More rhetorical violence, aka diet advice.

In my never-ending quest to become more smug than Owen Jones, I have discovered the epitome of the middle class problem. I’ve found rhetorical violence in the Waitrose magazine.

To be precise, my housemate, who is a more skilled close reader than I am, found it. She was reading their loosely-disguised ‘women, hate your bodies’ piece on dieting, and found this gem. Under the rubric ‘curb your cravings’, the author writes:

“If you’re in the midst of a craving, remove yourself from the situation. Take a short walk, call a friend or try to distract yourself somehow. Remember that the urgency will pass.”

As my housemate points out, this sort of language and advice is a direct echo of warnings to people about to self-harm. This isn’t particularly funny (we both know people who actually need that serious advice). And it is possible to interpret serious diet malfunctions as a form of self harm, which is something Caitlin Moran (among others) has talked about pretty persuasively. But. It is also manifestly a piece of advice targeted, not at a small group of people in need of serious help, but at a general readership who are feeling faintly guilty about not buying a box of out of season raspberries for £2.50. And, lest you doubt, this general readership are mostly women. Funny, that.

It seems to me that this is related, in a deeply trivial but, also, pretty telling way to other conversations I’ve been hearing about rhetorical violence. By treating not actually reaching for another biscuit as if it required a twelve-step plan and a Crisis team, we’re reducing the communicative capacities of language. If the patriarchy were personified, as he is in my mental cartoons, he’d be the sort of bloke who props up the bar explaining away these women problems: “this male violence they complain about, it’s just hysterical nonsense. Look at the way they talk about reaching for a biscuit”.

It’s a problem, but it’s also a problem because this cosy little snippet in the most middle-class magazine on the planet is normalizing the kind of ‘violence’ women supposedly do to themselves by not feeling sufficiently ashamed of what they eat. It should not sound normal to spend time and energy fighting off a craving for a bag of crisps as if it were something you’d started injecting between your toes. It should sound normal to read this ‘advice’ and snigger in disbelief.

We’re going to make the cake on page 72 now.

‘Everyday Feminism’: Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Except the lesbians.

Image via and

Image via and

The photo above is one you may have seen before. It, and a collection of other photos from the Victorian and Edwardian eras have been collected together here, in 2012, as a tribute to 150 years of women’s history. It’s a lovely picture. I think most people enjoy the idea of looking at something like this and imagining the story behind it. And, it’s fun to try to glimpse a part of history that’s often hard to recover – the lives of women in same-sex relationships before those relationships were socially condoned, let alone celebrated. But, at the same time, it makes me uneasy. The woman who set up the initial collection of photos explains herself carefully, noting that we can’t always know whether women in photos like this – taken so long ago – would have understood themselves to be ‘lesbians’ in any modern sense.

As a medievalist, that’s an issue I encounter, intensified a hundredfold. You simply can’t say that a medieval woman was a lesbian, because sexuality was understood so differently. And – rather appallingly – you might very well find that same-sex desire was understood not as sexuality, but as a deviant and perverted desire amongst women to act like men.

I was thinking about this as I browsed through my news feed. And as I did, I was brought up short by an article in Everyday Feminism.

You may or may not know this site. Its premise is simple: it explains basic, intersectional feminist issues in clear, easy terms. I started following their feed a while ago, in the hope that I could get a sense of what people wanted to know when they started into feminism. Gradually, I’ve been getting more and more depressed, but today was a new low. This title just popped up in my timeline. “An Actual Answer to ‘Why is She Dating a Masculine Women Instead of Just Dating a Guy?‘”

I don’t mind admitting, this isn’t a question whose actual answer I have ever pondered. And it’s not really one of those questions that deserves a serious and lengthy reply. Women who date women do it because they like women. It’s worth noting, as an aside, that treating this as a legitimate question is yet another way of policing women’s activities: women are (implicitly) not entitled to date people just because they want to do that. They need to have Reasons. This is the logic your stalker uses when he asks you why you don’t want to go out with him.

So, strike one against Everyday Feminism.

I went on to read the beginning of the article itself. “Masculinity doesn’t belong to any one gender,” the author began, encouragingly. “Anyone can identify as masculine, masculine of center, or be masculine-presenting. That’s a fact.”

