I’m Not Your Babe
In Jonathan Swift’s poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Swift sees the women only as objects. He views them as something that is vile and disgusting, something there only to pleasure himself, not to actually be a person of their own. Lady Mary Wortly Montagu had quite the response to his poem; she wrote her own. “The Reasons That Induced Dr. S To Write A Poem Called The Lady’s Dressing Room” explicitly calls out all that Swift did wrong in his poem. Montagu does not hold back what she thinks of Swift. In response to Swift’s misogynistic poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Montagu’s poem “The Reasons That Induced Dr. S To Write A Poem Called The Lady’s Dressing Room” takes Swift himself, and mocks him by showing him as a despicable old man who cannot get it up.
Montagu’s poem switches out the main character of Swift’s poem for Swift himself. Montagu wishes to let Swift have a taste of his own medicine. Wendy Weise suggests that it “asserts that Swift’s own hapless social climbing and sexual inadequacies are the true source of his “disappointed” (85), caustic rebuke against all ladies” (Weise). Swift showed Celia in a raunchy disgusting light, showing that she was something less than human, something that he could not fulfill his needs with. Montagu turned that on his head and had Swift himself be the one that was something less than human. Montagu made him into a character that blamed Betty for his inability to perform.
Swift’s poem moves from the inside out. He deals with the main character looking for pleasure himself, which then turns into his disgust at how this woman actually lives. His fetishization of this woman has come to an end. He then lets the world know how vile she is. Montagu works from the outside in. She shows a woman objectifying a man. It then moved inward when it turns into a man’s inability to perform sexually and blaming the woman. Montagu is doing the opposite of what Swift has done.
In Swift’s poem his main character has a sense of dominance over Celia because he enters her chambers while she is not there. He rifles through her things without her permission. It does not seem as if this main character even knows who Celia is. He is only captivated by her because she is a woman and he is looking to get off. There is a perceived dominance that he has over her, because he is violating her privacy. However, if Celia were to be there, she would undermine his dominance simply by being present.
Even in the very beginning of Swift’s poem Strephon is fetishizing Celia. He wants her to be exactly what he wants, not a person of her own. The poem opens with, “Five Hours (and who can do it less in?) / By haughty Celia spent in Dressing; / The Goddess from her Chamber issues, / Array’d in Lace, Brocades, and Tissues” (Swift 1-4). Strephon, the main character is shown watching Celia in her private dressing room getting ready for five hours. He sees all that adorns her body and sees her as a Goddess. He has not spoken to her; he does not know anything about her.
When Celia leaves Strephon then decides to go inside to make of her what he wants to. He turns her into a fantasy, something that could never be real, and yet he will not stop. The poem continues, “Strephon, who found the Room was void, / And Betty otherwise employed; / Stole in, and took a strict Survey” (Swift 5-7). Realizing he is alone, Strephon decides to go into the dressing room. He carefully inspects everything that is in Celia’s dressing room. Leaving nothing unturned, he gathers only what he wants from what she leaves behind. He takes the pieces of her that show through her dressing room and makes it into his own fantasy of what she could be.
Strephon is not taking a normal route to what is desirable. He is noticing all the things that are essential to Celia’s life, but that no one wishes to talk about. Weise comments that, “[Swift] fetishized body parts the Petrarchan poet typically desires: instead of eyes, lips, or arms, we see “combs” and “brushes,” “Night-gloves” and “pettycoats,” “handkerchiefs,” “stockings,” “tweezers,” and assorted tools, “paints,” and “slops” (Swift 20, 21, 24, 27, 29, 33, 35, 48, 49, 51)” (Weise). Here is where Strephon’s dream starts to collapse. He is not looking at Celia. She is not present. All he has is what she leaves behind. The mere shell of what she is. He is not looking at her as a woman. He is looking at her as an object. He sees the things she puts on her body, instead of what is inside.
At the end of the poem, Strephon has finally come to the stench that has been in the room the entire time he was there. Swift continues, “But Strephon cautious never meant / The Bottom of the Pan to grope, / And foul his Hands in Search of Hope. / O never may such vile Machine / Be once in Celia’s Chamber seen! / O may she better learn to keep / Those “Secrets of the hoary Deep!” (Swift 92-98) Celia’s chamber pot is not something that he can fetishize. The chamber pot is something that he cannot believe is inside her dressing room. Strephon has seen what it truly means to be a woman. The fantasy that he has been creating since he was first watching Celia has come crashing down.
Montagu’s poem takes gender and makes it pliable. Gender is whatever the reader wants it to mean, because gender is something that you put on, it is a front. Weise says that Montagu’s poem, “correlates to Mary Ann Doane’s theory of masquerade: “Flaunting femininity” and recognizing that “womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed” creates a space between woman-as-image and female reader that enables a female spectatorship” (Weise). Montague shifts around the gender roles and expectations throughout her poem. She turns everything upside down and leaves it up to the reader to determine what is going on in regards to gender.
The beginning of Montagu’s poem shows a woman looking at a man the way a man would normally look at a woman. The poem opens with, “The Doctor in a clean starch’d band / His Golden Snuff box in his hand, / With care his Di’mond Ring displays / And Artfull shews its various Rays” (Montagu 1-4) In only the first four lines Montagu has turned gender around. It is not the man objectifying, watching, and lurking; it is the woman. Betty has now been put into the role of Strephon in Swift’s poem. Montagu continues to make a mockery of gender by showing and calling out the problems with it.
Montagu shows that men also put on a mask and perform, just as women do. The narrator calls the main male character, “Doctor,” “Reverend Lover,” “Priest,” “Fumbler,” and “Dean” (Montagu 63, 68, 77, 85). The main character is not addressed by his name, he is simply a title. Unlike the women, who can take of their mask and make up as they please, Montagu is showing the men in her poem cannot. The men cannot distinguish themselves from their titles and professions. The masks have to stay on.
At the end of the poem the Doctor is unable to perform sexually and blames it on Betty. Montagu is making a statement about the end of Swift’s poem and how Swift is unable to perform. Montagu states, “. . . the Fault is not [in] me. / Your damn’d Close stool so near my Nose, / Your Dirty Smock, and Stinking Toes / Would make a Hercules as tame / As any Beau that you can name” (Montagu 69-73) Swift has now been turned into the joke. He cannot perform sexually and will think of any reason to blame anyone but himself.
Montagu showing Swift as the deplorable man who cannot get it up is saying that Swift should not be taken seriously. This is how he acts and how he would act. Karine Onarheim says, “Reducing Swift’s male identity by presenting him as sexually impotent, Montagu manages to lessen the impact of Swift’s allegations against women. She effectively removes the generality and force of Swift’s humiliating observations on female identity by linking his poetic inspiration to a single incident of personal disappointment” (Onarheim). Montagu’s poem boils down to showing Swift that he is a misogynist and showing making a jab at his manhood.
Lady Mary Wortly Montagu’s poem, “The Reasons That Induced Dr. S To Write A Poem Called The Lady’s Dressing Room” takes Jonathan Swift himself and makes him into a contemptible character in her response to his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Montagu takes what Swift perceives as fact about women of the time and turns it on its head. She makes gender flexible and pliable, showing that gender means whatever you want it to mean. Swift objectifies women and Montagu throws it right back in his face. Montagu makes a mockery of Swift’s misogyny.