Skip to content Skip to navigation

Queering the Little Red Hen

Monday, June 22, 2020 - 18:00

This collection was not particularly fruitful in terms of LHMP content, with barely two articles speaking to the topic of women's same-sex desire. This is, alas, all too common in general collections, as well as all too common under the umbrella of Queer Studies. This tendency creates what I have come to call the "Little Red Hen Problem." You know the story about the little red hen? She finds a grain of wheat and asks help to plant it, then to tend it, then to harvest the wheat, then to grind it to flour, then to make bread out of it, all along the way encountering indifference and turned backs. So at every step she says, "Well, then, I'll do it myself." And at the end of the story when she asks, "And who would like to eat the bread?" then everyone is eager to join in, but the little red hen spurns them all, saying "I'll do it myself."

So what do I mean about something being a little red hen problem in historical research? When academics interested in the place of women in history found nothing but indifference and turned backs in the academy, they created the field of Women's Studies. When academics interested in the study of female same-sex relations in history found themselves largely shut out of the history of sexuality and queer studies, they said, "Well then, I'll do it myself" and created the field of lesbian history. But if time and again you have to create a field of study that is narrowly focused on your topic of interest, simply in order for that topic to be represented at all, then the act of narrowing the focus simultaneously results in progressive exclusion within your narrowed field, as well as failing to challenge the de facto exclusion in the larger field.

It's understandable. People get tired of begging for a place at the table and go off to build their own table. Or grow their own wheat. Or run their own mill. And if it results in an increasing separation from the "default" version of the academy, well, let someone else put in that work. You're tired and you just want a place where you're able to do the work you care about. But now you're part of a separate economy of research, just as the little red hen set up her own vertically-siloed economy of bread production. It's much more fragile than an integrated economy. And didn't feel like you had a choice. No one was letting you participate in an integrated economy. You had some wheat, but nobody was offering to help you turn it into bread.

I tend to feel that the lesfic publishing community is dealing with the late stage of a Little Red Hen Problem. When no one else was willing to publish fun, sympathetic genre fiction about women loving each other, the flock of little red hens came together and created the books no one else would touch. But what had originally been necessity developed into a way of life. We're going to grow wheat, not oats or barley, because that's what little red hens do. We're going plant and harvest it in specific ways because that's the little red hen tradition. And we're going to grind it to flour to make a specific type of bread. This is the bread we've always made. We're not going to make croissants or tortillas. We're not going to mix in olives or add eggs or top with caraway seeds, because that's the the little red hen way. We must respect the struggles and traditions of our fore-hens!

OK, I confess this metaphor has strayed a bit off the rails. And it no longer has much to do with why, in an entire collection of articles about queering the Renaissance, I could only find two about women loving women. But the point I'm reaching for is that sometimes even structures and systems that were about survival when first developed can turn around and become barriers. If I share my bread with you, will you share your polenta?

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Stephens, Dorothy. 1994. “Into Other Arms: Amoret’s Evasion”” in Queering the Renaissance ed. by Jonathan Goldberg. Duke University Press, Durham and London. ISBN 0-8223-1381-2

Publication summary: 

This collection of articles takes a broad view of “queering”. The articles look at the ways in whch “humanism” failed to recognize the humanity of many popuations, specifically those who were not straight white men. The research here encourages examination of the relationship of race, gender, and sexuality to notions of colonialism and imperial expansion.

Stephens "Into Other Arms: Amoret’s Evasion "

This article examines several passages in Spencer’s Faerie Queene that suggest female homoerotic encounters, either in the context of homosocial affection or primed by gender disguise. Amoret, our damsel in distress, finds herself in the allegorical “Cave of Lust” and encounters another woman bewailing her similar fate there. “Lust” should not be taken as benign pleasure here, but more aligned with sexual assault. The two women exchange stories and bond over their harrowing escapes from lustful pursuit.

This episode occurs at an interesting shifting point in the narrative. The original, shorter version of the tale has ended slightly previous to this point with Amoret reunited with her (male) lover Scudamore. But in the expanded version of the work, that reunion is sidestepped as Amoret wanders off from her rescuer (the female knight Britomart) and falls into this peril while Scudamore has his own adventures elsewhere.

In the shorter version, the reunion of Amoret and Scudamore is depicted in terms of the classical hermaphrodite: the reunion of two halves into their original whole and single being. There is a discussion of how Plato’s hermaphrodite allegory represents an equal and reciprocal love, in contrast to the hierarchical relations that Greek men participated in (regardless of the gender of their partner). Reciprocal love as a concept is associated in Plato with women, and the concept is attributed to Diotima, Socrates’ teacher. But how much can we rely on male depictions of female romantic/erotic experience? Compare Plato’s allegory with Renaissance images of the perfect Petrarchian woman who serves as an inspiring muse but whose intellectual and philosophical authority has been projected on her by men who do not recognize women as having an existence apart from that relationship with the men they inspire.

We return to considering Amoret, who has previously been brainwashed by her captor into doubting the validity of her own desire--into seeing desire as something that is done to her, not something she experiences.

This article examines the narrative changes and reframing that were necessary when Spencer expanded the poem. The knight Britomart has still been sent by Scudamore to rescue Amoret, but now some ruse must be found to allow for continued adventures before the eventual reunion.

Britomart is taken for a man, due to the disguise of armor, when she challenges and defeats Amoret’s abductor. Both women are changed by this rescue as they travel on together. Amoret and Britomart’s compaionship gives Amoret more agency to have adventures, rather than being a hapless victim of every encounter. And Britomart is shifted from a repressed, sexless state to a desiring character who will have her own romantic adventures.

When Britomart rescues Amoret, Amoret--believing her rescuer to be a man--finds herself torn between the faithfulness she owes her original lover, Scudamore, and an eroticized gratitude she owes Britomart. Britomart doesn’t reveal her sex to Amoret, thinking to better protect them both, but this allows the imperatives of the chivalric script--in which a woman is required to love and reward a virtuous rescuer--to work on Amoret’s feelings about the knight.

Britomart teasingly courts her, supposedly to reinforce her disguise, but as Britomart’s flirtation is greater than any similar behavior she engages in with her own nominal (male) suitor, could it be that she retains her disguise rather for the very purpose of this flirtation?

When the two reach a castle that can be considered a safe space, Britomart removes her helmet (thus, by the rules of the genre, unmasking her sex). Amoret is then freed to show her affection for the knight. They share a bed that night and exchange histories in an intimate scene. While the content of their tête-a-tête is heterosexual, the situation in which it occurs is not. In fact, this is the only “happy” bedfellows scene in the entire poem.

The idyll is brief, and more hazardous adventures ensue, but theirs is one of the few supportive female friendships in the work. (Most relationships between women are uneasy at best, while men are allowed true friendship.) Britomart is at once friend and knightly protector, a combination not possible for a man.

The “true love” between Britomart and Amoret continues to be emphasized even when they are  being paired off with men, and Britomart’s gender is foregrounded as calming Scudamore’s jealousy when he thinks the “strange knight” protecting Amoret may have become her lover. This revelation and partial reunion brings us back full circle to where the article began. Amoret rises from sleeping with Britomart and wanders off, finding herself lost in the Cave of Lust, where she establishes yet another supportive female bond based on shared histories and struggles.

Within the context of an otherwise overwhelmingly heterosexual plot, these disruptions of gender roles offer a different angle on the “natural” reactions of female characters to a sexualized peril based on their vulnerability to male power.

Time period: