In early modern London, rising consumer culture and rising tension about gender roles generated a heated discourse around the commodification of beauty, its definition, and the gendering of its production and consumption. The conceptualizations of beauty at the time privileged the male gaze and revealed cultural anxieties about the legibility of gender and the female subject/body. These ideas empowered women in the public sphere while also enforcing moral norms upon them, as well as constituting a sexual/marriage market of social and actual capital that women both participated in and were victimized by. At the same time, contemporary dramatists were involved in this ever-moving debate as both participants and commentators. Possibly because playhouses and popular drama performances themselves also partook of these morally debatable activities of deception and face painting, they sometimes represented power for women in the commodification of beauty and cosmetics--ironically, contemporary drama performances could use no women onstage. Indeed, two important plays, both of which have cross-dressing title characters, focus on these issues of beauty, body, and gender: Epicene and The Roaring Girl.
Both plays show how theories of beauty and commodification can both empower and disempower women. The Roaring Girl shows the potential for women’s power in the public sphere through its heroine Moll Cutpurse, but ultimately locates the power of women outside of femininity and beauty. By creating a female character whose agency comes from cross-dressing, the playwrights construct a world where power is only accessible to women when they are being like men. On the other hand, Epicene allows for cosmetics-obsessed women to be ridiculed and their consumption to be criticized, but in the end locates power in cosmetics and feminine beauty as tools to achieve status, power, and independence. Indeed, Moll Cutpurse’s cross-dressing can be seen as erotically pandering to the male gaze rather than rebelling against gendered structures. Further, Epicene implicates male characters in beautiful deception and mocks the male gaze, as well as complicates all gendered social performances in a clever and often biting way. In this way, Epicene was the more progressive voice in contemporary gender debates by allowing women power in their own spheres, instead of requiring them to be masculine to have power, while complicating gendered critiques of consumerism. Contrary to previous opinion, I believe that Epicene (although not exactly proto-feminist) still offers a complex and more egalitarian treatment of beauty and gender than does The Roaring Girl. The Roaring Girl ultimately does more to reinforce, rather than reject, hegemonic discourse about beauty, consumption, and gender.
This hegemonic discourse was largely constructed at the time by books, pamphlets, and other publications, consisting of both moralizing anti-cosmetics tracts and half-empowering, half-objectifying guides for the creation and use of cosmetics. In Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama, Farah Karim-Cooper explains the double bind women are placed in over cosmetics: they are held to unachievable standards of beauty, yet are criticized for their efforts to achieve them through “artificial” means. Even more interesting than the moralizing arguments laid against them are the “deception” criticisms that (predominantly male) writers leveled against women who used cosmetics. Cooper asserts that women who used cosmetics were often considered “duplicitous traps for unsuspecting men” (47). Their concealment of their “natural” characteristics, intentions, or gender were fundamentally threatening to the male gaze that objectified them as well as the gendered structures that controlled them. Beyond a show of control over women’s bodies and selves, the vitriol against cosmetics reflects a patriarchal anxiety that women are not entirely visible or transparent at all times--that this inscrutability could be hiding the potential for a lack of patriarchal control.
According to Frances Dolan in “Taking the Pencil Out of God’s Hand,” this deceptiveness and agency in the use of cosmetics was seen as diabolically rebellious and deceptive in a spiritual sense. She writes, “...the moralists most forcefully and exhaustively chastise [women who use makeup] as agents, as blasphemers and counterfeiters who challenge the cosmic and social order by redefining their own value” (229). If women are not discernable by an objectifying male gaze, they challenge the power of that gaze and the market that it constitutes. Additionally, their place on the marriage market should not tempt women to leave the private sphere. According to Dolan, the increased presence of women in public was negatively tied to cosmetic use two examples of women’s perceived decrease in modesty (230). Thus, the popular debates about beauty and cosmetic use reveal an element of the gendered conceptions of society at the time: women should be beautiful commodities on the marriage market, and yet their beauty should be both transparent to, and in many ways controlled by, men. It should be “natural,” private (not cheapened by the public sphere), and never self-interested. Additionally, Karen Newman points out in “City Talk,” that women’s growing roles in the economy of commodities (including themselves) in the early 17th century as business owners and craftswomen were indeed major sources of tension and misogyny at the time. Women’s place as a commodity was publicly reinforced, but their consumption of anything (especially cosmetics) was seen as typical of female vanity, sensuality, and intellectual weakness (Newman 230).
