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Ben Johnson is a Big 'Ol Misogynist

Tuesday, March 22, 2022 - 08:00

I just had to say that, ok? This is an interesting analysis, and tangentially Project-relevant with its focus on a female household, but there were a few odd clunkers in the author's reasoning. It felt a bit like the author is too focused on questions of literary symbolism and not quite familiar enough with gendered aspects of material and social culture. The one example I'll give is when she interprets a scene where a woman is spinning thread as part of a magical ritual as representing appropriation of male power via the subversion of a "phallic" spindle and production of "ejaculatory thread." Yes, the phrase "ejaculatory thread" appears in print there. For anyone familiar with the overwhelming power of the spindle as a female symbol, and indeed one so strongly bound to the female sphere that the favorite way of depicting an emasculated man was to show him using a spindle...well, let's just say it seemed like an unlikely interpretation.

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Ostovich, Helen. 1999. “The Appropriation of Pleasure in The Magnetic Lady” in Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England edited by Susan Frye & Karen Robertson. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-511735-2

Ostovich, Helen. “The Appropriation of Pleasure in The Magnetic Lady

So, Ben Johnson is a massive misogynist, we know that, right? This analysis of gendered roles and alliances in his play The Magnetic Lady, reveals a complex feminine world, despite the hatred and disgust shown for any female character who is not a well-born, passive, virtuous cypher. Women acting together, in a variety of strongly female-coded roles such as midwife, nurse, and widowed householder, try to subvert the patriarchal establishment by taking ownership of their own sexuality and acting to further female goals in marriage. This, of course, by the logic of the play, makes them the villains.

The potential relevance of this article to the Project comes in how female-headed, female-centered households of the early 17th century were depicted within misogynistic satirical literature. They must have been a significant enough feature of society to provoke male anxiety. We see themes like widows having an active (if covert) sex life without binding themselves in marriage, female alliances to deal with the consequences of unwed motherhood, and the ways in which male relatives held legal power over women’s finances and strategized to retain that power.

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