While I was temporarily amused by the idea of a ‘masculine of center’ identity – the Liberal Democrat of the gender studies world, surely the least sexy image ever to cross anyone’s mind – I did have a bigger problem here. We seemed to have gone from women who’re attracted to women, to something else. There is no particularly strong reason, so far as I can see, why certain characteristics should be read as ‘masculine’ rather than ‘lesbian’. Of course, not all lesbians are butch (this is the word I suspect the article figured might be a little tricky to use here). But then, not all men are butch either. And, you know, we are talking about women who’re attracted to women, I have this tiny clue that maybe ‘lesbian’ would be a more obvious term. Right?

Seemingly not. The article goes on to stress once again that this mysterious property that attracts some women to like other women is – amazingly! – the property not just of men, but also of women:

Think of it this way: Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Some of us are shining brightly with masculinity, while others of us shine just a little bit in this respect, or not at all (but we sparkle elsewhere!).

Aww. That’s sweet. Why do I feel as if this sentence should be accompanied by a discreet image of someone throwing blackout curtains over those lesbians in the corner? So that they can ‘sparkle elsewhere’ without distracting us from the masculinity, you know?

In a rather confused way, the article tries to square the circle it’s created. It acknowledges all sorts of good, well-intentioned, comforting things. Heterosexuality shouldn’t be seen as compulsory. We shouldn’t conflate gender and sexuality (true, but not really in evidence in that first paragraph!). Attraction is complex. And, most importantly, it acknowledges that ‘toxic masculinity’ is a real danger to women, and a bad thing for most men. And this is all good, and I think the author really did try here.

But I couldn’t help feeling incredibly depressed, all the same. Your basic History of Sexuality 101 will tell you that this idea of lesbianism as a form of masculinity is actually pretty old. Lesbians were defined not by who they were attracted to, but as defective men. And what the article refers to as ‘masculine-presenting’ lesbians were seen as predatory threats to other women, corrupting influences who tried to supplant men in women’s affections. More recently, and equally offensively, we have the idea of lesbianism as ‘curable’: a condition that just indicates the lack of ‘a good man’. Think a little bit about what this article is saying – ‘masculinity is for everyone, even the lesbians’ – and you’ll see that it’s basically the same message. Don’t be discouraged, ladies: you too can be attracted to the correctly-gendered attribute!

It has taken a very long time for society to begin to entertain the idea that women might be attracted to other women (and men to other men) not through some kind of deviancy or defectiveness, but for positive reasons: because they actually liked other women and wanted to be with them. This article takes a step back towards the 1920s, and in doing so, it erases something that is particular to women, labelling it as a form of masculinity (in some lesbians), or a form of attraction to masculinity (in some women who’re attracted to them).

Now, I don’t usually feel terribly qualified to write about sexuality, because it’s much less to do with my research area than feminism. But in this case, I sort of do know what I’m talking about. I’m attracted to masculine men and butch women, and, oddly enough, I don’t actually think they’re more or less the same. I feel sad that, increasingly, people seem to be embarrassed about using the word lesbian, preferring to use ‘queer’ or ‘gay’. That’s ok as a personal choice – but we do need to think about the history of these terms, how hard-won they are, and how difficult it has been for generations of women to talk about same-sex sexuality. Reducing this to an aspect of ‘masculinity’ shows both a disturbing lack of historical awareness, and a restrictive understanding of why women might be attracted to other women.


I’ve just seen this piece has been quoted on this site, and there’s a fair bit of traffic from them (thank you!). It occurred to me reading the comments that I’d obviously been a bit coy, as it’s not clear from the piece that I am writing as a bisexual woman, and a woman who doesn’t feel that all butch women are necessarily best described as ‘masculine’ (some are happy with that, but others aren’t, and I felt the original piece erased those important distinctions).

I hope that update makes things a little clearer, for people who’re coming to this newly.

Five Wounds: Touching History


I’ve just finished reading my copy of Katherine Edgar’s Tudor novel, Five Wounds. Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it imagines the bloody rebellion against the dissolution of the monasteries from the perspective of a teenage girl. As the north rises in protest, Nan Ellerton is wrenched away from the world she knows by her father, and forced to choose which side she stands on.