This location of women on the marriage market as aesthetic commodities is reflected in the early modern romantic sonnet literature. Their intense focus on the sexualization of a woman’s body inscribes their desires upon it. By describing a perfect paleness or redness of skin in sonnets, the male writers do not describe reality but instead construct their sexual fantasies. They transform their gaze into creativity and write their expectations into being. In the context of sonnets, the man’s gaze constructs and owns the woman through her physical body. This is the type of aesthetic, sexual, and economic power which was challenged by women’s cosmetic use. By using the creative, inscriptive power that men have had over beauty in literature and painting, women used cosmetics to exercise a small amount of control over their selves and appearances--even if it was in order to conform to patriarchal standards. Further, the accusations of “deceptiveness” reveal that cosmetics could pose a type of resistance to the male gaze by having the power to constitute or conceal what the greedy gaze sees. In this way, beauty and cosmetic use in early modern England gave rise to new discourses that situated women as commodities, attempted to control their self-presentation and value, while at the same time crediting women with the power to constitute reality and manipulate their social situations.
Entering this discourse on gender and beauty in 1611 was Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s play The Roaring Girl. This play gleefully celebrates the notoriety and folk fascination with cross-dressing women and the London underworld. Because of this, it harbors potential for subversion and the challenging of gendered discourses about beauty, commodification, and public/private lives of women. In the play, cross-dressing rogue Moll Cutpurse colludes with a beleaguered young heir to dupe his father, all the while crusading against lecherous men of the neighborhood. Scholars like Jean Howard and Mary Beth Rose have argued that Moll Cutpurse is a rebellious, proto-feminist heroine. However, like Marjorie Garber, I believe that Moll’s cross-dressing is presented from a male-centric point of view that does not center the subjectivity or value of women but instead erotically glorifies phallocentric themes, and does not actually challenge patriarchal concerns about the legibility of gender and women’s bodies. I further contend that Dekker and Middleton’s literary treatment of beauty, cosmetics, and dress commodify women, pander to the male gaze, and ultimately reinforce the existing misogynistic discourse previously discussed.
Dekker and Middleton’s patriarchal stance toward beauty and cosmetics is betrayed most explicitly in their confrontation of the early modern custom of middle-to-upper class women wearing masks out of the house. This custom served to protect women’s complexions from the dirtiness of the city, but also had the effect of hiding women’s faces from public view. In The Roaring Girl, minor characters Mistresses Openwork and Gallipot go abroad into the city after donning masks. While out, they run into Mr. Openwork, who challenges their use of masks. Mistress Gallipot replies with implicit gendering of the cosmetic practice. She says, “May not we cover our bare faces with masks / As well as you cover your bald heads with hats?” (9.107-8). Here, Mistress Openwork’s “we” is coded as “women” and “you” as men. In this way, Mistress Openwork rejects her husband’s criticism by equating two gendered practices of vanity and seems to promote equal bodily autonomy between men and women.
Yet, the play’s alignment with hegemonic discourses of beauty is revealed when Mr. Openwork rejects this equation, saying that women are “thieves to beauty, that rob eyes / Of admiration in which true love lies” (6.109-110). Mr. Openwork’s statement is undergirded by the male gaze’s sense of entitlement to the visual consumption of women’s beauty as well as patriarchal anxiety about the legibility (and thus controllability) of women’s bodies. He further equates women’s beauty to the development of love, evoking the place of early modern women as aesthetic commodities on the marriage market. He then continues to complicate his own rejection of masks by conceding, “Good faces mask'd are jewels kept by sprites. / Hide none but bad ones, for they poison men's sights: / Show them as shopkeepers do their broid'red stuff / By owl-light...” (6.121-3). He reinforces his point about men’s right to view women that is stolen wickedly by masks, which are compared to mischievous sprites. Then, he concedes that masks should conceal “bad” faces and other deception like poor wares would be in a shop, again positioning women as aesthetic commodities and invoking current conceptualizations of women’s cosmetic practices as deceptive. In every element of this conversation, Mr. Openwork reinforces current discourse about women, commodification, and beauty--women are commodities, ought to be visible to men, and deceptive when they reach for agency over their own bodies. Indeed, his rejection of his wife’s equation between men’s hats and women’s masks shows the gendering of criticism of cosmetic practices and makes explicit the imbalance of power/perceived rights between genders in the public sphere. Although he couches his complaint in flattery of his wife’s appearance, he is still attempting to control her body and public choices in a way that objectifies her and satisfies his own gaze.
