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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Renewable Sources of Memory: Speech, Silence and Structure at the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference in Canterbury

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I’m writing this in the shadow – or, actually, underneath the floodlights on the towers – of Canterbury Cathedral. My hotel room looks out past overlapping rooftops dripping melted snow, to a peering gargoyle and the fabulously-named Butter Market on one side, and the cathedral precincts on the other. I’m here (with a slightly premature post, before the last half-day) attending the conference on ‘Gender, Places, Spaces, Thresholds’ hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University and the wonderful Dr Diane Heath.

I came to this conference to give a paper on – amongst other things – the ways spaces and structures informed medieval people’s assumptions about the sexualities of their inhabitants. In particular, I’m interested in the way spaces occupied only by women generated a volatile blend of fascination and anxiety amongst male writers, who could only speculate (and censure, worry, or fantasise about) what women got up to inside, together. This is a large area of study, but the example I’m working on has been causing me problems, because the terminology I use carries complicated, and sometimes competing, connotations in various academic, political, pedagogical and personal spheres. In places, the debate maps onto the widespread conflicts you may have seen playing out on social media, over territory that is both ideological and physical. ‘Queer’ spaces and ‘lesbian’ spaces are often set in opposition, made to stand for whole systems of antagonistic thought. In this big debate, my small part is that I’m finding, increasingly, that the term ‘queer’ is blotting out a particular way of understanding ‘lesbian’ identities and histories.

All of this makes me keen to speak up in this debate, but also worried that, in doing so, I’ll be understood to have placed myself immutably on one side of a polarised disagreement, with no freedom to reinterpret the parameters or to develop my own position. And I think this is an issue we’re increasingly quick to produce in our modes of response to current political crises. We’re often urged to speak out, as if speaking out were a form of necessary social action, a morally mandated act. “Speak out!” “Bear witness!” “Add your name to this petition!” “Don’t stay silent!” Such requests demand that we accept our interlocutors’ picture of the ongoing debate and (often) that we respond in their terms, to the binaries they have drawn. More and more, I worry that we’re making silence – or provisional, measured, experimental forms of speech – tacitly unacceptable.

I found, though, that this conference offered me a new set of ways to think about speaking, and this, in turn, led me away from the rigid, polarised structures of debate I’ve been anxious about finding myself caught up in.

Speech, Hannah Shepherd told us in her paper, was considered a sense by medieval thinkers. It did not come after the thinking, considering, connecting work of the mind, and it did not simply give audible form to thoughts already finalised, polished, ordered and arranged. If speaking and writing are necessary parts of the process of thinking, then we write (or speak) in order to learn what it is we really think. This is all feels very close to twenty-first century pedagogies and theories of cognitive processing, but I think it’s also very medieval. Thought is structured by the objects and materials of the physical world: they offer models that are ‘good to think’ with, good to help us understand more abstract connections and ideas.

For medieval people, buildings are one of the central metaphorical structures for thought, and the medieval building par excellence, the building saturated with the most significance, must be the chapel, church, or (above all) cathedral. And what’s key about these buildings is that they are never finished. They are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction, like the edifices of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, that ‘rise and fall, crumble, are extended,’ endings and new beginnings overlapping and reforming around each other. Of course, some of this is still true today. From where I sit, I can see scaffolding on the tower of Canterbury Cathedral; an arresting and poignant image in the news yesterday showed the great rose window of Soissons Cathedral broken by the storm.

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But we tend to think of the work that goes on in these buildings as reconstructive work, work aimed at repairing what is broken, replacing what is worn out, or simply fighting against the constant slow decays of time. In contrast, medieval churchgoers expected their churches to be renewed and refashioned, often startlingly quickly, and in ways that can seem oddly intimate to us. Wills, for example, provide evidence of medieval women leaving their best cloak to dress statues of the Virgin or of favourite saints; new paint is regularly ordered to brighten up the cacophony of colours that once decorated church interiors, and over-hasty, over-ambitious building works on Lincoln Cathedral in the early fourteenth century reputedly resulted in a tower so high it overtopped the Pyramids of Gaze … for a slim 200 years, until it crashed down into the nave and was abandoned as a bad job.

All of this bustling building and rebuilding invites us to think, like medieval churchgoers, of a cathedral itself as a work in progress, a monumental structure, to be sure, but a structure that changes the way we think about memory itself: not as something fixed and immutable, but as something that might accommodate new materials and make space for new emotional responses. If speech is one of the senses, then all processes of thought and memory are processes of exploration as well as consolidation, ongoing rather than fixed.

This should make us think more about what work speech might do, and how we might use speech. And this conference offered possibilities for speech that was not final and finalised, that modified the structures of debate. Laura Varnam read Margery Kempe’s interactions with angels as a means of constructing woman-to-woman bonds of expression, which extended the sanctifying spaces of patriarchal control to reach out to and heal fellow female sufferers. Hannah Piercy argued that the conceptual enclosures of romance could act as models for ‘unsafe safe spaces,’ safe spaces that reach out and speak beyond their own confines. Daisy Black contrasted the York mystery plays’ ranting Herod, dominating the stage with sound and spectacle, with the silent power of Christ, showing how Herod’s noise and gesture exhausts the audience while Christ’s much-remarked silence gains tenure on their curiosity and intellectual engagement. Her paper showed how the Shearmen and Tailors’ Pageant uses song to change the spoken texture of the stage space, undercutting Herod with the ‘scopic authority’ – authority produced in the audience’s shift of attention to them – of the women singing the poignant Coventry Carol. Grace Timperley re-told the story of Octavian to show how ‘exile’ in romance offers women new lives, as ‘loss’ becomes a ‘loosening’ of bonds. All of these papers, and many more, challenged established scholarly narratives and – quietly – demolished established maps of the distribution of power and agency in medieval conversations, real and imagined.

As I came back to my partner after each conference session, I brought esoteric snippets and discoveries from the papers I’d heard. About the tomb of Christ and the cave of the Nativity, the topographies of Canterbury and of Bethlehem, the symbolic properties of rose-water or the smell of the angels, the French maps of routes where women wore burning crowns of straw and the eighth-century Arabic spell-books brought to medieval Britain.

Predictably, she suggested I needed to watch Indiana Jones while I wrote this post.

The film think how much we love the idea of discovering hidden symbols, piecing together arcane signs into new maps that unlock unified and unifying truths. But it’s really the systems of signs themselves that are the new treasures, the Grails, as the omniscient drawl of Sean Connery reminds us.

“Elsa never really believed in the grail. She thought she’d found a prize.”
– “What did you find, dad?”
“Illumination.”

Granted, it’s an irritating piece of misogynistic cliche, this response, aligning the material desire with the female and the cool, detached rationality with the male, but it’s straight out of medieval theories of both thought and gender, so we’ll charitably assume it’s part of the film’s tongue-in-cheek send-up of its subject matter. Like the grail, speech ought to be a structuring process, a process of becoming rather than of expressing certainties in the linguistic equivalent of quick-set cement. As we speak, we learn to re-position what we think we know – about ourselves and about the past – and in the process, we find we’ve constructed new mental edifices and spaces for thinking further. It’s an added bonus if we get Harrison Ford’s leather jacket into the bargain.

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