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Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 17:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.B.3 The Battle of the Sexes

Elizabeth Mavor, in her study of the Ladies of Llangollen, offers as a motivation for the rise of Romantic Friendship, that women could not achieve with men the ideal of equal Platonic friendship, and so turned to other women. But Faderman notes that 17th century writers (some female) considered such heterosexual equality possible. Even so, the general sense on both sides was that men and women existed in such different spheres (both by practice and because of beliefs about their inherent natures) that reaching across the divide was difficult. By the 18th century, middle- and upperclass women (and it is primarily those groups who participated in Romantic Friendship) were encouraged to be genteelly idle. Intellectual women were looked askance, as were women who indulged in active pursuits like riding. These pursuits had become considered to be inherently masculine in a way they hadn’t in previous centuries. [Or perhaps--thinking about some of the discourse around gender and intellect in the middle ages--the "masculinization" of intellectual women had now come to be considered a bad thing rather than an ideal to strive for.]

Thus the most assertive and ambitious women were the ones least likely to find satisfaction in friendships with men, even as they were celebrated in the supposedly egalitarian society of the salons. And their writings and correspondence show that they turned to each other for support, admiration, and friendship. Marriage to men was often treated as a necessary evil and no impediment to their passionate friendship with women. Successful resistance to marriage (when economically possible) was considered an ideal.

Now we get another one of Faderman’s asserted-but-not-proven conclusions: “Because women of their class and temperament generally did not engage in sex outside of marriage, it probably occurred to few of them that the intense emotion they felt for each other could be expressed in sexual terms--but that emotion had all the manifestations of Eros without a genital component. Perhaps the primary difference between the salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and England and the salons of Paris in the 1920’s where lesbian love was openly expressed...was that as a result of the late nineteenth-century sexologists, women in the 1920’s knew they were sexual creatures and behaved accordingly.” [It is in passages like this that I feel the work most suffers from a lack of historic depth. Social beliefs about women's sex drives have fluctuated greatly over the centuries. Chaucer's Wife of Bath didn't need a sexologist to give her permission to be a sexual creature and behave accordingly!]

There is a nod to the consideration that, although it is easiest to track the nature and development of Romantic Friendship among intellectual women who produced copies written records of their experiences and thoughts, the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship was common among non-intellectuals as well.

The eighteenth century in England, Faderman asserts, was the point of greatest female repression of passion and sexuality, with a hyper-focus on virginity and chastity in literature and life that made any social interactions with men suspect. Men might pursue women and encourage them to demonstrate their love, but--as epitomized in Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the goal was conquest, not mutual affection. A woman who capitulated might find that her lover now considered her impossible to trust with any other man. The extreme version of this war between the sexes was found in the increasingly violent misogyny of pornographic literature. Even literature about the importance of equal companionate marriages (such as Benjamin Franklin’s Reflections on Courtship and Marriage) are presented as proof that such a thing was considered rare.

What I find missing in this chapter is a sense of statistics. Anecdotal examples from eighteenth-century life and literature are presented as evidence for considering marriage and relations between the sexes to be a relentless hellhole. This, then, is presented as the context in which Romantic Friendship between women became a refuge and ideal. Marriage was desired only so far as it make it economically and socially possible to live a life independent of that husband.

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 13:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.B.2 The “Fashion” of Romantic Friendship in the Eighteenth Century

My commentary on this chapter is so hopelessly intertwined with the summary that I’ve given up trying to separate the two.

As the chapter title indicates, this section views particular romantic/sexual desires and orientations as reflecting or being motivated by trends of fashion. That is: the ways in which desire (both emotional and physical) were expressed--although not necessarily how they were experienced--were a reflection of what a particular culture at a particular time considered to be “normal”. “Normal” in the sense of expected and understandable, not necessarily in terms of normative behavior and condoned activities.

In the 17-19th centuries, fashion recognized women’s close emotional and romantic bonds as “normal” in this sense, and further, that fashion condoned them as desirable. Public “romantic friendships” such as the celebrated one between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby (known as “the Ladies of Llangollen”) were not considered improper, as such a friendship would be between unmarried opposite-sex persons.

