Thursday, May 19, 2011

Prelims Reading Update

I know no one is reading this, but writing it helps me organize some thoughts. Thanks for tolerating this, if anyone is out there. Since I posted two weeks ago, I've planned my courses for summer and fall semesters and read the following:
  1. Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women - I found this to be more clearly focused and more thoroughly researched than Valenti's two earlier offerings (Full Frontal Feminism and He's a Stud, She's a Slut and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know), and was encouraged that its last chapter leaves its reader not only with a call to action, but with specific, practical suggestions of how she can work to undermine the double standards invoked by and stemming from "the purity myth." While I do object to Valenti's unwillingness to take religion or its adherents seriously (and her tendency to refer to such a complex, varying system monolithically, as I was copying above), I think a certain amount of questioning how both sacred and secular institutions tie female worth to wholly bodily or physical factors is a healthy thing. The biggest and most interesting point that I took away from the book that I think will inform my reading and research this summer is the fact that the both the impulse to punish women for excess or inappropriate sexuality and the impulse to teach them to "save" and "guard" their virginities at any cost seem to come from the same overemphasis on embodiment.
  2. Linda Hutcheon's A Theory of Adaptation - Maybe it's because Hutcheon was endeavoring to write down something that had been discussed but not yet codified in academic circles, or maybe it's because I've been working with adaptations and appropriations a long time, but most of this book seemed like common knowledge to me at this point in my career. The most helpful points for me were these: First, there are three main types of adaptations--those that tell (novels, short stories, plays that are read), those that show (plays in performance, films, operas, dances, or musicals), and those that do ("interactive" media like second life, video games, VR, RPGs, or LARPing). Second, those categories are not static and can very easily bleed over into one another because of what Hutcheon calls the "palimpsestuous nature of adaptation." Besides that fabulously descriptive portmanteau, which I love and think is so accurate given the adaptation's simultaneous reliance on and contradiction of preexisting knowledge, I agree that adaptations lend themselves to making traditional forms of receiving information (like plays or novels) more "interactive" due to the back-and-forth that a knowledgeable reader or viewer goes through as she experiences an adaptation. Hutcheon also discusses the tricky notion of the authority of the "source" text (I use quote marks there because she questions the validity as well as the rhetorical aim of this term), and that's something I'll be wrestling with a great deal in my dissertation.
  3. Ben Jonson's Volpone - I made sure to notice instances where traditional readings of the play presented themselves (as city comedy, as animal fable, as morality tale warning against greed), but I was mostly struck by the character of Celia, who eventually gets pimped out to Volpone, who is very rich, by her own husband--who had previously become outraged because he thought Celia was flirting with Volpone of her own volition, which was untrue--because her husband wants Volpone's money at any cost. After he forces her to go to Volpone and she does not want to submit sexually, Volpone attempts to rape her. She's quite literally damned if she does or if she doesn't, as well as used as currency within a male system. This got me thinking about The Purity Myth again in a way I didn't expect to.
  4. Shakespeare's The Tempest - This play is the subject of the only dissertation chapter I've started so far. As you most likely suspect, I'm most interested in the character of Miranda, or more specifically in the typical scholarly response to her, which I feel is reductive at best, and at worst, flawed in a way that is destructive to literary young womanhood. Many critics see her as a wholly passive daughter who submits to her father's will for her life. This view is HUGE with Victorian critics, which are, not coincidentally, the same critics who begin to emphasize the usefulness of Shakespearean heroines as didactic tools young women should follow (see Charles and Mary Lamb, Anna Jameson, and Mary Cowden Clarke). While Miranda is certainly servile and obedient at the play's end (see her chess game with Ferdinand where she says she will call lies truth if it serves him for her to do so), she is defiant and questioning to Prospero from her very first lines at the plays beginning. I'm also interested in the lines in 1.2.351-ff ("Abhorred slave / which any print of goodness will not take..."), which the First Folio attributes to Miranda, but subsequent editors gave to Prospero because she would never say such rough things to Caliban. I tend to agree with recent feminist critics, who say that Caliban, as the character directly below her in the play's hierarchy, is the easiest person over whom she can express any kind of anger and power.
  5. John Fletcher's The Tamer Tamed, or The Woman's Prize - I love this play, and I'm super excited to teach it for the first time in the Fall. Though Fletcher wrote it some time around 1609, it wasn't performed until at least 1633, due to bawdy and improper content. It tells the story of Maria, Petruccio's second wife after the death of Katerina. Lots of critics have called it a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, but it's so much more than that. It critiques women's social roles in a hugely progressive, protofeminist way, and it does so while exhibiting a clear understanding of Shakespeare's own style and common tropes (Examples: Bawdy Maria in Twelfth Night and sex-as-food in Othello). The main ways the play does this are through an emphasis on the female homosocial and that community's appropriation of the language of several typically male spheres, namely the military, higher education, and religious service. In response to Petruchio's physical and sexual deprivation of Kate, Maria, her sister Livia, and the other women of The Tamer Tamed lock him out of his own house by degrees until he ends up in a coffin at the end of the play. As he is being given a taste of his own medicine, the women are joyously separatist, eating rich food, drinking ale, and masturbating. They fight deprivation with excess to the point that, when they realize the men are spying on them, they "dance with their coats tucked up to their bare breeches / And bid the kingdom kiss 'em"--they literally tell the men to kiss their asses, because the women know that voyeurism motivates the men's actions just as much, if not more, than does their anger. The other great thing about this play is that the women work together across class lines, with several country wives joining Maria's ranks. While these women are not given first names, Tamer's class consciousness is still a definite step up from that of Shrew, which literally places class conflict outside of the play, in the Christopher Sly frame narrative. A question I have: The play's introduction says that its subtitle is ironic because women weren't up for public prizes in the period. I don't doubt this, but I think there may be some virginity punning happening there as well, especially given Petronius' (Maria and Livia's father) repeated pleas to he daughters to give in to their husbands. I'm also seeing patron/patriarch in his name, but I may be reaching for that one.
  6. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own - I'll talk more about this in conjunction with Cixous and Clement's The Newly Born Woman. For now, two things that stick out are the question of class and Woolf's seeming anticipation of the academic discipline of Gender Studies. The first is important because according to Woolf, to write, a woman must not only have access to private space, but also to private money. Lower-class women have reduced access to both, if any at all. The second comes up in the section about the imagined Professor von X. This professor wrote a famous book about the inferiority of women and "was laboring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for irritation remained" (31). Woolf not only suggests here, as Cixous does later, that "Woman must write woman," but seems also to say that the academic establishment combines with the patriarchal one in a way that is inherently violent and confrontational. This tone is opposed to the one Woolf herself uses in A Room of One's Own, concerned as she is with supposed trivialities like positive depictions of female/female friendships and descriptions of food and drink.
  7. Shakespeare's Sonnets - I'm most interested in the first third or so of these, the ones chiefly referred to as the sonnets to the young man. I'm thinking a lot about how women are erased in these sonnets, as the speaker implores the young man to immortalize his beauty by having children, paying almost no mind to the woman or women who must suffer through the carrying and birthing and long lying in (a period practice that isolates a pregnant women in a dark , hot room to aid the birthing process according to the required humoral balance (hot and dry to balance out the naturally feminine cold and wet). Sonnet 3 is one of the few to acknowledge the female role in pregnancy, saying that if the object of the speaker's affection were to forgo procreation, he might "unbless some mother / For where is she whose unear'd womb / Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?" Here, the woman in question is present, but still not really acknowledged as a significant part of the process of childbirth. She's just supposed to be grateful to be chosen, because she just supplies the stuff of the baby and the man forms the child (c.f. Galen). More on this with Sedgwick's Between Men.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Prelims Reading: Day One, Part Two

