Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Mary Wilkins Freeman's Devious Women, 'Harper's Bazar,' and the Rhetoric of Advertising

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Mary Wilkins Freeman's Devious Women, 'Harper's Bazar,' and the Rhetoric of Advertising

Article excerpt

Harriet had never told a deliberate falsehood before in her life, but

this seemed to her one of the tremendous exigencies of life which

justify a lie. She felt desperate. If she could not contrive to deceive

him in some way, the man might turn directly around and carry

Charlotte and her back to the "Home."

-- Freeman's "A Mistaken Charity"(1)

This short epigraph from one of Mary Wilkins Freeman's stories establishes a paradigm for much of her fiction: woman needs to deceive man because she herself has been deceived by man, and if she does not succeed in a truthful-sounding lie, she will be returned to the "Home." In the case of "A Mistaken Charity," the threat to woman is a return to the almshouse, but in most other cases, it is imprisonment in the domestic sphere; in either case, woman is sabotaged because of her economic dependence on man.

In her sociological study Women and Economics, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, aptly describes the condition of women in the late nineteenth century as consumers; indeed, she discusses at great length the process by which man has controlled woman--trapped her into the image of "the priestess of the temple of consumption ... the limitless demander of things to use up" (120). Gilman argues:

the consuming female, debarred from any free production, unable to

estimate the labor involved in the making of what she so lightly

destroys, and her consumption limited mainly to those things which

minister to physical pleasure, creates a market for sensuous decora-

tion and personal ornament, for all that is luxurious and enervat-

ing, and for a false and capricious variety in such supplies, which

operates as a most deadly check to true industry and true art. (120,

emphasis mine) As the idle buyer of man's marketplace baubles, woman herself becomes an extension of those baubles: nice to look at, but superfluous. Or, as Gilman describes the skewed relationship between the sexes: woman's "false economic position" "sexualizes our industrial relation and commercializes our sex-relation" (121).

It is not coincidental that advertisers had become a powerful force in the shaping of the "ideal" woman, the "types" of beauty adorning the covers of Harper's Bazar, by the time Gilman was writing her treatise in 1898.(2) In fact, if one looks at the history of advertising in America, one sees rather alarming ways that the mass market was shaping ideals of womanhood and creating consumer-women. As Jennifer A. Wicke states in her analysis of the influence of advertising on Henry James's fiction, "not only is the American woman marketed globally in order to sell the products of capitalism, but she is also marketed to" (117). From its inception, American advertising was an attempt to render woman a consumer, one whose powerlessness as an active participant in the marketplace was offset by her buying power within the family itself. For example, J. Walter Thompson, an early promoter of magazine advertising (for such magazines as Godey's and Peterson's), was amazed that women's journals proved a favorable medium even for products bought by men; yet, it was precisely because the idle women would be perusing these journals repeatedly (since the journals would be lying around the coffee tables, at least for a month) and it was "often the lady of the house who made the household purchases" (Fox 30) that Thompson enjoyed advertising success in the 1870s.

By the 1880s, the period in which Mary Wilkins Freeman's career was launched, journals were able to reduce the price while increasing the number of subscriptions because of the increased sales of advertisements; the Ladies' Home Journal, for example, which "displayed more than twice as much advertising than any other woman's magazine," could cut its annual subscription, so that by 1900, its founder Cyrus Curtis could boast "that it reached a million subscribers" (Strasser 91). …

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