Tuesday, July 1, 2014

New Books: Stroke of Midnight and the Elsie Dinsmore Series

Okay. We're going to try to do two books at once. Stroke of Midnight, the next Merry Gentry book, and Elsie Dinsmore.

I've already discussed the many, many problems with Laurell K. Hamilton's writing. She's a polyamorous pagan author with the heart and soul of a conservative fundamentalist Christian. Complete with the rampant misogyny, racism, nausiating attitudes towards sex and consent, and an utter lack of empathy or understanding.

However, this is probably best shown through comparison. And there is no better comparison of that attitude than the Elsie Dinsmore Series.

Elsie Dinsmore is a series of books first published between 1867 and 1905. Martha Finley, the author, was a schoolteacher and wikipedia doesn't know much about her. The books themselves are set in the 1840s, and tell the story of a melodramatically devout christian Southern Belle, complete with the fortune and plantation. Black slaves are a prominent feature of this series, as are child abuse, neglect, spousal abuse, more neglect, and an attitude towards women that makes Anita Blake look like fucking Susan B. Anthony.

But CW! I hear you saying. These books were published so long ago. It was a different time! Different morals! It can't possibly make a good comparison to Anita Blake!

Well, kids, you'd be right...if these books had died back in the twenties.

They did not.

In the 1990s, a truly bizarre subset of Christians with a plethora of titles (Reformationists, Quiverfull, Fundamentalists, Christian Patriarchy) realized that the American Girl dolls were insanely popular. And they were. I lusted after those damn dolls, read all of the books I could find, played with the paperdolls, and basically enjoyed all the shiny prettiness of the dresses. Because that was the entire attraction of the American Girl dolls. They had pretty clothes. The goal was to get children to learn something like history (a very slanted history) while playing with the pretty dolls. And it...sort of worked.

However, the Bizarre Subset realized that these dolls did something they didn't want. They gave the girls who played with them ideas about (gasp!) independence! and adventures! And they weren't centered on men! And this was a problem because the whole purpose of women (according to the Bizarre Subset) was to wait on men hand and foot, forever, and be perfectly obedient to the nearest Approved White Penis. This is the same group that the Duggars (AKA the 20 Kids and Counting family) belong to. They advocate things like homeschooling (which means 99.99999% of homeschooling resources are published and controlled by these idiots) young earth creationism, "Homechurching", thought control systems, the Stay at Home Daughters movement (google it) corporal punishment for children starting at six months of age, and large families. Girls with an independent spirit are thus to be dreaded. Any kind of thinking for yourself, after all, wrecks the entire system. They needed to find something that would give their daughters the correct ideas about life. And they latched onto the Elsie Dinsmore series.

In 1999, Mission City Press, which published an awful lot of homeschool materials, published the Life of Faith series. They broke the truly massive Elsie Dinsmore series down into books slightly larger than the American Girl books, gave them attractive covers with pretty white girls on the front, and marketed them to parents seeking "wholesome" entertainment for their sheltered daughters. They also dumbed down some of the abuse in the original series so that parents wouldn't hit the wall. Things might have ended there, but Mission City Press had a partnership with a (now defunct) company called Vision Forum.

Vision Forum deserves its own blog post (it actually deserves several blog posts). They took the conservative values of Mission City and dialed it up to eleven. Doug Phillips, the dude that ran it, was a truly sick individual who is currently facing a strong lawsuit for the sexual assault of his former nanny. This, incidentally, is why Vision Forum is now defunct. (He got caught with his pants down, literally. Unfortunately he dismissed his relationship with the nanny as consensual adultery. The nanny, however, insists that it was nothing of the kind.) When it was alive it did things like organize an annual Titanic party to celebrate the sinking (not to commemorate it. They CELEBRATED the deaths of thousands of people) because the attitude of Women and Children First...um...meant something about the value of patriarcy. It's not real clear. Anyhoo, they also published a shitload of homeschooling products, and they decided to pair the Life of Faith series with a whole line of incredibly pretty dolls.

Which is how I encountered Elsie Dinsmore for the very first time.

I've mentioned a few times that when I was eighteen, I worked for a family I've been calling the Matthews. I idolized them. They ran one of the magazines my mom had used to homeschool me. They had a massive family (ten children), Mrs. Matthews was this short little bundle of energy who seemed like she could move mountains, and their business was this candy-coated victorian wonderland I fell in love with instantly. My homelife at the time was shit, to put it mildly, and I still feel that having the Matthews' business as a shelter was one of the things that saved my life. My S/I issues were out of control, verbal and emotional abuse at home was an every-day event, and I'd become so disconnected from anything resembling a support structure that anywhere would have looked good after that.

Which, of course, is why this mindset is so insidious. They target the already broken, after all. I've already covered what kept me from drinking the kool-aid, but it was a near damn thing. And part of it was Elsie.

The Elsie Dinsmore series got my attention almost immediately. It was pretty. And I identified with Elsie. Strongly. I read the first two books riveted to my seat. Something inside me was screaming the entire time this is wrong. Something about this is very, very wrong. The rest of me was overjoyed. Here, at last, was something I could relate to. I had no idea that what I was relating to was the pervasive, all-encompassing abuse running through every single page of the Elsie Dinsmore series, and Elsie's coping stratigy of utter passive submission. I did not understand that I was reading a story of abuse being praised as parental discipline, of victimization being promoted as goodness and Godliness. All I understood was that I could understand this world, that something about it resonated deep within me the way other books did not. I devoured the series and thrilled in both the feeling of utter fucking wrongness and the familiarity this series had that other books did not.

The Elsie Dinsmore Series is part of a conglomerate of thought control and abuse. The Matthews sold it, their magazine, books like Created to be His Helpmeet and To Train up a Child, books on theology that make straitjackets look roomy, books that compared virginity to weaving garments for prince-husbands (you had to have been there) books on caligraphy and sewing and other girly activities, and a whole plethora of Vision Forum tapes that made questioning a system rapidly devolving into abuse tantamount to questioning God. I remember burning several copies of this CD, for example. And for the last several months I have been reading--hell, overdosing--on stories of young women who were brought up in this mindset. I got off goddamned lucky, kids.

So while Elsie is over a hundred years old, she's still being pushed today. There are many, many, many little girls being exposed to this RIGHT NOW and told that THIS is how you're supposed to behave. THIS is how you're supposed to think. And best of all, its a theological horror show that was considered trashy back when it was published.  

So strap in, my lovelies. It's going to be a bumpy flight.

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