Not the post I meant to make, but hey, I’m thinking! Let’s show my thoughts to the internet!
I’ve been (re)reading the first chapter of Susan Crane’s Gender in Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This chapter is entitled ‘Masculinity in Romance’, and I was chasing it on the basis of some footnotes in Gaunt’s Gender and Genre. It lived up to the recommendations of said footnotes by having a nice, simple, clear explanation of the difference between the postmodern/Foucault-ian subject and the Lockean individual, with useful citations for explaining how each of these have and have not been taken to apply to the ‘individual’ in medieval romance. \o/ Definitely going on my mental bibliography for spitting out at sufficiently engaged students!
So that’s all good: the Individual has been conquered!
What’s clunking around in my braaain at the moment is her section on ‘Masculinity as a function of difference’. Let’s enumerate:
Obvious Point: Women are constructed as the opposites of men; masculinity is concieved as ‘not-feminine’, so femininity is used to set the boundaries of acceptable masculine identity and performance. YUP, GOT THAT. APPLICABLE TO MANY SITUATIONS, NOT JUST MEDIEVAL LIT.
Not-so-obvious Point: you can get a ‘counterprocess’ which ‘rehabilitates’ feminine traits and incorporates them back into idealised masculinity.
Crane’s examples for this include some from the Canterbury Tales and some historical examples. In particular, she talks about the role of women in inspiring pity and mercy in men who have been figured as aggressive, assertive manlydudes. She argues, along with someone named Jill Mann, that Chaucer is working around or perhaps against strict gender role divisions: that he wants ways for men to take on ‘good’ feminine characteristics in order to have, basically, the best of both worlds.
Crane argues that the universal ideal remains ultimately masculine – a Sensitive Late Middle Ages Guy, perhaps, a chap who has all the best manly traits and can show pity, or be passive in appropriate circumstances, or not pursue revenge, etc, under the influence of women.* Feminine traits become part of the masculine ideal, but the reverse does not apply: masculine pursuits/traits do not become feminine when women do them. (Eg: ruling, fighting.)
Right. First problem with Crane’s argument is a result of talking about Chaucer. In talking about ‘how Chaucher plays with the genre of romance’ she’s got to reduce ‘romance’ to a discrete entity. For instance: romance polarises genders, Chaucer plays about with gender roles. Romance does X, Chaucer builds on it in this way. The Roman d’Eneas also seems to be her most-frequently cited example, which… doesn’t seem like the greatest choice to me if you want to talk about ‘what Romance does': the romances of antiquity do quite different things, structurally, thematically and gender-wise, to the Matter of Britain and assorted other romances.
It seems to me that one of the things that ‘romances do’ is exactly what Crane pulls out here: set up binaries and then play with them. Play with ways in which men might become objects of desire – as Yvain is to Lunette-on-behalf-of-Laudine, for example. Play with the intersections of binary systems: does the love/honour binary map neatly onto the homosocial/heterosexual binary? To me, and I’ll grant I’m biased, this is something at which Chrétien seems to be particularly skilled, but one finds it in other romances as well. There’s a whole chapter on this in Constance Brittain Bouchard’s Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, a book which makes me jump up and down and flail incoherently at undergrads. That means it’s good.
Secondly, I’m not sure about the ‘masculine traits don’t become feminine when practiced by women’ thing. Or rather, I think it’s being framed badly, and that there’s a bit of a confusion between ‘feminine’ and ‘acceptable/appropriate for women’. It might not be feminine for women to be politically active, but it was certainly held to be appropriate. There’s an excellent Kimberly LoPrete article called ‘Gendering Viragos’ on this, and I’ve just rehearsed it all at length in my draft, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice to say: it would be an unusual politically active man in the high middle ages who hadn’t met at least one politically active and powerful woman.
LoPrete’s work does dovetail with Crane’s arguments, to some extent: LoPrete argues that masculine-women, or women doing manly things, did not become non-women in doing so. They merely became exceptional (usually in a good way). So I can see how this works: if only exceptional women possess said capacities, clearly they’re not ‘feminine’. Rightyo.
One thing Crane missed is that at times, historically (and she does use historical examples in her arguments), women-doing-manly-things would do them, or be praised for doing them, while displaying traditional feminine virtues. In a different LoPrete work, on Adela of Blois, you’ll find that that most excellent lady was praised (or arranged to be praised?) as a suitable leader for her husband’s extended family on the basis of her qualities as a loyal wife, a devoted mother, and a chaste widow. Those qualities were framed as signs of strength of character and mind, making her suitable for the extra-ordinary role of woman-doing-manly-things.
That strength of character and mind – enabling a woman to stand her ground and take initiative against men – is in fact what we see Enide develop over the course of Erec et Enide: the courage to stand up for herself and her husband; skills of verbal manipulation; and self-confidence. These skills (which Maureen Fries frames as ‘heroic’ ones, distinct from heroinely feminine traits like beauty, passivity, shyness, etc) are the ones which will make her a suitable wife for a king, and a suitable mother for a king’s heirs.** Those may not be feminine traits but nor are they exclusively masculine: they’re queenly, in this context.
Another thing which bugs me, and which didn’t come up specifically in Crane’s chapter, but to which Crane’s argument lends itself, is the classifying of all iniative-taking and active roles as masculine. Verbal manipulation, for example, often turns up as a powerful weapon in the hands of women: sometimes, heroes like Erec need women to do their verbal manipulatin’ for them. If you read those traits as masculine, is it a critique of romance heroes that they often lack rhetorical skill? If skill with words is a woman’s power, are some kinds of power therefore feminine? For that matter: is female lust feminine? Ruth Marzo Karrass uses the word ‘hyper-feminine’ to refer to seductive women, like, say, the Lovesome Damsel of the Knight of the Cart. If that’s hyper-femininity, then is it hyper-feminine simply because the woman takes initiative (surely not – consider Blanchefleur, in assorted Perceval romances, who doesn’t seem to be at all evil for sneaking into Perce’s bed to convince him to protect her)?
And what happens when a woman possesses both masculine and feminine traits? If her masculine traits aren’t integrated into her feminine personality, as with manly men who do feminine things, what then?
Ahah. Answer: Constance Brittain Bouchard! I love Every Valley Shall Be Exalted. Can we argue that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits of an ‘extraordinary woman’ co-exist in productive tension, much as Love and Honour in the hero? I think I’d like to argue that. Watch me try to argue that!
* I’m intrigued that no connection seems to be made in Crane’s argument – I’m not sure about Jill Mann’s, not having read it – to more modern feminist theories about women being expected to ‘socialise’ men. If the King pardons criminals in the Queens name, that doesn’t actually mean that this Queen herself is merciful and this particular King is a nasty bugger, but it does seem to me that Queens generally are supposed to soften the edges of Kings generally. I wonder if the reason the connection’s not made is that it doesn’t hold up, or that it just… hasn’t been made.
** Citations: Maureen Fries, ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’, and Margarett Jewett Burland, ‘Chrétien’s Enide’.