Opinions varied whether such romantic friendships should be viewed only as practice for the devotion a woman would be expected to give a husband, or whether they were a “natural” outgrowth of feminine nature, to which was attributed sensibility, faithfulness, and devotion. As a gross oversimplification, male writers tended toward the first opinion, while women’s accounts of their own romantic friendships tended toward the second. There is also a suggestion, in the representation of romantic friendships in literature, that they allowed a useful emotional escape valve for women trapped in dysfunctional marriages, in an era where marriage was an expected life path but divorce was next to impossible.

This benevolent view was not entirely universal. The polemic Satan’s Harvest Home deplores “two Ladies Kissing and Slopping each other, in a lascivious Manner, and frequently repeating it.” And though the text asserts certainty that Englishwomen were not capable of being “criminally amorous” with each other (as the publication describes that foreign women might be), to raise the possibility is to acknowledge it. Male authors, as in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) often portrayed close female friendships as inherently ephemeral, but other works (even by male authors) depicted such friendships as enduring and even triumphing over heterosexual bonds.

Although the above examples are primarily English, French writers of the 18th century reflected a similar recognition of intense female friendships that used the language of passion and often reflected lifelong bonds that eclipsed those of family. Such a friendship was the subject of Rousseau’s novel La nouvelle Héloise, but the real-life equivalent was seen in women who carried each other’s portraits, attended salons together, and refused social invitations unless both were invited. Although Faderman asserts that open kisses and caresses between such friends were not considered to be sexual (except, perhaps, as stimulation for a male observer), this is the historic context in which such intense friendships among Queen Marie Antoinette’s circles were fodder for accusations of lesbian activity. And the text quotes descriptions by these women of their relationships that clearly equates what they feel for each other with heterosexual desire.

But after noting that the language used is identical to that used between heterosexual lovers, Faderman returns to her thesis: “It is probable that many romantic friends, while totally open in expressing and demonstrating emotional and spiritual love, repressed any sexual inclinations, and even any recognition of those inclinations, that they might have felt for each other, since during most eras of modern history women were well taught from childhood that only men or bad women were sexually aggressive.” What does this “many” mean? The book seems continually to return to the position that if “many” romantic friends did not see any erotic aspect to their relationship, then eroticism was by definition absent from the concept of romantic friendship. As opposed, for example, to seeing the phenomenon as a continuum where public acceptance of certain aspects could allow for a more erotic relationship that was less public. And yet, “less public” how, when women in romantic friendships spoke of “wearing the chains of Eros” and of longing to be able to marry each other? Faderman states that the “sophisticated” modern scholar would see in these effusions only a sentimental literary style and discount that it came from genuine emotion, and argue as evidence that signs of heterosexuality (such as marriage and children) automatically contradicted the possibility of homosexual desire. [This entire book seems to ignore the possibility of bisexuality.]

Writers of the 18th century themselves commented on the distinction between expressions of sentimentality that were purely for the sake of fashion and those that came from genuine emotion. And these were often contrasted in literature in a way that valorized the genuine emotion.

The chapter concludes with Faderman’s conclusion that, despite the language of passion and devotion, despite behaviors such as kissing and embracing in bed together, “unless they were transvestites or considered ‘unwomanly’ in some male’s conception, there was little chance that their relationship would be considered lesbian.” And here we come back to a contradiction in the book’s argumentation. Are we considering only whether larger society would accuse them of being lesbians? Or are we to conclude that there was nothing of lesbian sexuality present in the relationship itself? Faderman herself seems to waver between the two. Just above, she has defined “lesbian” as meaning “sexual proclivity” as if lesbian identity means solely, obligatorily, and exclusively physical erotic desire. But elsewhere the argument seems to be that women in romantic friendships didn’t allow themselves to feel any erotic desire at all because “good girls don’t”.

Time period: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 06:00

Once Sara encounters the Indian Gentleman in person, everyone’s truth starts coming out fairly quickly, only drawn out by Carrisford’s stumbling reluctance to ask directly, lest he be disappointed once again. Sara refers to Ram Dass as a Lascar, leading to the revelation that she was born in India. Now, this on its own means little--no doubt all sorts of Anglo-Indian girls were sent to school in London. As Sara’s position at the school is teased out, Carrisford becomes more and more agitated and hands the questioning over to Carmichael. But Carmichael, too, seems strangely reluctant to simply ask her name outright. So we’re led through the circumstances of Captain Crewe’s ruin and death and Sara--not suspecting anything--lays the blame squarely on her father’s friend. This knife-twist releases the last of the debt between them. Now Carmichael asks her name and all is revealed.

