Playing with gender roles in fiction


I think one of the appeals of traditional gender and social roles is that they give people a map with which to negotiate the chaos of human relations. We want to be secure (especially when we are less powerful than others around us) so knowing that if I behave this way, then you will do that, which cues me to say this, and you say that, and we both understand and abide by the invisible rules, and that keeps us safe and happy.

That’s the theory, anyway, but we all know how well that has worked, especially for those who don’t fall neatly within the definitions of those roles. I want to skip past the physically strong preying on the weak. There’s not much to be said about it. I’d rather look at those situations in which human beings are not constraining anyone else by superior force, but feel constrained by various invisible rules and roles.

Debate about gender expectation (and constraint) is nothing new. It goes way, way back. I first discovered that in reading about the Vikings’ tales, full of shapeshifters, and the mysterious ergi.

A century or two before the remarkable Hildegard von Bingen began corresponding with all the leading male lights of her day (and lecturing them on a paid circuit) about mystical and temporal matters, over in Japan, Sei Shonagon, a court lady, recorded her observations in a daily blog. She affords us a keyhole view of customs, manners, and thought in the Heian Imperial Court, and complex as those rules were, there was apparently a lot of room for gender variation.
Gender roles in fiction paralleled real life. Christine de Pizan argued in 1402 that the women in Jean de Meun’s mega-hit Roman de la Rose didn’t actually talk that way, or think that way—the romance was nothing but a vehicle to slander women. This was like an Internet flamewar—writing letters back and forth across Europe regardless of national boundaries.

Which opens up the discussion of gender roles in fiction. It shows up in the form of cross-dressing rather often in Orlando Furioso, and echoes through Spenser’s Faerie Queen.

Some of these endured for decades, even generations—works by Cao Xuieqin, Grimmelshausen, Margaret of Navarre, and others captured in deft, vivid sketches recognizable human nature, the way men and women thought and acted, how they viewed the world. Then with a tweak, the writer offered what might happen if things changed.
I’m no classical scholar, but those who were used classical sources (suggesting that the subject was in discussion back then, too) in writing about gender roles, for example in a pair of dueling pamphlets from England in the 1620s, Hic Mulier and Haec-Vir. The first was a blast against the horrors of cross-dressing, and how that leads to the disintegration of traditional gender roles. The second stuck a toe into the murky waters of women’s rights. The fact that these pamphlets felt obligated to blast against it meant that it was happening. A lot.

These might have been prompted by the well-known gender preferences of King James, whose court apparently enjoyed the fashion of cross-dressing—but another inspiration might have been the notorious Mary Firth, a thief who dressed like a man. And she wasn’t the only one. Or they were expressing the growing fashion for puritanism, a conservative swingback against something that had been popular as long as there were people.

A century after that pair of pamphlets appeared, Spectator, a sort of Enlightenment era Salon, was intended by two gents to “inject some morals into wit, and some wit into morals.”

Their daily news sheets were read in all the coffee houses, as well as distributed to subscribers. Addison and Steele talked about everything in what amounted to daily blogs, from politics to science, art to religion. But their most popular numbers, judging from the times they returned to the same subjects, were on manners, especially gender relations, with some sidesteps into fashions and fads.

And a portion of those essays were written in secret by a woman, Mary Wortley Montagu.

For the most part, the male writers counseled moderation, championed the weak and the poor, and scorned avariciousness from noble and commons. But they also were products of their times, and one of the firmest precepts was that women and men had separate spheres, and woe to society if women encroached on the men’s world of authority.

shocking riding habit!

One of them was once moved to write a riff with the following shocking passage, in which he claims to champion women, and to be forbearing about the “vagaries of fashion, such as the broadening of female skirts, the appearance of patches on faces, and the introduction of the colored hood.”

But he cannot prevent his ire from rising at a specific female extravagance:
I mean that of the ladies who dress themselves in a hat and feather, a riding coat and a periwig, or at least tie up their hair in a bag or riband, in imitation of the smart people of the opposite sex.

(‘Smart’ in those days meaning well-dressed in the latest fashion.)


In a couple of satirical riffs during the summer of 1712, they explored gender relations via fictional republics, one exclusively male and the other female. The males, without female influence, were brutish, letting their beards grow and only paring their nails once a year. (I suspect a lot of female readers were saying, and how is brutish behavior any different than what we’re used to?) Any man who “had a soft voice, a smooth face, or a supple behavior, was banished into the commonwealth of females, where he was treated as a slave, dressed in petticoats, and set a spinning.” Quel horreur!
So what were the women like without men?
“The girls of quality, from six to twelve years old, were put to public schools, where they learned to box and play at cudgels, with several other accomplishments of the same nature; so that nothing was more usual than to see a little miss returning home at night with a broken pate, or two or three teeth knocked out of her head.

They were afterwards taught to ride the great horse, to shoot, dart or sling, and listed into several companies, in order to perfect themselves in military exercises. No woman was to be married until she had killed her man.”

Even worse was to come!

“The women never dressed but to look terrible; to which end they would sometimes, after a battle, paint their faces with the blood of their enemies. For this reason, likewise, the face which had the most scars was looked upon as the most beautiful. If they found lace, jewels, ribands, or any ornaments in silver or gold, among the booty which they had taken, they used to dress their horses with it, but never entertained a thought of wearing it themselves…”

One of the subjects related to gender roles that came up most often in Spectator was marriage. How marriage was defined was already causing much social tension. In Letter 308 (Feb 22, 1711/12), there is casual mention of “the marriage rape” which seems not to have raised an eyebrow; in 1714 the gents stick their quills into grasping, drinking widows in a number entitled “The Widows’ Club.”