David Herlihy aims to revise Joan Kelly-Gadol's claim that women did not have a Renaissance primarily by discussing the importance of hagiography to the period. While I agree with his assertions that literary renderings of female saints' lives complicate some of Kelly-Gadol's claims about women's social positions where Christianity is concerned, I can't help but think that he is benefiting from the exponential growth of feminist historicist scholarship in the 1980s and 90s to which she did not have access. Not that that makes him any less correct. It just seems like he's holding her to a slightly unfair standard, as well as painting her findings with a broad brush with statements like "[Kelly Gadol suggests] that this supposedly progressive period did nothing for women" (Herlihy 33). While she does say women are deprived of social and political opportunities that they had previously enjoyed, she makes a point to differentiate between decades and regions. She also points out how women of different classes fared better or worse than one another. To reduce these and other variances to "the period did nothing for women" is to do Kelly-Gadol's clearly painstaking research a disservice.

Herlihy's findings match up to Kelly-Gadol's initially, as he notes that "holy queens and abbesses fad[ed] from the ranks of the blessed in the Middle Ages (43), citing the Gregorian Reform that removed women from "centers of religious authority." But that's all too simple, Herlihy says. It's also necessary to examine the position of such women in families and estates, particularly within systems of kinjship and the passing on of property and wealth (43).

Prelims Reading: Day One

In an effort to keep track of my thoughts while reading for my Preliminary exams, I want to try to use this space to think through some of the things I am reading. On the docket for today are two classics of criticism in my field, Joan Kelly-Gadol's "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" (1977) and David Herlihy's response, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?: A Reconsideration (1995). Kelly-Gadol posits (in part as a response to statements in Jacob Burkhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which I will be reading later this summer) that gender inequality caused what was a complex series of artistic, scientific and social growths for men in Italy in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries to further the oppression of the women of this same period. She lays out the following criteria "for gauging the relative contraction (or expansion) of the powers of Renaissance women and for determining the quality of their historical experience":

1) the regulation of female sexuality, as compared with male sexuality;

2) women's economic and political roles, (i.e., the kind of work they performed as compared with men, and their access to property, political power, and the education or training necessary for work, property, and power);

3) the cultural roles of women in shaping the outlook of their society, and access to the education and/or institutions necessary for this;

4) ideology about women, in particular the sex-role system displayed or advocated in the symbolic products of the society, its art, literature, and philosophy.

I first read this article about six years ago, during the Fall semester of my Junior year in college. That was the semester I officially decided to become an Early Modernist, and was not long after I began thinking of myself as a feminist scholar. Looking back, it has definitely influenced the trajectory of my work a great deal. When I look at the above list, I can't help but notice that it begins and ends with notions of female sexuality, and that it sees fit to differentiate between the social regulations concerning sexuality and the artistic representations thereof, while formally acknowledging a link between the two. Anyone who has read anything I've ever written can attest to the influence of such a statement on my own ideology.

Kelly-Gadol goes on to note the freedom afforded women in the system of courtly love (contrast to Eve Sedgwick's thoughts in Between Men (1989), in which she asserts that women are socially erased commodities in such a system), citing the example of the female troubador, who "served her lover as a friend, not a master." She also notes that women could own property in feudal societies. The transition out of feudalism into sovereign states removes this power for Italian women, thereby showing how broader social trends are infused with notions of gender differences and create the groundwork for the patriarchal assumptions we hold about historical eras. Lastly, she performs an examination of Castiglione's The Courtier that proves it was central to aestheticizing previously powerful women, making them ornaments in their husbands' courts, patrons of poets who wrote of the goodness of kings at the behest of queens.

That's today's first article. I'll hopefully be back later with a bit on Herlihy's response.