Sara is stunned and bewildered to think that her salvation had been right next door all this time. (We’ll continue right on in to Chapter 18 now, since it’s all part of the same scene.)  When Sara is sent out of the room to join the Carmichael children while Carrisford recovers, Donald is the one who point out this irony: “If I’d just asked what your name was when I gave you my sixpence, you would have told me it was Sara Crewe, and then you would have been found in a minute.” But like Dorothy and the ruby slippers, if the connection had been made at the beginning, there would have been no opportunity for all the spiritual growth along the way. And it is Carrisford's (in his mind) displaced charity toward "the little girl who is not a beggar" that creates his own redemption--a redemption that wouldn't have occurred if he had simply tracked Sara down at the beginning of his search. (Though--standing outside the narrative framework of Moral Accounting--it's a bit abhorrent to think that two years of suffering on both their parts is a fair trade for a neat redemptive arc.)

Mrs. Carmichael comes over to take charge of Sara and mother her (which must have felt peculiar to Sara, given that she had never been mothered in her life). And she is the one who makes the other connection for Sara: that Mr. Carrisford is Sara’s benevolent friend who transformed her attic. This allows Sara to forgive him everything else and they can begin their new relationship as guardian and ward with a relatively clean slate. All that remains, is for accounts to be settled with Miss Minchin and the school...

As I’ve indicated above, I think that from the Moral Accounting point of view, this scene completes both Sara and Carrisford’s moral arcs. Sara is rewarded for her virtue, and Carrisford has atoned for his sin. What they do moving forward is written in a new account book.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 06:00

I'd lost track that the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards were being announced this past weekend at Gaylaxicon. The announcement has been moving around a bit in recent years due to the Gaylaxicon schedule. Last year and on a number of previous occasions they were announced at Chessiecon/Darkovercon. So it took me by surprise Saturday when Catherine Lundoff started live-tweeting the results. According to the website, 36 novels were submitted for consideration from 2015. The winner was Luna: New Moon by Ian MacDonald, a book I'm not familiar with. The shorlist of nine "recommended books" includes The Mystic Marriage. When you look at that list of authors, you might have a hint at how pleased I am to be in such company.

  • Planetfall by Emma Newman
  • Ebenezer by JoSelle Vanderhooft
  • My Real Children by Jo Walton
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
  • Chaos Station by Jenn Burke and Kelly Jensen
  • Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
  • The Mystic Marriage by Heather Rose Jones
  • The Bastard’s Paradise by Kathe Koja
  • Cherry Bomb by Kathleen Tierney

Note that the Spectrum Awards website hasn't been updated yet at the time I'm posting this but I assume it will be as soon as folks have had a chance to recover from the con.

* * *

When Margerit and Barbara decided to share their lives openly, rather than making more discreet arrangements, Margerit entered into a delicate dance with her Fulpi relatives in Chalanz. To be sure, there's nothing inherently unacceptable about two unmarried women in a close friendship deciding to live under the same roof. (This is the era of Romantic Friendship, after all, as can be seen in the LHMP material I'm currently blogging.) But it looks a bit odder for it to be two women who are young enough (and wealthy enough) to have good marital prospects. And Barbara's history and habits are such as to raise more than the usual suspicions.

The provinces tend to be more conservative than Rotenek society and, unlike Margerit's Aunt Bertrut, the Fulpis have no direct financial or social stake in turning a blind eye to Margerit and Barbara's relationship. Furthermore, they have daughters whose own reputations need protecting until they're safely married. It would break Margerit's heart to cause a complete rupture with the Fulpis. She has a genuine affection for the family, despite everything, but most especially for her youngest cousin Iulien. We've seen glimpses of Iuli in previous books as she grows from a child to a wayward teenager. And now she's on the brink of the first step into womanhood: the start of her dancing season.

