Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Dialectic of Sex and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Despite writing almost two centuries apart, both Wollstonecraft and Firestone begin at the same assumption: Women are thought to be naturally inferior to men, and this is a problem. Firestone (like deBeauvoir before her) sees this inferiority as stemming from the physical, so she calls for a revolution that centers on disconnecting women from their biological obligations, childbearing chief among them. She advocates for cybernetics, babies born in labs, and socialized health and childcare, among other things. She follows a Marxist mode of thinking that says progress cannot be achieved without an overthrow of current ideologies. Indeed, she criticizes Marx and Engles for what she sees as their merely tokenizing inclusion of women within their economic theories. While I think Firestone (like all true radicals) is a bit too idealistic, I do think she makes valid points about how women are sometimes oppressed by their own bodies. I'm definitely a supporter of childcare in businesses, as well as the addition of paternity leave to the traditional maternity option (something Firestone doesn't directly mention, but would almost certainly support due to its removal of the maternal body from mandatory direct childcare responsibilities).

Wollstonecraft zeroes in on education as both the root of and the solution to the problem of supposedly naturally occurring female inferiority. There are a few passages of her work that really struck me:
  1. "Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of property, will obtain for them the protection of a man...( excerpt from Kolmar and Bartowski 64). My grandmother used to say to me "The man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she wants." I thought it was funny as a kid (and in a different way later after she passed away, when I heard it repeated in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but coming to feminism made me consider how the ways women are taught to gain power in relationships can actually keep them subordinate by playing into gender stereotypes. I love that Wollstonecraft goes straight to social construction in 1792. There is nothing new under the sun, indeed.
  2. "The most perfect education [will]... enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. Cf. EM conduct books, the phenomenon of greensickness (or later, hysteria, or even later, anorexia/bullemia). Elizabeth I was only able to learn "unfeminine" virtues because of her class position. Sadly, the view of feminine education Wollstonecraft decries is gaining ground again in conservative religious communities through the Stay-at-Home Daughters movement.
  3. "In the education of women, the cultivation of understanding is always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment" (65). In EME, this is true for most all women except some lucky high-class ones (Elizabeth, Lady Mary Wroth, etc.)

Monday, August 29, 2011

The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi

I had never read John Webster's The White Devil before reading it for my exams. I have one other play by him on my list, The Duchess of Malfi, which I read way back in an undergrad Ren. Drama course, so I'm excited to revisit that now that I have more knowledge about the drama of the period. All this is to say that I was laboring under some preconceptions about Webster and his work that I have now revised a bit. Chief among them is that Webster is all about doom and gloom--T.S. Eliot famously wrote a poem in which he characterized Webster as "see[ing] the skull beneath the skin" when he crafted characters. This is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete. As far as revenge tragedians go, Webster isn't morose just to be morose. It's clear that the violence, double-crossing, and death in his work isn't just about titillation, but about the fact that actions have consequences, and that evil grows evil just as good grows good. He also seems to me to suggest that evil is naturally occurring in people, but that may be my own Calvinism coloring my reading.

The White Devil is the story of an affair between Brachiano, a duke, and Vittoria, a woman who is initially married to one of his courtiers. In order to be with her, Brachiano conspires with some of his followers to kill his wife and Vittoria's husband. What's most interesting to me is the way these murders occur. Brachiano knows his wife kisses a portrait of him every night before she goes to sleep, so he gets someone to poison it. She kisses it and falls over dead. Likewise, he knows Vittorio's husband is a bit of a show-off, so he has his henchmen set up a test of strength that ends with a broken neck. Ultimately, both parties are killed by their adherence to traditional gender roles.

As the play progresses, Vittoria begins to see how her society constructs confining gender roles for her to which Brachiano does not have to comply. As she is being tried for adultery, she mentions that he pursued her, and that she was pressured into a relationship with him by her social climbing brothers (there's some SERIOUS homosocial commodification of women in this play; there are a handful of conversations where two or more men alone in a room discuss how they can best use Vittoria for their own gain). She tells the judge that prosecuting her would be forcing someone to submerge themselves in water and blaming them when they drowned. She knows how her world works, that as a woman, she has few choices available to her. Despite her awareness of social machinations, she and Brachiano are eventually killed by Lodovico, who Brachiano banishes at the beginning of the play. Male power is what's important; women are at best, unfortunate casualties of male agendas, and at worst, temptresses (or devils) who set those dastardly agendas in motion.

