Saturday, July 23, 2011

"Shakespeare as the Girl's Friend"

The tradition of using shorter, bowdlerized versions of Shakespearean plots as didactic tools for children is a long one, but one that does not reach its apex until the Victorian period. Katherine Prince details how children's periodicals helped construct rigidly gendered identities in this period: identities that encouraged “embracing adventure, exploration, and conquest for boys [and] self-sacrificing daughterhood—and eventually motherhood—for girls” (153). This gendering was made evident in the titles of the periodicals themselves, the most prominent of them being The Boy's Own Paper and The Girl's Own Paper. The latter published a special issue, The Girl's Own Shakespeare, in 1888. In addition to several short stories with Juliet, Ophelia, and other Shakespearean girls as protagonists, the issue reprinted an essay by Mary Cowden Clarke originally published the previous year entitled “Shakespeare as the Girl's Friend.” In it, Clarke extols Shakespeare as not only a great moral teacher, but also as a confidant whose understanding of a young girl's troubles extends beyond the boundaries of time:

To the young girl...Shakespeare's vital precepts and models render him essentially a helping friend. To her he comes instructively and aidingly; in his page she may find warning, guidance, kindliest monition, and wisest counsel. Through his feminine portraits she may see, as in a faithful glass, vivid pictures of what she has to evitate, or what she has to imitate, in order to become a worthy and admirable woman. Her sex is set before her, limned with utmost fidelity, painted in genuinest colors, for her to study and copy from or vary from, in accordance with what she feels or learns to be supremest harmonious effect in self amelioration of character. (Clarke 562)

The use of the word “essentially” in the first line of this passage suggests that for young girls, the deepest, most natural use of Shakespearean drama is not for entertainment or social commentary, but as a “helping friend” who serves a varied didactic function. I say that that function is varied because the advice described seems to come from both positive (“guidance” and wisest council”) and negative examples (“warning” and “kindliest monition”). The variance of tone lessens considerably when the division of power within the passage is examined, however. The repeated use of superlative adjectives (“kindliest,” “wisest,” “utmost,” “genuinest,” etc.) seems to paint Shakespeare as the pinnacle of wisdom from which the girl in question has everything to learn. Furthermore, the small amount of autonomy she possesses during this molding of self (“to study and copy from or vary from in accordance with what she feels or learns”) is immediately undermined within the space of one sentence whose ultimate goal is “self amelioration of character,” suggesting that the young girl's essential self is somehow bad or wrong and needs to be ameliorated in favor of a more acceptable femininity, a femininity best not only described, but created, by a man.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare

Preface: Lisa Jardine acknowledges that she wrote this book before feminist historicism was either widely published or labeled as an academic discipline, that she feels she owes a great deal to conversations with other feminist EM critics like Carol Neely and Coppelia Kahn, and that were she to undertake the book now, it would look quite different due to advances in the field. I was heartened by both her call for a community of feminist critics and her view of her work and the broader field of feminist historicism as ever-evolving. Sometimes I feel like critics are slow to realize the need for both of those things due to built-in academic prejudices that still privilege the model of the universally applicable individual genius.

Introduction: Jardine pinpoints trends in feminist scholarship of Shakespeare:
1. Shakespeare "held a mirror up to nature" in terms of the types of women he wrote. He does not privilege one social viewpoint over another, and his characters are varied in scope and type.

2. Shakespeare was a chauvinistic playwright from a chauvinistic society. There are two forms of this view, "non- aggressive" and "aggressive."
  • Non- aggressive: WS did his best not to be sexist, but was limited by the views and mores of his society.
  • Aggressive: WS was an obvious sexist. The author proceeds to point out instances of sexism in the plays and poems.
Jardine says that both of these views are too simplistic and, ultimately, presentist to accurately represent the scope of feminist historical scholarship. I agree. The first is too close to Bardolatry for my tastes, and the second seems too pat and easy, especially without being accompanied by some kind of examination of other documents of the period.

Chapter One - " As boys and women are for the most part cattle of the same color: Female Roles and Elizabethan Eroticism"

Jardine starts by debunking a myth that most high schools (mine included) are probably responsible for propagating: the fact that boys were playing female parts was not something EM audiences noticed; it was like scenery to them. I agree that this seems absurd, especially given the number of jokes about the practice in EM dramas (Cleopatra's line about "pip-squeak boys [putting her] i'th' posture of a whore," that joke about Helen of Troy in Faustus, and tons more).

