Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Revolutionary Undoing of the Maiden Warrior in Riyoko Ikeda's Rose of Versailles and Jacques Demy's Lady Oscar

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Revolutionary Undoing of the Maiden Warrior in Riyoko Ikeda's Rose of Versailles and Jacques Demy's Lady Oscar

Article excerpt

A dutiful daughter disguises herself as a knight and takes up the sword to protect her father's noble reputation and her king's realm. Whether we think of the Chinese or French iterations of maiden warrior tales, the figure is fraught with tensions. On the one hand the maiden warrior demonstrates the capacities of women to live and fight honorably. Maiden warrior tales grant the heroine ample agency, demonstrating her physical and intellectual strengths; as such, they hint at the arbitrary nature of gender norms in the societies that give rise to such tales. On the other hand the maiden warrior is only allowed to transgress the norms assigned to women for the sake of maintaining patriarchal and monarchical power. In other words, she defends a patriarchal social and political order that upholds, paradoxically, gender norms that limit women's agency. When the heroine restores order by the end of the tale, she abandons her masculine attire to resume her position as a woman, either beside a prince or king through marriage or within the domestic space, taking up the spindle. In both cases she forever relinquishes her sword.

But what happens when the heroine refuses to set down her sword or when she turns it against father, king, and the sociopolitical order she was supposed to defend? Riyoko Ikeda's popular shöjo manga Berusaiyu no bara (The Rose of Versailles, 1972-1973) and Jacques Demy's Lady Oscar (1979), a film adaptation of the manga, provide us with such scenarios.1 By situating their maiden warrior tales within the context of the French Revolution, Ikeda's and Demy's maiden warriors end up fighting to dismantle a patriarchal and monarchical feudal order instead of defending it. In earlier maiden warrior tales cross-dressing marks a temporary breach in that society's sex-gender system.2 However, Ikeda and Demy point to the possibility of permanent change with the reference to revolution and to Oscar's constant identity as a masculine woman, which suggests that the sociopolitical order and the sex-gender system have been indelibly altered.

Although these modifications to traditional tales have repercussions for questions related to sexuality, which 1 treat elsewhere, my focus in this essay is on how Ikeda's and Demy's transformation of the maiden warrior tale affects constructions of gender and class.3 Even though Ikeda and Demy empower their respective heroines in more long-standing ways than earlier variants of such tales, their re-visionings of the maiden warrior, especially that of Demy, paradoxically point to the figure's undoing. This undoing of the maiden warrior occurs not only because the traditional context in which she evolves - that of a patriarchal monarchy - crumbles over the course of the story but also because the class prejudices underpinning the forms of aristocratic heroism that shape the actions of the maiden warrior are undermined with the introduction of collective political action. Finally, gender trouble is not simply a parenthetical occurrence in the life of the maiden warrior; rather, gender is permanently destabilized with no fixed position to which the heroine can simply return at the end of the tale.

The Maiden Warrior Tradition

Although the use of the term maiden rather than woman may seem problematic, many maiden warrior tales concern adolescent girls transitioning into womanhood. It is perhaps because the maiden warrior finds herself in a transitional phase that her female masculinity is tolerated and even celebrated in such a culturally and historically diverse array of tales. Louise Edwards characterizes the liminal state of the maiden warrior of Chinese tradition as follows:

It is the time in a woman's life when her sexual power has yet to be realized through pregnancy and childbirth, and her sexual knowledge is limited. Virginity as a temporary state in these young women's lives adds the promise of sex to further titillate the reader. The temporariness of her lifestyle is therein also linked to her age. …

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