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Cultural Misogyny

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    Still Public, Still Furious: Jack the Ripper and Cultural Misogyny
    Wednesday 5th August, 2015
    Tracey Jensen

    The news that the East End of London is to house a Jack The Ripper Museum at 12 Cable Street is not necessarily that surprising – after all, there is an established macabre tourist industry around the mythical figure of the Ripper. For less than a tenner you too can join a walking tour delivered by a “distinguished crime historian” (or more likely an aspiring actor or jobbing theatre student – there are plenty of Ripper walking tours being hawked in the area) who will thrill you with a guided circuit around streets that have little connection to the East End of the 1880s. Wave after wave of urban development over a century and a half has meant that the winding alleyways and dimly lit streets of Victorian London have all but disappeared. A considerable degree of artistic license is surely required to describe the delivery end of a Tesco Express as “the Ripper’s slashing grounds” (actual promotional phrase for one walking tour: actual site of the one of the Whitechapel murders).
    I wonder if the large groups of walking group punters, obediently trampling past the tantalising smells of culinary heaven of the East End, realise how flexible ‘historical accuracy’ can be. In any case, the mythology of the Ripper case is already well exhibited elsewhere; weird little museums that London seems to specialise in, such as the Crime Museum at New Scotland Yard, The City of London Police Museum and the Royal London Museum; within larger and more respectable educational collections such as the Museum of London; and for those that prefer gruesome entertainment over glass-cased curiosity, as part of the London Dungeon spectacles. Does London really need another space for Ripper pageantry? The Ripper Museum is perhaps less about ‘need’ and more about the market of the macabre. As the saying goes, “if you can’t sell anything else in London, you can always sell a story about the Ripper.” Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, the founder of the museum, seems well-versed in planning application processes and public relations and has spent much of the past few days smoothly responding to angry criticism of his museum. The Change of Use Application for 12 Cable Street is littered with feel-good terms such as “diversity”, “inclusion” and “excellence”.
    But this original application detailed a quite different museum: a Museum of Women’s History, documenting the formidable role of women in the “social, political and cultural heritage” of London, to “celebrate the contribution of East End women”, to create an oral history archive of women living in the East End today. The images and words within the planning documents suggest a showcase of womens’ power and activism: referencing the Suffragette movement, the Matchgirl strikes, the Women’s Social and Political Union, the Equal Pay marches, women of the Black Trade Unions movement, anti-racist campaigning. The East End of London is rightly described in the planning documents as “a centre of international politics” and women’s industrial action as key to this centre. Reading the document, I am struck by two thoughts: first, how urgently a Museum of Women’s History is needed, especially given the recent surge of political campaigns spearheaded by East End women (the Focus E15 and New Era campaigns for social housing, for example). Second, why is there not already a Museum of Women’s History? Why is it that museums, archives and collections for and about women are always fragile, precarious, at risk or simply absent? The Women’s Library, for example – the oldest and most extensive library and museum resource compendium of womens’ political history, described as “a collection of national and international significance” by the Arts Council - was housed in Whitechapel but faced closure for years when London Metropolitan University decided it was no longer a funding priority (the library was eventually transferred to the London School of Economics). The Feminist Library on Westminster Road has survived for 40 years on a shoestring, the energy of its volunteers and sheer bloodymindedness – and has also faced closure at the whims of Lambeth Council and their rent increases. The precarity of these institutions is well-known to the founders of the Ripper Museum: in fact, the planning proposal referred to the transfer of the Women’s Library as evidence that a Museum of Womens’ History is needed. The anger on the streets of Cable Street is understandable.
    So what does the replacement of a proposed Womens’ History Museum with a Jack the Ripper Museum really tell us? To understand that, we need to consider the Ripper mythology in a context of cultural misogyny, a context that saturated the 1880s and which permeates through to today. Our contemporary cultural fascination with serial killers serves complex (and often contradictory) purposes and the anxious repetition of myths and fantasies about sex, gender, violence and public space. Think about how your television schedule is littered with programmes that artfully arrange womens’ dismembered and mutilated bodies – Luther, The Fall, Dexter, Hannibal. Think about the ‘torture porn’ film franchises that compensate for weak narrative by piling up exchanges of cruelty upon incidental female victims. Mark Seltzer called our public fascination with torn and open bodies ‘wound culture’, and his 1997 book Serial Killers maps out a ‘psychotopography’ of the national landscapes of compulsion, addiction and violence that make it possible to hero-worship serial killers. Seltzer’s book does not develop a nuanced gender analysis: nonetheless I think that the concept of ‘wound culture’ has some relevance to a museum that will offer pieces of merchandise, so graphically celebrating violence against women, to visitors as they exit through the gift shop. For example, one piece of merchandise depicts a silhouette 'Ripper' standing over a smear of blood
