Lesbian Anxieties, Queer Erasures: The Problem with Terms Like ‘Subversive Femme’

The paper I recently gave at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Canterbury was titled – after much thought – ‘Walled Desire and Lesbian Anxiety in Chaucer’s “Legend of Thisbe”‘. It should be out in The Chaucer Review before too long, but for the moment, I want to think about that second term: ‘lesbian anxiety,’ which has proved to be a topical one in much wider context that I could have anticipated when I responded to the Call For Papers.

My work is, obviously, mostly about medieval England, centuries before anyone (still less a mainstream writer such as Chaucer) thought to fling around a term like ‘lesbian’ with the cheerful abandon of a BBC blurb for a Sarah Waters adaptation.

The category of women I’m looking at are difficult to recognize. They are fictional women in mainstream literature, and therefore we don’t see them engaging in actual same-sex sex. They aren’t, on the whole, gender nonconforming in overt ways – like, for example, the cross-dressing heroines of earlier French romances, who frequently end up in flirtations with, or even in bed with, women – and, even if they were, gender nonconformity isn’t a particularly good litmus text of medieval female preferences for same-sex desire anyway. There’s a strong tradition, as Karma Lochrie has shown, of medieval onlookers interpreting ‘masculine’ behaviours and activities in women the result of imbalanced humours, easily found in women such as the cheerfully cougarish Wife of Bath. And after all, what we recognize as ‘female masculinity’ is heavily socially conditioned in the first place. So, how do I identify – and write about – women whose same-sex desire is revealed through suggestions and innuendos that are anything but ‘queer,’ either in the popular sense of uniting same-sex desire with gender nonconformity, or in the academic sense of being boldly subversive and disruptive? It’s hard, and my recent conference paper succeeded (I think!) in demonstrating that there’s a difficulty, without giving me a concrete answer to the problem.

No sooner had I written it, than I came across the Slate’s thought-provoking series of articles, published recently, on the contested subject of the word ‘lesbian,’ and particularly, Christian Cauterucci’s piece. I wish I’d seen this before I gave my paper, because it’s such a good illustration of the sorts of political and social (as opposed to academic) viewpoints I’m navigating as I figure out what terminology to use. I’ve seen some readers pretty furious with this piece. Cauterucci begins with a long anecdote about her recent history of sneering at groups of lesbians and, with a friend, making rude gestures at them, and I do find it slightly disingenuous that she attempts to explain this away by claiming that she perceived herself to be more cosmopolitan, more politically aware, than the women she was bullying. But, I do think she’s probably being quite honest about the way a lot of young women feel.

Of course there’s an argument to be made – and Cauterucci makes it – for not using ‘lesbian’ if the term doesn’t describe your situation. At the conference I’ve just been attending, a fellow delegate made this precise point: as a bisexual woman, ‘lesbian’ isn’t appropriate, and ‘queer’ can be a more useful descriptor. And I do very much like Cauterucci’s [friend’s] well-expressed point, that ‘lesbian’ potentially ‘implies a kind of sameness she doesn’t see in her relationship or those of her peers’. I think I would quibble that this implication is more overt in the term homosexual (in which, pace my dad, the homo is not the Latin for ‘man’ but the Greek for ‘same’). But it is a useful and interesting point, and chimes in with the experience some people report, of their hormone therapy shifting their sexual attraction in terms of the gender to whom they’re attracted, but remaining steady as a preference for perceived ‘sameness’. But where do you locate someone whose same-sex desire is not continuous with gender nonconformity, or even, someone for whom gender identity is experienced as an externally imposed construct?

Cauterucci struggles, too, with some of the same issues I experience in my work. She draws attention to the lack of any terminology covering ‘all of those who are not [privileged group]’ that does not, simultaneously, blur the differing identities of those different people into one homogeneous mass. See, for example, the Green Party’s infamous decision to plump for ‘non-men’ and the unfortunate coinage ‘non-white’.

But something that’s rather awkwardly handled in the piece is history. Cauterucci claims that the term lesbian confers the benefits of ‘a strong identity and legacy,’ whereas she understands her preferred terms – ‘queer,’ qualified later with ‘butch/femme’ – as ‘starting from scratch’. This is quite a short view of history. As a mainstream term, ‘lesbian’ is a newcoming: it’s just about within living memory that women (or a certain, upperclass set of women …) preferred ‘sapphic,’ and Sarah Waters’ novels give a gorgeous sense of the rich variety of appellations for women engaging in various same-sex activities.

All of these terms, too, come with implicit alignments to differing configurations of class, race, and geography: ‘butch/femme,’ for example, has strong ties to working-class women: there’s a sharp irony in the contrast between Cauterucci’s account of her own belittling of ‘lesbian’ women, and the scene in the film If these Walls Could Talk 2, where a group of young, politicized lesbians loudly mock the butch/femme couples they stumble across in a local bar. Young, privileged women presume that older, less privileged women have it all wrong and couldn’t possibly be political: plus ça change.