In case readers are wondering, I completely invented the concept of the "dancing season"--a period of a year or two when a young woman is out in society but is explicitly not on the marriage market yet. She is expected to go to dinners and balls, to socialize and to dance, but neither to entertain nor to encourage the attentions of particular suitors. There were a few logistical reasons for inventing it, but partly it was just one of those ideas that came to me and was a way of turning Alpennian culture into its own thing, and not just an imitation of English Regency society.

Once I'd conceived of it, a number of consequences emerged on their own. Letting a girl have a dancing season must be a mark of a certain level of wealth, because it extends the period of time (and therefore the investment of money) when she's "on display" before she might be married off. For families where marriage alliances are serious political business, it provides a neutral period when the prospective parties have a chance to size each other up before making approaches. There's always the danger that the young people will form attachments despite all that (though it is very much Not The Done Thing), but keep in mind that this is a culture where love is never the only deciding factor in a marriage. And in that context, a dancing season also provides the opportunity to get puppy love out of one's system without taking any irrevocable steps. (This is also where the elaborate system of vizeinos and armins come in, especially for important families.)

Margerit had originally planned to host Iulien's coming out ball at Fonten House, her mansion in Chalanz, as she had for Iuli's older sister Sofi. But plans change.

* * *

Chapter Fourteen - Margerit

And now there was no putting off the letter to Iuli.

My dearest cousin, I hope you and your parents are well. I greatly enjoyed the verses you sent with your last letter and I have taken the liberty of having them set to music by the talented Luzie Valorin, whom you might have heard of even in far-off Chalanz. I enclose the music with these letters and hope to hear you perform the song some day.

It pains me to tell you I will not have that opportunity this summer, even though you learn it in time for your coming-out ball. As you know, I have decided my college must be ready in time for the fall term, and I will have no chance for travel this summer, neither to Chalanz nor to Saveze. I would very much have loved to host your ball at Fonten House as I did your sister’s, but our lives move on and Fonten House is no longer part of mine.

Margerit paused, chewing on the end of her pen and thinking what more to say. She couldn’t tell Iuli the truth: that Uncle Fulpi had suggested in the strongest terms that her presence would be unnecessary. He hadn’t gone so far as to say unwanted. While she had owned property in Chalanz, the prestige of hosting Sofi’s ball in the mansion on Fonten Street had more than balanced the Fulpis’ concerns for the family reputation. The abstract family pride in an absent relation who was an heiress and the Royal Thaumaturgist was always put in peril by her presence. Her presence brought with it an inconvenient baroness who had a habit of wearing men’s clothing, not to mention an affection between the two of them that couldn’t entirely be excused by the conventions of friendship.

With Fonten House sold, Uncle Fulpi was happy to accept her offer to underwrite the expenses of Iuli’s coming-out, but had expressed his strong preference that only her purse and not her person attend. Iuli would be disappointed, but there was no help for it. Her cousin’s parents had the power to forbid their continued correspondence entirely and Margerit knew how much it meant to Iuli to have at least one person in the world who encouraged her writing and wanted her to continue dreaming beyond the future that Chalanz offered.

Perhaps I will be able to visit next year at floodtide. I know it seems so long to wait! It would have been an eternity when I was your age and I will miss your entire dancing year. Write to me when you have time and make sure to save up all the memories from your ball to tell me.

Your loving cousin, Margerit Sovitre.

Monday, October 10, 2016 - 06:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.B.1 The Revival of Same-Sex Love: Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Not meaning to sound like a broken record, but this chapter once again relies on circular arguments. Even though John Donne’s poetry concealed sexual desire under the language of playful seduction, the similar poetry of Katherine Philips directed at female friends could not be expressing erotic desire because she wrote it openly (as did Donne) and therefore  it must not have contained anything objectionable. And since sexual desire between women must have been objectionable, it must not have been present. And how do we know that erotic desire between women would have been objectionable? Because it wasn’t expressed openly in literature.

Setting aside the question of whether there was literature in that era that combined friendship and erotic desire between women, and setting aside the question of whether erotic desire between women would have been objected to (which I’m willing to grant), there are large gaps in the demonstrated logic here.

