Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Misogynists as Queers in le Livre De la Cite Des Dames

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Misogynists as Queers in le Livre De la Cite Des Dames

Article excerpt

Christine de Pizan, in Le Livre de la Cite des Dames (1405), insinuates that misogyny is, as it were, a little queer. At the beginning of the City, Christine becomes duped into believing that women are monstrous, and, in opposition to this way of thinking, Lady Reason appears and begins to describe to Christine how misogynistic convictions themselves are in fact quite abnormal. To inoculate Christine against misogyny, Reason intimates that chauvinism might inspire a queer gender performance; she says that misogynistic texts have made Christine like a cross-dresser: "Tu ressembles le fol, dont la truffe parle, qui en dormant au molin fu revestu de la robe d'une femme" (1.2; "You resemble the fool in the prank who was dressed in women's clothes while he slept"). (2) With this analogy, Reason compares Christine, who holds misogynistic sentiments, to a foolish man who dresses like a woman. Reason implies that misogynistic texts produce a kind of drag on their readers.

Reason's queer metaphor is not at all trivial. A close reading of the City shows that her maneuver is part of a broader pattern in the text: Christine's main rhetorical strategy in her critique of misogyny is to associate misogynists with what we would now call queerness. "Queer" is, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick puts it, an "open mesh of overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent element of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality, aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically" (8). In this sense, queer does not refer to literal homosexual relations or identities. Rather, the term is far less specific, and even equivocal. Throughout contemporary scholarship it is, in some sense, always provisional (O'Rourke 10). As Carolyn Dinshaw argues in Getting Medieval, we might think of queerness as always contingent: it is not known a priori but is "a relation to a norm, and both the norm and the particular lack of fit will vary according to specific instances" (39). Paying attention to the ways in which medieval discourses fabricate queerness is, as William E. Burgwinkle (2006) suggests, the current task of medievalist queer scholarship (84). Instead of standing as a given, queerness involves instability and disruption, sexual desires and gender performances that, by their very existence, challenge prevailing notions about sex and gender. "Queer," then, attends to the nonnormative, though its referents may vary, hinging on a particular text or culture. Of course, the fact that this word can stand for "any nonnormative behavior" might lead to some imprecision; but by limiting the scope of our discussion here to nonnormative behaviors that relate to sex and gender, our reading of Christine can be held to some definitional limits while still embracing the term's flexibility. That is, I use the term to refer to behaviors and characteristics that are defined in Christine's text as aberrant and that are implicated in what we think of today as sexual identity, a nexus of gender performances, desires, beliefs, and acts--but that are not necessarily aberrant vis-a-vis contemporary norms that regulate sex and gender.

Using the term here in a somewhat limited but still flexible way can help us to illuminate how Christine's critique of misogyny pushes against old norms while trying to advance new ones. This article attends to the opening portions of the City through a queer lens. As I argue, Lady Reason mocks misogynists for having unmanly bodies. She also disparages their sexual desires as unnatural. Reason likewise ridicules misogynists as being practitioners of transgressive gender performances, and she suggests that misogynists are socially abject because of their emasculated bodies and deviant desires. It would seem, then, that Christine queers misogyny. (3)

Of course, when we speak about queerness--especially with regard to a fifteenth-century work--we raise a whole host of academic questions. First of all, the debate rages on between constructionist and essentialist approaches to the history of sexuality. …

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