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Still from If These Walls Could Talk 2. I really wanted the image of the middle-aged butch women looking angry at being mocked, but guess how easy that is to find?

Much of Cauterucci’s identity politics, as she describes it, is grounded in self-presentation: performance, clothing, appearance. In particular, I was caught by her use of the term (much beloved of queer theorists everywhere), ‘subversive’: she locates herself in a culture of ‘dapper butches and subversive femmes’.

At this point, it’s relevant that I came into feminism from a second-wave context, from women whose work began during the second wave and is ongoing, and from women whose work has evolved out of that context (rather than beginning after it, or in conscious and complete opposition to it). And that’s still the context I draw on a lot of the time, although obviously I discard what I don’t find useful and incorporate plenty of other things. One thing I do find unfailingly helpful is the analysis of social pressures on women to perform femininity, and especially, the unpicking of all the subliminal messages that coerce women to spent time, energy, money and (crucially!) anxiety on presenting an acceptably ‘feminine’ face to the world. Of course, this is a difficult message to accept. We all want to think we make free choices – or, better, that our performances of femininity are somehow different from those sheep-like Victorian women strapping themselves into corsets, or those docile Chinese mothers binding their daughters’ feet. And the market colludes with us in this desire, telling us that performances of femininity are ‘self care,’ ‘pampering,’ ‘me-time,’ or selling them as opportunities for feminine bonding. Indeed, because women have always carved out spaces for themselves from the structures forced upon them, there genuinely is overlap between a site in which women perform socially-mandated practices of femininity (such as the nail salon or the waxing salon), and sites where women do bond, share, and support one another.

These considerations do remind us that we are in the middle of an ongoing process, and cannot extricate ourselves from the accommodations we make with the patriarchy. But I think they do not detract from the basic point to be made about performances of femininity, which might best be summed up in Audre Lorde’s words: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

Despite being resolutely un-‘woke’ (and, being white and British, un-keen on appropriating that terminology anyway), I can picture what a ‘femme,’ even a ‘subversive femme’ might look like, and it doesn’t look very different from how I’ve been dressing for the last few days, for an entirely conventional (and rather lovely) academic conference. I know this because of the volume of people who are keen to tell me so. I enjoy my dresses and heels and backseam stockings and so on. I’m very glad the 1950s is currently mainstream fashion and that seamed stockings are no longer remotely ‘alternative’. And I am quite happy with the idea that this fashion repurposes the trappings of a decade mythologised as the quintessential era of patriarchal conditioning of women (the ‘1950s housewife), and gives them a distinctly un-surrended-wife connotation.

But, for me, this isn’t ‘subversive,’ not only because the myth of the 1950s is just that (and rather insulting to femininst trailblazers of the 1950s), but also because I struggle to interpret anything yoked together with a term cognate with ‘femininity’ as ‘subversive’.

If you do, that’s fine. But I don’t. The power dynamics remind me a bit of Tison Pugh’s introduction to his Queering Medieval Genres (which I feel it’s ok to criticize a little as it’s now nearly fifteen years old and superseded by his more recent work). Pugh anchors his analysis of ‘queering’ in comparisons to modern identity politics and experience – implicitly, the politics and experience of men, although he occasionally tacks on an ‘… and women’ when he remembers. He explains how a ‘queer’ dynamic can disrupt existing power structures, using this example:

‘In the wake of recent anti-gay violence (“fag-bashing”) in several urban centres, homosexuals adopted a slogan of resistance: “Fags bash back.” In this reconfiguration of the semantic powerlessness embedded in the phrase “fag-bashing,” homosexuals warn potential attackers that violence is not only the tool of their oppressors.’

Only, they don’t. Pugh argues that ‘fags bash back,’ but the precise point of the slogan is that they do not: police did not repel armies of gay men (for it is men to whom Pugh primarily refers) as they marched on Klan headquarters and Westboro Baptist Church with pickaxes and claw hammers. The power of the slogan ‘fags bash back’ lies in the implicit defiance directed inwards, to other members of the same community, as reassurance ‘we have not been silenced. We will not be cowed’. As such resistance, the slogan is effective. It is community-building. It is affirmative. But it is not a reconfiguration of powerlessness – even semantic – for it depends upon all hearers and readers knowing that no violence is proposed.

These same seems to me to be true of some of Cauterruci’s arguments about a ‘queer’ identity. In theory, being a ‘dapper butch’ or a ‘subversive femme’ might change people’s ideas about gender, about the inevitability of aligning femininity with heterosexuality, about the nature of masculinity … but, in practice, I think often the questions raised are raised only to a particular audience. I’ve seen, far too often, women vibrantly, emphatically, obviously projecting ‘queer’ identities only for the straight man in the room to ask, mystified, ‘but how on earth could you guess she was gay?’ I am not convinced, then, that it’s possible to be terribly ‘subversive’ in the way Cauterruci seems to envisage, and I think by focusing so much on subversion and on the politics of antagonism against other groups of women, she misses an important trick.

