The Dueña Dolorida: Policing Gender, Desire, and Entertainment

By Velasco, Sherry | Hispanic Review, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Dueña Dolorida: Policing Gender, Desire, and Entertainment


Velasco, Sherry, Hispanic Review


The image of a bearded lady in the Dueña Dolorida plot in the Duke and Duchess's palace in part two of Don Quijote, while disconcerting for its gender-bending shock value, would not have been unfamiliar for early modern readers. That hirsutism was a popular topic in early modern visual culture is documented through the frequent illustrations of women with facial hair who appear in private exhibitions, paintings, and texts about monstrous hybrids. Surely the readers and spectators of sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury Spain had witnessed images of hermaphrodites, individuals born with excessive body hair (explained by the mother's impressionable imagination during conception), witches, sorceresses or other old women associated with transgressive sexual commerce, or even saints such as Librada, who successfully avoided marriage by miraculously acquiring facial hair during her nuptials, which not surprisingly, caused the groom to run for the hills.

The reader soon learns, nonetheless, that Cervantes's bearded lady is not what she seems to be. Considering the bearded priest's initial cross-dressing in part one of Don Quijote and the Duke's steward in the role of the Condesa Trifaldi in part two, we might wonder what the figure of a cross-dressed, bearded lady (not to mention that of the enchanted Dulcinea played by the transvestite page [?.35]) mean for the spectators in the palace as well as for the novel's readers, especially once the male identities of the damsels in distress are revealed in subsequent chapters. How does our understanding of this episode change when (despite the obvious clues to the contrary) we read Trifaldi as a woman in distress, thus identifying with Don Quijote's and Sancho Panza's ignorance that this "she" is actually a man with a beard wearing a dress?

Undoubtedly orchestrated to provide comical entertainment for the actors and spectators in the know, this episode also reveals certain strategies used for policing gender behavior, which in turn impacts traditional notions of desire for the participants and spectators in the episode as well as for the readers who likewise assess desirability and attraction. Aware of the implications for women with facial hair in heterosexual society, these bearded damsels are horrified by what they perceive as a "muerte civil" more torturous than a beheading. The Condesa Trifaldi addresses her spectators directly, pleading for their compassion: "¿adonde podrá ir una dueña con barbas? ¿Qué padre, o qué madre se dolerá della? ¿Quién la dará ayuda? Pues aun cuando tiene la tez lisa, y el rostro martirizado con mil suertes de menjurjes y mudas, apenas halla quien bien la quiera, ¿qué hará cuando descubra hecho un bosque su rostro?" (II.673). Consequences of this gender transgression include rejection by family members and loved ones, not to mention an impediment to attracting the opposite sex. The Condesa also alludes to the labor-intensive beauty regiment expected of women under normal circumstances (using a thousand kinds of lotions and cosmetics), clearly cognizant of what is required to maintain their feminine appearance. While these cursed damsels describe themselves as the unwitting victims of a revenge plot, it is Sancho who exposes the obvious fact that, to some degree, facial hair is a choice, since there are options for removing the unwanted fuzz. While he agrees with their assessment that facial hair on women is worse than any other disfiguration, he indirectly asks the common question, "Why not shave it off?" when he states, "Apostaré yo que no tienen hacienda para pagar a quien las rape" (674). Since Trifaldi was still in her feigned desmayo, one of the other bearded damsels must improvise and respond to his inquiry:

Así es la verdad, señor, . . . que no tenemos hacienda para mondarnos, y así hemos tomado algunas de nosotras por remedio ahorrativo de usar de unos pegotes o parches pegajosos, y aplicándolos a los rostros y tirando de golpe, quedamos rasas y lisa como fondo de mortero de piedra. …

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