The Duchess of Malfi also considers how female power looks when male homosocial power is hegemonic, but in a slightly different way. We also get a woman with two brothers in this play. The titular Duchess is not on very good terms with the Cardinal and Ferdinand, due to the fact that they want to control her estate and she wants to liver her own life. In keeping with this desire, she secretly marries Antonio, her steward, whom she loves despite his low station. Their relationship is discovered by Bosola, her master of horse, who suspects that she may be a) involved with Antonio and b)pregnant and feeds her apricots to see if she will go into labor. She does, and the two are eventually banished with their children. Like in The White Devil, there are many conversations in which Ferdinand and The Cardinal (sometimes together and sometimes with another man) discuss ways to manipulate the Duchess to serve their own agendas. Also like in The White Devil, the slur of choice for an unruly woman is "whore," despite the fact that the Duchess marries Antonio by (an entirely legal, though private) handfasting. Because she doesn't do what the other men in her life want her to and instead exercises power that is individually hers, she's a whore. Her brothers eventually kill both her and her husband, leaving their son to become heir against the wishes of his father (who knows all too well the corruption within the Italian government). This ending seems a bit positive, but also suggests that uncontrollable cycles are continuing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Second Sex, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Metamorphoses

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir's landmark exploration of how women are made, not born, lays the foundation for Judith Butler's affirmations that both sex and gender are socially constructed. I've already paraphrased the book's most famous statement, and indeed I am most familiar with the "Childhood" and "Womanhood" sections of the book in which de Beauvoir's chief endeavor is to interrogate what would come to be standard psychoanalytic viewpoints on gender, most of which boil down to women's physical states contributing to their natural psychological inferiority. This connection likely contributes to her desire to disconnect women's social roles from their physical bodies, a desire which is countered by the later work of theorists like Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray. One thing that she agrees with Freud and others on that is actually an important holdover from sixteenth-century anatomy is the fact that children are effectively genderless up to a certain age, that manhood is the default (normative) resulting gender, and that womanhood deviates from that masculine norm. While psychoanalysts think that this has to do with women's own recognition of their physical inferiority as contained in unconscious revelation (penis envy, Electra complex, etc.), deBeauvoir says these notions are not biologically natural at all. Rather, she maintains that they are constructed by a patriarchal hegemony that insists on their essentialism in order to leave the notions unquestioned. These themes are established in Galenic anatomy, and Susan Bordo argues very effectively that they hold strong in the twenty-first century in narratives of anorexic women, who read female secondary-sex characteristics as weakness. That common thread is both sad and interesting to me.

Twelfth Night and As You Like It - I've been hearing for years that these two plays are the same play, and while I had acknowledged their obvious commonalities (female characters cross-dressing, pastoral escapism, marriage endings, plucky woman sidekicks) I always felt that the two differed in tone in that the former was more social serious and the later was much more grounded in the pastoral tradition, what with Orlando's bad poetry on the trees and the homosocial, courtly love flavor Ganymede brings to the mix. While I still think that difference exists, I am no longer convinced that it is an important one, mostly because I have read Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl next to those plays now. Moll Cutpurse is so much more transgressive and progressive than both Viola and Rosalind for several reasons. First, she doesn't cross-dress to pass as a man; she does so in order to take advantage of the freedoms afforded the wearers of men's clothes. her visible femininity is still apparent, so she openly criticizes ways that gender is socially constructed, unlike Rosalind and Viola, whose ultimate goals are heteronormative marriage. Second, Moll recognizes how marriage can trap women, and that the social mobility it may afford them is possible not worth its cost when she says things like (paraphrasing here) marriage is just a swapping of places wherein a maiden trades one head for a worse one. For me, this statement negates the supposedly transgressive ending of Twelfth Night in which Orsino asks "Cesario" to remain in men's clothes for their wedding; at that point, what could have been about female empowerment is now about male sexual fantasy.
Last and most important is the issue of class in all three plays. Maria and Celia have their own plats, but they mostly serve as comic relief, diversions from the slightly more serious entanglements of their social betters. They are not given the opportunities to move up in rank that Rosalind and Viola are. Indeed, in Maria's case, class positions are so stringent and internalized that she cruelly mocks Malvolio's social-climbing efforts. On the contrary, the three merchant mistresses in The Roaring Girl, while they do occupy secondary plots, also offer a more nuanced vision of how constructions of class and gender overlap, as well as being aware of how they can use those constructions to their advantage. This is most evident in Mistress Gallipot's affair with Laxton.