What women do share – and share, I’m sure, with plenty of other ‘non-men’ (to use Cauterruci’s wryly-acknowledged-as-inadequate terminology) – is a capacity to recognise hints and cues and covert indications of which the aforementioned straight man in the room is blissfully ignorant. If you like analogies, it’s a little similar to the way in which prey animals are honed to recognise subtle cues invisible to predator animals, simply because their lives depend upon it. This is fantastically effective as a means of constructing a community, and a community that exploits the unintended positive flipside of the privileged group’s lack of attention. We fly under the radar. It’s a bit the same when I meet up with my colleague, and I admire her dapper bowtie and she compliments my Frieda Kahlo-print ’50s dress. We bond, and part of that bond is rooted in the unspoken fact that we are noticing each other’s very different modes of participation in a shared, invisible dialogue. Most people don’t really notice these details and certainly don’t catch any cultural references we might attach – so there’s not much we’re ‘subverting’ – but we certainly are benefiting from sharing a perception of different ways of being different.

This reminds me, once again, of Audre Lorde and of the power of terminology and difference. Yesterday, I saw a tweet celebrating Lorde as a ‘queer’ writer and a righteously fierce backlash against it. Lorde is someone who has written thoughtfully, provocatively, lovingly, extensively, about the word ‘lesbian’ and its meanings. I have come across her using the term ‘queer’ to describe other people’s perceptions of her (notably, the Harlem Writers’ Guild), but not as a term she owned for herself. And self-definition was important to her. As she says, ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive’. In Sister Outsider, she writes poignantly and brilliantly about the ways definitions that recognize selfhood do not exclude, but expand:

When I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining’.

We do not all have to subsume our identities into a single definition: we can use different definitions (and different identities) that allow us to see a wider picture and to participate in a bigger conversation.

 

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Note: when you google ‘subversive femme,’ you will come across a truly delightful sewing blog, by the eponymous subversive femme, and I want to make clear I think it’s awesome and brilliant and not remotely the target of any comments here.

I am aware, too, that ‘subversive femme’ as a term has a much broader set of meanings than either Cauterruci or I claim for it here: this is not accidental, as I suspect that the watering-down of specific political statements into a more nebulous ‘queer’ vocabulary is part of the problem I am dealing with.

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Technologies of Touch and Queer Errors

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London, BL MS Royal 17 E VII 1, f. 247r (detail)


‘Reading medieval manuscripts … begins with the noise of the cover opening, depending on how tight and in what (boards, leather, velvet) the volume is bound, and with the dry sound of leather leaves touching each other. Light diffuses in opaque, milky, soft vellum but glances off stiffer, buttery parhment. The pigments capture and imprison the light, but even a hairline of gold sharply ricochets it back. … There is also a soft irregularity, as with a dollop of cream – although the ground is usually tinted red with minium, giving the gold its characteristic warmth. In comparison, gold applied directly to the page as dust or leaf looks somehow modern, like a house with a flat roof. Plants, seeds, slugs, trellises are painted directly over the gold ground, wasting swaths of it, except for a brief period after the gilder applied it and before the painter got his hands on it, a period confined by the workshop. … Then, there are the cuts and holes. Small slits allow the sinews of the binding to slide through. Regularly spaced pockmarks set the grid for the ruling or,far less frequently, mark a pattern copied from the master. Ink, if incompetently prepared, eats into the page. …’

Manuscripts are, apparently (and like so many things), ‘queer’. Queer in the Queer Theory sense, that is: queer as in ‘other’ or ‘strange’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘transgressive’, opposed to – and perhaps even capable of annihilating – the norm.

When I heard this statement made (and contested) at NCS this year, I immediately thought of the passage above. This gorgeously sensory description comes from a much longer set of passages in Anna Kłosowska’s book, Queer Love in the Middle Ages, in which she introduces a fascinating, speculative discussion of the complicated, layered, mutable ways in which we perceive and understand sexuality, with this passage on the precise tactile and visual experience of reading a medieval manuscript book. Kłosowska’s prose is both a virtuoso display of how to evoke sensory experience and also a practical demonstration of the value of seemingly tiny, decorative or curious details, to tell us about the lived experience of medieval scribes, illuminators, booksellers, book readers, and even the dismembered medieval cows and sheep whose skins form that disturbingly human-feeling surface on which all of this is written. It’s a sharp piece of writing, capturing the defiant but defining desire to touch the skin that marks out all confirmed medieval bibliophiles who’ve ever risked the wrath of a hovering librarian, and suggestively segueing from this into a discussion of a different kind of defiant-but-defining desire to touch skin that is socially verboten.

