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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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.

Note

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.

Wings, Hearts, and Medieval Lesbian Valentines

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Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r.

The other day, I saw this brilliant image come up in my twitter feed. The work of the delightfully titled ‘Master of the Chronique Scandeleuse‘, it shows two women engaged in the mutual attempt to entice a flock of winged hearts into their net with what looks like skipping rope. Naturally, I read it as a Valentine’s Day image. I blame my partner for this: just before, she’d shown me the Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. The de-centred heroine of the original story grows up as the daughter of the man who stole Maleficent’s wings and her heart, and when she returns the wings, she gains queenship of Maleficent’s kingdom. Like the original, this isn’t a story that is completely devoid of same-sex implications.

Charming as it is, I’ve got to admit that the medieval image isn’t a lesbian Valentine after all. In fact, it comes from the determinedly heterosexual Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) written by Pierre Scala and dedicated to his mistress. The British Library has a lovely and informative post on the real context of the image and of the manuscript in which it’s found, which formed their 2013 Valentine offering. In medieval English and French literature, stories of women who fall in love with other women are exceptionally rare – the Roman de Silence excluded – and I’ve been trying to find some for a while.

So I followed up my first thoughts about women trapping winged hearts. After all, the tropes of hunters catching birds, and of women as birds, are both pretty prevalent in medieval culture, and both often relate to debates on love. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls begins with the lovely regretful line (referring to love, but also to writing love poetry) “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne …” and goes on to describe, in the first ever ‘Valentine’ poem, the meetings in which the birds choose their mates on this day.

The bird-lover also features in one of Marie de France’s lais, the story of Yonec, which is traditionally read as a love story between the mysterious knight Muldumarec and the unhappy wife of the jealous lord of Caerwent, who has imprisoned her in a high tower. In Yonec, the trapped woman sees a dark hawk fly in through her window, and it transforms into a man who declares his love for her. Doubting his faith – and, indeed, whether he is truly human – the woman insists that he must take on her shape, and take the Eucharist in her place, which will prove whether or not he comes in good faith.

The hawk-man consents, takes on the woman’s form, and receives the Eucharist, and the validated couple hurry to bed. But, seeing his wife’s happiness, the jealous husband places spikes around the window, and when the hawk returns a second time, its wings are torn and it flees away bleeding, leaving the desolate woman to follow the trail of drops of blood out of her window and into a silver city, where she finds her lover lying bleeding on his deathbed. It’s a dream-like sequence, full of mysterious images and shape-shifting visions of the supernatural, which works hard to make us forget the cold logic of the real world.

But I wondered about the implications of that central test of truth. The Eucharist, we’re assured, reveals the ‘truth’ form of the lover: human, not bird; Christian, not supernatural demon or fairy. We’re primed by the shape of the narrative (and by heteronormative assumptions) to discount the fact that the lover is, at this moment in the story, in a third alternative form: that of a woman. If the Eucharist reveals the truth, then perhaps the hawk-lover’s true form is female. Following this up, I checked the text, and found that it’s not clear when this female form is given up: or even whether the lover retains it into the woman’s bedchamber. And it would perhaps be no surprise to a medieval audience to imagine a hawk-lover as female rather than male, for hawks are often associated with women in love. In Yonec, then, a disguise of hawk-wings hides a story of women in love, as well as the identity of the ‘knight’ who flies in through the window. I think it’s a good story for Valentine’s day.

 

 

 

 

Casualties of the Popular History of Sexuality

Awesome (possible) lesbians again, because really, why the heck not?                                                                           Image via flickr.com/photos/sshreeves and http://www.autostraddle.com/150-years-of-lesbians-144337/

I really should be writing a lecture on medieval lyric at the moment, finishing off a book review and marking essays. But I procrastinate, and the world keeps turning, so I’m going to write this post instead.

