Another Pretty Thing

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))

4 thoughts on “Another Pretty Thing”

  1. I like how you decided to explore Mina, who is described as a masculine woman, with the women Lord Henry and Dorian generalize as merely decorative pieces. It would be interesting to think about women in the context of decadence. Are they merely another collectable item that simply looks pretty but has no real value or usefulness? And if so, are they as replaceable as say a decorative table or a painting? Even in Dracula, Mina does play a major role in the downfall of the Count, but the men don’t hesitate to shut her out when the situation becomes too dangerous and ultimately replace her with their own combined knowledge. Is knowledge or intelligence considered backlash against decadence?

  2. Great post! I’d like to add that, in addition, we also see gender inversion in the three women vampires in Dracula. These women partake in the masculine act of penetration through their vampire fangs. These women, who have some masculine characteristics, are not seen as “good” characters. They are threatening to Jonathan, they are portrayed as very sexual (which was not how women were supposed to behave), and they are literally shown killing a baby. These women are portrayed as dangerous because (just like Mina and Dorian) they confuse the gender and sexuality expectations of the time.

  3. I think that another reason Dorian appeals to those around him, other than his beauty, is that they see him as something they can use. Basil, we know, idealizes Dorian as the perfect muse, using him to revolutionize his art in a way that nothing else could. After meeting Dorian, Basil notes that Dorian is now present in all of his art. Further, Lord Henry tells Dorian at the end of the novel that after Dorian’s influence left Basil, his art was no longer worthy of attention. Lord Henry seems to view Dorian as an interesting experiment or play-toy and finds pleasure in manipulating Dorian’s mind. To these two characters, at least, I would argue that Dorian represents more of an object that is used for their own purposes rather than just a decoration.

  4. I enjoyed reading this post as I had not yet thought about the connections between Dracula and Dorian Gray. But there are so many. I couldn’t help, as I read your post, thinking about the irony in these gender dynamics. Van Helsing calls Mina’s brain a “man’s brain,” yet she is the one person who solves almost every single problem the group of men face in the novel. In fact, the men don’t really offer any sort of intellectual help in the novel (I would argue Van Helsing offers more superstitious help). It is the same in Dorian Gray–Lord Henry is so quick to point out that women are decorative creatures, yet he himself has no intellectual substance. He spews sentences that mean nothing and only ever comments on how things physically look.

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