Ovid's Metamorphoses - I actually read this a while back, along with Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. I waited to post because I was a little overwhelmed with all the raping. In addition to that motif, Metamorphoses also shares themes of Petrarchan inversion and miscommunication with those two poems. What struck me the most was the matter-of-fact was that rape is discussed in Ovid, as if it is a fact of life. In many cases, the god rapist (usually Jupiter, though Hades does this too) tells his female conquest that she is lucky to be raped by someone of such a high station. There's also not a lot of moral judgement present in the text, though that's true with most of its events.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Part Two

  • "Taken together, the feminist critiques of gendered representations and of the politics of the material body can also be seen as an extended argument against the notion that the body is a purely biological or natural form" (33). This is where Bordo's tendency toward analysis of cultural artifacts like ads comes in really handy. It's easier for people--especially those new to critical thinking--to see sex or gender or race as social constructions once they can see how human-created culture informs our self-perception. In this way, she builds on both deBeauvoir and Butler.
  • "Many feminists remain agnostic or ambivalent about the role of biology and sexual 'difference,' justifiably fearful of ideas that seem to assert an unalterable female nature, they are nonetheless concerned that too exclusive an emphasis on culture will obscure a powerful, and potentially culturally transformative, aspects of women's experience (36). I like that Bordo advocates for a middle way here. I've often felt that to create an essentialist/constructionist binary is to neglect real people and how they live their lives. As I've said before, I think Butlerian performativity bridges a similar gap.
  • "These elements point to culture--working not only through ideology and images, but through the organization of the family, the construction of personality, the training of perception--as not only contributory but productive of eating disorders. A parallel exists in the formation of female hysteria" (50). Not only is it incredibly interesting that Bordo links anorexia with hysteria, but its also a very intelligent move on her part to say that such feminine diseases work to reinscribe gender norms by conforming to traditional roles. Were I to go back further to my period of study, I think I could say the same for greensickness.
  • "The current terms of the abortion debate--as a contest between fetal claims to personhood and women's right to choose--are limited and misleading. In the context of my analysis...the current battle over reproductive control emerges as an assault on the personhood of women" (72). I'm not entirely sure how the mode she sets up here is less of a limiting binary than the one she wants to break down, but I do think she's right. Galenic anatomy sees women as baby containers--any woman will do; it's the male-contributed form that's important--and recent pro-life "victories" like when a fetus "testified" in an Ohio court to prove its heartbeat suggest a similar idea, as do horrific prison conditions that force women to give birth while shackled to tables.
  • " [Anorexic] Cherry Boone O'Neal speaks explicitly of her fear of womanhood. If only she could stay thin, says yet another, 'I would never have to deal with having a woman's body; like Peter Pan I could stay a child forever.' The choice of Peter Pan is telling here--what she means is stay a boy forever (155). This idea that children are the same regardless of gender and that womanliness dirties things up is true in the English Renaissance as well.
  • "Women must develop a totally other-oriented emotional economy. In this economy, the control of female appetite for food is merely the most concrete expression of the general rule of governing the construction of femininity: that female hunger--for public power, for independence, for sexual gratification--be contained, and the public space that women be allowed to take up be limited (170). This is the entire point of the fighting in The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Part One