The opening line is taken from a Book of Hours, a symbol of the religion Henry’s reforms would ultimately destroy:

Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…

This prayer echoes through the whole book, a reminder of the world that is being swept away. In late medieval England, the Five Wounds of Christ were objects of deep religious emotion. Prayers like this one are found everywhere, from the scribbled margins of cheap prayerbooks to the most expensive and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. One of the first manuscripts I ever touched – the bizarre, home-made Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 – contains not only prayers to the Five Wounds, but also a crudely-sketched image of a shield. It contains the four wounds to Christ’s limbs and the fifth heart in the centre, drawn with little dashes around the edges, as if they were stitched onto a banner. In other manuscripts there are vivid, blood-red images of the wound pierced through Christ’s side, sometimes rubbed away by devout readers who touched, and even kissed, the page.

Magic figures and the Wound of Christ from a prayer roll

London, British Library, Harley MS T. 11. Prayer Roll with Wound of Christ

What strikes me about this prayer is that, in picturing Christ’s wounds, it pictures something that is empty space, a rent in the body. It tries to make tangible that which is by definition intangible: an opening where no opening should be. And that’s how history itself often seems to work. We look back into the past and try to touch it, to feel it, to make it seem real. We try to overcome its intangibility. Five Wounds achieves this perfectly, making you want to reach out and touch Nan’s world.

The great thing about good historical fiction is the way it teaches you without you even noticing – especially if you read it as a child or a teenager. I must have been nine or ten when I first read Cynthia Harnett’s A Load of Unicorn – so, slightly younger than the intended audience of Five Wounds – and a passing description of medieval printing and paper-making stayed with me, detailed enough that it’s still what I have at the forefront of my mind when I’m reading about real medieval book culture. The detail in Five Wounds has this blend of painstaking accuracy and lightness of touch. I liked that a minor lord’s name links him to a manuscript of Handlyng Synne that still exists; a relic kept by women stands for a whole culture of medieval piety. You don’t have to puzzle out these links, but they’re there if you recognize them – or there for you to recognize later on – and that’s what makes this world seem real enough to touch.

You can read an extract of Five Wounds here.

Rhetorical Violence and Actual Violence (trigger warning)

I’m reading a lot about rape at the moment, which makes me an exceptionally cheerful person to be around. Specifically, I’m reading about rape in medieval romance, but it’s hard to separate that from contemporary debates about violence, and rhetoric, which seem to be everywhere at the moment. So, I’m writing this to try to set out some of my thoughts. I’m going to start by talking about an academic article and a medieval text, but I think what I’m saying isn’t just relevant to academia or medievalists.

The article that’s been nagging away at me is in many ways a great read. It’s amazingly detailed in its close reading; it’s full of insight about the influence of Biblical hermeneutics on medieval romance.* It’s also fifteen years old, so I am sure there are things that might have been written differently now. But, it bothered me.

The author, Monica Brzezinski Potkay, is talking about the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a romance in which a married lady exerts some considerable pressure on a man to sleep with her. She surprises him as he’s naked in bed, and – as Potkay points out – she draws on the romance convention of treating rape as a normal form of interaction between men and women to imply, archly, that he could force her to have sex if he wanted.

This is quite disturbing for modern readers. But Potkay’s point is not about the suggested rape – which doesn’t happen – but about the rhetoric of the romance in general. She makes reference to Saint Jerome’s predictably misogynistic comparison of a person interpreting Scriptural text to a man forcibly ripping off a woman’s clothing in order to sleep with her. This, she explains, is also offered as a mode of interpretation in the romance text, with the hero, Gawain, attempting to ‘interpret’ the women he meets through this form of figurative rape. Yet, the text performs a ‘critique’ of this mode of interpretation, empowering its female characters with the capacity to interpret for themselves. Thus:

Sir Gawain can teach that men should acknowledge and beware the violence concealed in their own behavior, for that violence can be turned against them. The rapist can easily become raped.”

There are two things going on here. The first is the structure of the text, and the kind of interpretation it invites: this, as Potkay argues and as many people would agree, shows the women of the romance to be rather more skilled than the hero in controlling the twists and turns of narrative. The second, however, is that metaphor of rape. As a metaphor for textual interpretation, it has plenty of interest, and Potkay is, of course, doing nothing so crude as to think literally about raped women raping men.

