Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.
Chapter 6: Lesbian Desire on Center Stage
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Female same-sex flirtation is a regular feature in popular Spanish drama of the early modern era. Erotic attraction to cross-dressed actrresses was cited in moral warnings. Velasco discusses the “meaning” of same-sex flirtation in cross-dressing scenarios, based on the several layers of “real” versus “apparent” gender, and considering different audiences. If female attraction to cross-dressed actresses isn’t quite all-out lesbian desire, it at least acknowledges its possibility. In-play dialogues about the attractiveness of the cross-dressed characters is coded in ambiguously androgynous terms.
Another context for dramatic ambiguity is the use of female actors for roles where a male character takes on a female disguise (within the story), as in the legend of Achilles. While this may have avoided having an actual male actor cross-dress as a woman on stage, it created the potential for female same-sex desire within the layered “woman playing a man playing a woman” scenario.
Moralists of the 17th century warned parents that their innocent daughters would be corrupted by consuming plays and novels. The expressions of concern are not specifically focused on homoeroticism, but the general idea is that young girls will “get ideas” from popular culture.
There is an extensive discussion of Cubillo de Aragón’s play Añasco el de Talavera (ca. 1637) which depicts lesbian desire without the mechanism of male disguise. The “manly woman” Dionisia’s desire for her female friend Leonor is an open topic of discussion within the play. Dionisia complains about the restrictiveness of female gender roles and has a serious case of “not like other girls”. She specifically expresses the desire to be touched (implied: sexually) by Leonor and say she loves her. Leonor demurs about the concept, but Dionisia presents her argument in terms of platonic love, and argues for the supremacy of (same-sex) platonic love over heterosexual desire. The dialogue acknowledges that women may “sin” together, i.e., that activity counting as forbidden sex is possible between women.
Leonor, alas, is irredeemably heterosexual, and the play ends up shoehorning Dionisia into a heterosexual resolution. But the resolution implies that Dionisia is still controling the situation driven by desire for Leonor. Dionisia marries the man who is mutually in love with Leonor (thus interfering with their competing relationship) and leaves Leonor to marry the man who has been vainly attempting to woo Dionisia.
Velasco considers the effect of homoerotic art and literature on female viewers. For example, homoerotic scenes of Diana and her nymphs may have been intended for male voyeurism, but had female viewers as well. Literary depictions of Diana were viewed as potentially corrupting and parents of daughters were specifically warned against Jorge de Montemayer’s 1559 work Las siete libros de la Diana (known more typically as La Diana). The same-sex love depicted in this work has traditionally been dismissed as neo-Platonic friendship, but it is expressed in terms of physical affection and verbal flirtation.
Two characters, Ysmenia and Selvagia, enjoy a passionate interlude, then Ysmenia falsely convinces Selvagia that she is a man in disguise and that Selvagia has been tricked into a heterosexual liaison. Selvagia remains steadfast in her love for Ysmenia, despite this apparent trick. Enter Ysmenia’s Convenient Twin Cousin (male) who takes advantage of the situation to take over Ysmenia’s affair with Selvagia. The story can be compared with other pastoral romances, most of which involve some type of gender disguise. But La Diana is unusual in showing Selvagia’s love beginning when she believes that love to be homoerotic. The steadfastness of Selvagia’s love regardless of the (believed) gender of the object supports the image of same-sex love being equivalent to heterosexual love.
In other similar works, there is more often uneasiness expressed about apparent or real same-sex desire, which is resolved by either the reality or a fantasy of a magical sex-change to permit a heterosexual resolution. These may include sexual interludes that could be interpreted as lesbian and involving an artificial penis. There is often a phallocentric assumption that only a penis can provide a woman with pleasure and that real female same-sex relations must remain unfulfilled.
In the romance Tirant lo Blanc there is an episode of a woman engaging in sex play with another woman supposedly for the voyeuristic benefit of an observing man. Later, the sex play continues in the dark and the man substitutes in (unknown to his partner). The woman in this interaction is shown protesting that the supposed same-sex act is against nature, but she does not deny its possibility. The in-story implication is that sex between women is permited as long as it’s really a performance for the male gaze or for the reader. But the fact that both La Diana and Tirant lo Blanc were popular among female audiences suggests other possibilities. Heterosexual resolutions kept the text “safe” while allowing transgression between the covers (of the book).
The rest of the chapter takes a close examination of the novels of María de Zayas, which interrogate heterosexual relations and support the concept of female community and marriage resistance (although in the form of the convent). The themes send conflicting messages about heteronormativity and female same-sex love.
“Love for the Sake of Conquest” uses a male-to-female disguise plot to assert the superiority of love between women, though the arguments are put in the mouth of the male character (disguised as a woman) who it turns out is making those arguments purely for the sake of getting the other protagonist in bed. This creates a context for articulating the attractions of same-sex love and desire without the transgression of enacting it. After the male character reveals his identity and succeeds in initiating a sexual relationship, he loses interest and moves on, while the female protagonist is then murdered by her father for her (heterosexual) sexual transgression, whereas her apparent attraction to another woman was considered odd but not equivalent to fornication.
In “Aminta Deceived and Honor’s Revenge” a woman expresses romantic attraction to another woman without the artifice of a disguies plot, and her attention is found flattering. But it turns out the first woman was acting out of ulterior motives in order to further her relationship with a man and to deceive the supposed female object of her affection.
The third story considered, “Marriage Abroad: Portent of Doom”, includes a rather hostile depiction of male homoerotic relations, raising the question of whether this indicates that Zayas judged male and female relations entirely differently, or whether it’s evidence that she didn’t intend her female couples to be read as having physical relations.
Overall, although Zayas' novels include themes of the superiority of love between women, the actual plots undermine this message, showing deception and falsehood. Only in the framing story for the novels does the messge of that superiority prevail in truth.