comfort and self-actualization in an unconventional place, but that she’s essentially harmless. I submit that based on the links above, the toxic conservative ideology that was only hinted beneath the veneer of the Vox piece is loud and proud in Chrisman’s longer works.
Because I don’t object to Chrisman’s eccentricity. I object to her reactionary ideology. If the above does not convince you, or if the segments of Chrisman’s book have been somehow taken out of context, I am more than happy to hear it. I suspect that the good-hearted and liberal persons I know who have defended Chrisman’s eccentricities to me would not, were the shoe on the other foot, be equally defended by Chrisman.
I’d like to note that none of the above is an attempt to silence, bully, or denigrate Chrisman based on her dress, lifestyle, wealth, et cetera. That there should be no censorship of Sarah Chrisman goes without saying. That I have the right to criticize her beliefs and speech should also go without saying.
Misfits, Loners, Weirdos, and Don’t-Fit-Ins
Where this is all leading, and why I felt it fine to post it on a Doctor Who podcast blog, is that I am obviously cut from a similar mold as Chrisman. Oh, I’ve no interest in playing dress-up with Victorian clothes or artifacts and I certainly don’t live my misfit nature to the degree that Chrisman does, but I’m a polyamorous man with a long beard who spends an inordinate amount of time talking about extreme politics in the context of an old television show. I wear geeky T-shirts, I live my life for myself and those I love rather than for society at large, and I’d like to continue to do so unmolested thank-you-very-much.
When Chrisman blogs about her harassment on a day that should have been a fun trip out (even if she does like to throw around the word “pervert” way more than I’m comfortable with) my heart is with her and I rage against those who will not allow her bodily autonomy. (Even in the above clip from The View, one of the hosts attempts to “goose” Chrisman’s dress. This is seriously not okay.)
I believe it’s possible to hold the nuanced view that Chrisman should simultaneously be allowed to live the life she wants to live without being groped and yet be criticized for the ideology that goes along with her favorite time period. People holding minority ideologies and/or lifestyles, even those we find toxic, have the perfectly valid right to exist and spread if they can — this is the basis of a pluralistic modern society and the very definition of liberalism. But that right does not preclude the right to be criticized for it.
So how is Chriman’s Victorian life like my love of Doctor Who and leftist politics? Well, we’re obviously both way outside the mainstream of the societies in which we live. But loving Doctor Who, even if one loves it enough to base an entire lifestyle around it (a TARDIS-themed house, twenty-four hour cosplay, etc.) is not equivalent to spreading a false history (as illustrated above) about Victorian life. Further, I do believe it’s the responsibility of those of us within these minority subcultures specifically to speak up about the toxicity that may be found within; any regular listener to our podcast knows that we speak regularly and at length about the damaging nature of majority-white-male nerd culture, and we take seriously the responsibility to spread liberal and pluralistic values within what is often a damaged culture.
To extend that back to the Victorian lifestyle, were Chrisman living this life she loves so much but using her educational platform to criticize the values of the world that created them, I’d have no argument with her! Were Chrisman showing an awareness of the privilege that allows her to live this way, a criticism of the system that abused millions worldwide to provide her with the ore in her fountain pens and the cotton in her corsets, or an awareness of the difference between choosing to wear a corset daily and being forced by society’s strictures to do so, I would be happy to leave her to her happy lifestyle and cheer her on in her mission to educate and understand.
It’s the ideology, largely founded in ignorance, that is the source of my criticism. Whether that ignorance is honest or willful I don’t know, but there’s nothing I’ve seen from her work that indicates any large degree of self-awareness about these issues.
And that’s the problem.
If a reader finds this, has looked at the links and dug into the resources provided and still thinks Chrisman is just a harmless eccentric, consider these alternate realities. Instead of appreciating the aesthetics and technology of Victorian-era Washington, suppose…
…she lived in a circa-1850 plantation home in Mississippi, appreciating the natural farmland/clothing/architecture, and employing laborers to grow and pick cotton on the land. In this instance, would it matter if all the laborers were black?
…she lived the life of a 1950s housewife, full-on with a tube television set, period-accurate furniture and appliances, never reading/viewing/listening to any media made after 1959 or so and writing books about what the people of 1950 could teach modern feminists. In this case would it then matter if she was participating in what we might call the “Ozzie and Harriet” fifties or if she also appreciated beat poetry, modern art, et cetera?
…she lived in a 1960s commune, sharing household chores equally with several other women who raised children together, but still under the thumb of an oppressive male ruling system.
Personally, I find some of these much more damaging than others, pretty much based on how strongly I stand against the ideology behind the false versions of history spread by the replication of culture. Maybe readers disagree. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with any of it. I look forward to comments.
In Summary: Criticizing Culture
As a person with non-mainstream political views, I feel it is incumbent upon myself to criticize those systems and ideas that I find harmful in modern society. Living in this world is to be complicit in many of these systems (a migrant worker picked the onion I used this afternoon, this computer contains materials mined in some hellhole in Africa or Southeast Asia, the clothes on my back were made by a wage slave making pennies a day, et cetera), and my ideology tells me it’s my responsibility to criticize those systems and try to change them where I can.
What I ask of Chrisman (and others like her who live lives rejecting modernity in favor of some idealized past) is to do the same. Living her life as a Victorian means more than just wearing old clothes, but also using that position of education (that she has taken on herself through her museum, website, books!) to share the not-nice portions of that same past, and to acknowledge that the objects she fetishizes were made in a particular place in history, with their own (often bloody) origins.