She then discusses how crossdressing in theatres related to both sumptuary laws and anti-theatrical pamphlets, finishing the chapter by differentiating between two types of cross-dressing roles: those that are about the maleness of the boy actor, and those that are about the femaleness of the woman character as embodies by boys for titillation of audiences. As You Like It's Rosalind is one example of the former, and the bulk of Jardine's discussion of the latter centers around Portia and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice. She points out the number of instances in both plays where gender is poked fun at and questioned (Rosalind's taking of the name Ganymede and all of its homosexual/homosocial implications in the wooing lessons that follow; Portia's blushing and stammering in men's clothes before her triumphant speech). I had never really though about how the same stage practice reads differently in those plays, so that was interesting to think about.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Making Sex and The Roaring Girl

Since my last post dealt with Butlerian gender performativity, I wanted the next few texts I read to explore that concept in order to enable me to compare and contract how the theory is expressed in both primary and secondary texts. For some background about the social construction of gender in the Early Modern period, I went to Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (1990). In his chapter on Early Modern anatomical thought, he first establishes that the British Renaissance was a renaissance of classical modes and thinkers, and that the thinker who influenced Early Modern anatomy the most was Galen. Galen offers the one-sex model of anatomy.The Galenic model says that male and female genitals are the same except for their orientation: male ones go down and female ones go up. Women are "inverted men" (Laqueur 89). Otherwise, they're the same. This is important when discussing social construction of gender in EM England for several reasons. First, by calling women "inverted men," Galen establishes a male default from which femaleness is a deviation. Second, there being one primary sex does not suggest a binary model the way most of us think of gender (There's male and there's female and they're opposites and that's it), but instead provides an opportunity for that inversion to change (and indeed there are stories of women getting so overheated that their genitals spontaneously popped out, making them men), creating less of a gender binary and more of a gender continuum. This tracks with how people thought about men and women in the period not just theoretically, but practically. When young children were born, both boys and girls lived at home with the women of the house, and children of both sexes wore shifts (think long nightgowns). Men mostly occupied the public sphere, and young boys joined this sphere through school, apprenticeship, or service to a monarch around the age of six or seven. The physical marker of this social change was called "breeching"--when boys wore pants, or breeches, for the first time. These clothes were an easily visible physical representation of a social transition. Before this happens, boys are considered closer to women in their makeup because of clothing--all of which was considered an outward representation of an inward state, as evidenced by the seriousness with which sumptuary laws(laws governing who could wear what fabrics or styles and who could not) were taken. Boys were also considered to be closer in physical makeup to women due their residence in the domestic sphere( as in As You Like It: "As boys and women are, for the most part, cattle of [the same] color"(3.2). Hanging around women too much was considered a feminizing force (see the complaints from the Roman soldiers about Cleopatra's effects on Antony is Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Gender was scary in the EM period because it was visibly and socially malleable even as religious and scientific sources said it was natural and stable.

Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's The Roaring Girl (ca. 1610) is a play that points out just how scary this malleability can be, and how wide the social implications of that malleability can spread. It is a fictionalization of real-life cross-dressing thief Mary Frith, who is Moll Cutpurse in the play--"Moll" being shorthand for prostitute and "Cutpurse" referring to the fact that her method of choice for her thievery involves cutting her victims' pursestrings with a large sword. In the beginning of the play, young lover Sebastian is telling his beloved Mary (who is also "a moll" though not the "mad Moll" of the play's title, and the link between the name Mary and prostitution suggests the need for the virgin/whore dichotomy to stabilize gender) that his father has canceled their betrothal because he is now dissatisfied with her 5000 pound dowry and thinks she is a social climber. In order to distract his father from the fact that he still loves Mary and is seeing her in secret, Sebastian says he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, which makes his father devise a plan to break up their (nonexistent) union, thereby enabling Sebastian to see Mary undetected. Though Moll does not desire to enter into the institution of marriage herself because she thinks it "is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse one in th'place," she supports and participate in the plan to rejoin the lovers, enabling them to marry by convincing Sir Alexander (Sebastian's father) that she has run off with Sebastian, causing Alexander to say that he'd like anyone but Moll to marry his son, which allows Mary to enter into her union with Sebastian as originally planned. I think that quote is so great because, in one pithy statement, she attacks the commercialization of women, the importance of virginity to a woman's worth, and the church's role in patriarchy.

