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Arcadia (Philip Sidney)

16th century English work in which a man disguises himself as an Amazon to gain access to the woman he desires. Includes her internal struggles to accept love for (who she believes to be) a woman.

LHMP entry

In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).

Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man.

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

In this chapter Traub looks specifically at the pastoral genre, and particularly that inspired by Ovid, as a context for portraying love between women as a temporary adolescent amusement that will eventually and inevitably give way to a marital (and therefore heterosexual) norm. The normalcy of bodily transformation in Ovid provided a context for exploring “accidental” female homoerotic desire. Motifs that were particularly fertile ground include Diana and her nymphs and the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

Levin looks at the motif and expression of the apparent desire of one woman for another in the late 16th century Arcadia and considers whether and to what extent that representation reflected the everyday experience of romantic--and potentially erotic--female friendship in Renaissance England. Were such friendships viewed as acceptable because it was assumed they could not be sexual? Or despite a fear that they might become sexual? Or was the possibility of sexuality between women not considered problematic?

Chapter 5

Rather than arising from male fantasies as some suggest, the ballads are rooted in actual working class experience. Three features are key contributors to the context in which they arose. There was a general expectation of physical strength and toughness from working-class women. There was a context of near constant warfare and the routine participation of women in military contexts, as well as a somewhat less rigid and regimented structure to the military. And there was a general preoccupation with disguise and cross-dressing.

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.

The article begins with a survey of the discussion of, and attitudes toward distinguishing biological sex and gender behaviour in professional literature. Especially in distinguishing transvestism, transexualism, gender non-conformity, and more situational uses of cross-gender behavior. This article focuses more on those situational uses rather than cross-dressing as a feature of gender or sexual identity.

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