However, The Roaring Girl is not really about Master and Mistress Openwork. Indeed, the reader could suppose that the cross-dressing, fighting, swaggering, transgressive Moll Cutpurse would balance this sexism. Jean Howard argues in “Crossdressing, The Theater, and Gender Struggle,” that the use of cross-dressing in The Roaring Girl constitutes a unique play in which “the resistance to patriarchy and its marriage customs is clear and sweeping” (439). While I agree with Howard that Moll herself, as a character, resists these norms, I argue that she is positioned within the dramatic performance in a way that panders to the male gaze and ultimately reinforces current discourses about consumption, beauty, and gender. She is transgressive and unusually powerful in her cross-dressing and agency. However, her dress elicits both fascination and desire--she is more like a circus freak than a super-woman. Additionally, she is powerful only within the context of her cross-dressing. Moll is not powerful because of who she is as a woman, but because she rejects certain types of womanhood in favor of masculine markers. Moll herself engages in consumption and sometimes-deceptive cosmetic practices in ways that allow her varying types of power. As a woman dressed like a man, she is the center of attention (and often of desire) in many situations. Further, her history on the streets as a “roaring girl” gives her access to “underworld” knowledge that the middle and upper classes crave. However, all of these sites of power exist not so much because she is a particularly strong woman, but because she eschews female gender roles through dressing like a man.
A telling example of this power economy is in Moll’s confrontation of the lecherous man Laxton. At their first meeting, Moll is dressed like a woman and attracts Laxton’s attention. She is offended by his overtures, but plans to shame him later. At their next meeting, Moll is dressed in men’s clothes and challenges Laxton to a duel. In this way, Moll dressed in women’s clothes is a potential victim, while Moll dressed in men’s clothes is an agent of action. Further, when she beats back Laxton, she claims to do so on behalf of all the other women offended and hurt by lecherous men like him. She says, “In thee I defy all men, their worst hates / And their best flatteries...With which they entangle the poor spirits of fools, / Distressed needlewomen, and trade-fall'n wives” (5.87-90). Here, it would appear that Moll has become a proto-feminist heroine. However, by battling on behalf of women rather than with women (who she paints pathetically and calls “fools”) this makes her no better a feminist than gallants who battle for a lady’s honor. While she does acknowledge the unfairness of these women’s position, she places all agency in the hands of the men, and herself only executes action on their behalf when dressed like, and behaving like, a man. In this scene, Moll criticizes certain patriarchal structures, but addresses them only through after-the-fact vengeance. She also verbally degrades the female victims, only permitting masculine action (dueling) as a solution to this mistreatment. Moll discursively removes power from other women, and places it on herself. Yet, she is not performing womanhood as a gender at all in this scene. The stage direction at the beginning of the scene betrays both Moll’s appearance and the way she behaves and frames the situation: “Enter Moll like a man,” reads the manuscript (5.34). Thus, Moll has used deceptive markers of masculinity (cloak, sword, trousers) to inhabit another gender. Not only does Moll belittle women by acting on their behalf but she also confirms some of the moralists’ worst fears about the deceptive use of gendered commodities. While Moll herself seems to attempt to enact some anti-patriarchal behavior, the framing of her character by the playwrights confirms normative discourses about gender by having her dress, behave, and consume like a man.