The thing that seems to differentiate this play from a number of cross-dressing comedies of the period like As You Like It or Twelfth Night (or even Book III of Spenser's Faerie Queene, though that's not a comedy) is that Moll cross-dresses because she knows men's clothes endow those who wear them with social power. This is in keeping with the way Butler says gender formulations should be questioned. The play's great number of fashion metaphors, the first of which appears in Middleton's epistle to the audience, shows this. She doesn't do it in service of her own desire to enter into traditional marriage, as Rosalind, Viola, and Britomart do. She wears pants, yes, but she doesn't try to pass as a man. By wearing pants but also doing nothing to physically disguise her womanhood, she confuses the people around her by being two things at once, or "not all man and not all woman" as Sir Alexander says. This destabilizes the stringent ways such people think about gender. At the play's end, Sir Alexander respects Moll and admits that public opinion about people can be wrong, so Moll is able to affect real change.

I think The Roaring Girl is a better protofeminist play than As You Like It or Twelfth Night for another reason as well: the way it exposes constructions not only of gender, but also of class. In embodying traditional pastoral escapism in their cross-dressing adventures, both Rosalind and Viola play at being of a different class. By the time their plays end, though, they are both married to men with high social stations. Everything is stable and playtime is over. These two plays could be said to explore class through Celia or Maria, but both those women are limited by their class positions. They don't get to move around to different social positions, they just tag along while Rosalind and Viola slum it. Conversely, the three merchant ladies in The Roaring Girl have their own plots that work to question the stability of class and the way it overlaps with the stability of gender, as in the fabricated affair between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter

Judith Butler's biggest contribution to the field of gender theory is without a doubt her definition(s) of performativity. She first introduced this term in 1990's Gender Trouble, when she began to assert that feminism's central reliance on the category of "woman" was problematic because it relied on the established school of thought that maintained though gender was socially constructed, sex was biological(11). Butler disagrees, saying that both categories are the result of social construction, but also that it's more complicated than that. Things we consider as fixed categories may have carried different connotations not much earlier in our history, like pink for girls and blue for boys.In the Victorian period, the color associations were actually reversed, as blue was considered calm amd pink was considered a lighter, age-appropriate version of the masculine red. Because of this arbitrariness, Butler says identity politics should be abandoned in favor of politics that ask where sex and gender come from (21). That's the first chapter.

The second chapter critiques the notion of patriarchy, with its primary argument being that notions on which we depend in order to say that patriarchy is a norm against which feminism should rebel (such as Levi-Straussian kinship theory and Freudian Oedipalism) are also social concontructions, and by using their oppositional structures as a jumping off point for feminist response (in establishing either woman-dominant or separatist communities), we as feminists are unknowingly accepting presuppositions with which we disagree. The third chapter deals with the political implications of the work of Wittig and Kristeva. I'll discuss this chapter when I deal with The Lesbian Body (Wittig) and Powers of Horror (Kristeva), both on my prelims list. The last chapter questions whether gender-neutral pronouns (ze, zir, etc.) might be a way out of the problems Butler sees with conflation of sex and gender.

Then, in 1993's Bodies that Matter, she had this to say on the subject of how sex and gender are constructed:
Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that 'performance' is not a singular 'act' or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance. (95)
In saying that performance of gender is a conscious act that appears or becomes naturalized through repetition, Butler bridges the theoretical gap between feminists who claim gender is wholly socially constructed (cf. deBeauvoir's The Second Sex--"One is not born a woman, but becomes one.") and those who rely more on the existence of the innate and the bodily to determine femininity (cf. Irigaray and Cixous). In making performativity about simultaneous consciousness and reiteration, Butler seems to suggest that seeing social construction and biological essentialism as binarily opposed concepts is to oversimplify both theories. Instead, she provides a grey area that enriches both sides.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Freud's "Femininity" and Irigaray's "This Sex Which Is Not One"

In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a women is -- that would be a task it could scarcely perform -- but sets about enquiring how she comes into being, how a woman develops out of a child with a bisexual disposition (Freud, 1933, p. 116).
Freud immediately says that woman is other, both in the quote above and in the introduction to his lecture, when he says that only men think about "the problem of women" because women themselves "are the problem" (114). He then argues against such dichotomous thinking, saying that psychology proves variation of strict gender norms due to the existence of things like motherhood (active caretaking) and manners and social graces which temper male aggression (115). He, like many feminists, actually blames socially constructed ideology for stringent gendered associations: "You have decided in your own minds to make active coincide with masculine and passive with feminine. But I advise you against it. It seems to me to serve no useful purpose and adds nothing to our knowledge" (115). Despite this seemingly progressive statement, Freud continues to assert the otherness of woman in his insistence that female/female bonds must be subordinated to male/female bonds following puberty, in order for normal psychosexual development to occur (116-7). If the relationship that
is most important for a woman's growth is an oppositional one, it seems to me that binary thinking follows fairly logically behind.

