Hands that do dishes can be appreciated by Victorian gentlemen

This great post about gender dimorphism in Disney reminded me of a hand-obsessed Victorian.

As Philip N Cohen notes, ‘tiny hands symbolize femininity in Disneyland’, and the films offer a lot of romantic shots where the woman’s slim, slight hand is laid in the man’s much more sturdy mitt.

This conjured up, for me, the ghost of Arthur Munby. He was an upper middle-class man with a passionate interest in working-class women.

He loved the idea of reversed gender markers – that he was a slight chap and that his objects of affection were great brawny masculine women. One of his favourite gender markers was hands. He eroticised large, work-hardened women’s hands. His partner, Cullwick, was a maid and he carried a photograph of her hands around with him. He liked to shake hands with working women and see the contrast:

We read in novels, how the highborn hero receives in his broad palm the little white hand of his rustic love: well, here is the rustic maiden & here the bearded hero – and lo, his is the ‘small white’ hand and hers the big broad palm which his comparatively slender fingers span with difficulty.

3.5It’s a Disney moment! (Those hands are from Tangled). Munby also wrote bad poetry about dainty men’s hands.

On one hand, it’s nice to see someone switching gendered signifiers. Mix it up! Reject normative romantic scripts! However, Munby’s personal preferences don’t play out well.

The differences Munby delighted in were very much about class as well as gender – hands hardened by hard labour. He did campaign politically for women to work in ‘male’ professions. But he didn’t (as far as I know) question why people should have to do gruelling, body-changing physical labour – which, in the case of maids, was mainly necessary for richer people to ‘keep up appearances’. Munby also unselfconsciously used his class position to quiz, photograph and generally bother and exploit working-class women.

And there’s a narrow line between his interest in masculine women and his parallel interest in physical deformity:

This servant wench, for instance: her hands are large out of all proportion, square, illshaped, masculine … layers of leathery skin… [folds] deep and coarse as the folds in a bull’s neck … what must be the result to a woman … of carrying about with her always, instead of a true human hand, such a brutal excrescence as this?

He admired the working hands of women – as noble, honest, far better than the spurious refinement of gentlewomen – but disgust and deliberate transgression are part of his admiration.

The hand-related differences are also raced differences. Munby projected his fascination with roughness and muscularity onto the black Victorian women he encountered. (I’m drawing on, and quoting from, Watching Hannah by Barry Reay; Reaktion Books, 2002.) Gender, class and race vividly intersect in Munby’s imagination, in disheartening ways.

I think I’ve circled round to some fairly obvious conclusions. Some physical differences are exaggerated by media representations to play up normative gender roles. Any perceived gendered difference will have been used as the basis for a fetish, probably by a Victorian. Some people will prefer the difference the ‘wrong’ way round. That enjoyment will not, in itself, be a guarantee that they’ll be particular forward-thinking. And, of course, it’s always more complex than a binary.

(I have big hands. I’ve always liked them.)


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