This chapter tackles the public discourse around intense same-sex friendships among both women and men. Male friends took as their model the concepts of Platonic friendship expressed by ancient Greek and Roman writers. The language could be quite passionate, but did not assume a sexual component. And unlike the existing models for male homosexual relationships which tended to involve differences in age and status, these ideals of Renaissance friendship focused on equality and mutuality, sharing “one bed, one house, one table, and one purse” and barely troubled when one or the other married. This emphasis on equality meant that there was a resistance to the idea that such friendships could exist between men and women. But women, too, could partake of passionate friendships of equals. The literature of female friends--whether in their own words or as characters in male-authored fiction--is directly comparable to that between male friends.

Intense statements of lifelong commitment can be found in Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde, in the correspondence of French noblewomen such as Madame de Sévigné, and in the works of poets such as Katherine Philips. Faderman asserts, however, that the passionate language of seduction that Philips borrows from the work of John Donne does not mask sexual desire, as it did for Donne, but only a literal request for declarations of love. She holds that the fact that Philips’ contemporaries considered her work a model of platonic friendship meant that it held nothing deeper. And that when men expressed jealousy of women’s bonds with each other, as in Edmund Waller’s poem “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” (1645), they could do it in a teasing way, assured that the women would still turn to men for sexual satisfaction. Whatever sensuality existed within those expressions of friendship “must have been within the realm of the acceptable” since it was expressed publicly. And since it was acceptable, it must not have been erotic.

This general acceptance of intense romantic (but non-sexual) friendships, Faderman holds, was inherited by the 18th century and left a legacy of male unconcern for such expressions.

Time period: 
Sunday, October 9, 2016 - 10:00
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.4 Transvestism: Persecution and Impunity

I don't have a lot of commentary on this chapter. It's a solid catalog of a number of commonly known examples of crossdressing and passing women from the relevant era, in particular those cases where lesbian sexual activity was either documented, accused, or suspected. The issue that makes Faderman's presentation the most dated for the reader today is the absence of any consideration of transgender issues, but I think it's important to consider how immensely that conversation has evolved since the 1980s. The discussion in this chapter reaches for some sort of nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of purposes and contexts for passing women, and the complex intersections between gender performance and erotic desire. As in much of the book, we seem to get the conclusions in advance of the evidence: that claiming male social prerogatives was more harshly viewed than romantic or sexual relationships between women. On the other hand, the evidence of this chapter--with its many examples of genital sexual activity between women--seems to undermine the larger thesis of the book which discounts such activity as a motivating force behind women's romantic friendships.

In this chapter, Faderman reviews the historic and literary perception of women cross-dressing as men during the 16-18th centuries. She notes that women passing as men [or transgender men, although this framing was not typically used at the time the book was published] were considered a more serious issue than lesbian sex, as long as that sex was between “feminine” women. One difference was that sexual encounters could be framed as a transient amusement whereas passing women were engaged in a long-term transgression.

Beginning in the 16th century, English moralists railed against women appropriating individual male garments or styles, as in the pamphlet Hic Mulier. But in an era when clothing was, in general, strongly distinguished by gender, it was relatively easy for a woman to pass as male. Cross-dressing was not automatically associated with lesbian sex, even when it created the opportunity. Some autobiographical accounts of passing women, such as sailor Mary Anne Talbot, indicate they had no interest in female romantic attention. But when sexual activity was involved, penalties could be severe, up to and including death.

Faderman jumps back to the medieval period to contrast the story of Yde and Olive (where the cross-dressing Yde risks death for marrying Olive) and the real-life situation of troubadour Bieiris de Romans who addressed a love song to another women but who did not take on a male persona, either in text or life. Other examples of non-crossdressing women who received lenient responses to lesbian sexual encounters include Sara Norman and Mary Hammond in Plymouth colony (1649). But legal cases where passing women married or had sex with other women often resulted in execution, as in the case reported in 1566 by Henri Estienne, one in 1580 recorded in Switzerland by Michel de Montaigne, the German trial of Catharine Margaretha Linck in 1721, and the alleged Turkish example in the 1749 polemic Satan’s Harvest Home.

