Throughout the 18th century, there was a constant looming of changing gender norms and movement in what defined male and female. With the new woman and sexuality being defined in new ways, the world was beginning to change in ways that people hadn’t known before, leaving an air of unease throughout England. What is sex and how do we define it? People were left with questions and others began to experiment and push the boundaries, leaving England in a sort of cultural dissonance.
One of the biggest questions of the time were women and the way in which they were seen. Women weren’t meant to be smart, they were expected to be docile creatures that were considered the property of their husbands. Throughout novels like Dracula and other Victorian literature, we see these gender norms being pushed and twisted as people began to blur the lines of what was expected. In Dracula, characters like Mina Harker, previously Mina Murray, stand to show the complications of a woman standing in a role not priorly taken by a woman. Mina Harker is a brilliant young woman whose problem solving skills and creativity saved not just the men around her but the entirety of England. Despite the fact that Mina had saved all of the men her credit remains ungiven and her brilliance unrecognized by those around her, as women were not expected to be intelligent and skilled in things other than cooking, cleaning and household chores. In one scene one of the men claims, “[Mina] has a man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination.” This quote in specific holds a huge part in what was expected of women throughout the 18th century, and being intelligent was not something expected of women. What seems out of the ordinary in this section is that it is a female that is taking the characteristics of a male, or in particular a man’s brain.
Similarly, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a stark comparison of what is expected of women and what is expected of men. According to Lord Henry, “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” Quite a cynical view is cast on the women throughout this book, treating them as if they have nothing to say or as if they, once again, do not compare to men in terms of intelligence. Within these terms, Dorian himself could similarly be considered in the terms of decorative, as the people around him seem to keep him around not for his brilliance but for his attractiveness and beauty. Lady Henry, although not a beautiful lady according to her description of untidiness, is described as being an incredible romantic. According to her husband, she is too sentimental, yet in a similar vain Dorian holds the familiar sentimental flush of love, speaking of his new found love of Sybil Vane. While women in this novel are described as lovers of romance, men like Lord Henry speak of a differing view, one quite less romantical. Whereas Mina Harker takes on roles of a man, Dorian takes on the roles of a woman, even taking care of the pouring of tea, which could be seen as his submissiveness as he is taking care of household chores.
This swapping of roles only further alludes to the confusion of sexuality and gender expectations that were being twisted throughout the 18th century. Sexuality was changing and people were expressing themselves in a way that was unknown to the public. There is an extreme distaste of women who are expressing themselves in a masculine way, whereas men like Dorian are simply belittled, spoken to as if they needed to be taught. This leaves a clear question in not just the minds of the people of the 18th century, but the people of the modern day: Can gender be defined?
((Similarly in P!nk’s “Beautiful Drama” music video we see a similar swapping of sex characteristics))