Sunday, October 5, 2008

Painting the Lion

It has been a while since we have had occasion to visit Mary Worth and her Charterstone friends, mostly because the past month's worth* of strips have constituted some of the most infuriatingly boring dreck ever to appear on the comics page...which, as you know, is saying quite a lot. Toby the Trophy Wife has been learning how not to be a stupid idiot on the Internet; supposedly, the faithful readers of Mary Worth have been learning the same thing. The whole strip turned into an anti-phishing commercial for a while there.

Now, however, Mary Worth has returned to form. Since 1938,** Mary Worth has appeared as, in the words of the comic pimps over at King Features, "a well-spoken gentlewoman with a knack for quoting proverbs and surrounding herself with interesting people whose lives reflect the daily concerns of society," or, in the words of the rest of us, "a bored, nosy middle-class biddy with a dreary habit of spewing moral dictates and surrounding herself with brain-dead morons who are completely out of touch with twenty-first-century reality and whom she can manipulate and control." The residents of Charterstone have been living in a sunny, pool-party-choked version of Hell for seventy years,*** and they haven't even noticed.

The comic below demonstrates how firmly the morality of Mary Worth is rooted in an earlier time: the 1930s, sure, but also, tellingly, the late fourteenth century. Toby's problem is that she is defying her husband. She has made an error and kept it from dear, sweet Ian, the hirsute older man to whom she owes everything. Her (prophetic?) dream is revealing in its content. In twenty-first-century terms, Toby's anxieties about Ian (I screwed up. Will he stop loving me?) echo a little girl's anxieties about the older man on whom she is dependent for food, shelter, and affection: in other words, her father.

Toby, however, hails from a social landscape in which a married woman transfers these anxieties from her father to her husband, who has the power to chastise her when she has Been Bad. She is demonstrating a moral precept of medieval antifeminist thought: a woman must obey her husband in all things, though her natural inclination will be to disobey and make his life miserable.

Chaucer's Wife of Bath says, famously:

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.

Mary Worth, a comic written by a woman about a woman, has a chance to repaint the lion. Instead, it takes refuge in medieval morality and social relations, proving once again that despite our fancy technology and busy lives, we are still living six hundred years ago at heart.

*Pun not intended but perpetuated nonetheless.
**Possibly. There is some confusion over the origins of the strip. The devil that is Wikipedia claims that it was "developed from an earlier Apple Mary strip" in 1940, but the King Features site insists that Mary Worth appeared in 1938 and was a replacement for, rather than a continuation of, Apple Mary. None of this actually matters at all, but I am a horrible pedant.
***Or perhaps sixty-eight.


Fretful Porpentine said...

The "Boke of Wikked Wyves" part was brilliant. Thanks for doing this.

'Whalehead' King said...

I enjoy these translations. You are doing good work and I love the context. Keep it up as long as you can.