At the NCS conference this year, papers by Zach Stone and James Sargan got me thinking more about the way different surfaces and materials – not just vellum or parchment, gold leaf or brown ink, but also print as opposed to manuscript, modern print as opposed to medieval print, and digital media as opposed to hard copy – invite different kinds of touching, and militate against others. Manuscript ink, for example, is typically oak gall ink (as James observed). Printers’ ink, by contrast, is a much thicker, stickier substance. A nice illustration of the odd, back-handed ways we learn things is that I learned this detail, in the first place, from Cynthia Harnett, who wrote children’s fiction in the 1950s. With her novelist’s sensitivity to the way touch and materiality inform our experiences of the past, she picked up on details literary scholars were – I think it’s fair to say – rather less interested in at the time.

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Glasgow, Hunterian Library, Sp. Coll. BV. 2. 30, f. 17v (detail)

Rather like Kłosowska, Harnett delves into the finished product (in her case, Caxton’s printed edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur) to think about the technologies behind that product and the lives and experiences of the people making it. She describes how a medieval printing press required at least two pairs of hands in the process: one, to cover the forms (letters) with sticky ink and the other – with clean hands – to lay the pristine sheet carefully over the top without smudging its surface. Print ink, therefore, militates against casual touching. It segments the production process in a way that manuscripts don’t absolutely have to, requiring a division of labour.

It’s tempting to interpret that resistance to touch, and that division of labour, as a form of ‘control,’ or even ‘policing’. We could say that the technology of print constrains makers, alienating them from the intimate, skin-to-skin contact experienced by the medieval scribes Kłosowska describes in such sensory detail. We could understand this process of the necessary division of the labour of in printing as a form of early mass production (which printing is, though the difference between print and manuscript really isn’t as big as you’d think, given manuscript makers were perfectly capable of farming out the illumination, rubrication and so on to someone else). We could – thinking back to Kłosowska’s seductive, suggestive parallel between the touching of pages and the touching of human skin – read this mode of production as an finger-wagging response to the lovely, messy, too-keen desires to touch, stroke, lift, pierce and limn manuscript pages.

It should not shock you to discover that (pre-empting the inevitable), no, I don’t think this makes manuscripts ‘queer’ and print culture a horrible, controlling, hegemonic impulse dedicated to straightening out their tactile quirks. But I know why that reading’s tempting – and it’s because it lets us map onto medieval technologies some of the drama of histories of sexuality, and (if we are manuscript scholars or people who love looking at, and hoping to touch, medieval manuscripts) it lets us place ourselves on the side of the angels, aligned with the tactile, queer, erotic technology and bravely opposed to the restricting regime of print. It lets us construct a sort of reverse-teleology of technologies, where the medieval represents sophisticated postmodern brilliance and every subsequent technological form becomes that bit more restrictive, one-dimensional, colourless and – we medievalists imply smugly – dull.

I have a bit of a problem with this, which I can best illustrate by thinking about how an academic, five hundred years from now, might look at today’s digital technologies.

We’re inclined to think of the digital as impermeable, untouched and untouchable, all surface. But information about it is laid down in the body. If a forensic archaeologist working five hundred years from now found my body, he or she would be able to identify the muscle attachments – the grooves in the bone – that show that I regularly type on a keyboard; moreover, that this keyboard has a bias towards certain letters. Even if no such keyboard survived, with those bones and a working knowledge of the letter distributions in the English language, you could have a fair crack at figuring out what it might have looked like. You could work backwards, as Kłosowska does, as Harnett does, to reconstitute the ways twenty-first century people touched and typed and sat and moved as they read, just as you can with a medieval manuscript.

In celebrating – maybe (and I think Kłosowska is getting at this, too) even fetishising the tactile and the sensory in medieval culture, we forget that we’re not untouchable in our own technologies. We’re not invisible readers and writers, leaving no traces. And we can’t easily conceal the sleights of hand that satisfy liberal desires to identify with the ‘queer’ – the other, the disadvantaged, the disruptive – while still allowing us to study the remarkably expensive products of a predictably narrow and privileged medieval elite.

 

Check out my post for the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon Project

I am really thrilled to have been invited to write a blog post for the fantastic Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project, which is a hugely exciting and interesting research network, and which runs a blog that is very well worth following (for other people, you know – I’m not actually just bigging myself up here, honest). Anyway, I would love it if you would check out my post, and indeed the whole blog and project, which you will find through the same link.

The Not-So-Mysterious Female Orgasm, Medieval Clitorises, and the Definition of Sex

A couple of weeks ago, I read the following exchange, posted on the facebook page of a social group to which I belong. One of the social group women reported how her daughter replied to a question put to her class during PSHE:

Teacher: “What can a woman do to not get pregnant when having sex?”
Child: “Not do it with a man?”

