Notice, Class, How Angela Circles…

I was once chased around my parents’ kitchen by a friend of my father’s. But I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to leaf through a 25-year collection of New Yorker cartoons. Even at the time (the mid 1960s) many of them referred to a world that was vanishing or had vanished: references that must have been side-splitting at the time they were published, but were totally opaque to ten-year-old me. I still remember some of the cartoonists fondly–Chas. Addams, of course, but also James Thurber, Helen Hokinson of the deep-bosomed, slightly clueless club women, and Syd Hoff. But there was a class of cartoons–by guys like Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow, Jr.– that might loosely be termed a critique of modern relations between the sexes. And while they weren’t opaque, even as a kid they were troubling.

A staple of these cartoons was the young, buxom, apparently not very bright woman being variously leered at, groped at, chased, etc., by an older, apparently wealthier man. In some of these the woman is clearly playing along in hopes of–what, a diamond bracelet? A fur coat? As Cole Porter had it in Kiss Me Kate, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat: if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, Okay!” But in others, the woman looks uncomfortable and apprehensive. In the cartoon to the right, the head of a monorail company has a one track mind, all tracking on cleavage. His secretary does not look amused.

As for the men in these cartoons, a few of them look hapless, as if they’ve stumbled into a situation where a woman is forcing them to ogle etc. “Honest, officer, I was just sitting here at my desk in my loud checked suit when my secretary perched on my desk to take dictation. What could I possibly do?” Others appeared to at least pretend to be looking at something other than the cleavage–pearls, in the image below–but that was the joke, right? Because everyone, even a ten-year-old girl, knew that he was really ogling the woman’s breasts. But mostly these men look like they’re predators.

As a eight-, nine-, or ten-year old, what was I to make of all this? The takeaway appeared to be that all (powerful, elderly, white) men were letches. That working for such men inevitably meant some sort of harassment. That the wives of these men (who were all portly and dripping in the signifiers of their husbands’ success–furs and diamonds etc.) could do nothing but occasionally fume and nag. That the women being ogled etc. deserved it because they had breasts, because they wore provocative outfits and should have known what would happen, because they had jobs that took them out of their homes and into contact with the aforementioned predators. Some of the cartoons also suggested that there were young women who made the attraction of older, wealthier men into their jobs. All those portly, powerful, older white men were their marks (in which case it must be reasonable that the men would treat the women as prey, because the women were treating them as prey and…).

So there I am in my parents’ kitchen. I was 16 and home from school with a really horrendous cold of the streaming variety–my recollection is that I was a walking river of snot in a plush bathrobe. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a barn, and the living room windows overlooked a valley and a river and fields… very picturesque. One of my dad’s friends was painting a landscape of that view. I heard the downstairs door open, went out to the landing, saw it was–let’s call him Fritz–said hi, excused myself on accounta sick, and went back to bed. An hour or so later I went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea and, being a well-raised child, I asked Fritz if he wanted a cup. He said sure, and I put the kettle on.

I’m not clear exactly how the subject of wouldn’t I like to have an affair came up–I was standing there in my blue plush bathrobe with a handful of tissues, blotting my nose and waiting for the kettle to boil.  I answered in the negative (this was all rendered more surreal by the fact that I had a crush on Fritz’s son) and may have made some comment about Fritz being my parents’ friend, and it would be weird. Perhaps he took that as an invitation to explain why it would be fine, don’t worry about it. The stove was set into an island in the middle of the kitchen floor. gradually, he moved around the island toward me, and I moved around and away. I felt rotten, and this was the last straw, but I did not want to be rude to my father’s friend. And all the time the image in my head is the one to the left: “Notice, class…”

The kettle boiled. I poured the water, told him where to find milk and sugar, should he want them, and decamped to my room. I think I may have locked the door, but in the event, Fritz didn’t push the issue, and while I saw him a number of times after that, his invitation was never mentioned between the two of us.

When older people excuse men for predatory workplace behavior (or predatory behavior generally) by saying “they came up in a different time,” well, yes, they may have done. But even in that “different time,” the cartoonists who were depicting these “funny” chases got the look of dismay on the faces of the women, the look of “I need this job but…” The look of being trapped. Even when I was eight- or nine- or ten-years-old I couldn’t see how that was funny.




About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Notice, Class, How Angela Circles… — 15 Comments

  1. As a kid looking at the NY cartoons and the forbidden Playboy ones, I was always looking for nuance. Because I knew there had to be more to the drawing.

    And there almost always was more. I also keep an early copy of this book, because when I need to return to that time, it’s like opening a door and walking through.

  2. Funny (not) how the more things change, the more—well, you know where I’m going with that. I keep trying to explain to the incredulous female contingent of my offspring that the world has not changed as much as she’d like to believe it has. “Empowerment” is such a slippery word in today’s minefield of image and social media. “Whose lens are you really presenting yourself through?” I ask. But it’s too off-putting a question for youth to contemplate. I have to remind myself that I might just be getting old—and forgetting what it was like to be young and adventurous. And confident.

    But then I read things like this, and this (coincidentally, just last night):

    And then I remember that, indeed, the world has not changed as much as we’d like to believe it has changed. It seems that our only recourse is to laugh—and keep circling that desk.

    • As long as the men hold the power in the employment (and other) relationships, it will not change as much as we’d like. It’s just become (usually) less blatant. If you need the job, and its a right-to-not-work state, then you are in a lousy spot.

