“It’s a queer thing…how ‘fallen’ in the masculine means killed in the war, and in the feminine given over to a particular kind of vice.” – Rose Macaulay
In our discussion about the visual culture of poverty in the Victorian era, we touched on a painting called Found Drowned (c. 1848) by George Frederic Watts. This was my first encounter with the painting, and as such, I came into it taking it at face value; it wasn’t until the Watts Gallery video about the painting that I realized there was a much more layered meaning behind the piece. I learned that the social context of the time adds a specific and complex significance to the woman depicted, and that she represents a trope called “the fallen woman”. In this response, I want to explore this trope and expand on its effect on the image’s meaning. I would also like to investigate the video’s comment that during this period, men’s responsibility in the “fall” of women was brought to attention. What does this mean? How were men held accountable, if at all?
Nicola Onyett discusses the two antithetical stereotypes of women in the Victorian era: the pure and chaste woman of the house versus the promiscuous “fallen woman”.1 The latter stereotype consisted of women who were involved in sexual activity of any kind outside of wedlock (consensual or not), such as bigamy, adultery, seduction, rape, illegitimate pregnancy, and more.2 These women populated literature and narrative paintings of the 19th century, such as George Cruikshank’s 1848 series The Drunkard’s Children (in which the daughter of a gambling drunkard turns to prostitution to make ends meet, then kills herself out of shame)3 or Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1854 painting Found (in which a woman falls to her knees in tearful ignominy after being recognized while on the street).4 In these images, the women are defined by their shame and are depicted as suffering the necessary consequences for their actions. Conversely, Onyett confirms that Watts’ image is uniquely sympathetic to the character in ways rarely offered by other artists or writers. He paints her compassionately, retaining her beauty and dignity, and spotlights the sorrow of the event rather than scornful allusions to prostitution. The general interpretation of the painting is that the young woman committed suicide over what was likely a failed love affair or an illegitimate pregnancy, thrown out of her home, and had to choose between prostitution or starvation and homelessness.5 Like the other images, the woman was not only abandoned by her family but also blamed for actions shared or committed by a man. Given the distinct lack of “fallen man” stigma, men would not be faced with the same decision between sexual shame or death, despite their equal or greater role in the deed. So how was this culpability finally addressed?
My research showed me that there was a distinct rise in sympathy towards the fallen women in visual culture in the mid-to-late 19th century. Even though the negative representations continued, there were many creatives actively challenging the idea that these women deserve to be reviled, punished, or dead. Linda Nochlin writes that during this time, more and more artists and writers were producing realistic and humanizing views of these women, primarily through addressing the economic and social factors that caused their supposed downfall. I found several of these works: for example, Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem entitled The Bridge of Sighs, which is said to have inspired Watts, does not shy away from the drowned girl’s sins but also blames the “dissolute man” who abandoned her. He pleads for pity and tolerance from a society that is supposed to be Christian and forgiving (“Alas! for the rarity / Of Christian charity / Under the sun! / O, it was pitiful! / Near a whole city full / Home she had none”). Vassily Grigorievitch Perov’s The Drowned Woman of 1867 explicitly critiques society’s indifference towards the pain of fallen women; he shows an apathetic policeman leisurely smoking a pipe beside the dead body of a woman, who has killed herself rather than be faced with “falling.”6 Thomas Hardy’s poem The Ruined Maid of 1866 similarly critiques the hypocrisy of Victorian society.7 There were also explorations in the 1850s of the connections between poverty and prostitution: for example, W.R. Greg’s 1850 article Prostitution in the Westminster Review determined that “poverty is the chief determining cause which drives women into prostitution” in England and France. John Millais’ drawing Virtue and Vice (1853) and even an early version of Dante Rossetti’s painting depicted the women in tattered and shabby clothing, consciously or unconsciously highlighting that prostitution is often the fault of poverty, not lewdness.8
The stereotyping and degradation of sexual women and the victims of sexual crimes still persist to this day. I found an art installation called What Were You Wearing?, a collaborative touring exhibition that displays the outfits worn by their owners when they were sexually assaulted.9 The exhibition is meant to fight the shame and guilt forced on survivors by questions such as “well, what were you wearing?” that imply that certain clothes invite and justify sexual assault. There are also protests like the SlutWalk, which began after a York University police officer told students that if women don’t want to be raped, they shouldn’t “dress like sluts”.10 The SlutWalk abandons the shame, takes back women’s autonomy, and advocates for rapists, not victims, to be held responsible. These exhibitions demonstrate that there are still many people working today to destroy these stereotypes and the “fallen woman” trope for good.