Feminism and Jack the Ripper – a ramble through a disordered mind

31 January 2012

I got yet another email last night accusing me of being ‘un-feminist’ because of my interest in Jack the Ripper and suggesting that I am contributing to the glamourising of what were clearly horrific crimes against women and subsequent fetishising of the victims. I say ‘yet another email’ as this isn’t actually the first time I have been accused of something along these lines and probably won’t be the last so I thought I’d publicly address it here or at least thrash it out in the open where you can all bear witness to my torturous thought processes and lack of any intellectual rigour.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to say ‘I’m a feminist’ because I don’t happen to think that’s how these things should work. I mean, I don’t have a very clear idea about what feminism is but I do have definite ideas about what it ISN’T. Or maybe I don’t. It’s all so NEBULOUS, you see. And also PERSONAL. All I know is that I am one. I suppose I’d feel the same sort of uncertain inarticulate mental stultification if someone asked me ‘Why are you a woman?’ I DON’T KNOW WHY. I JUST AM.

For the record, I also believe that not every woman is a feminist and that not all feminists are women. Make of that what you will.

However, unlike seemingly a lot of other people, feminism itself holds no fears for me. As I may have mentioned before, I was raised by my grandparents, both of whom grew up during the second world war and had, shall we say, rather NOVEL ideas about child rearing and, more crucially, femininity or rather the role of women. my grandmother was very fond of lecturing me about my ‘duty’ to any future husband (if I was lucky enough to ensnare one with my frankly limited charms because don’t forget I was ALSO getting regular bulletins about how unloveable I am too) and how I had to be at the beck and call of this draconian imaginary complacent entitled fuckwit and have his sodding dinner on the table when he got home from his bloody work and all sorts of nonsense like that.

However, luckily for me, my mother, whom I did see from time to time (although in a charmingly Catherine Cookson twist, I was raised to think that she was my sister – which gives me excellent fodder for my books as you can imagine) was what I consider to be Old School Feminist which served as an excellent antidote.

I love the way that whenever I feel stressed and unhappy, it is my grandmother’s voice I hear inside my head (not literally – I’m not certifiable), ordering me to clean and be obedient and subservient but when I’m feeling pretty good, it is my mother who inspires me. She’s pretty awesome and a great role model actually but I’ll talk about that some other time.

Now, before I go on, I did once upon a time announce that I wasn’t a feminist but in my defence it was said to someone who is not only as thick as mince but also well known for being a pompous buffoon fond of dreary, badly spelt self righteous pontificating and dismal condescending twaddle. They were spoiling for a fight and I was in a sufficiently bad mood to oblige. I felt bad though. I felt even worse when one of my very dearest friends jumped in to defend me against the inevitable attack. I am a bad person.

I’m not going to do that now though. Well, clearly I’m not.

The question about Ripperology and feminism does interest me though because it is something that makes me feel vaguely uneasy at times. I know that feminist groups have protested in the past about the Ripper exhibit at the London Dungeons and moved to have the name of the Ten Bells changed back again when it was briefly called the Jack the Ripper and that makes me wonder – am I the Enemy here? Am I the one using these horrible murders for entertainment and a bit of seedy gratuitous thrill seeking? Should someone be trying to stop ME?

I mean, I am not an academic and have no useful, official or sensible purpose to my interest in the Ripper case so does that mean I am being titillated by it in some way? Is this one of those situations where if you don’t have a good reason for being there, then you shouldn’t be there at all? I don’t think so – but then, for a start, I don’t see it as a game of whodunnit. As I have explained here before, I am not actually all that interested in unmasking the Ripper. Beyond a belief that he was a random nutcase and not the product of some macabre, internecine, Hollywood friendly conspiracy, I have very little interest in him at all. But even if I DID, would that mean that I am fundamentally some sort of raving misogynist? I don’t think so.