Although no executions are noted in England or America, similar cases made their way into sensationalist literature, as with Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband, which was based on the true story of Mary Hamilton. And if a passing woman married and lived a quiet, upstanding life--such as Mary (James) How in the mid 18th century, even later discovery might have no serious consequences. Even in countries where severe punishments were meted out, there is a suggestion that consequences might be lesser if deception were not an issue, as in the case of Henrica Schuria (told in Robert James’s Medicinal Dictionary) who had passed as a man to serve as a soldier, but whose sexual affair with a widow after returning home only merited whipping and banishment, perhaps because she did not conceal her gender and because a dildo was not involved. Similarly, the case of Anne Grandjean in Grenoble received a relatively light sentence for marrying a woman because she was thought to be genuinely in doubt about her gender.

The complex intersection of gender, sexuality, and class is noted in the case of Queen Christina of Sweden who was known for cross-dressing (although clearly not in order to deceive about her identity) and whose romantic/sexual interest in women was documented both before and after her abdication from the throne. At the other end of the social scale, actresses and other performers, such as Mary Frith in early 17th century England, and Mademoiselle de Maupin in late 18th century France could use crossdressing as part of their public persona, even in combination with sexual relations with women, and be given a pass, perhaps for not attempting a complete disguise, perhaps because of public support for their flamboyant presentations. Actress Charlotte Charke also received benefit of a forgiving public when her autobiography detailed crossdressing adventures and romantic encounters with women.

Of the many women who crossdressed to enter the military, Faderman notes Deborah Sampson and plays up the possibility that her flirtations with women while passing may have been evidence of lesbian orientation, despite her marriages to men both before and after her military service.

Time period: 
Saturday, October 8, 2016 - 11:32

The schedule is out for Chessiecon in Timmonium MD (Thanksgiving weekend) and I have some great program items to participate in!

In addition to my reading, which will double as a release party for Mother of Souls, I'll be on a couple of panel discussions about topic near and dear to Alpennia. Combining Hard Science and Fantasy (or: High-Tech Magic) looks at how authors set up the underlying rules for fantastic or magical worlds. Silent Symphonies: Incorporating Music into Literature will discuss the challenge of describing music through text, when that music is a vital part of the story. (I can't wait for people to see how well I managed to describe magical operas in Mother of Souls.) It's Awesome, Well-Written, and Groundbreaking...But Do You Like It? This is a question that's been nibbling at me for the last several years: what do you do when all your friends describe a book as mind-blowingly fabulous and you think it's...merely very good? And I'll finish up on Sunday with Stupendous Bollocks, a game-show type format where we panelists get scored on how interesting our discussions about a topic are--whether they're true or not. If you think my research and documentation is fascinating, you should see what I can do when I don't let veracity stand in the way!

Mother of Souls
Friday, October 7, 2016 - 13:45

Shakespeare is often touted for the universality of his stories—the way the themes resonate down the ages even when the historic settings are long past. But the flip side of that is the ability to distance ourselves from those themes, not only because they are framed as entertainment, but because their historic grounding provides an easy out. “Yes, Romeo and Juliet is a universal story, but after all we no longer live in a society that marries off pre-teen girls or where private feuds spill over into public body-counts. (Except when we do; except where they do.)

Othello has a lot of fodder for relevance today, with its themes of racism, jealousy, and domestic violence. In its fourth and final show of the 2016 season, Cal Shakes takes a brutal approach to connecting that relevance to our own lives and times. The show is meant to be disturbing and painful—almost the opposite of “entertainment”—and that intent is framed by a number of unusual features of the performance meant to prepare and manage the audience reception. The connections are strongly drawn to contemporary racially motivated hatred, casual micro-aggressions, the burning anger of disappointed entitlement, the use of Islam as a looming faceless Other, and the explosive intersection of the power dynamics of misogyny and racism.

And the bedrock of how the play is staged relies on confronting the inescapable fact that the Cal Shakes audience skews very white and very affluent. The performance begins with a “pre-show” monologue by actor Lance Gardner (Cassio) filled with racial/ethnic/religious “jokes” drawn from the headlines that can neither be laughed at nor applauded nor met in silence when delivered from a black performer to a predominantly white audience. The purpose is to shake us up, to make us squirm, to warn us that this will be an uncomfortable show and that it’s ok to acknowledge that discomfort. It’s meant to signal us to listen to Shakespeare’s words with the same unease we would have if we heard them from the guy at the next table in Starbucks. (Oops, instead let’s go with Cal Shakes sponsors Peets Coffee & Tea.) When Iago taunts Desdemona’s father that “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” we should hear the voices of right-wing hate radio. When Othello asks his fractious subordinates, “Are we turned Turks?” we should see how quickly and reflexively violent acts are ascribed to Muslims. As those four hundred year old lines roll resonantly off the stage, we’re meant to feel them as raw and in-our-face, not as the work of an Old Dead White Guy whose legacy can be shaken off as only “the context of his times.”