Indeed, as Marjorie Garber argues, Moll’s portrayal as a cross-dressing woman is an extension of her “phallogocentric” society in several ways. First, her cross-dressing emphasizes her gender in a way that panders to the male gaze. Moll’s cross-dressing is not usually a disguise so much as a costume and most characters recognize her as Moll (the woman) in both male and female clothing--in fact, many men are attracted to her even in her male dress. David Cressy argues that Moll’s “apparel was designed, like a provocative accessory, to heighten the wearer's sexual identity” and that it was “designed to flaunt, not to efface her gender.” (451, 462). Molly Firth, on whom Moll Cutpurse was based, famously challenged a theater full of gentlemen to come to her bedroom and see just how much of a woman she was (Dekker iii). Moll Cutpurse’s sexual appeal is indexed by the desire of male characters, both in and out of her gender-bending costume. Thus, Moll’s cross-dressing is constructed by the authors as less of an act of transgressive defiance, and more a titillating display designed to fascinate the male gaze. In her erotic transgressions, Moll, just like every other woman in the play, is positioned as an aesthetic commodity for male consumption.
Further, her own consumption of cosmetic commodities is positioned as monstrous because it is transgressive, greedy, and deceptive. In one scene, Moll is ordering a pair of breeches from a tailor while Sir Alexander (the father she intends to dupe) spies on her. She requests breeches that are roomy in the crotch and the tailor assures her that “It shall stand round and full, I warrant you” (4.81). Sir Alexander reacts with horror, calling her in an aside “a codpiece-daughter” 4.86). Sir Alexander’s disgust expresses not only his aversion to a woman being deceitful about her gender, but also his anxiety about female consumption and the commodification of gender markers. As Karen Newman explores in “City Talk,” the consumption of women was viewed as a marker of their inferiority as well as of their sexual impurity. In this scene, Moll is seen commanding a craftsman about her desires, and agreeing to purchase it herself by her own means--a dangerously independent behavior for any woman, only somewhat mitigated by Moll’s rejection of femininity. Further, the commodification of gender markers like pants allows for the complication of visible gender markers. Indeed, Moll’s requirements for the breeches are linguistically linked with the implied purchase of a phallus through copious double-entendre: the Tailor describes the breeches as “stand[ing]” and “stiff between the legs” (4.81-3). Thus, Moll is removed from femininity in order to exercise any active agency, is fetishized as an erotically fascinating permutation of womanhood, and portrayed as monstrous in her consumption. She does not contradict the previously discussed sexism (expressed by Openwork) surrounding gendered narratives of consumption and beauty, but confirms them by reinforcing many of the same fears and stereotypes. Indeed, even when she threatens the patriarchy in the person of Laxton, she does so “as a man”— only while inhabiting commodified gender markers of masculinity can she be powerful, only on behalf of other women.
Unlike in The Roaring Girl, Epicene’s female characters serve to contradict the male characters’ expressed sexism. Further, the hypocrisy of the gendered criticism of cosmetics, consumption, and beauty is revealed to great comic effect. In this play, a young bride is introduced by a nephew to a gullible uncle, only to become a shrew after marriage. She is then revealed, to the relief of the groom, to be a boy in disguise. Scholars such as Marjorie Swann and Karen Newman have shown that Jonson’s Epicene presents various semi-clichéd invectives against cosmetics, which criticize women for their consumption and vilify their forays into autonomy and public life. However, unlike in The Roaring Girl, Epicene’s transgressive (cross-dressing) potential is fulfilled by Jonson’s exploration and complication of standards of gendered behavior and social norms around appearance and consumption. This play is in many ways one about love and marriage as a market in which beauty, learning, sexual potency, and money all are exchangeable commodities and forms of social or actual capital. In the economy of love, sex, and marriage, beauty is a form of capital that can be, and often is, purchased. The anxiety over growing commodification in London at this time is revealed in the varied and sometimes paradoxical constructions of feminine beauty in Epicene. While some of these constructions are gendered in a way that disfavors women, Jonson also mocks the superficiality of the male gaze, constructs an alternative model of female beauty consumption that is empowering, and reveals the inherent hypocrisy of this gendered construction by showing the avariciousness of men.