I enjoyed this. And the comment was still in my mind when I read this article, published in the Guardian yesterday. The headline – which is a fair representation of the way this particular bit of ‘news’ was reported everywhere else – is the awe-inspiringly confidence-inducing claim, “Mystery of the Female Orgasm May Be Solved”. While biting back the uncharitable question to whom this phenomenon is supposed to be a mystery, I was still left with the suspicion that this ‘solution’ might not be quite as groundbreaking as it was represented. I’m not that likely to pay attention to this kind of news story – only in part because I get irritated with the intersection between science and misogynistic guesswork, and mostly because I’m absent-minded – and I’m still pretty sure I’ve seen several versions of the ‘female orgasm mystery solved’ storyline over the years. I’ve seen theories about production of oxytocin and bonding, about muscle movements aiding the movement of semen, and about identification of a physically well-matched partner. Strangely, though – mysteriously, even – no matter how often one of these theories hits the headlines (and hit the headlines they do, because it’s Weird Sex Facts About Women, innit), it always seems to have dribbled wetly out of the popular consciousness and been scooped up by the tissue of collective memory loss by the time the next one comes along.

It’s almost as if there’s some kind of socio-cultural vested interest in preserving the idea of female orgasms as 1) mysterious and 2) almost totally useless, isn’t it?

But, to the article itself. “The purpose of the euphoric sensation has long puzzled scientists,” it begins confidingly, “as it is not necessary for conception” – at this point, just to be a pedant, I will point out that male orgasms are not, strictly necessary for conception, as anyone who has googled the perils of the pull-out method will be aware. But I understand where they’re going, until the sentence continues, “… and is often not experienced during sex itself”.

Now, since my mum occasionally reads this blog, this would be the point at which I deny all knowledge of the meaning of the word “sex” and take recourse to the dictionary. Or, I would if I didn’t already know what a wide range of them, and a wide range of irritated feminist academics who write about language, say. Defining “sex” as “the activity during which a man ejaculates” is remarkably common, and remarkably convenient for the hetero-patriarchy. As this blog over on (Re)Marks on the History of Sexuality fascinatingly explains, for prolonged periods of time extending well into living memory, people have found ways of defining “sex” such that it excludes acts that the participants in those acts – notoriously including Bill Clinton – would much prefer to think of as “not sex”. The child’s comeback to her teacher quoted at the top of this post illustrates how unconsciously we accept this interpretation in everyday life: although few polite, politically-correct people in Western Europe would, if asked, consciously define “sex” as something only heterosexual and/or male people can have, the default assumption is that “sex” involves a male orgasm. And thus, the Guardian can casually make the assumption that, whatever defines “sex itself,” it is not a female orgasm.

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Not the Female Orgasms. Image from Besancon, Bibliotheque municipale, MS 0457, f. 273v (Avicenna, Canon medicinae)

The idea that female orgasms – and, indeed, female anatomy, notably the clitoris – are the subjects of ever-more-recent discovery, is a popular one. Certainly, the biographical apocrypha surrounding a remarkably diverse catalogue of rather prudish and/or sexist Historical Men include stories of how John Knox, or John Milton, or Charles Dickens, or Todd Akin, had unfortunate sexual experiences of their female partners shaking, juddering and trembling during intercourse and withdrew in profound concern for said female partner’s wellbeing. In reality, though, the literature discussing female orgasms goes back a long way. I know this, because one of the perks of my job is that I’ve spent the last few days reading up on medieval men’s medical and didactic descriptions of how to bring a woman to orgasm. They’re (un?)surprisingly sound, and matter-of-fact.

Medieval authors also discussed the topic from an anatomical standpoint, and identified several (mostly fairly bizarre) roles for the clitoris and other ladyparts. The author Galen – a huge authority, who clearly deserves to be credited as the original inventor of the concept of vajazzling – claimed that the labia were worn “for the sake of ornament,” but that they also (unlike vajazzling) served a practical purpose: to keep the uterus from becoming too cold. Galen interprets the euphemistically named ‘nymph’ (clitoris – the term was used by other medieval medics, too) as another kind of miniature heating element, also designed to keep women’s bits from getting too cold. For a malfunctioning clitoris, he prescribes some necessary manual stimulation designed to result in the all-important heating effects of orgasm, whilst also warning against the potentially scandalous involvement of a man in this manual stimulation. To avoid any hint of deviancy, one should (of course) engage the services of a responsible and skilled woman, such as a midwife.