What I am actually interested in are his victims and their lives as they offer a snapshot into existences that ordinarily would be hidden from view in their own time and then lost to history. What happened to them was dreadful beyond all comprehension and I suppose I see it as my own personal mission not to forget them and to make sure other people don’t either. I also have a more underhand agenda of using their unhappy stories of relationship breakdown, dependancy, poverty and addiction to remind people of why we NEED welfare in this country. I’m always saying that I judge societies by the way they treat their weakest members and I’m afraid, based on the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman et al, I’m judging YOU, Victorian England, VERY HARSHLY INDEED.

Do I fetishise them? Well, I’d like to think that I don’t. The definition of fetishising is to hold an intense, excessive and irrational devotion to something. I don’t think that’s the case here. However, yes, I do refer to myself as a Victorian Prostitute Re-enactor and, yes, I am writing a book about the Ripper murders. The re-enactment is a sort of in-joke based on my previous experiences of re-enactment in my less creaky youth and also because one of my friends and I thought it would be fun to dress up in Victorian rags and hang around Whitechapel at night. I suppose there’s an element of reclaiming the streets there and also a nod to the fact that most re-enactment appears to involve men with long hair recreating past wars, bloodshed and hideous conflict so why shouldn’t we, as women, dress up to recall to mind our own bloody history or to show a bit of across the centuries solidarity with our unfortunate nineteenth century sisters?

I also like to dress in Victorian clothes and as I’m a bit scruffy, that’s always going to veer towards the more bohemian and down at heel styling, I’m afraid.

As to the book, well, it seems that what I like to write about are women, their relationships with each other and how they are affected by traumatic events. I’ll own up now that if you are expecting a big fat whodunnit and a dramatic unmasking at the end of my Ripper book, you’ll be sadly disappointed as the book isn’t really about him – it’s about the effect his actions have on the lives of a trio of fairly different young women and, in essence, explores more fully the ideas that I don’t really have the space or energy to expound in full in this here blog post.

In a nutshell then, I don’t believe that, done properly, Ripperology is intrinsically ‘un-feminist’ or women hating or misogynistic or using murder victims as some sort of bizarre historical snuff porn. Not all Ripperologists are the same though – some enjoy the thrill of the chase and get really, really excited about each and every new theory about the Ripper’s identity; others are in it because they like the whole ambience of gaslit, foggy streets (I’m pretty appreciative of this sort of thing) and others, like me, are interested in the social history and can barely bring themselves to look at the mortuary photographs of the victims. I’m ALL OVER maps and contemporary photographs of the actual area though.

I’m not being all holier than thou, though. Although I will tend to avoid most documentaries on the Ripper case, the deeply flawed From Hell is one of my all time favourite films. I don’t feel obliged to wholeheartedly LOVE everything about it though – the prettying up of what, and I say this as someone who has absolute respect for them, was a group of rather unlovely women makes me wince rather a lot and makes me wonder if it is more disrespectful to make someone more attractive than they were in reality than it is to show them in all their toothless, grimy, warts n all glory?

I think I’ve said enough. What do you think? Have you been grinding your teeth for months wondering if I am the sort of misguided female who writes love letters to serial killers on death row (I’m really REALLY not but as to whether there should even BE a death row, ah well, that’s a whole new rant really, isn’t it?) or if I have ANY IDEA how rampagingly misogynistic I am being by flouncing about the place rambling on about GIN and alleyways?

Anyway, I have other thoughts but my RSI wrist is telling me stop plus this is getting a bit epic now and is rapidly spiralling out of control. As always, I am reminded of the scene in Father Ted, where he accepts an award and gives the longest speech ever, being interrupted at the point where he says: ‘And now, moving on to LIARS…’ What do you think, anyway? Let’s have a chat about it. Or not. We could talk about something else if you like? Like the snow or what happened at the end of the last episode of Sherlock or how much the Daily Mail pay journalists to watch award ceremonies and premieres and look out for tan lines/price stickers on the bottom of shoes/bags under the eyes/spinach between the teeth…

You Might Also Like...