On one hand, beauty is constructed as a desirable, consumable commodity, especially in the bodies of women. Although the uncle, Morose, elevates silence over beauty in his search for a wife, his perception of beauty as something he can evaluate and own in a woman in betrayed in his appraisal of Epicene (passing to Morose and the audience as a woman) in their first meeting. In this scene, he places her under his gaze and evaluates her by parts, sounding much like he is at a horse auction--indeed, he is evaluating her body as a desirable commodity. He circles her for appraisal of physical characteristics, and expresses his satisfaction with her as a wife by using his own sexual response as a rubric of acceptability. He says, “She is exceeding fair, and of a special good favour; a sweet composition or harmony of limbs: her temper of beauty has the true height of my blood...” (2.5.15-7). He speaks in the third person about a woman who is present, and evaluates her suitability in terms of her appearance, particularly in relationship to himself and his sexual response. In this way, Jonson depicts beauty as a commodity up for purchase by men through marriage.
Yet, this purchase-through-marriage is risky and potentially humiliating. Jonson skillfully complicates the gendered distinctions between feminine and masculine commodification by implicating men in the consumer culture (and sometimes emasculating them in the process). Morose, for example, is emasculated by his misjudgment of Epicene as a commodity: he is bent to the will of his nephew, implicated in homoerotic behavior, and made the general butt of a joke--in this case, the joke is the entire comedic play. In this way, Morose both has the potential to be a consumer of beauty in the form of women’s bodies and the potential to be emasculated by that act of consumption. Here, Jonson complicates binaristic constructions of gender and consumption.
Jonson further complicates this hegemonic ideation of gendered consumerism by painting his other male characters as deceiving, vain, and consumeristic. Truewit, for example, performs an anti-woman stance against cosmetics. He describes a woman’s beauty to routine to Morose, saying that she “lies in a month of a new face, all oil and birdlime; and rises in asses' milk, and is cleansed with a new fucus” (2.2.119-22). He emphasizes the lazy wastefulness of cosmetics, as well as the grotesque physicality of a woman washing her face with different half-mysterious liquids--not to mention the disturbing implications of the image of a woman’s “new face.” However, Truewit himself is caught up in consumeristic and cosmetic vices by his preoccupation with the trappings of a feast, his own admitted weakness for beautiful women’s dress, and his deceitful use of dress items to carry out his pranks between neighbors Mr. Otter and Jack Daw. Thus, as Mark Anderson argues, “Truewit accepts the reality of society and the artifice within it” by the end of the play (354). In this way, Johnson reveals not only the possible downfall of men who consume beauty, but also the ways that beauty consumption can be integrated into the life of a successful man.
However, the worst danger of the commodification of beauty is uncovered at the end of the play by Epicene’s big reveal: all the time, he has been a boy in women’s clothing. Through the commodification of feminine beauty, Epicene is able to purchase and wear signifiers of femaleness and beauty that deceive the male gaze into desire. Thus, he is able to inspire sexual responses (and possibly sexual relations) from Morose, the barber Cutbeard, and Jack Daw that become transgressive when his real gender is revealed. In this way, Jonson evokes two major gendered anxieties of the time: the disgust over the commodification of feminine beauty through cosmetics, and the danger of the cross-dressing boy player to the sexual morals of the playhouses. However, men perform this transgressive consumption and deceptive “painting” as well. In these examples, Jonson shows the potential for men’s consumption of beauty to be terrifying in some contexts but acceptable in others.