This club is run by six much-married widows. Their chief rule is How to treat a Lover, and How to manage a Husband, that is, the arts and wheedlings they employed until, “to use the Club Phrase, They sent him out of the House with his Heels foremost.”

Mary Wortley Montagu was in her early twenties when she met Addison and Steele at London parties. She wrote several ripostes from the female point of view. She certainly had the qualifications, not just in her phenomenal education, but having nearly been sold into marriage by her parents, in her mid teens, to a suitor rejoicing in the name Clotworthy Skeffington. She ran away to marry the man of her choice . . . who, she discovered when she gained some experience, was pretty much after her money.

(The marriage was pretty much a failure, though it did bring benefit to the world: when he was sent to the Ottoman court as ambassador, she discovered inoculation against smallpox, and brought it back to England, where it slowly became the fashion.)

A Shoshone two-spirit scout

Cross-dressing—and the testing of gender roles—despite sermons, laws, and occasional mob nastiness, persisted in popularity. It shows up in accounts of people’s lives, for example, the diaries of the Wynne sisters, around the time of the French Revolution. The girls mentioned that their parents loved cross-dressing for Carnival, and one of the family running jokes was dressing one of their footmen as a lady, when visitors came to call. We see this same joke turn up in Pride and Prejudice, a favorite pastime at the home of the Bennet sisters’ aunt Phillips.

In the twentieth century gender roles began to be talked about in general culture, though nearly always with the drag of judgment hauling back on free discourse: qualifiers such as “decadent” and “perversion” tended to clamp down on honest exchange. According to Gilbert Herdt, in his deeply researched, scholarly tome Third Sex, Third Gender,  Georg Simmel, a German scholar delving into questions of social roles, wrote around 1900 that there were too many categories and too few sexes to explain the varieties of human experience.

So much of gender studies has dragged behind all other aspects of the scientific world because of its connections with sex. The two can be related but are not necessarily the same thing. Herdt, in his book, presents cultures that have made space for people who don’t fit into neat binaries, such as the Native American “two-spirit” people who are neither man nor woman, the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, the hijras of India, and women who have lived as men in war-torn areas of the Balkans.

The book makes absorbing reading, but I want to shift back to fiction—specifically, books that permit characters to live their gender choices, and fully inhabit their world. For my own part, I tend to disengage with fiction whose story is too thin a layer over a polemic. Whether I agree or not is immaterial: if I want a rant, I’ll read an essay. But in fiction, I want the characters to inhabit their world, whatever that world might be, without the narrative voice breaking the fourth wall to finger-wag at the reader.

This can be a difficult ‘line’ to establish: sometimes one person’s preachiness is another’s great story. And I am also aware that so much of our great novels actually depicted the world not as it was for the writer, but as they wished it would be . . . and the book subsequently contributed its influence into bringing about that very change, so that the novel’s forward thinking is invisible to us now.

Then again, there is the reader for whom the world of the novel does not seem an improvement, or seems simply alien. Novels are places where we can use our imagination to cosplay all kinds of differences.

Anyway, as a mild and mainstream example, I will offer the Lucia and Mapp stories of E.F. Benson. Though the pronouns are the usual binaries, and the characters themselves are largely conservative (and very, very engaged with social status) they are also interestingly gender-fluid, even asexual entirely.

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Playing with gender roles in fiction — 16 Comments

  1. Interesting and informative.
    Happy you’re linking from Twitter as I am no longer using LJ, I had mostly lost you.

  2. Thanks for all this, Sherwood. Once upon a time I owned a book called The Third Sex: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History by Gilbert Herdt (U of Chicago Press I think). Here it is on Azon.
    https://www.amazon.com/Third-Sex-Gender-Dimorphism-Culture/dp/0942299825

    I think I gave my copy to another author. It had chapters discussing third sexes in a number of different cultures, including hijra of India and bardaches of Eastern Europe. And other cool things.

    The literature has since widened until I don’t know if I can ever catch up again.

  3. “If I want a rant I’ll read an essay.” Yep me, too! “But in fiction I want the characters to inhabit their world without the narrative voice whatever the world may be without the narrative voice breaking the fourth wall to the finger wag at the reader.”
    I am quoting this as a major fan of Wuxia, who has a hard time with the finger wagging and yet loving the beauty when it occurs.

  4. Ah! Georgie and Lucia, yes! (Did you see the brief (one season) dramatization of the Lucia & Mapp books on BBC last year? Filmed in Rye, exactly where it should be. ) It is entirely ambiguous whether, at the very very end, Mr. And Mrs. Pillson actually did consummate their union — what do you think?

    • I didn’t see the series, but in the book, when Lucia proposes, they are safely on either side of a door, and they both agree that there won’t be any of “that stuff” or even the revolting pecks, pawing, and cooing that Mapp and her Benjy indulge in. (The implication is, to hide the fact that there is nothing going on in their bedroom either.)

      • At the very end of the last book (th one in which Lucia once more administers a sharp humiliation to Miss Mapp — I think it was yet one more deception about speaking Italian) she goes into his room and shuts the door behind her, to gloat about the triumph. That the book ends at that precise point gives me at least the impression that there Is More To Happen At Last — but I am notoriously imaginative.
        You have seen the speculations about some of Heyer’s heroes?

  5. Thanks, Sherwood, for yet another informative discussion! Did I miss any references to Shakespeare and his fondness for cross-dressing women? As you mention, “normalization” of gender fluidity in fiction seems to have smoothed the way for more openness in real life, hurrah!

    • I considered Shakespeare, then decided to forego him lest things get derailed into the exigencies of theater at the time: since they were all-male, any time they could get around that, they did. Ariosto and the like are more interesting because he wasn’t writing for teenage boy-players.