    Jack the Ripper holds a special place in this wider wound culture, this cultural enchantment with repetitions of violence – since he was never caught he can become a repository for a whole range of cultural fantasies and projections. The field of ‘Ripperature’ shows how extensive a canvas these five unsolved murders of East End women have provided for amateur Ripperologists. The most common Ripper conspiracy theories have always been deeply classed – the Ripper was a doctor, an aristocrat, a member of the Royal family – playing into fantasies of urban passing, of gentlemen ‘slumming it’, and taking pleasure in/feigning outrage at the sexual freedoms of the East End ‘other’. How little things change. In an interview with Londonist, Palmer-Edgecumbe described Jack the Ripper as “the most influential person of the East End” and states that his crimes did more to prompt action for the lives of impoverished women than any other social reformers of the time. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Palmer-Edgecumbe states that his museum “is absolutely not celebrating the crime of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.” The condescending myth-making around the Ripper here (as an influential, if unwitting, social reformer) together with the stigmatising victim-blaming (what had these women done to get themselves in this situation) is truly astounding: and also absolutely wrong. The Whitechapel murders did not function at the time to galvanise action against poverty in the East End, nor to improve the safety of sexworkers, who continue to face high levels of risk of extreme violence.
    Indeed, as cultural historians have shown, far from being an unwitting social reformer, Jack the Ripper became a media scandal which was used to generate fear amongst urban Victorian women. Far from prompting action to improve the lives of East End women, the Ripper story served a warning to women of the dangers of being out in public. In City of Dreadful Delight, Judith Walkowitz shows how the growing and troubling visibility of women in political campaigning life resulted in an explosion of moral narratives of danger and purity, respectability and outrage. Jack the Ripper became a significant cultural figure - a bogeyman, a cultural shorthand, a cautionary tale – and the source of a wider story of sexual danger aimed at women claiming the city at the time. Her cultural critique shows how the grisly crime reporting in the tabloid press at the time, together with puritan campaigns against prostitution and sexual scandals, became mobilised to keep public women disciplined. In some ways we might see the Ripper story as a Victorian precursor to ‘wound culture’.
    Walkowitz argues that the Ripper story dramatizes the sexual and gender politics in the contest for the city – but as she reminds us, and as in all contestations, power is never fully possessed by one individual or group. The Ripper story documents how gender and class and urban life become disciplined at moments of social change; but also how such they can become reformulated and resisted by women who insisted on being seen and heard, on being public. For every salacious tabloid report on the Ripper, there were women organising and asserting their presence in the urban public sphere; for every instance of Victorian moral discourse asserting that women should stay accompanied (or better still, indoors) to stay safe and pure, there were feminist and working class radicals overturning the teachings of ‘sexual danger’ and claiming the city. Looking at the furious and creative response to the Jack the Ripper Museum, we can see how these contestations over the city continue today.
    What representations, stories and narratives about women do we have space for in the East End of London today? Is there space to document the courage of generations of powerful women, struggling for the right to be in the city, to have safe working conditions, a decent wage, equality and social justice? Or is there only space to pity ‘the fallen woman’, the Ripper victim with her poor choices and her unfortunate ‘situation’, the scandalous details of her violent death and her autopsy photographs displayed for the scrutiny of the appalled visitor?
    If I were to open a museum on Cable Street in East London, it would be a Museum of Cultural Misogyny. In terms of exhibition content, I would be spoilt for choice. The first curiosity, however, I have already decided: it would be the entire Jack the Ripper Museum, displayed intact and unaltered within a huge glass case. The accompanying plaque would read: “Welcome to the Museum of Cultural Misogyny. We begin in 2015 when a ex-diversity officer considered this to be an acceptable replacement for a Museum of Womens’ History.”Join the protest against the Jack The Ripper Museum, 12 Cable Street, every Wednesday at 6pm.
    Join the protest against the Jack The Ripper Museum, 12 Cable Street, every Wednesday at 6pm.
    Tracey Jensen's research explores the classed and gendered intersections of contemporary parenting culture, and how these are reproduced across social, cultural, media and policy sites. Tracey tweets at @Drtraceyjensen.
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  • #2
    Original link to Ms. Jensen's commentary :
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    • #3
      I think we should have a museum of sociological jargon, complete with 'discourses,' 'narratives' and of course 'claiming the city.'


      • #4
        I'm not altogether sure where the murder site with the "Tesco Metro" is. There's a Sainsburys supermarket at the end of Durward Street, but tours tend not to go that far out east.

        All the best


        • #5
          Well the phrase crops up here, but I can't imagine Rumbelow misplacing a murder site. She mentions the phrase 'distinguished crime historian' too.


          • #6
            American Anti-Suffragette Misogynist Caricature

            Christopher T. George, Lyricist & Co-Author, "Jack the Musical"
   Hear sample song at

            Organizer, RipperCon #JacktheRipper-#True Crime Conferences, April 2016 and 2018.
            Hear RipperCon 2016 & 2018 talks at