Literary insights - 28: The Wife of Bath

Day 28, book 28: An exploration of gender power struggles in the middle ages that reminds us how backward most marketing still is when it comes to the female psyche.

Literary insights - 28: The Wife of Bath

Today it’s Chaucer and one of the best known Canterbury Tales – The Wife of Bath.

The famous anomaly of this particular tale is the length of the prologue in relation to the tale itself. The eponymous Alison is a 40-something on her fifth husband, and her fruity preamble describes her libidinal relay between sex and marriage and the mastery she has acquired along the way. It reveals the economics of wedlock in the middle ages; the brutal pragmatism of sexual relationships; and the secular logic by which the institution of marriage and the teachings of the bible were reconciled with the relentless carnality of human existence. Alison’s experience leads us to conclude that mastery of a husband is ultimately the goal, and as such it is one of the richest and earliest explorations of the gender power struggle.

All of which very deliberately sets up the Arthurian morality tale that follows. A knight rapes a maiden, and Guinevere intervenes to spare him on the condition that he solve a riddle that has plagued marketers to this day: "What is the thing that women most desire?"

The knight sets off on a year-long quest to find the answer. He finds no consensus, but the answers range from "jollity and pleasure", "fun in bed" and "gorgeous clothes" to "honour", being "cosseted and flattered", and having the (partly economic) good fortune "to be oft widowed and remarried". More telling answers (based on the story time they earn) include "the freedom to do exactly as we please with no one to reprove our faults and lies" and the observation that "women find it sweet / When we are thought dependable, discreet".

Resonant though some of these suggestions may have been, no unifying theory emerges, and the knight heads back to court expecting certain death. On the way home he encounters an old hag whose wisdom and ugliness are in direct proportion and she tells him what women want, on the condition that he does as she asks. 

Chaucer constructs a clever moment here in which a man can learn what women really want so long as he promises to do what a woman really wants. Insight like this, coming from the 14th century, makes me wonder how much progress has actually been made these past 700 years. All too often marketers ask women what they want in order to gain permission to do what marketers really want.

The answer given – and his life is spared when no woman in the focus group of Queen Guinevere’s court can disagree with it – is that "A woman wants the same self-sovereignty / Over her husband as over her lover, / And master him; he must not be above her."

Far back in those primitive and pestilent days, the truth about gender equality had already surfaced. Anyone working on a female brand should read The Wife of Bath and ask themselves, as they journey from one respondent to the next, and as they find new ways of declaring the empowerment of women, whether in fact women have always been the stronger sex, and whether the weakness of women is a myth imposed by men and perpetuated by businesses whose products are designed to exploit it.

There are a few brilliant exceptions – a handful of brands that have gone beyond the myths and the generalizations and the centuries-old platitudes and have profoundly understood the feminine condition – and the reason these brands have been so richly rewarded is that most others are happy fine-tuning the dismal revelation that women, nowadays, are so much more than medieval chattel.

Giles Hedger is the chief strategy officer at Leo Burnett London & Worldwide.
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