“It is the usual history of a man and a woman as it usually happens, as it always happens. And the ending is the ordinary ending. The woman suffers. The man goes free.”
So says Mrs Arbuthnot to son Gerald in Wilde’s ‘A Woman of No Importance’, as she begins to explain her discord with a proposition he puts forward about the future. Her sentiment stems from personal experience, carrying with her as she does years of untold secrets, and a fate condemning of her alone. But in this day and age, with a shifting social landscape, and battles for equality being waged (and won) across many fronts, to what extent do her words still ring true?
Oscar Wilde introduces the character of Mrs Rachel Arbuthnot midway through the Second Act of his play, where she initially appears almost as a woman of intrigue; she enters the room silently, unannounced, and is described as reacting badly to something said the reader has yet to discern the reason behind. When she is introduced by host Lady Hunstanton, to whose home she accepted the invitation, Mrs Arbuthnot is then explicitly presented as a woman of sound reputation, possessing only positive attributes to speak of. Of course though, like all other intricate, three-dimensional, and ultimately human characters, first impressions do not always accurately define, and in Mrs Arbuthnot’s eyes at least, hers could not be further from the truth.
As she learns of Gerald’s new role of secretary to a Lord Illingworth, and begins to unravel the identity of the man behind the title, a sense of unease about her becomes apparent. And as Gerald insists on introducing her to his patron before seeing her home, it is here that Mrs Arbuthnot’s story really begins as she finds herself face to face with a man she once intimately knew, and is forced to confront a shameful past she spent over twenty years trying to hide.
In this first interaction with her former lover since the relationship ended more than two decades earlier, Mrs Arbuthnot’s portrayal is initially one of strength. Wilde’s contrast between Lord Illingworth’s surprised reaction, “he starts back in wonder”, and Mrs Arbuthnot’s “bows coldly” paints her as being more in control than him, in spite of the earlier unease evident in the wake of her discovering exactly who Lord Illingworth is. Now this disparity between the two can of course be attributed to her realising his identity before he realises hers. Indeed, once Lord Illingworth overcomes his surprise, the power dynamic shifts between Wilde’s two characters, particularly as Lord Illingworth finds an ally in son Gerald, who does not yet understand the reason for his mother’s lack of enthusiasm for his new position.
This balance of power weighted toward the male end of the spectrum is further emphasised when Lord Illingworth asks Lady Hunstanton for a moment alone with Mrs Arbuthnot. As Wilde uses this conversation to deconstruct the beginnings of their relationship, though Mrs Arbuthnot is undoubtedly shown to occupy the moral high ground, Lord Illingworth’s blasé responses in comparison allude to the world of male privilege to which he belongs. It is in the very nonchalance of his rhetoric in contrast to Mrs Arbuthnot’s increasingly passionate speech that shows just how unaffected he has been by their shared past, and nowhere is this distinction made more clear than when Mrs Arbuthnot says:
“My son … to go away with the man who spoiled my youth, who ruined my life, who has tainted every moment of my days? You don’t realise what my past has been in suffering and in shame.”
This emphasis on the profoundly negative impact Lord Illingworth has had on Mrs Arbuthnot, coupled with her explicitly pointing out he knows nothing of what she has endured, tells of a past where it seems she was faced with more trials than he. And indeed, when Lord Illingworth responds:
“My dear Rachel, I must candidly say that I think Gerald’s future considerably more important than your past.”
it is clear he still has the upper hand even after all these years. His use of ‘your’ over ‘our’ highlights a dissociation between what Mrs Arbuthnot has lived through and how his past was shaped after their interaction, suggesting that for all the torment Mrs Arbuthnot still appears to suffer, he knows no such pain. It is in this dissociation, and the lack of feeling with which he continues to impress his point despite what he has just heard, that emphasises the level of control Lord Illingworth now has over the conversation. In contrast, we see Mrs Arbuthnot morph from a woman of moral aloofness into an increasingly desperate character, her reasoned arguments becoming ever more plea-like in an effort to convince him to leave her her son.