The Guardian has a puff piece for a new play by Glenn Chandler, based on the lives of two Victorians who, so Chandler argues, ought to be known as early activists in the struggle for gay rights. The article’s language makes it very easy to picture these two – living in London decades before the landmark trial of Oscar Wilde – as if they’d been transplanted from a rainbow-coloured twenty-first century, because the key word throughout is ‘fun’. Wilde becomes ‘poor old Oscar’, guilty of little more than ‘play[ing] the wrong cards’, while his slightly lesser-known peers were just having ‘[so] much fun’. Now, I understand the impulse. Trying to recognise ourselves in the past is something we all do, and it’s incredibly tempting to smooth away the negatives and imagine that, from the bare outlines of historical fact, we can build a wonderfully familiar, positive, happy image. In the same way, I’ve written before about how brilliantly compelling the images of Victorian women cross-dressing are, and I’ve tried to explain, too, why I get slightly worried about people who assume we can interpret images from the past using our own modern categories of gender and sexuality.

So I started reading the article wondering how – or if – it would negotiate this. I read that the two men in the play, Frederick Park and Thomas Boulton, regularly dressed as women and used female alter egos, and – whether prudently or just because they fancied it anyway – took to the theatre, which has a time-honoured tradition of male cross-dressing. In 1870, police rounded them up, along with another male friend, and arrested them. They were tried for indecency, but got off because the jury found no evidence of anyone committing sodomy and (rather interestingly to me, as a medievalist who knows medieval laws) no evidence that men cross-dressing was any sort of crime in English law. As a result, the court treated the cross-dressing as a bit of a joke, rather than a serious threat to social decency. The article concludes with a quotation from Chandler, claiming that Park and Boulton:

“really thought their case would change things, they thought a change in the law was coming, but then in two decades we have the Oscar Wilde trial and it takes another two centuries for change to come.”

This sounds wonderfully inspiring.

I admit, I’m not mad keen on the implication that the sort of ‘change’ these two hoped for can be neatly linked up to the changes of, er, 2070 (or even 1967), as if they were displaced members of Stonewall deposited in Victorian London via metaphorical Tardis. We don’t really know what these men hoped or expected, how they would have defined their own attitudes to their clothes or their actions. I’m even less keen on the way that this ignores pre-Victorian history. There’s a certain fashion for acting as if sexuality really began with the Victorians, whom I’ve seen credited variously with inventing the vibrator, lesbians, transvestites, manual orgasm and the empowerfulising (fictional) side of prostitution.  Talking about deviant sex in pre-Victorian England is held to be slightly embarrassing amongst all this fun Victorian stuff: it’s the historical equivalent of teenagers on the bus holding forth loudly about how, like, totally sex positive they are, while forty-something women roll their eyes at each other and someone’s mum mutters you didn’t invent it, you know.

For what it’s worth, people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries before Park and Boulton. For example, in the late fourteenth century, a man called John Rykener was arrested for posing as a woman – Eleanor – and prostituting himself to various men. He attended court in his woman’s clothing, and he admitted he had been married to a man, though he also slept with woman (without eliciting payment) while dressed as a man. Rykener’s story is startlingly similar to that of Park and Boulton, despite a gap of nearly five hundred years. It’s a warning that the neat fiction of those Victorian crossdressers as early gay activists should be taken with a big pinch of salt: an awful lot of history is not a connected narrative of progress and liberation.

But it also tells us something else about attitudes towards gender and sexuality further back in history. As Carolyn Dinshaw points out, Rykener’s evidence at his trial shows that he didn’t simply dress as a woman: he interpreted his behaviour as feminine and passive when he was dressed as a woman, and masculine and active when he was dressed as a man. For the former, he charged substantial sums of money – more, apparently, than women prostitutes could hope to command – whereas the latter he seems to have done for free. To modern readers, this may seem confusing: what did it mean to have sex ‘as a woman’? How did Rykener’s display of gender intersect with his expectation of getting paid? I read Rykner’s trial and wonder about the women he slept with – and the women who were paid less than him – and the women who understood from him that to have sex as a woman was to be passive. That’s not because I’m not interested in Rykener himself. It’s because you can’t take a figure out of history and relate to him alone, without considering the context. If you do that, then you dehumanise everyone else in that historical narrative, relegating them to the background.

And this is what I think is happening here. Fiction isn’t history, and a play can have an emotional power without needing to be weighed down with factual detail. But I find emotional power disturbing when it involves, not a selective reading of the past, but an appropriation and distortion of it.