Yet, still, that claim bothered me. The rapist can easily become raped. Easily? Raped? Well, no. In the space of that romance, in medieval culture, in modern culture, women do not ‘easily’ rape their rapists. Nor do I find it easy to imagine anyone would want to. There is a gendered structure to sexual violence, which is not easily flipped around, as if both men and women were equal. At this point, then the metaphor fails: if interpretation of a text is something that can be gender-flipped without unsettling the underlying gender hierarchy, then no, it is not like rape.

This is a point which, I suspect, plenty of queer theorists would find deeply crude and unsubtle. You don’t understand. She doesn’t mean it literally. She’s just opening up the transgressive possibilities of the text. The term ‘rape’ isn’t meant that way. It’s only rhetorically violent.

Yes: this is all true. But, it is also true that, in this article, the word rape has ceased to mean what it means. It has ceased to be a useful term for describing that act, and has instead become just one more way to imply that gender hierarchies can be playfully flipped over.

My title for this post might seem a problem to some. Rhetorical violence is, after all, difficult to separate from ‘actual’ violence: should we even make a distinction? After all, most people will know what it’s like to read something and feel a very real physical response to it: pulse leaping, hands shaking, the works. And it’s not just about personal responses: the very fact that a debate exists about whether there are ‘grey areas’ in rape, itself contributes to keeping alive the view that there are grey areas, and perpetuates rape. A conversation about whether or not women lie about rape gives rapists crucial cover to do what they do. And so on. These are not ‘performative acts’ of speech, speeches that enact what they describe, such as saying ‘I do’ at a wedding. But their consequences can be measured quite directly in the real world. And what is at stake, in some rhetoric, is not the fictional power structure in a medieval romance, but the real relationships between living people.

So, why distinguish between rhetorical violence and actual violence? My difficulty with Potkay’s article (and with this debate more widely) is that I know who is allowed to interpret text. If I say, this article is rhetorically violent, that it is using the concept of rape in a way that contributes to rape culture and makes it harder for us to talk about the gendered power structure behind the act, then I will be held to be ‘misinterpreting’. I will be told I do not understand the subtle nuances of Potkay’s use of the term ‘rape’ in this context. And yet, that’s not a criticism everyone is expected to take.

Something I have found difficult, recently, has been the response to the letter in the Observer about debate in universities, which I signed. It’s a tiny, tiny issue if you’re not in certain circles, and a rather bigger one if you are (as Mary Beard found out). I haven’t kept up with all of the responses, partly because there were many signatories (many of whom I don’t know personally, and some I’m proud to say I do know). But I have noticed that a common response has been to characterise this letter, and the debates it discusses, as literally violent. Not rhetorically violent, but violent in the way a performative speech act might be violent, or even violent in a direct physical sense. Discussing the Nordic model (the context here is sex work, if you’re not familiar), for example, is characterised as a form of violence that ‘endangers lives’ (I’m quoting Marika Rose, who spoke to me about this on twitter, but similar phrases were flying about everywhere). In this context, there is no ‘interpretation’ to be done: the gap between rhetorical and actual violence has closed up fast, for there’s no comeback to people repeatedly telling you there mere fact you have spoken, is violence.

Patently, these two attitudes towards ‘rhetorical’ violence should not be able to coexist. The one presumes the speaker’s perfect right to define the terms of debate, and to describe any violence in language as merely rhetorical, and therefore beyond the reach of critique. Thus, I am misinterpreting Potkay: violence is only rhetorical. The other presumes that the mere act of speaking is, in itself, actual violence, and no amount of interpretation can change this. In my experience, an awful lot of people seem to hold both positions simultaneously, and so the position from which we can speak becomes wafer-thin.

The result is the more general application of the specific problem Potkay’s article gives rise to. Just as, there, rape becomes something we can no longer properly name, something divorced from its social context, so too here, violence becomes impossible to pin down, impossible to name. And that means it’s impossible to fight.


* Monica Brzezinski Potkay, ‘The Violence of Courtly Exegesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, inRepresenting Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 97-124.

To be clear: I don’t believe (honestly) that discussion of the Nordic model does do violence to women. Nor do I even believe supporting it does violence to women. I’m not sure I’m right here, and I wouldn’t set myself up as such. But, I think my views here are less important than the shape of this wider issue of how we communicate about rhetorical and actual violence.