Of Codpieces, Corsets, Bustles, and Beauvoir: Tracing the Narrative of Modernity Through Representations of and Changing Attitudes Towards Women and the Body

A comedienne clasping a manly-man hand to her face-that's the sight gag splashed across the cover of Tina Fey's bestselling memoir Bossypants, a joke and title with centuries' worth of setup. A subversion of expectations is reflected in the cover design of Fey's book-a woman, but with "manly" hands photoshopped on, in the same way "Bossypants" takes the term "boss" and cobble onto it the essence of "smartypants." "'Why can't we accept the human form as it is?' screams no one...we never have" Fey observes, "That's why people wore corsets and neck stretchers and powdered wigs" (Fey 245). In between impersonating Sarah Palin and informing the world "Fetch" will never happen, Fey's comedic oeuvre has consistently involved commentary on women, the body-and she's not alone. As Carol Hanisch put it decades ago, "The personal is political," and few things have consistently embodied the tension between those two elements of identity politics throughout modernity like the perceptions and depictions of the female body, especially in relation to women's role in society (Hanisch 23). To trace the manner in which English and French literature from the Early Modern Period onward has "dressed up" and presented women in relation to their bodies is to trace the evolution of modernity itself, from the advent of gender politics to the effects of new workers and capital to shifting societal roles and power relations. In particular, it examines the tension between conceptions of men, women, gender roles, and power relations which allow for the subversion implied by Fey's sight gag and title-namely, with men traditionally associated with power and the professional sphere, the process and, indeed, progress of modernity is reflected in women subverting social hierarchy and expectations while still running up against the challenges of that gender dynamic-tracing a narrative of modernity and the body from codpieces and corsets to bustles, Beauvoir, and back again.