These prescriptions concerned what we might think of as ‘normal’ medieval women, but – according to Karma Lochrie, whose book Heterosyncrasies is my source for much of this post – authors rarely turned a hair when they came to discuss what the more prudish amongst us would probably like to think of as unusual medieval women. Early Modern writers, later on, would interpret lesbianism as a disorder with biological origins, an innate deviancy whose identifying symptom was an abnormally large clitoris. But in medieval writings, there are a number of medical texts that describe, in quite pragmatic terms, the problems arising for women with over-sized clitorises, as there are for women who did not menstruate, and for women whose bodily functions and high sex drives fell into the category these writers interpreted as ‘masculine’. Such phenomena were seen as temporary conditions, conditions that could occur in otherwise perfectly unremarkable women, conditions within the realm of the treatable spectrum of usual ailments.

This history places the contemporary ‘discovery’ of an evolutionary reason for the female orgasm back in its proper place. As a piece of scientific research, it is potentially interesting, but represented as a super-modern “solution” to something presumed to be a long-standing source of amazement and disbelief, it is part of the ongoing patriarchal narrative that insistently defamiliarises the female body and excludes female sexuality from consideration. This is not to suggest that medieval medical writers were atypically humane and feminist, but rather the reverse: a suggested ‘cure’ for a woman suffering from the results of an over-large clitoris is, horrifically and predictably, excision, or what we would now know as female genital mutilation, a practice still recommended by some doctors in the West well into the twentieth century.

The Guardian piece reporting on the ‘solution’ to the ‘mystery’ of the female orgasm is presented as a new and hyper-modern development, an insight that elevates a useless quirk of female physicality to the dubious status of a once-useful bit of obsolete muscle tissue. But, it historical terms, it is this article itself that is – deliberately, by design – obsolescent. It is intended to make a splash on the front page, lingering, weakly swimming in our minds, for a few days, before dying out of our memories. Then, we are to expect the next sensational discovery of a rationale for the inexplicable aspects of female biology – and another, and another – while the need to explain the existence of a Y chromosome carrying tiny fragments of genetic data, will never arise. Such a question would not fit with the narrative of the patriarchy.

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Karma Lochrie’s book, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005) is a fantastic read, for many reasons other than its amazing and absorbing discussions of medieval women’s sexuality. It is very academic, and largely focussed on medieval texts, but it is very much worth reading for people outside academia, and outside medieval studies.

This Poem is Not ‘Relatable’: Carol Ann Duffy and Tory Grammar

The other day, I – glibly, I admit, and probably leaning a little bit on educational capital – characterised Carol Ann Duffy’s poem for Orlando as ‘terrible’.

And I stand by that. Duffy can write gorgeous, brilliant poetry – I love the opening parts of Wenceslas, for example. I love the way its half-rhymes on ‘wherein’ and ‘Swan’ chime against the full rhymes on ‘river’ and ‘forever’, and ‘parboiled and oiled’. I love the way the syntax builds, from gently meandering phrases loaded with nouns, to a brisk procession of culinary verbs. I like the way the ‘sing a song of sixpence’ picture of a pie full of birds is juxtaposed with the arcane terminology of a medieval cookbook and with an echo of Dylan Thomas. And in pointing out that I like these things I am, I know, tacitly setting out my credentials to criticise, too.

I could say that Gay Love is, beneath its apparent hectoring simplicity, a sophisticated piece of unexpected tensions. I could say that the doggerel-like, jingling rhyme scheme that hammers through the poem reflects the very ubiquity of homosexuality that Duffy depicts, or that its distribution in internal rhymes and across lines of varying lengths reflects the irregularity of queerness, or the disruptive transgression of established form so beloved of undergraduates who’ve read too much Foucault. I could probably cobble together an argument that the depiction of the only three unambiguously gendered women in the poem – the writer, introduced anonymously, because god knows we’ve enough known and named women writers in English Lit), the ‘calm’ doctor (it’s ok: she’s only taking your pulse, we’ll leave the hard science to the Man Person) and the ‘actress’ (does anyone really use ‘actress’ any more) – is in fact an ironic exposé of internalised sexism. I take the point (made in response to my previous post) that it is only my own searing misogyny that interprets the un-marked gender of butcher, baker, candlestick maker and children as presumptively masculine. I could even claim with a straight face that ‘baling the gold hay’ is a well-known rural gay men’s euphemism for cottaging and that mockery of it would be to appropriate and erase the queer farming community.

But it would be a struggle. Because, truthfully, I think the rhyme scheme is leaden, that the syntax – unfortunately – works with beautiful mimetic effect only when describing the anxieties of the closeted politician, that the imagery is trite and reactionary, and that the last line isn’t particularly original or clever.

Jem Bloomfield, discussing the predictable backlash against that last line, argues that comments reveal ‘the woeful state of public discussion of poetry – lurches between “it has A Meaning” and “means whatever you feel like”.’ This, I think, is spot on. When I’ve mentioned disliking this poem over the last few days, a fair few people have immediately assured me that Duffy’s message is tolerance. That the poem ‘means’ good things. That when Duffy chose to celebrate an oh-so-British-middle-class set of establishment and salt-of-the-earth figures, she was just choosing ‘representative’ people. Or she didn’t really mean to imply that we should only tolerate homosexuality because doctors, farmers and scientists are useful to us. Or that to criticise the poem is ‘overthinking’ because the ‘message’ is positive. Technical details – the focus on the nitty-gritty of the poem – just get in the way of talking about the ‘meaning’.