The staging was starkly bare: a ring of chairs, a table with a handful of props, a pair of microphones at the side for extra-textual asides (as when Desdemona’s strangulation is accompanied by a medical recitation of the physiological process), a projection screen used to label the setting change (and to project real-time close-ups of specific actors at key points). The only significant piece of scenery is the bed where Desdemona’s murder takes place. The costuming, too, pins us to current events, most overtly with Othello’s black hoodie.

The Cal Shakes casting choices are frequently race-neutral (at least when casting traditionally white roles) but although three prominent roles are filled by black actors, the choice is far from neutral. Othello, of course, is played by Aldo Billingslea (a Cal Shakes regular, most recently seen as main character Troy Maxson in Fences). But also his right-hand man Cassio (Lance Gardner, who has featured in all four shows this season), and the Duke of Venice (Elizabeth Carter, who also plays Bianca and some unnamed roles in this production). This adds an extra layer to Iago’s (James Carpenter) racialized sense of injured entitlement. Not only has Othello been elevated as general over him by a black duke, but Othello has (presumably in Iago’s mind) preferred Cassio over Iago, driven by racial solidarity. This adds another unspoken motivation for using Cassio as the weapon to strike at Othello’s equilibrium while shifting the implications of Desdemona’s fictitious transfer of affections.

The racial dynamics of Othello transfer fairly well across the centuries, but the role of toxic patriarchy in driving the tragedy was the water Shakespeare was swimming in. Desdemona (Liz Sklar) connects that part of the circle in one of the few costume-related actions. After the scene where Othello has struck her, as the next scene continues in her absence, we see a real-time projection of Sklar, backstage, applying make-up for a black eye in reverse-echo of endless women covering up the marks of their abuse.

At the climax of the play—just before Othello’s suicide—the cast breaks to address the audience, with Desdemona rising from the dead to take the lead, and leads a discussion of reactions and analysis. (I can’t really call it “breaking the fourth wall” because Cal Shakes kind of burned down the fourth wall a very long time ago.) It’s a moment that could feel unintentionally humorous but was all of a piece with the interactive nature of the performance. What did this work mean to you? How did it make you feel? What connections have you made? It was in this context that the themes of misogyny and domestic violence were addressed as they couldn’t be within the framework of Shakespeare’s script alone. And yet it was this discussion that made me realize the limitations of drawing the story into today’s headlines. We cannot escape the priorities and anxieties we bring to our experience. Othello’s story is that of a man deliberately destroyed, both in body and self-hood, because of racialized envy and hatred. But Desdemona’s story is that of a woman destroyed as a casual, objectified consequence by patriarchal structures and a system that presumes men’s ownership of women’s bodies and lives. To identify with her is to see Othello as a villain—not for his race, but for his masculinity, the very masculinity that he is fighting so hard to maintain. While to identify with him is to see Desdemona as a thing, a tool, a stage prop, someone who had no agency to affect her own fate and whose tragedy is not her own but part of Othello’s. In the conflict between these two narratives I couldn’t help seeing a reflection—though I don’t believe the performance itself specifically evoked this—of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown and the impossible tangle inherent in that particular overlay of social power dynamics.

In summary: a powerful, disturbing staging of Othello that succeeded in assaulting the concept of the audience as passive consumers of entertainment and went far beyond the usual goal of making Shakespeare “relevant.”

Friday, October 7, 2016 - 07:36
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.3 Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and the Lesbian Image

Faderman’s chronology and progression is again hampered by gaps in the literary record. If this work were simply an exploration of attitudes towards female homoeroticism, these gaps would be less of a problem. But her thesis is that those attitudes have evolved in specific and relatively linear ways. In this context, her thesis is undermined by the omission of earlier examples of attitudes that would disrupt that timeline, or that support a more circular understanding of attitudes toward lesbian characters. For example, Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (ca. 1777) could hardly be the original prototype for its literary subgenge given that Choriers’s Satyra Sotadica (which touches on many of the same themes) appeared well over a century earlier.

