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The Erotics of Similarity

Friday, November 25, 2022 - 09:00

One of the interesting through-lines in the history of female same-sex desire are the parallel strands of "attraction based on similarity" versus "attraction based on difference." If you will: femme-femme and butch-femme. (It would be interesting to look for historic antecedents for butch-butch attraction, which would also fall under the similarity model, but the primary examples tend to be femme-femme.) But these models of attraction or desire aren't limited to same-sex couples. Indeed, one could see the same-sex versions as being licensed by similar dynamics withn the larger society affecting all romantic attraction. If beauty is viewed as not dimorphic, and if one is expected to be attracted to someone similar to you--not merely because of non-gendered beauty standards, but as a basic principal--then surely same-sex attraction is a natural outcome?

This article looks at the motif of non-gender-specific beauty standards (and their implications for romantic desire) within medieval Arabic literature, but we find a similar phenomenon in medieval European romances, where it also impacts the depiction of gender disguise. (See the "similarity" tag for this motif in general.

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Antrim, Zayde. 2020. “Qamarayn: The Erotics of Sameness in the 1001 Nights” in Al-Usur al-Wusta vol. 28. pp.1-44 [Note: journal title has multiple diacritics not included here]

This article looks at how beauty and attractiveness and desirability are framed within the early manuscripts of the 1001 Nights as involving similarity rather than gender difference. While later editions, and especially translations and adaptations into western languages, tended to insert a more binary-gendered aesthetic into the descriptions of characters in the thousand and one nights, this is a conceptual shift from the early versions.

Descriptions of beauty for both male and female characters show striking similarities in the language used and the ideals of appearance attributed to them. Further, romantic couples in the tales are often specifically described as being highly similar in their beauty and attractiveness using the same vocabulary for men and women. This observation does not contradict the importance within the tales of the gender binary within the realms of marriage inheritance and social structures. But it contrasts with the real-life divisions in society between elite adult men who were at the top of the social pyramid and all others including both women and lower status and younger men. This social structure is not idealized within the tales, which leads to interesting speculations about audience and reception.

This emphasis on similarity and a lack of emphasis on binary gender differences has caused problems of interpretation for those either looking to find romantic relationships structured around contrasts of power and gender, or by those looking for concepts analogous to same-sex orientation. If desirability is portrayed in essentially identical terms for both male and female objects of desire then is it relevant to look for a concept equivalent to same-sex desire? This ideal of similarity is particularly celebrated in the context of erotic love within the tales, and when distinct differences between potential romantic partners are emphasized, it is often for the sake of humor or mockery. (There is a section of the article somewhat later that reviews a number of stories in which imperfect or racialized bodies are used to derail expected romance structures.)

The aesthetic ideal depicted in these stories uses the full moon as a symbol of beauty and often describes a romantic couple is being like twin moons. Facial features are idealized as: dark eyes, arching brows, rosy cheeks, and white teeth, framed by black or curly hair. The descriptive language is not gendered even though grammatical gender is unambiguous in Arabic. (That is, there isn't the equivalent of describing women as "beautiful" but men as "handsome" using different words.) And the descriptions of the ideal features of a beautiful body do not focus on gendered aspects such as the genitals or breasts. Beautiful bodies are slender and supple, but curved and fleshy, described as quivering or full to bursting, as well as being idealized as soft and smooth. While one might view the men being described in these terms as being feminized or depicted as youths, the language does not emphasize them as being young or adolescent.

This idealization of similar--though not necessarily androgynous--beauty interacts in interesting ways with the common motif of cross-dressing within the tales. Certainly if a man and woman are depicted as being close to twins in appearance then the audience may be more primed to believe that one could carry off a disguise as the other.

Romantic couples in the 1001 Nights are not simply described using the same language and the same ideals but are often explicitly described as similar or having a resemblance where the similarity in appearance is echoed in the mutuality of their love and an unexpected equality in the power they wield within the story.

The article uses the story of Qamar al-Zaman and the princess Budur, whose names both refer to the moon as an indication of their ideal beauty, to illustrate the importance of similarity in the romantic structure. The two are brought together by two supernatural creatures who are each championing one of the couple as the most beautiful person in the world, in order to determine which is right. The couple fall in love during this comparison and then, after being separated, spend the rest of the story pursuing a reunion. The author argues that the interlude in the story in which Budur disguises herself as her absent lover and finds herself married to a king’s daughter does not so much insert a lesbian Interlude into the story as it points out the immateriality of gender to erotic desire. When Budur gazes on her wife after their marriage, the sight reminds her of the beauty of her husband. This episode, then, is not a transfer of desire from a male object to a female one, but an extension of desire from one beautiful object to another equally beautiful. (In this, the author disagrees with Sahar Amer’s framing of the text.)

The emphasis on similarities is foregrounded in the 15th century texts of Qamar and Budur’s story, but the 19th century Arabic printed editions that have been a significant means of disseminating the story in modern times, and translated editions of a similar date, modify the descriptions and omit or add passages to downplay the similarity theme and attribute more gender distinction to the characters, especially with a focal emphasis on the genitals during erotic scenes.

The narrative consequences of Budur and Qamar’s similarity play out further in a concluding episode to the tale when Qamar is reunited with Budur (still in male disguise) and she teases him by using her new status as “king” to demand that he submit to her sexually. Qamar protests but the descriptions continue to emphasize the impossibility of recognizing Budur’s gender until they get sufficiently intimate that Budur finally lets him in on the joke. In contrast, the 19th century versions frame Qamar’s response more in terms of a “homosexual panic” and emphasizes his rejection of the request.

In conclusion, the author emphasizes the need to interpret texts as the texts present themselves, and not to retroactively apply later assumptions about gender difference and the dynamics of sexual desire.

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