I mention all of this, partly as a context for that original glib comment, but partly also because I think it illustrates a wider oddity about the way we look at language and literature. Recently, I have been – for my sins – thinking about the way English is taught. I have a fair amount of ongoing cynicism about the motivations behind the current government’s reforms of Humanities teaching, and I do think these reforms have a more-than-incidental relationship to wider issues.

I wasn’t one of the people who jumped up and down in fury when I learned that the new requirements for primary school children include a hefty amount of formal grammar teaching. On the face of it, this didn’t seem particularly awful to me. I could even see the case for teaching quite young children to identify things like modal verbs or subjunctive moods. Why not? Some of them, as my friend pointed out, referring to her daughter, might actually enjoy it. But what I did wonder about – as I trawled through reams of government guidelines talking earnestly about graphemes and phonemes and fronted adverbials – was how carefully this vocabulary set itself up as precise, pseudo-scientific in its Latin and Greek roots. It evokes, too, the formal grammar training I associate with a certain kind of education – the kind of education that taught grammar in English via Latin, and (longer ago) imposed Latin grammatical structures onto English. It is, in short, an educational programme that evokes the same kind of ‘Englishness’ Duffy depicts in her poem: class-bound, Establishment Culture Englishness.

But when we look at the literature side, there’s something peculiar going on. Children are allowed to read (and write) ‘narratives’ or even down-to-earth ‘stories’. They’re encouraged to talk about ‘events’ and ‘themes’. What, not a whisper about the distinction between fabula and syuzhet? Colour me shocked.

It would be cynical to suggest that the reason children aren’t taught heavy theoretical vocabulary to use for describing literature is that there’s no history of associating this kind of formal study with socially privileged Englishness, as there manifestly is with the study of grammar. It would be worse than cynical to observe that ‘grapheme’ and ‘phoneme’ sound pleasantly Classical, suggestive of the clinical precision of scientific terminology or the nostalgic memory of Upper VI A doing Latin prep for Oxbridge entrance. By contrast, even anglicised from фабула and сюжет, the vocab on the lit side speaks a little too plainly of its origins on the other side of the Iron Curtain and offers the worrying reminder that there is still a place called Europe out there somewhere, and its not all made of Classical ruins to put on postcards.

The simple terminology on the lit side is, unfortunately, not a sign of incongruous common sense breaking into the document. There’s nothing wrong with calling a story a story; there’s nothing wrong at all with some recommendations, for example the suggestion that children might think about what themes go into the making of a fairy tale, or how narratives could be told differently from different speakers’ perspectives.

But there isn’t very much of this. The guidelines stress the importance of teaching children to interpret literature as a way of talking about morality or identity: to think about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or to ‘identify with’ the emotions of characters. Listening to students – even students at university studying English literature – you could come to the conclusion that Chaucer and Shakespeare both set pen to paper for the sole purpose of providing readers in 2016 with a ‘relatable’ moral lesson, a kind of literary message in a bottle. Generally (because our focus is strongly on ‘identifying’ with characters in literary texts) this will be a message mysteriously in keeping with the mores of twenty-first-century British society. If we follow this line of thinking, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is providing something akin to documentary reportage of the Woman Question circa 1389, and the literary aspects of the text – its genre, its style, its rhetorical tropes, its prosody – are all somehow excluded from the experience. Technical details, once again, just get in the way.

It seems to me that this odd imbalance – the hyper-precise, rigorous approach to English language, and the impressionistic, moralising approach to English literature – sets up students particularly inadequately. I’ve been told that the precise teaching of grammar is something I should welcome, as a lit specialist, something that will produce students who can understand exactly how a poem is put together, and what it means. I’m not convinced. If we teach children that all literature must be ‘relatable’ without giving them the tools to identify why and how it communicates, we’re pushing them to accept writers’ world views uncritically, to discount the nuances and tensions and subtextual implications, and to believe the ‘right’ reading is a simple, moral lesson.

 

We are Not Orlando: Spurious Community Building and the Failure to Name the Problem

We are all queer now.