The connection between the importance of the oppositional relationship between father and daughter and the concept of woman as lack comes in the form of the castration complex, which occurs, according to Freud, when girls first observe male genitalia and
[t]hey at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to 'have something like it too,' and fall victim to 'envy for the penis,' which will leave ineradicable traces on their development and the formation of their character and which will not be surmounted in even the most favorable cases without a severe expenditure of psychical energy. (118)
Though the "severe expenditure of psychical energy" described here seems to go along with Freud's claim that female does not necessarily equal passive, I think there's a huge difference between unconscious action and conscious socialized behavior. If that unconscious action to possess a penis can only be accomplished by socially prescribed feminine passivity, then it seems to me that the unconscious action is subordinate and Freud's argument falls apart.

Freud ends by describing both femininity and his knowledge of it as "incomplete and fragmentary," mentioning that though his discussion has centered on " women insofar as their nature has been informed by their sexual function" and that "an individual woman may be a human being in other respects as well." An individual woman may be a human being in other respects as well. This says that women, as a group, are not human beings, and that individual women only have some chance of not being completely overcome by their sexuality. UGH.

Irigaray responds to the common psychoanalytic assertion that the feminine exists only insofar as it is a negation of the masculine (this sex which is not one) by saying that in its variance and multiplicity (this sex which is not one), femininity is deeper, richer, and more complex than masculinity. She frames this debate, as Freud does before her, in terms of sexual pleasure. In referring to the psychoanalytic practice of viewing the feminine as a lack, she says that " the vagina is valued for the 'lodging' it offers the male organ" and not on its own terms (cf. Inga Muscio) (1).

She ultimately argues that instead of characterizing female multiplicity as negative (women's eyes "false in rolling"Shakespeare's Sonnet 20, Spenser's Duessa, etc.), we should glory in it, realizing that, unlike male sexuality being located mainly in the phallus, women's entire bodies are erogenous zones and even their genitalia is not only multiple (see also her "Two Lips that Speak Together") but also constantly stimulating itself: "she touches herself in and of herself without any need for mediation[like men need women or hands], and before there is any way to distinguish [commonly male] activity from [commonly female] passivity (1). Thus, Irigaray sees the possibility of power in the position of the woman in the psychoanalytic model. Fellow French feminist Helene Cixous applies this notion of enjoying female deviation from a male norm to the concept of writing in her essay "The Laugh of the Medusa."

Irigaray clarifies that it's not enough to just flip the power binary: [Though] the powers of slaves are not negligible powers, the master is not necessarily well-served. Thus to reverse the relation, especially in the economy of sexuality, does not seem a desirable objective" (6). She concludes the essay by saying that, while consciousness of such patriarchal formations is necessary for liberation, alternative social constructions (like lesbian separatism) could ultimately cause "history to repeat itself" in the form of "phallocratism" if power structures become the ultimate goal (7).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lacan's "The Mirror Stage" and "The Signification of the Phallus"

After reading these two essays again, I have noticed a few things about Lacanian theory that I had heard, but that had never really clicked in my head. In "The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I in psychoanalytic experience," Lacan postulates that the point at which a pre-verbal child can first recognize her own image in a mirror is both the beginning of that child's concept of a stable self and "an essential stage of the act of intelligence" (1). This definition of the mirror stage lines up with what I already knew about the theory. What's new to me is how that stage, given that it finds stability in instability by saying that self is self because self is not reflection, falls in line with Deconstructionist theory and semiotics. Deconstructionist semiotics teaches that all language both differs and defers; that we derive meaning from a unit of language both by comparing it to what it it isn't, and by thinking through its connections and mental associations with other words. Example: When I say "dog," you probably think "not cat," but you also (quickly and perhaps unconsciously) think "retriever or shepherd or collie or poodle or etc." "Dog" both differs and defers. Seeing this connection makes me dislike Lacan less, or at least respect the importance of his theoretical contributions more.

The second thing I had heard but never understood is that while most readers of psychoanalysis differentiate heavily between its Freudian and Lacanian iterations, Lacan considered himself a Freudian. This was unclear to me until I began to notice how many references to dream interpretation appear in "The Mirror Stage...". In dreams, Lacan says, we discover how our "fragmented bodies" as delivered to us through our reflections are a vehicle to the wholeness represented by the individual self. We dream of having mangled limbs or growing wings when we analyze the existence of our individual selves and try to separate "true" self from reflected or perceived self (4), and we dream of fortresses and journeys to locked and isolated places when we try to reconcile the true with the perceived (5). He concludes that there is really no difference between truth and perception in terms of the self, as the so-called true self is also filtered through perception(6-7).