Faderman notes that Mairobert’s description of the nature and practices of a secret lesbian society were taken as documentary, rather than fictional, well into the 20th century. While this might seem improbable, I’d like to point out that “serious” medical and sociological literature about lesbians continued to be really awful well into the 1960s. I still recall reading David Reuben’s popularist (but serious) Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1969) in the early 1970s and miraculously failing to be traumatized by his credulous repetition of the 16th century myth that the epitome of lesbian sex involved finding a woman with a clitoris large enough to achive penetration.

With regard to Faderman’s conclusion about the nature and purposes of these satires (see below), I’m not certain how this conclusion proceeds from the evidence she presents. Certainly it seems to make too sharp a distinction between hostility toward women for gendered reasons, and hostility for sexual reasons. If an accusation of lesbian behavior was considered a practical tool for destroying a woman socially, then it seems that, by definition, lesbian sex must have been “taken seriously” by men, whether or not the specific women being accused were actually engaging in sex with other women. But this would conflict with Faderman’s overall thesis that lesbian sex was not considered an actual socially-condemned reality until the end of the 19th century.

In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later. The tropes it uses will be echoed regularly up through the 20th century: an older woman seduces a younger (both beautiful and feminine in appearance) who will eventually be “rescued” by a man; sexual practices are diverse and shade into S&M; a secret formal organized club of lesbians who gather for pseudo-religious rituals and orgiastic practices; and a derogatory association of lesbians and Catholics. Fictional treatments such as this were treated as historic documentation by later writers.

Mairobert’s story follows a girl who is obsessed with sexual stimulation, runs away from home and is taken in by a madam who discover’s the girl’s large clitoris and trains her to satisfy a female clientele with lesbian tastes. (The girl is named--with no subtlety at all--Sapho.) The goal of the work is clearly titillation for the male reader, while ending with reassurance that hetersexuality will triumph.

A secondary purpose of the book was as a roman à clef, intended to harrass and embarrass specific contemporary women with thinly-veiled characterizations. This use of lesbian sex literature appears repeatedly, as in William King’s The Toast (1736), written as revenge against Lady Frances Brudenell for besting him in a business deal. Social and legal assertiveness is attributed to an unnatural sexual appetite that reveals itself in a pansexual libido, but with undue attention turned toward interactions with other women. The goal was to inspire others to shun the target of the satire, lest their own sexuality become suspect.

This same technique had been used earlier by Anthony Hamilton against a Miss Hobart at the court of Charles II of England in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont. A more extensive and broad-based campaign accused the French Queen Marie Antoinette of lesbian relationships with the ladies of her court. As with the other cases, the underlying motivation appears to have been hostility to female social or political power and to the potential influence of personal bonds between women. In most of these cases, accusations were not confined to lesbianism, rather that accusation was simply one feature of an indiscriminate and voracious sexual appetite.

Aside from hostility to powerful women, accusations of lesbianism were a feature of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in England. The classic example is Diderot’s The Nun, where an innocent girl, sent to a convent against her will, is the victim of sexually predatory and sadistic nuns. While anxieties about sexual activity in all-female institutions had featured in literature back into the 16th century [and even earlier, in penitential literature of the church itself] this new genre blended religious animosity with hostility toward women with authority, such as abbesses. (In Diderot’s case, his literary hostility also may have been inspired by jealously of his mistress’s close relationships with her sister and other women, though the answer may be even simpler as his writings show a streak of misogyny that stands out even for his day and age.) 

After relating this catalog of literature in which male authors use lesbianism as a means of expressing general hostility toward women with influence and power, as well as for exacting revenge against particular women, Faderman concludes, “Lesbianism itself was seldom the focal point of attack in these works. Eighteenth-century men do not appear to have viewed love-making between nontransvestite women with much seriousness. The most virulent depictions of lesbian (or rather pansexual) behavior seem to have been rooted in the writer’s anger at a particular woman’s conduct in an area apart from the sexual. Her aggressive sexuality was used primarily as a metaphor.”

Time period: 


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