Or at least, that is how it seems, if you’ve been following the media lately. The only acceptable response to the shootings in Orlando has – rapidly – become not horror, sorrow, shock or sympathy, but a declaration that you, the speaker, are part of the tragedy too. For once, I was impressed by Owen Jones, who insistently attempted to keep the discussion of the headlines on Sky News focussed on the political point: that this shooting was motivated by homophobia, and that homophobia is not a problem the West has solved. But almost everywhere else, and stunningly quickly, I saw people hurrying to concentrate on the personal, not the political. There is a hashtag, #WeAreOrlando. An article by Melissa Harris-Perry urged straight women to feel guilty that spaces ‘safe’ for them were not ‘safe’ for gay men (not that being a straight woman protected MP Jo Cox, shot at close range in her constituency on Thursday). A piece by Laurie Penny describes how the author’s own emotions built to catharsis at a vigil in London:

I don’t cry in front of other people, she explains. The tears clot in my heart and I have to go somewhere private to dig them out. But, somehow, the experience of coming together on a London street to think about forty-nine dead men and women in America provided catharsis. Embracing her housemate, Penny remembers: We cuddled, and she said “It’s OK to be us. It’s OK to be us.” And I said, “I know.”

Love wins, Penny concludes – though how, I’m not quite sure. How are we going to change things? What are we going to do?

The last straw, for me, was this poem, written by Carol Ann Duffy, about Orlando. I do understand that, as poet laureate and as a lesbian, she is probably more or less required to do this, and I can’t imagine writing poetry to order is particularly easy. But, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a terrible poem – not just as a tribute to the dead, but as a message, too. The writer, the priest, the farmer, the teacher, the politician, the doctor, the scientist, the judge and the actress – so we are assured, in rhymed doggerel – are gay.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
Our children, are gay.
And God is gay.

Ok, we get it. Everyone is gay, even ordinary people. Most of them, we note, are also male, except the actress and the doctor. Goodness, what did she do to be included in the pantheon? Duffy’s doctor is ‘calm’; her politician is neatly dressed in a suit and tie. It’s a list of safe establishment figures, of people neatly tucked away in the closet. This comes across – rather appallingly, in my view – as a list of people whose respectable occupations ought to persuade you it’s in your own interests to tolerate homosexuality.

None of them seem to bear much resemblance to the forty-nine people who died in Orlando, who also seem – if you’ll excuse me – rather different from Laurie Penny. Or me. Yet we are – once again – being pushed the idea that the only way to respond to this attack is to rewrite it in our own image, to write over it with images that look more like us, to clamour over it with the insistence that it’s not just them, it’s us, too. This is spurious community-building. It might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do anything, and it doesn’t respect the memory of the dead.

Yesterday, I came across this article (shared, if I remember rightly, by Dorothy Kim), about the Veracruz shooting, in a gay club in Veracruz, Mexico, on May 22nd. Didn’t read about it at the time? No, nor me. We weren’t encouraged to take that event and make it into a performance of personal emotion, to appropriate it as a way to demonstrate how virtuously outraged we are, how close we feel to the tragedy. And it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to work out why that was.

Meanwhile, one of the first things I heard when Jo Cox was shot yesterday, was an outburst of angry reactions against women who referred to this as ‘male violence’ or ‘violence against women’. And I’m disturbed by this dynamic. We declare ‘we are Orlando’; we declare that we, too, are the victims. We erase the differences between us and them, the differences that left them dead and us living. Yet, when it comes to naming perpetrators, we – like Owen Jones’s co-panelists on Sky News – become strangely defensive; strangely quiet. We don’t want to talk about the fact that homophobia and misogyny are rooted in a system of ongoing oppression that can’t be wished away by waving a rainbow flag.

There’s a spurious sense of community here, I think: or rather, a sense of community that is clearly genuinely felt, but which doesn’t meaningfully unite either in recognition of the victims of Orlando – who have been overshadowed, and their particular, individual experiences glossed over – or in opposition to the structural power that produced the conditions that made their murder possible, that made the murder of Jo Cox possible. At the most basic level, the victims of Orlando – the victims of Veracruz – and Jo Cox all died because someone decided their lives were expendable, worth less than the life of the shooter, less than the life of a man with a gun.

So, what can we do? I don’t think I have a good answer (and it wouldn’t be my place to have one, either). But there are things that I think can help. I read. I listen to people like Prof. Cath Andrews, who lives and works in Mexico, and often publicises incidents of violence against women and marginalised groups, which otherwise don’t make it into English-language media. Likewise, I listen to Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy, both medievalists who relate history to modern structural problems, with a particular focus on marginalised groups. I listen to Karen Ingala Smith, who continues (against considerable aggression) to document the kind of violence Jo Cox faced, and to show that these are not one-off acts of madness, but patterns of violence against women. I listen to Carissa Harris, who describes how she teaches her students about the histories of sexuality, race and gender. This list of people is a personal list. That’s the point. Rather than pretending our responses are universal, we should be acknowledging that they are personal. They’re partial. By acknowledging that specificity, we can respect the individuality of the victims of hate crimes, and we can also – I believe – better identify the hidden structures of power and violence that characterise the perpetrators of these attacks. We can learn to see them, to name them – and ultimately, I hope, to fight them.

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MP Jo Cox (centre)

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In memoriam