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31 July 2015

If we’re going to confront male violence, perhaps we need a Jack the Ripper museum

Jack the Ripper was not the only man to see women as meat; he merely took this to its logical conclusion.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Jack the Ripper was cool, wasn’t he? The top hat, the swish of the cape, the glint of the surgeon’s knife through the smog – that’s Ripper style! There hasn’t been one like him since.

The Yorkshire Ripper is, by contrast, a disappointment. So ordinary. Almost as though those who slaughter women are men, not monsters. As Joan Smith wrote in Misogynies, “the world is full of men who beat their wives, destroy their self-respect, treat them like dirt”:

They do it because they hate and despise women, because they are disgusted by them, because they need to prove to themselves and to their friends that they are real men. Occasionally, for one in a million, it isn’t enough. Peter Sutcliffe was one of those. But when the trees are so dense, who can with certainty pick out the really rotten timber?

Alas, Peter Sutcliffe was just some bloke. Jack the Ripper, on the other hand, has never been unmasked. He retains his mystique. So let’s make the most of it with a Jack the Ripper hunt round the Edinburgh Dungeon, perhaps also a film or two. Hell, why not open up a whole museum about him, under the guise of offering a “dedicated resource […] to women’s history”? There are enough morbid misogynists, sorry, Ripperologists out there to keep the whole thing in business. Keep killing, Jack. We’ll never get bored.

Even if Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe had not first registered a Jack The Ripper Museum company in 2012, I think by now there can be little doubt that when, in 2014, he pledged to open a museum that would “recognise and celebrate the women of the East End who have shaped history” his idea of “shaping history” was somewhat original, to say the least. It’s not the first and nor will it be the last time that a man has exploited the idea of “celebrating” women to suit his own anti-feminist ends (hello, Hugh Hefner!). That in itself is not particularly shocking. What truly jars is Palmer-Edgecumbe’s attempt at a defence for turning what was meant to be a women’s history museum into a shrine to misogynist killer:

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[The 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.

Of course. It is all about the women. That’s why the museum bears the nickname of an unknown man, not the names of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. That’s why the museum logo shows Jack as a striding figure, his victims reduced to a streak of blood. That’s why we “get to see how Jack might have lived and where he planned his crimes” and to look at “a doctor’s bag, which contains knives similar to those used to kill and mutilate the Ripper’s victims”. That’s why there’s even a mock-up mortuary, with original autopsy photos. I don’t know about you, but if I was sliced to pieces by a woman-hating thug, this isn’t what I’d want my legacy to be.

Still, Palmer-Edgecumbe got one thing right: this museum is not really about the Whitechapel murderer, whoever he was. No one is going to understand the context of his crimes by gawping at photos of the dead. Jack the Ripper was not, as he claimed to be, “from Hell”. He came from the same world in which it is apparently impossible to make women’s lives interesting unless we get to see them on a mortuary slab. He was not the only man to see women as meat; he merely took this to its logical conclusion. “The violence of Jack the Ripper’s crimes still shock[sic] us today” proclaims the website. Really?  It is not as though men have stopped slaughtering women in the most vile ways imaginable; it’s just that none of the recent ones have provided such good cult figure material.

Certainly, the Ripper’s actions were misogynist to the core. He did not just butcher women’s bodies; he honed in on their reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics. He stuck the knife into their otherness. Men still do this today:  Jyoti Singh Pandey, Cindy Gladue, Majella Lynch, all dead because men forced objects into them, tearing them apart. Such actions betray a real, visceral disgust for the penetrable female body. For too many men, women must remain an idea, not a fleshy reality. If they become too solid, carve them up or better yet, have someone else do it for you, providing you can watch.   

In constructing their victor’s narrative of history, men have separated themselves into heroes (real men) and demons (not men at all). There is no space for female activity in this; women can only be killed by the latter or saved by the former. We only have agency once we’re dead. Then suddenly the questions start coming. “How did she get there? What could she have done differently? When she was dealt the hand that is being a woman, how could she have been a better player?” The questions we do not ask are “why did he do it? Why did he, like so many others before him, hate women so much?” He did it, we think, because she was there. Women have this habit of existing, of always being “there” when the demons emerge through the fog.

This week saw Daniel McBride convicted for Majella Lynch’s killing. The Guardian included a feature describing Lynch as a “lost soul”, whose support workers confided that “there is only so much they can do when a woman like Lynch opts to live on the edge of society, drink and open her door to strangers.” As with the Ripper’s victims, the question is not “why did her killer hate women so much?” It is “how did she get there?” But as Gladue and Pandey show, there are many ways to get there. Be an alcoholic loner; be a sex worker in nineteenth-century Whitechapel, or in twenty-first century Alberta; be a student on a bus. Just don’t, whatever you do, be a woman in the world of men.

Perhaps we should forget about “celebrating” women and instead have museums devoted entirely to male violence and misogyny. At least we’d be being honest. It’s something we document every day but always forget to identify; we say it’s “the news” or “a family tragedy” or sometimes even “entertainment.” The sheer mundanity of man-as-perpetrator, woman-as-victim means we can choose not to see the imbalance at all. Indeed, there is outcry if anyone so much as attempts to describe it. We’d rather look at images of women bound, gagged and bleeding than at the raw statistics. Those of us who wish to speak of the gendered nature of violence, in a country where 30% of the female population have experienced some form of domestic abuse since the age of 16, are left feeling like conspiracy theorists for pointing out that which is hiding in plain sight. 

Isn’t it about time we told the truth? Misogyny is the story of men, not women, and we need to tell it plainly. So let’s look at men’s attempts to police female sexuality, their justifications for the mutilation of female bodies, their presumed ownership of women and children, their envy of female reproductive capacities, their appropriation of women’s labour and resources. Let’s look at men’s treatment of women in all of its ugliness, without the top hats, cloaks and suggestive smears of red. Let this be a story about men’s actions and choices, from their widespread acceptance of women’s lower social status to their control of women’s lives via the constant threat of violence. I am happy to put women’s stories to one side if, for once, we tell the true story of those who are not monsters but men.