EMILY DICKINSON AND SLUT-SHAMING: Bees, harebells and hookups
No matter how many books and articles have been written about the poetry of Emily Dickinson, there always seems to be more to say. Recently, her poetry has been linked to contemporary topics such as race and Black Lives Matter, and she herself has – because of her famous reclusive lifestyle towards the end of her life – been labelled the ‘Queen of Social Distancing’. Rereading one of her poems recently for a virtual poetry discussion group hosted by the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA – an awesome pandemic activity that allows Dickinson enthusiasts from all over the world to come together to discuss her poetry – I was struck by its radical feminism, that still seems radical today, over 150 years later. ‘Did the Harebell loose her girdle’ is a totally wild poem that transports us into the head of a bee (!). Who becomes a feminist (!). And, on the way, Dickinson does not only criticize the nineteenth-century version of ‘slut-shaming’ but we’re encouraged, as readers, to do some philosophical thinking to change our thoughts on everything we thought we knew about gender and sex.
Here’s the poem, written towards the end of 1860:
Did the Harebell loose her girdle To the lover Bee Would the Bee the Harebell hallow
Much as formerly?
Did the “Paradise” – persuaded –
Yield her moat of pearl –
Would the Eden be an Eden,
Or the Earl – an Earl?
(for those of you who have the books, it’s number 134 in the Franklin edition and number 213 in the Johnson edition)
So in this poem, we’ve got someone contemplating the interaction between a flower and a bee, just before the bee swoops in to gather nectar. While pondering this situation, they ask two enigmatic questions – to which the answer, in both cases, is ‘no’.
Of course, the speaker isn’t just talking about bees and flowers: I see the bee as a man, who is deciding how to approach the young woman who has caught his eye. In this nineteenth-century ‘hookup’, there seem to be just two options: either the woman makes the first move, or the man does so, forcibly. Neither are any good: if the woman makes the first move, she’ll be slut-shamed, and if the man ‘persuades’ her, it won’t be the blissful experience he was hoping for.
So now, thanks to nineteenth-century dating conventions, we’re stuck. Just through the speaker’s act of asking two questions we’re zapped inside the head of a bee stopped in flight, debating how to approach his flower and transplanted inside the head of a man wondering how to approach a woman he fancies. We can either stay here, hovering in mid-air, much like the ‘lover Bee’ – unsure of what to do, as neither of the options will lead to a pleasurable outcome – or else we can try to resolve the puzzle Dickinson has set for us.
As the answer to both questions was a paralysing ‘no’, the only thing left to do if we want resolution is to reconsider our answers: by circling back to the first stanza, and asking the question again. This time around, we might come to the conclusion that it is okay for the harebell to ‘loose her girdle’ – all the bee has to do is let go of his desire to ‘hallow’ the flower. In other words, if men could let go of the notion that women’s ‘chastity’ needs to be celebrated, and that women need to be ‘chaste’ in order to be respected, there would be a lot more room for female sexual agency. Which, of course, implies, as we move on to the second stanza, that if the bee gives up on his other dominant mode of relating to harebells – that of ‘persuading’ them – he might actually find the blissful experience he is looking for.
In other words, if we take this poem as being about gender relations, according to the speaker men have to stop viewing the world as a place in which women are slut-shamed for making sexual advances, and in which it is commonplace for men to force themselves upon women. That is a bleak world, Dickinson seems to suggest, at odds with the ‘Paradise’ it could be. Rather than accepting this status quo, she prompts us to imagine a radically different world – one in which, unencumbered by dull, heterosexual gender conventions that sap the pleasure out of every sexual encounter, we might find an ‘Eden’.
Today, this alternative world remains a utopic vision. To a large extent, mainstream heterosexual western dating culture still resembles the nineteenth-century ‘hookup’ conventions Dickinson describes: in 2021, men are still rewarded for their sexual ‘prowess’, while sexually active women are too often slut-shamed (see here for a recent study). What’s more, women are still not generally expected to be open about their active sexuality (see here and here).
Dickinson’s radical vision in the poem, though, is that not all is lost. In the poem, the bee, who starts out trapped in heteronormative dating conventions that don’t do him or the flower any good, is given the possibility of rethinking all of his beliefs about the gender system, and becoming a ‘feminist’ who believes in active female sexuality and radical equality in the dating world. The notion that a woman can make the first move is a central part of this – something which was radical then, and is still considered exceptional now. Dating apps like Bumble – one of the few in which the woman takes the initiative – say that they try to push towards a more enjoyable dating experience precisely by focusing on women’s agency. And while Bumble is, of course, mainly focused on improving the world of heterosexual dating and is not really related to the queer, heteronormative-gender-convention-transcending utopia that Dickinson hints at, it is a fun coincidence that a contemporary endeavour to establish equality in the dating world also refers, like Dickinson does, to bees.
While apps like Bumble might bring us one step closer to equality, though, there is still a long way to go. Over a century after it was written, Dickinson’s utopic vision of a world whose inhabitants have transcended heteronormative gender conventions to find bliss through radical equality still remains an unrealized dream, a political incitement, and an illustration of how poetry can present us with new, radically disruptive vistas of possibility. Just by asking two questions, the speaker shows us how we might reimagine the entire sex and gender system as we know it – if we are willing to take the plunge. If we dare to let go of our set way of thinking, what ‘bliss’ might await?
For a brilliant reading of another way in which this poem is radical, see Helen Vendler’s Dickinson.