In a similar way, Jonson allows for the construction of both monstrous and beautiful women consumers of beauty. A conversation about contempt of cosmetics is applied to Mistress Otter, whose cosmetics consumption repulses her husband. He says of her, “A most vile face! and yet she spends me forty pound a year in mercury and hogs-bones. All her teeth were made in the Black-Friars, both her eyebrows in the Strand...Every part of the town owns a piece of her.” (4.2.82-5). Mr. Otter dehumanizes his wife and maps her body onto the city. He locates her beauty as inappropriately public and commodified. He continues to describe her as taking herself apart when she removes her cosmetics, echoing Morose’s same tendency to conflate women’s beauty and women's selves--after all, both of these were often commodified by men. However, Mistress Otters’ consumerism also holds the potential for power. Marjorie Swann argues that “the disciplinary function of the patriarchal father or husband is performed by the proto- capitalist city” (310). However, Mistress Otter’s consumption brings her into the public sphere, gives her control over her self, and ultimately is part of the character of a woman who beats her husband into submission and commands complete obedience. Mistress Otter is a shrew, truly, and yet she not only exercises feminine power from this position but also is allowed to keep it through the end of the play. She is thus transgressive in a way that stretches beyond types of safe, contained transgression embodied by “tamed” or murdered shrews: she is a public, consuming, violent shrew who is still in a position of power by the end of the play. Jonson, then, complicates the vilification of consumeristic and “painted” women by also depicting cosmetics and city shopping as loci of power for a woman.
Finally, a select few women in this play are permitted both beauty and power through the use of cosmetics. These women are called the “collegiates,” and occupy a special position of cosmetics consumers as well as desirable, powerful women. The collegiates are autonomous, bossy, funny and desired (both sexually and as company at parties). In “The Successful Unity of Epicene,” Mark Anderson argues that Epicene is an indictment not of women but of the deception of society’s superficiality in general. He writes, “Success in Epicoene, hence, becomes largely a matter of knowing how to manipulate others for one's own end” (364). By this logic, then, the Ladies Collegiate are winners within the play because they deploy their beauty to achieve their goals and usually get what they want (including the admiration of the nephew Dauphine himself). Although the men often degrade their cosmetic practices--for example referring to the leader’s “autumnal face, her pieced beauty”—the collegiates are desired and beautiful without giving up any power or autonomy. This is a contradiction to the male characters’ sexism: “painted” women could still be beautiful, good, powerful, and desirable.
Thus, Johnson explores three facets of the issue of the commodification of beauty. First, the right of the male gaze to evaluate beauty and acquire it through the ownership of women’s bodies is subverted through the economic demands of and grotesqueness of cosmetic use by both men and women. Second, women’s use of cosmetics cheapens their beauty and body through excessive consumption and inappropriate public presence in the city economy, and yet also provides power over her self, body, and the men that surround her. Finally, the commodification of female beauty allows it to be purchased and assumed by imposters of either gender who can then encourage “deviant” sexual desires and behavior. Epicene, thus, complicates literary ideals of feminine beauty by putting that beauty up for sale. Further, Epicene deconstructs gendered binaries of consumption and cosmetics in a way that its fellow cross-dressing play, The Roaring Girl, does not.
Although I argue that Epicene is more critical of the patriarchy than is The Roaring Girl, I do not intend to invalidate the scholars and feminists who see power in that play. They are correct that Moll is transgressive, that she challenges patriarchal norms, and that she is a compelling and charismatic example of rebellious womanhood. The work that scholars like Jean Howard have done to recover female and feminist narratives has been essential to changing our world and how we see literature. However, it is time to move toward criticizing even the narratives with transgressive potential and hold them to a higher standard of progressiveness. As a play, The Roaring Girl does more to confirm anti-woman discourse about consumption, cosmetics, and beauty than it does to challenge seriously the ideological bases of patriarchal structures. On the other hand, Epicene gives stage time to both misogyny and humor that undermines it, and, more importantly, forwards varied examples of female subjecthood that can be powerful, feminine, beautiful, and bought all at once. Epicene, while not exactly proto-feminist, is a far more complex and egalitarian comedy that addresses social structures through complicating gender and gendered discourses of the time. The Roaring Girl offers audiences the opportunity to gawk at a cross-dressing woman. However, Epicene implicates the audience in its transgressive cross-dressing by tricking them, too, with Epicene’s performance. Epicene holds up men and women both as actors in a vain and commercialized society, but instead of confirming the inferiority of one gender, offers members of both genders as fools, as subjects, as social actors--as human beings with both blemishes and painted faces that make up their whole subjectivities.