Susan Bordo's landmark text of feminist body theory begins with the gendering of the Cartesian mind/body split, saying that society in general associates the (privileged) mind with the male sphere and the (marginalized) body with the female one. This tracks with the work of body-centered French feminists like Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray. From there, she covers a number of things that affect the way we view female bodies, such as plastic surgery, advertisements, psychoanalysis, food, eating disorders, and "postfeminist" thought. This book has informed my own work a great deal, and it's as readable a collection of feminist theory as I've ever come across. I use Bordo's excerpts and ideas a great deal in my own lower-level classes, particularly her stuff on advertising analysis. Because of all these things, I don't think it would be feasible or appropriate to summarize her very readable, incredibly personal, anecdotal book the way I have some of the others on my reading list. Instead, I'm going to offer ten passages I love from Unbearable Weight, along with my responses to them. For now, the first three:
  1. On shopping for bedding for her young daughter: "The designated boy's room is all in primary colors, the bedspread dotted with bats, balls, and catching mitts. The caption reads: 'I play so many sports that it's hard to pick my favorite.' Sounds like my daughter. On the opposite page, the girl's room is pictured, a pastel planetary design. The caption reads: 'I like stars because they are shiny.' That too sounds like my daughter. But Pottery Barn doesn't think a child can inhabit both worlds. If their catalogues were as segregated and stereotyped racially as they are by gender, people would boycott."YES. Stuff like this is why I frame my composition classes around cultural literacy, why we do things like examine arguments of pop songs and television commercials. These social constructions are fed to us so frequently and from so young an age that they become universals. Children should be able to do both "boy stuff" and "girl stuff" if they want. I'm also troubled by the active male/passive female binary in these ads, as well as the correspondingly gendered function/fashion split.
  2. Responding to author Sharon Lamb, who says that young girls in heavy makeup and revealing clothes are " silly and adorable, sexy and marvelous all at once," that they are "playing out male fantasies, but without risk": "22 to 29 percent of rapes against girls occur when they are eleven or younger. We might like to think that these rapes are the work of deranged madmen, so disconnected from reality as to be oblivious to the culture around them...The reality is, however, that these girls are much more likely to be raped by friends and family than by strangers, and that very few men, whether strangers or acquaintances, are unaffected by having a visual culture of nymphets prancing before their eyes, exuding a sexual knowledge and experience that they don't really have. Feminists used to call this 'rape culture.' We never hear that phrase anymore, do we?" I agree with Bordo's criticisms of Lamb, but some of this feels a tad close to victim blaming in that it doesn't hold rapists as responsible (or as explicitly responsible) as I think it should. As for the "rape culture" thing, that is an ever-present term in young feminist circles nowadays; I suspect we have Bordo to thank for its return to prominence.
  3. "The extremes to which the anoretic takes the denial of appetite (that is, to the point of starvation) suggest the dualistic nature of her construction of reality; either she transcends body totally, becoming pure 'male' will, or she capitulates utterly to the degraded female body and its disgusting hungers. She sees no other possibilities, no middle ground" (8) It shocks me how much this sounds like the 16th and 17thc views on the female body that Lisa Jardine talks about. Hunger, whether it be physical or sexual, is a complex place for female power. The more things change...

Monday, August 1, 2011

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

Chapter Two - The Double Bind of a Renaissance Education and Reformed Religion
  • Jardine says that the Reformation brought with it " a triad of 'liberating' possibilities for women: Protestantism, humanism, and marital partnership" (38). These are not actually liberating, she says, because they create a "double bind" due to their existing within the patriarchal structure.
  • As long as a woman uses her intelligence or partial autonomy to illuminate that of her husband, she is an asset. If she uses those things for independent means, she is scorned and her education acts as a patina for her natural female baseness (cf. Duchess of Malfi, the sonnets to the Dark Lady).
  • We must read deeply and with a grain of salt so that we do not see the Renaissance as either totally misogynist or totally liberating (39).
The three supposedly liberating changes are not liberating because:
  1. marital partnership - Jardine says that the viewpoint that give and take in marriage in necessary supposes the natural inferiority of women. I'm not sure I agree here. I think I know what she's getting at (the need for centralization necessitates preexisting marginalization), but I think this may be an oversimplification, especially given her previous caution to the reader of immediately equating past periods with chauvinism. Her textual justifications: Aristotelian/Galenic anatomy, Proverbs 31
  2. Protestantism - "The woman's freedom to think and act for herself is carefully contained within a freshly romanticized picture of the family" (49). The Reformation closed the doors of the independent, female homosocial community that was the convent, while at the same time making women's only real security come from the nuclear family. Additionally, letting women participate in heterogeneous theological communities created the idea that women are the keepers of the moral code--one stereotype gives way to an opposing, but no less oppressive, one.
  3. Education - Liberal humanist education as mostly available to high-class women, because who else has the time to devote to learning? Education as a means of transcending natural womanhood (see Roger Ascham's comments about Elizabeth - "[She learned] purity, chasteness, and modesty of language to become more than a woman").
Chapter Three - "I am the Duchess of Malfi still": Wealth, Inheritance, and the Spectre of Strong Women