It's when I get to "The Signification of the Phallus" that I start to get really upset. Because the phallus is significant (in that it contains signifiers semiotically, but also in that it is considered important, in the more common sense of the word) and woman is lack, "Woman finds the signifier of her own desire in the body of him to whom she addresses her demand for love’ (577). Like the child in the mirror, she is because she is not. It gets tricky, though, because for Lacan, woman is the site of the impossible return to the realm of the Real (unity of self and unconscious that only happens pre-birth). The French feminists turn this around and mine power from it. More on that tomorrow when I discuss Irigaray and Freud.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Shepheardes Calendar and Antony and Cleopatra

I would argue that both Spenser's Shepheardes Calendar (1579) and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra are about establishing stringent binary oppositions only to dismantle them later, thereby questioning any stability those organizing principles may have possessed. The twelve stories in the Shepheardes Calendar are arranged (as the titles suggests) from January to December, beginning with the hope of Spring's rebirth and ending with the other end of the life cycle: death. Many of these months examine opposing viewpoints or conditions. January begins with Colin Clout, who has just been rejected by his beloved Rosalind, journeying from the country into the town. Now only is the pastoral juxtaposed with the more industrious city, but love is also contradictory in and of itself, as Colin laments that it should "breede both joy and payne, " cursing and blessing his meeting Rosalind by turns (54, 49-51). February opposes youth and age, with the young Cuddie wishing for the frivolity of Spring while the aged Thenot asks him to be patient, saying that the fertility rituals Cuddie wishes for are a young man's game, a silly public display that he is glad to be rid of. Though Cuddie does not heed the warnings he is given at the end of the poem, I get the sense that he acts so not from any failing of character, but becuase hes role in the cycle of life is to be young and kind of stupid. If he did not fulfill this role, the natural order of the Calender would be disrupted. Spenser's deliberately archaic language (a trope he uses to slightly different, more nationalistic effect in The Faerie Queene) helps cement the "It's always been that way, it will always be that way" stasis that the poem both thrives on and confuses.

March, as the beginning of Spring, touches on two boys' stories of romantic knowledge, and things get really interesting in April, when Hobbinol (a shepherd) sings a song of Colin's love of a woman named Eliza who is "Ycald in Scarlot like a mayden Queene / And Ermines white" (lines 58-9, page 73). The colors and fabrics associated with this "mayden Queene" are a not-so- subtle nod to Queen Elizabeth I, thereby placing the Queen at the center of a homosocial triangle created by the two opposing young men. This placement of the Queen within a pastoral motif mirrors many royal parties of the period and glorifies a form that, as it praises the natural, is quite reliant on artifice. May centers on a Protestant/Catholic worship debate that never rally gets settled, and the rest of the poem frames Colin's pursuit of Rosalind various ways, with December causing him to conclude that he is like fruit that fell off the tree before it really had the chance to ripen, since he is old but unlucky in love. Therefore, though the whole poem tries to say that it is youth and love that are compatible, it ultimately contradicts itself, choosing to end the poem by saying that mortality is the only stable fact; all the other rules we make for ourselves are negotiable.

Antony and Cleopatra works to dismantle binaries as well : masculine/feminine, logical/emotional, Roman/Egyptian, and normal/excessive are the big ones, and the play wants us to think that all the words on the left and all the words on the right line up with one another, that Rome is tough and strong and cool-headed and Egypt just wants to get laid and then cry about it. Or at least the play wants us to think that's what it wants to do. At first. Except that Antony cries an awful lot, and Cleopatra is pretty good at getting stuff done in her kingdom, even when she uses some stereotypical feminine wiles to do so. Some of the other soldiers attribute this to Cleopatra's corrupting influence, and then they all get scared of being feminized to the point that when Lepidus gets rip-roaring drunk to celebrate the formation of the Triumvirate, the other men refer to his hangover as greensickness--a form of anemia that Early Modern medicine attributed to virgins, the cure for which was sex ASAP (and preferably sex that resulted in pregnancy). At worst, women are all things negative in the world of the play. At best, they're bargaining chips, as in the case of Antony's marriage of political alliance to Octavia.

Not that this sexism is limited to Romans in the play, or to dudes in general. The moment that Cleopatra hears of Antony's marriage to Octavia, she sends her attendants to gather information about the woman in order to prove that she is more beautiful and younger than Antony's current wife. Even though Cleopatra is often frivolous in similar ways, she dies with dignity, on a throne, refusing to witness her kingdom's downfall. With this ending (and because Antony's death happens much earlier, letting Cleopatra's death occur in Act 5, when tragic climax deaths usually occur), a woman who has embodied Egyptian excess embodies Roman logic and ruling ability. Everything the play relies on for its stability is made unstable in the end.