The Guardian piece quotes quite a long comment from Chandler, which may be edited but reads as if it’s all one thought process, and which I found, frankly, pretty appalling. Explaining how writing the scripts for Taggart got him interested in court records, we’re told cheerfully:

“My favourite is a guy in Ohio who held his wife’s head first in a bucket of rattlesnakes and when that didn’t kill her he lifted her out and put her in a bath and threw in an electric cable and still failed. All around the world there were stories that I injected into Glasgow, not so much the gory ones, more the intriguing ones that tell you a lot about human nature.

Ultimately that’s the same interest that drew me to these two in 1870s London. In a tense atmosphere of homophobia they are young men having fun.”

I’m honestly not sure what to make of that. Yes, Chandler covers himself with a non-committal observation that this anecdote ‘tell[s] you a lot about human nature’, and yes, possibly, if you are a violent misogynist with limited capacity to see women as human beings, you might conclude it’s ‘human nature’ that’s being described here. If you are a violent misogynist, or just amazingly crass, you might juxtapose that anecdote with a reference to ‘young men having fun’. But … why? And how could you forget, even for as long as it took to put together this comment, that the lovely positive language of ‘favourites’ and ‘fun’ is describing several attempts to kill someone?

The violence here, the truly horrible event, clearly doesn’t make a mark on Chandler as he concentrates on what I imagine he fancies as the wider philosophical point, the point about ‘human nature’. And it was that selective viewing of someone else’s life – the packaging of that life into the quick prelude to a heart-warming story of ‘young men having fun’ – that really bothered me. The women in this narrative don’t fit the narrative or progress and liberation – and Chandler (or whoever edited his words in this article) doesn’t even seem to realize that there are parallel narratives of oppression here, intersecting ones even, only one of which is being told. What did Parks and Boulton really feel about their trial? Why were they dressing as women – would they have chosen it, in a different world? Would they even have identified as gay? What about other men (and women) who didn’t skip out of court laughing, supported by their families – and who still don’t? How does it help them to pretend to a continuity of gay rights activism, for which we don’t have the evidence?

There is a drama of sexuality and gender to be written here, but it needs to be one that doesn’t ignore the intersecting oppressions of the past (and present). It needs to be one that doesn’t sacrifice the uncertainties of the past to a story that makes a better soundbite.

Notes

Ruth Karras and David Boyd, ‘”Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London’, Premodern Sexualities (1996): 101-116.

Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999)

Copyright Statement

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

Image via flickr.com/photos/sshreeves and http://www.autostraddle.com/150-years-of-lesbians-144337/

Image via flickr.com/photos/sshreeves and http://www.autostraddle.com/150-years-of-lesbians-144337/

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.

Update

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.

Like the Virgin Mary, only Hairier: Why Patriarchy likes a little Lipstick Lesbianism

In my previous post, I got halfway through the Roman de Silence, the story of the woman Silentius who was brought up as a man by her parents. Silentius is so successful as a man that hordes of women end up swooning over her, and Nature finally gets so furious about this that she descends on Silentius and insists she should act more like a woman instead of tempting women into same-sex attraction. This form of ‘correction’ is pretty familiar to us in the modern world, and it’s not just aimed at cross-dressing women. Like Silentius, we might think what we’re doing has nothing to do with sexuality – after all, in the romance, all she’s doing is training to be a knight – but, to the patriarchy, that’s a problem in itself: women must be reminded that everything they do is to do with sexuality. And if it’s not overt heterosexuality, it needs to be set straight. And this is what Nature tries to do with Silentius. Unfortunately for Nature – and I’m honestly not making this up though it sounds like something written in 1972 – Nurture then turns up and shouts Nature down. Silentius goes off to the court, where King Evan (yes, really. I picture him in a nice turtleneck) is holding a tournament.

Codex Manesse by Waither von Klingen, Zurich, c.1310—40.

Codex Manesse by Waither von Klingen, Zurich, c.1310—40.

