Linda Nochlin’s fallen woman – in comics?

Though not quite as famous as her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Linda Nochlin’s “Lost and Found: Once More the Fallen Woman” from 1978 is still a classic text of feminist art history. At its core, this article is an interpretation of the unfinished painting Found, which Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) had been working on intermittently for decades. It shows a woman in a London street who “has sunk under her shame upon her knees” (Rossetti) as she has recognized a man from the countryside whom she, apparently, knows from a happier, rural past which she has left behind.

Nochlin identifies this female figure as a “fallen woman”, a popular trope in nineteenth-century art and literature. “Fallen” is defined as “any sort of sexual activity on the part of women out of wedlock, whether or not for gain”. Nochlin points out the following typical features of fallen-woman imagery:

  • The moral fall often goes hand in hand with a literal fall.
  • Sinful urbanity is contrasted with innocent rurality.
  • The bleak present is opposed to a blissful past.
  • Another contrast to the fallen woman (or her possible way of redemption) is the woman who fulfils her role within the family as daughter, wife and/or mother, the “angel in the house”.
  • This contrast is also depicted as an outside-inside dichotomy (fallen woman in the street vs. family inside the home). However, this dichotomy may also be reversed, as Nochlin shows using the example of other pictures, to become the “contrast of inside and outside, the crowded, body-packed realm of sin opposed to the pure realm of nature outside the windows”.

In a move that seems a bit old-fashioned today, Nochlin then connects Rossetti’s artistic “obsession” towards this topic to his biography and personality in which, she presumes, “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust [were] burning”; he was a “man of strong sensuality who at the same time believed fervently in some kind of ideal of goodness but could rarely bring himself to act upon this belief.” Thus the fallen woman becomes a “symbol of his moral and erotic idealism” (as Nochlin says about another Rossetti painting).

So far, all of this might not seem relevant to you (unless you happen to be interested in Victorian art). But it will be if we take Nochlin’s observations as universal, i.e. applicable not just to Rossetti and Found but to anyone at almost any time and to a wide range of works of art. Bear in mind though that this may go beyond what Nochlin intended to say. Still, given the universality of the male gaze, it seems unlikely that Rossetti was exceptional in his attitude towards and depictions of fallen women. Of course, when moving to a different time period, the definition of falling as extramarital sexual activity might need to be extended to other forms of moral misconduct.

That being said, let us take a more-or-less random comic and see how much of the fallen woman concept we can find in there. Bonnouji (煩悩寺) by Aki Eda originally came out in 2010 already, but has only now been translated into German (and apparently not yet at all in English). It tells the love story between the young single man Oyamada and his female neighbour from three floors above, Ozawa. Both are in their twenties, and while Ozawa has an office job, Oyamada works from home. When one day Ozawa finds out that Oyamada’s apartment is full of trinkets, curiosities, and mysterious unopened parcels sent to him by his brother, she starts hanging out at this “temple of earthly desires” (bonnōji).

Is Ozawa a fallen woman? It’s not as if she was a prostitute or anything like that, but there is definitely a contrast built up between her and Oyamada in terms of morality. On the very first page, she comes to his place for the first time because she’s had too much to drink and wants to use his bathroom, then tells him that her long-term boyfriend has just left her. Ozawa also smokes and regularly gets drunk at Oyamada’s. He, on the other hand, lives like a hermit and rarely leaves his apartment. Sexually inexperienced and shy around Ozawa, there is something innocent and pure about him. (At least in the first volume; in the second, this dynamic is somehow reversed.)

table of contents page from Bonnouji vol. 1

As for Nochlin’s five typical features:

  • There is sort of a literal fall right at the beginning of the manga. The table of contents before the first actual comic page is illustrated with a little scene in chibi style that doesn’t occur in the story. Ozawa, surrounded by cans and bottles of alcohol, has passed out on the floor, and Oyamada is smiling and holding a blanket, about to tuck her in.
  • Unlike in many other manga, the urban-rural dichotomy does not play much of a role in Bonnouji. However, one could read a subtle critique of urbanity into it, e.g. into the anonymity of the apartment house in which no one really knows their neighbour and in which the inhabitants dwell in tiny flats, probably paying outrageously high rents.
  • present vs. past: after having broken up with her boyfriend, Ozawa frequently hangs out at Oyamada’s place because she dislikes her present situation of living alone. She ultimately wants to restore her past of being in a relationship.
  • angel in the house: even before they start dating, Ozawa secretly tidies up Oyamada’s apartment. This intrusion shows that she would like to be something more like a homemaker to him, even though presently she is not in the ‘official’ position to do so.
  • outside vs. inside: in the second volume, the two realise that they’re spending too much time inside Oyamada’s flat, and that going outside more often would be the right thing to do.
page detail from Bonnouji vol. 1

We can even see something of Rossetti (as characterised by Nochlin) in the character of Oyamada who also has “contradictory urges of chivalrous purity and sexual lust”, which is epitomised in the scene in which Ozawa spends her first night as his girlfriend at his place: she sleeps in a coffin – another of Oyamada’s brother’s gifts – and he sleeps on the floor next to it.

panel from Bonnouji vol. 1

So there we have it: we have identified Ozawa as a fallen woman, and it looks like once we start looking, we find fallen women everywhere; Nochlin’s concept is useful for attuning our attention to this topic, and we can leave it at that. Right?

Wrong. As ever so often in the Humanities, an interpretation can easily be turned into its opposite, which then appears to be at least equally as valid.

In Bonnouji, the case could be made that Ozawa is anything but a fallen woman. After all, she and her boyfriend broke up because she wanted to marry and he didn’t. Her readiness to become someone’s wife appears rather virtuous (in the fallen woman context) compared to Oyamada who doesn’t seem to have had any interest in women – and thus in eventually becoming someone’s husband – so far.

The aforementioned five typical features of the fallen woman trope can be reversed as well:

  • literal fall: as mentioned before, the scene in which he is standing and she has passed out drunk on the floor doesn’t actually happen in the manga, but there is a reverse situation of sorts when she enters his apartment and finds him asleep, and then proceeds to tidy the place up without waking him up. Also note the moral implication there of her being busy (i.e. virtuous) while he is being idle (i.e. sinful).
  • urban vs. rural: the absence of rurality in this manga can also be taken as a celebration of urbanity. The protagonists have everything they need in their urban surroundings and never need to leave them.
  • present vs. past: Ozawa is actually glad that her ex-boyfriend has moved out. For her, falling in love with Oyamada feels like a completely new experience. They both live in the present and are not longing for their past lives.
  • angel in the house: apart from that one tidying-up episode, the role of the housewife is neither acted out by Ozawa, nor by anyone else to represent a counterpoint to her.
  • outside vs. inside: the name bonnōji says it all: Oyamada’s apartment is glorified as a magical place filled with endless wonder. Consequently, most of the action of the manga takes place inside, and the characters only go outside if they can’t avoid it.

So Ozawa may or may not be a fallen woman after all. But is Nochlin’s concept applicable to 21st century comics in the first place? Or, more generally: is sexual morality (in a wider sense, i.e. including the ethics of gender roles) still relevant enough nowadays to provide a meaningful lens through which we can read comics?

At least in the case of romance manga, it would be absurd not to assume any connection to the sexual ethics of Japanese society. There is an unbroken preoccupation – or fascination? – in the West with Japanese sexuality and its purportedly vast differentness (or even perceived moral inferiority, as I have argued elsewhere). Therefore, when reading any comic featuring a female character, one can ask: what are the rules that govern her behaviour within her specific society? What would need to happen for her to become a fallen woman? How would that change her role in society? What would her options for redemption be? And how is all of that expressed in the comics medium? That being said, we need to be aware that comics need not accurately represent the society in which they are made and read, but rather tell us something about the conscious or unconscious desires and fears of that society.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


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