  • The chapter's big question: How do strong women of Jacobean Drama relate to their real life counterparts, who were "constrained by an ideology of duty and obedience" (68)?
  • What makes these women strong, according to Jardine? "Passion, sensuality, courage, cunning, and ambition" (68).
  • These strong women (Beatrice Joanna in The Changeling, Vittoria in The White Devil, the titular Duchess of Malfi) exist in male worlds written by male playwrights. Jardine says the plays make us accept male views of women. As a feminist historicist myself, I have to quibble with that. Make us? Want us to, perhaps, but not make us. Each reader possesses her/his own interpretive lens affected by a multitude of variables.
  • Jardine makes the point that one big way women like the ones listed above (and their real counterparts) got power was by intruding upon the male inheritance system (entailment) as needed. Sometimes a "tail male" was forsaken for a "tail general" in order to prevent division of land or entailment to a distant relative (85).
  • Something I thought was very interesting about this chapter was Jardine's suggestion that the closet scene in Hamlet owes its sexual undertones (or overtones, if you're Mel Gibson) to the fact that Hamlet looks at Gertrude's relationship with Claudius as a possible roadblock to his inheriting ruling power. If Claudius or Claudius' future offspring with Gertrude rules Denmark, Hamlet cannot. This wasn't something I had considered before, but it does go in line with readings that apply the play's instability to the Tudor succession crisis (despite the fact that Denmark was not ruled by primogeniture when the play is set) (92).

Chapter Four: Shrewd or Shrewish? When the Disorderly Woman has her Head
  • "The scolding woman traditionally represents the irrational and uncontrollable in even the best-ordered male life" (103).
  • In their own times, scolds were brutally punished (bridles, ducking stools, etc.) and often tried as witches, but they appeal to our 21st. c. sensibilities. We don't want to think of them as socially complex, but instead as harbingers of a better age (104).
  • Wives are instructed to control their tongues (see James 3:1-18), but sometimes that was their only weapon. Woman's vocal power is illusory because it threatens disorder without freeing her from the responsibilities of the female sphere (106-7).
  • Domination gets bigger in Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra -- shrews on a global stage! (114)
  • The female tongue is also a sexual instrument, and can have power like a penis (see jokes by both Petruccios in Shrew and Tamer) (121).
Chapter Five - Dress Codes, Sumptuary Laws, and "Natural" Order

  • Dress above one's station was unlawful (148).
  • Sumptuary laws also reflect the commercial threat of globalization (150)
  • Women's fashion as a drain on their husbands--one reason why Petruchio has Kate step on her cap (also jokes about (maiden)heads and headship there) (152).
  • Fashion in The Roaring Girl: Feathers, breeches, and tobacco (the things the merchant women sell and Moll buys) all flew in the face of sumptuary pamphleteers, and its comments on fashion (from the prologue on) make the play act as an intersection of "all society's nervousness where relations between men and women were concerned" (159-61).
Chapter Six - The Saving Stereotypes of Female Heroism

  • Depictions of Elizabeth portray anxiety about women in power (169)
  • Cult of Elizabeth - even though she was old, she still got painted up and fawned over and called Gloriana and Cynthia. Her power became a courtly joke (173).