As you can see from this image, tournaments weren’t just about men fighting, they were also about women watching. Some scholars reckon that, just as a few women (not me, of course!) watch Game of Thrones not purely for the intellectual pleasures of George R. R. Martin’s plot devices, so too some women might have read about tournaments not just because they wanted to be sure men were being properly trained for war. The positions of these women’s hands certainly seem to suggest they were comparing notes on a very important six inches. Anyway, in the Roman de Silence, one of the women watching is King Evan’s wife, Queen Euphemia. Being unwomanly and lustful and all sorts of other inappropriate things, Euphemia toddles off to proposition Silentius and is shot down by our heroine. In revenge, the queen tells her husband she’s been raped and that Silentius must be punished. This delightful ‘bad woman cries rape’ plotline isn’t unprecedented in medieval romance – Guinevere does it too – and it allows the narrator to turn Silentius’s cross-dressing into a positive moral force. Inevitably, in the process of proving that women cry rape to the satisfaction of the court, Silentius is outed as a woman. Barely has she whipped off her false ‘tache before King Evan sweeps her off her re-feminized feet and marries her. It’s a speedy turn of events that leaves us with the strong suspicion it wasn’t only the queen who went to the tournament to eye up cute young things with muscly thighs.

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, England (St Albans), 1235-1259, Royal 14 C. vii, f. 124v. Henry III marrying a glum-looking Eleanor of Provence

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, England (St Albans), 1235-1259, Royal 14 C. vii, f. 124v. Henry III marrying a glum-looking Eleanor of Provence

The story of Silentius isn’t unusual in the way it represents women cross-dressing. In King Arthur’s court, a woman knight called Grisandole gets on nicely with her career until Merlin decides to ‘out’ her. Blanchardine, a woman who converts from Islam to Christianity, dresses as a man to protect herself. She marries a woman and is ‘rewarded’ for her piety by being magically transformed into a man. The best of all is the Princess Yde, who isn’t just turned into a man when she marries a woman – she also impregnates her wife and becomes patriarch of a dynasty of Emperors of Rome. The common theme in all of these stories is that the women are successful cross-dressers; they’re convincing men. To put it another way, the speak the language of their oppressors. They understand how to ‘man up’. That’s what makes these women  dangerous to a misogynistic culture. Inevitably, the narratives end by showing us heterosexuality restored once more – ideally, fertile heterosexuality. To us as modern readers, it could be disturbing to see this presented as a ‘happy ending’. But it’s not a story about masculinity triumphant and heterosexuality the undisputed winner. The king who insists only boys should be able to inherit is aggressively pro-male, but his politics seem to be more than a little bit personal. At best, he’s a cuckold; at worst, he’s been eyeing up the young men while his wife looks for sex elsewhere. And I think it’s this sexist stereotype that the romance is really bothered about. Just to end, I wanted to think about why medieval stories are (almost?) always about women dressing up as men. And there’s an image, and an anecdote, that shows us why: NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duc du Berry. c. 1400. St Jerome in a Woman's Dress I found this picture of St Jerome cross-dressing on an amazing tumblr account. As the story behind the picture goes, the eminent saint and star misogynist of previous posts was considered a bit of a stick-in-the-mud by his fellow clerics. While he slept, they dressed him up in women’s clothing. When he woke up, he made his way to church as normal only to discover belatedly that he was, in fact, got up like the Virgin Mary only hairier. Apparently, the dire shame accounts for his bitter demenour. Jerome is, needless to say, not a successful cross-dresser, any more than King Evan is allowed to toy with the idea of a little homosexual fling with his knights. Medieval romances, like modern tabloids, enjoy playing with the idea of a little temporary lesbianism or a touch of sexy cross-dressing from the women in the narrative. It’s tempting, as an academic, to read these romances as safe spaces for women to explore sexuality, or places where gender can be ‘performed’ in different and exciting ways. But it’s also to ignore a more serious issue. In our cultural narratives (now as in medieval England), there is space for women to play at being a little bit masculine, a little bit lesbian, so long as that play is ultimately resolved. This doesn’t give women greater freedom. It erodes the idea of female identity and sexuality as equal to and as important as male identity and sexuality.