Here, Lord Illingworth’s refusal to acknowledge any harm caused, much less apologise for any culpability that lies with him, is scarily reminiscent of the culture of sexual misconduct that was recently unearthed in the workplace today, over 125 years after the play’s inception. With Wilde later going on to imply Lord Illingworth has an inappropriate physical interaction with the young, pretty, and visiting American guest Miss Hester Worsley, it is hard not to recall a recent real-world example of a powerful man bragging he could grab women in much the same way. But the political stage is not the only one to be rocked by sexual harassment scandals of late. In the entertainment industry and sparking the #metoo movement, allegations made against media mogul Harvey Weinstein were also initially categorically denied, despite the multitude of women who stood as his accusers. And though, unlike Lord Illingworth, he did issue an apology (by way of a written statement to The New York Times, in which he apologised for ‘causing a lot of pain’), he has since maintained his innocence, denied any sexual activity of the non-consensual kind, and is currently out on bail whilst more evidence is gathered. Further, in The Women in the Workplace 2018 study, McKinsey et al. found that up to 35% of women working in corporate America have experienced sexual harassment, with figures going up to 55% for those in senior management positions. And as the year draws to a close, and global figures suggest on average 60% of women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives (taken from The Perils of Perception 2018), it has become increasingly difficult to contest Mrs Arbuthnot’s statement.
Perhaps though, that is only one half of the story. Whilst it is true that evidence shows ‘the woman [continues to] suffer…’, no longer is it entirely accurate that ‘the man goes free’. For one thing, justice campaigns for women who have been victims of sexual harassment have amassed huge followings post- #metoo, with the Time’s Up movement a leading example that has raised over $22 million for its Legal Defense Fund in the last year through crowd funding alone. This in turn has triggered conversation about equality in the workplace on a more general level as well, with issues of absurdly skewed ratios of male: female promotions and the gender pay gap being brought out into the open, and properly challenged. And the change does not end there. In an attempt to increase female representation on a global level, among other things, producers are reinventing traditionally male-led storylines with female casts, articles are being published on the reading lists featuring books only written by women that one should try, and political parties have attempted to join in by highlighting how many women they have in positions of relative power.
Is this enough? Or are these measures taking things a step too far? On the one hand, though the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported an increase in the number of allegations of sexual misconduct this year compared to last, this could indicate a positive shift in social landscapes – one that has supported conversation, and encouraged victims to speak out. At the same time though, the EEOC also revealed roughly 16% of those allegations were made by men. In a year where women’s rights have been so loudly championed, it is easy to see why these kind of statistics have barely got a look in, never mind received any media attention in comparison. And whilst it is of course important that sexual discrimination, like sexual harassment, comes to an end in the workplace for both parties, what does it say about our society where, in an attempt at fairness, we seem to be trying to balance the numbers more than talking of competencies? Surely women should be promoted over men, not because they are women and there is a lack of female representation in senior leadership roles, but rather because the situation demanded it due to, for example, a better performance at interview? Any other reason runs the risk of tipping the scales into positive discrimination territory for women, and sexual discrimination against men. Similarly, on the silver screen, again while female representation is important, this should not mean that major male-led franchises should have to be reinvented in an effort to balance the numbers – whilst it is true Ocean’s Eight offered a fresh take on the previous films, recent talk of a female James Bond produced rather the opposite effect, with executive producer Barbara Broccoli saying it well when she said:
“We don’t have to turn male characters into women. Let’s just create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters.”
In an ideal world, this dichotomous society, with its factions warring for equality between each other, wouldn’t exist. Championing women’s rights would be an opportunity to speak out about rights for men at the same time, regardless of how few men were victims in comparison. And ‘no one [would] go free’ if they were guilty. In a truly ideal world, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment would merely be fictional concepts, best confined to the plays of Oscar Wilde, and our past. Until then though, and with a new year almost upon us, let’s move forward by treating everyone as someone of importance.