  3. I remember looking at similar comics in LOOK and POST (I don’t recollect that LIFE had comics, but if it did, they would have been similar) and being determined against growing up, especially as we were being continually horked at about how “ladies” behave in future jobs (limited to secretary, nurse, teacher), while guys could be anything they wanted, they could make any comments they wanted about our appearance while “ladies” never did that, etc etc.

    Long story short, I read those comics, looking for clues to the adult world, but never once found them funny. They were closer to horror.

  4. I always took care around adult men when I was alone and young. In fact, I still take care around men when I’m alone now and step in when I see any of the signals at all when anyone vulnerable is alone. I don’t think I’ve articulated this clearly before, however. That’s what’s changing: the words we use to describe it.

    • Well of course that was the lesson all females have historically been taught, practically from the moment they leave the womb—good grief, Little Red Riding Hood is one of the oldest folk tales in the world. My mother certainly didn’t mince any words when teaching her daughters about the ways of the world (of men) and their precarious place in it.

      One issue I see happening in this generation, though, is a misconception that warning young women to be careful is synonymous with victim blaming. And, in some cases, it is, depending on the wording (particularly around issues of clothing). On the other hand, just because we *should* be able to wear anything and go anywhere we want unhindered, doesn’t mean we can. That’s where the “being careful” part comes in (as a routine pedestrian, I may have the legal right of way while crossing an intersection, but that right of way won’t mean squat when I get flattened by that 4×4 running a red light).

      We may get to a point where women don’t have to be quite as watchful, but who knows how long that will take. Calling men out on their behaviour is a good first step, but we have to be doing more to teach our sons about matters of respect and consent. Hard to do when so many of our world’s leaders are still such misogynistic slime balls.

      • I’ve been thinking about this a lot from the self defense context, because I believe that women are much more capable than they think they are of protecting themselves from abusive men. One of the things I keep exploring is why most people don’t believe that’s true, which I think is the core problem. This is not victim blaming. The fault is always with the attacker. What I want to do is convince women they’ve got abilities and power even though men and society as a whole have tried to convince them they don’t. That doesn’t solve everything by a long shot, but it’s damn useful.

        • The issue to me is most cases, it isn’t a physical assault as a stand-alone.

          It’s someone with power wielding it.

          Women can’t kick their boss in the groin and run. (Well, not to her benefit. Without LOTS of proof she’ll get fired, a even with proof, it depends on the company).

          Self-defense is great, but it isn’t a solution when the problem is power-wielding. It’s good for confidence building, but it doesn’t address the larger root causes or any problems in the workplace.

          • Exactly. One of the key things in self defense is recognizing what the real dangers are. We’re all prepped to believe that we’re at risk from strangers, when, in truth, the people who are most dangerous to women are people with whom they have some kind of relationship, whether it’s on the job or an intimate partner or just someone they know slightly.
            But martial arts training (and good self defense training) do change the way the woman who trains moves and acts in the world and give her more tools to deal with a situation. Kneeing the abusive boss in the groin isn’t usually an option, but if you’ve got the confidence, awareness, and sense of center that comes from training, you have a shot at coming up with a solution. The confidence may give you the wherewithal to deal with a complaint to human resources or file a lawsuit or search for a job without an abusive boss. It may also inspire you to organize others in your workplace to fight against such abuse.
            The wonderful thing about learning how to fight physically is that you almost never need to do it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to handle a situation in other ways; it just means you’ve got more emotional resources to help you do it.

  5. Thanks, everyone. Yes, let’s hope and speak up for change, while still protecting ourselves and younger gals. Eeek, this made me remember a large family Christmas party when I was in high school, and the husband of my cousin cornered me when I went to get some supplies from the garage. Then he forced a sloppy kiss on me. Yuck!!! Mouthwash!

    • I’ve always lamented the fact that I had no circle of extended family or friends growing up, but reading these posts, I’m rather thinking I dodged a bullet in that regard!

      The woods may be lonely, dark, and deep, but they don’t harbour the same kinds of predators as family gatherings seem to…

  6. As someone who remembers all those cartoons well (I still thumb through New Yorkers to read the cartoons even if I also now read some of the articles), I wonder how much they normalized something that should have been appalling. Or, at least, normalized it for me. I think I was clear that I wouldn’t let it happen to me, but that also implies that I didn’t think I could do anything to stop it.

    Yeah. Troubling.

    • Yeah, growing up with it, trying to parse it, normalized the behavior. When Fritz was circling around the kitchen island with me on the other side, I found it creepy, and I did manage not to feel like it was my fault, I did feel at the time that this was just part of the experience of being female and ::shrug:: what’re you gonna do?

  7. It was normalized because all the cartoonists, writers, editors and, to a great extent, subscribers to the magazine were men. If women were working for these mags they were mostly the secretaries and support staff. With more women in the decision-making positions there’s hope for change.

    The other solution is legislative. We need laws to ensure, for instance, that it is no longer OK to pay a woman less simply because in her last job she was paid less. (It was on NPR yesterday.) We need Bill Cosby, and for that matter, Kevin Spacey, to face the music. And that means we need legislators who take this seriously. Women legislators, which brings us around to the women in decision-making positions again.

    • I’d be willing to bet the New Yorker had as many, if not more, female readers than male ones. Though the subscriptions might have been in the husband’s name, making it hard to check.

      And yes to the need for women in power. I noticed that as the US Senate got more women, they stopped making jokes when discussing sexual harassment. They still didn’t do anything about it, but they stopped making jokes. You know, I bet sexist jokes in law school classes on marital property aren’t all that big a deal these days, either. Back in my day despite a decent professor (who was married to another lawyer), the joke level was very high indeed.