Culture | In defense of Jane Doe

Shannon Stewart addresses the Pickton murders through poetry

Halloween has come and gone, and many of you probably dressed up as a “slutty nurse/librarian/maid,” hot vamp, pimp’s ho, boudoir-inspired courtesan – or even an original instance of man’s plaything. Spooky.

Perhaps it made you feel sexy, uninhibited, free – if only for the night. And amidst all the candy and alcohol, you might not have stopped to think about the real implications of the identity you adopted, or how oppressive your costume actually is.

And I don’t just mean the corset.

The truth is, we rarely stop and think about the meaning behind sex roles that women are placed in. With at least nine deaths a year, prostitution has become the most dangerous job in Canada. STDs aside, sex workers are threatened daily with assault, rape, and murder. And, taking “sex work” off the streets and into the home, we never consider how the social perspective of prostitutes can, and does, affect all women’s sexuality.

Vancouver poet Shannon Stewart addresses these issues in Penny Dreadful, her second collection of poems. Named after the genre of cheap 19th century sensationalist magazines, the poems starkly centre on the dangers of prostitution, specifically the Robert Pickton trial and the 49 prostitutes that he maimed and murdered. The first five poems portray the extremely lurid facts: how Pickton brought these women to his pig farm in Coquitlam, killed and butchered them, and fed them to his boars; how he then brought their remains to a fat-rendering plant on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, where he disposed of whatever was left.

These opening poems are named after places in and around Vancouver where Pickton did his work. Titles like “Pickton Pig Farm: 953 Dominion Avenue” and “Westcoast Reduction Ltd: 105 North Commercial Drive” place these horrifying events within the normalcy of a city or suburb.

These poems do not need analysis. They read straightforwardly and don’t use traditional poetic techniques, but rely instead on blunt details: lines like “entrails, bones, blood” evoke the horror of Pickton’s actions. And that’s what makes these poems so important – almost 50 women were killed and defiled in one of Canada’s biggest cities, and no one cared.

Women continue to be tortured and murdered in our cities, and we don’t acknowledge it, but just “read past / headlines so obscene” and revert back to our day. Stewart reveals this in the succeeding poems, in which she describes instances of daily life and how something like the Pickton massacres can, does, and should seep into our own worlds.

This is especially the case for women, who continually define and redefine their sexuality against either degrading or confining scripts. Stewart targets a few in the succeeding poems: cow, slut, bitch, whore, girl next door, debutante, and even the anonymous “Jane”, a name that pertains to ten different women, including Yeats’ prostitute and one of Pickton’s unknown Jane Doe victims. These are the roles that women are pressured to move between. None are self-determined.

So when it comes to women, Stewart’s point is this: no matter who the woman is, so much of her disappears in the role that she is confined to. In the extreme case of Pickton’s victims, the consequences are physical. But a similar principle applies to every woman, in subtler ways. So the next time you find yourself deciding what kind of woman you want to be – if only for the night – define the type for yourself.

Penny Dreadful is available from Véhicule Press for $16.