Wednesday, October 5, 2011

And now, Amazons!

I'm pretty positive I'm going to get a prelims question about Amazons, so I'm going to use this space to work out how I would answer that. I read Kathryn Schwarz's book Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance, and the main thrust of her argument is that, while the academic party line about Amazons has always been that they represent a militant alternative to femininity, the way in which these women are presented in literature almost always includes them occupying a role typically coded as traditionally feminine (wife, mother, person that is concerned with beauty standards, etc.), thereby making their feminine position more complicated than popular belief would suggest.

The primary texts on my reading list that deal with Amazons are Spenser's Faerie Queene and Fletcher and Massinger's The Sea Voyage. FQ's Amazon is Radigund. She's actually queen of a tribe of Amazons, and the poem sets her up as a foil for its other female warrior, Britomart, Knight of Chastitie and hero of Book III. The poem seems to delight in have women fight inverses of themselves (Una and Duessa and Britomart and Malecasta are other examples of this) in order to prove how thin the line between appropriate and inappropriate femininity is. This also makes me think of Virginia Woolf's comments on how patriarchal literature triumphs when female characters hate each other. In addition to both being women warriors, Britomart and Radigund pass as men in various ways. Britomart's gender is ambiguous when she is dressed in armor and other trappings of knighthood (this is why Malecasta must "feel if any member move[s]"), and Radigund defies physical femininity because of the myth of Amazons removing one or both of their breasts in order to be better bow hunters. For this reason, they are linked and one must defeat the other. When they fight," they hackt and hewd their privy if such use they hated." The poem makes the point of saying that these women are wounding each other genitally, and of comparing the spots of blood to the menstrual cycle--these women are not fulfilling their roles as they should, and this is reflected easily in how they treat their physical bodies. Britomart's potential for transgressing gender norms is undercut later, however, when she defeats Radigund and only rules the Amazons long enough for the men to arrive and the appropriate order of patriarchy to be established. Indeed, her entire quest of knighthood is actually a quest for heteronormative marriage, as her ultimate goal is to marry Artegall. Like Shakespeare's Viola and Rosalind, Britomart's crossdressing is not the rebellion it seems to be.

Schwarz reads Britomart's role in FQ as within the Lacanian mirror stage (she doesn't perform a Lacanian reading of the character; she uses the mirror stage as a jumping off point). When Britomart sees Artegall in the magic mirror, Schwarz says, she sees an object of agency and "takes on the armor of alienating identity in order to obtain what she desires." This fits within the path of the mirror stage Lacan articulates, but unlike the Lacanian model, the individual agency Britomart seeks is within someone else, not herself. In this way, Radigund also acts as a similar agency-filled mirror. In order to become one with the image of the first, Britomart must defeat the second.

Though Schwarz does not cover The Sea Voyage, I think her mirror theory could work there as well, though in a slightly different way. The play covers activities on two islands: One inhabited by Portuguese Amazons, and one recently occupied by British fortune hunters. The men who are looking for gold left England because, being younger sons, they needed to find a way to survive outside of the system of primogeniture. Thus, their masculinity is doubly threatened by the Amazons' sexual appetites since it was already challenged by their home country. The foreign mirrors the familiar. The islands also mirror each other. One is dominated by men, the other by women female. One is bare, and the other is rich in food. The Amazonian women have a sexual appetite that mirrors the English men's appetite for gold, and the play does not shy away from depicting this brazen female sexuality. In one scene, Clarinda dominates Albert and talks of riding him like a horse. The play is also interesting due to its depiction of the female homosocial. In addition to being sexually frank about their exploits when they are talking together, the women make a deal with the men that they will have sex with them in order to continue their tribe, and that they will keep any female children that result and leave the male ones with their fathers. This is yet another mirror--like their fathers, some of these children will be without their families in satisfaction of strict gender roles.

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