SEXUAL ANARCHY: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Elaine Showalter

SEXUAL ANARCHY: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Here, Showalter (English/Princeton) describes the collapse of sexual boundaries and the emergence of new sexual phenomena in the art, literature, popular culture, psychology, and politics of the closing decades of the 19th century and draws illuminating parallels with the 20th. Feminist critic Showalter (The Female Malady, 1986, etc.) quotes widely from contemporary theorists to support her own typology, a cast of personalities she finds decisive to the period: the New Woman (independent, productive); the Odd Woman (equally new, but unmarried, repressed); the victimized woman (the case study, explored, dissected); the menacing woman (veiled, castrating); and the male homosexual. Each type, as they appeared in literature or in society, accounts for the fin de siècle era's anxiety, violence, excess, disease (and, by implication, promiscuity), as well as for such creative reactions as the invention of a new genre, the exclusively male romance (Treasure Island and Heart of Darkness, for example). While the types and symptoms here are interesting, however, the dynamics, the cause/effect relationships, are strained. Showalter is best as cultural commentator, speaking in her own voice on issues relating to her own fin de siècle, deconstructing horror films, deciphering the complex politics of the Gay Rights movement, reporting on a quarrelsome George Eliot conference, or interpreting striptease and peep shows after taking the N.Y.C. Porn Tour with Women Against Pornography--although she is least effective when she treats syphilis and AIDS as symbolic, rather than mortal, diseases. Interesting, wide-ranging, opinionated, contemporary, both prurient and cerebral, the book is something of a sexual peep-show itself, describing a history of loveless sexuality characterized by anarchy, repression, fear, deviance, exclusion, deception, violence and disease. Perhaps negative, perhaps not convincing every step of the way, but certainly timely and controversial.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Viking