Monday, October 24, 2011

Engaging with Feminism through (medieval) Literature

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a Feminist Pedagogy Workshop. This was designed to address issues and opportunities that arise when combining teaching and feminism. Several presentations were given, for example, outlining difficulties which arose when feminist teachers came up against anti-feminist ideas from students, and exploring the idea of a specifically feminist pedagogical practice. Whilst this workshop ended far before arriving at some kind of resolution, in composing a presentation about my experiences of teaching medieval literature, I was forced to consider my teaching practises anew, particularly in their relationship with feminism.

The teaching course I focused on was a 2nd year undergraduate course in medieval literature in the English Department, consisting of eight two-hour seminars, each focused on one or two primary texts from the Middle Ages (12th-15th century) in Middle English. The issues specifically relating to pedagogy and feminism that I identified were:

1. Students were not familiar with the Middle Ages or medieval literature so often made assumptions about the period, e.g. all women are oppressed, men rule all etc

2. Students were not necessarily feminist, or familiar with feminist criticism

3. But even if they were, feminism is difficult to apply in the Middle Ages anyway because of the context – no such thing as ‘feminism’ per se in Middle Ages.

To address these issues, I tried a number of things.

1. I drew on students’ personal experiences of feminism/anti-feminism. This allowed us to consider both how our experiences related to those of medieval women, and challenged our views of women today. For example, many students had set views about ‘gold diggers’ (women who marry rich men for money), as a distinctly modern phenomenon. We read two texts in parallel which directly challenged the idea of ‘gold diggers’. These were A Young and Henpecked Husband’s Complaint,which tells the story of an old wife and a young husband, reflecting the medieval social reality of rich widows remarrying with more agency and Prohemy of a Mariage Betwixt an Olde Man and a Yonge Wife, and the Counsail,a misogynistic text advising an old man against marriage to a young woman. Reading these texts in the context of modern debates about feminism antagonised students’ assumptions that the ‘gold digger’ discourse is ‘modern’, as well as challenging our apparently rigid views about modern feminism.

2. In a related idea, I introduced ideas about women or feminism from the twenty-first century in order to engage with medieval texts. Students assumed that women were uniquely discriminated against in the Middle Ages, as opposed to today, where women enjoy complete freedom from patriarchy. I attempted to show that there are unfortunately lots of women who are still oppressed today, even in subtle, insidious ways. We discussed Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which Lancelot and Guinevere have an affair. We considered the representation of gender and sexual morality in this text alongside ideas in the modern media at the time which reflected the discourse that ‘if a woman sleeps around she is a slut, if a man does it he is a stud’. This nuanced students’ perceptions of the sexual morality of the Middle Ages, showing us it is as slippery as it is perceived today. I think it was surprising for students to find some of these ideas in the medieval, causing them to both redefine their ideas as ‘modern’ and challenge their assumption that the Middle Ages is irrelevant and ‘un-modern’.

3. Finally, I chose texts written by or containing interesting women. This allowed us to talk about medieval (fictional and ‘real’) women in more sophisticated ways, and to see their agency, revealing that women are not (always) just token characters for knights to fight over. We read the Boke of Margery Kempe, the account of an ordinary woman who had extraordinary experiences and religious visions, and who challenges the practises and piety of the medieval church, as well as travelling on pilgrimage by herself. Considering these kinds of texts broke down the idea that there were no women or representations of women in the Middle Ages. We also discussed authorship – Margery Kempe could not write, so her Boke was transcribed by a man. Talking about this led to an interesting discussion about men writing women, and the continued dominance of men in almost every field, socially, academically, culturally. This prompted students to consider what they thought of as particularly misogynistic medieval texts in the wider context of literary chauvinism which is still present today.

If I could teach this course again there are a couple of things I would change. First, I would compare medieval and contemporary texts. A direct comparison would be a very provocative way to discuss the position of women and feminist ideas and prompt vibrant discussion. For example, we could read medieval conduct books for young women alongside today’s magazines aimed at teenage girls to see if similar discourses arose (I strongly suspect that they might). Second, I would ask students to read feminist theory alongside medieval texts in order to compare feminist theoretical ideas and medieval texts. Hopefully this would increase students’ understanding of feminist theory and its applicability and relevance to medieval texts. For example, in the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, the Carl essentially sells his daughter to Gawain to facilitate his social elevation and inclusion in King Arthur’s court. This could be critically read alongside feminist theory in the position of women as objects of exchange, such as Gayle Rubin’s, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex’.

So while I am not sure that my teaching method is specifically ‘feminist’, I found it fascinating to consider how my own feminist research methods, as well as my political and cultural convictions, fed into my teaching. I received good feedback on the course from students, and many chose to focus on feminist issues in their essays, suggesting that they enjoyed the module. Has anyone else had similar experiences with teaching (whether medieval studies or not)? I am particularly fascinated by the relationships between teaching the Middle Ages and feminism – fellow medievalists, have you had any interesting experiences with teaching medieval studies and/with/in conjunction with feminism? Furthermore, feminism is clearly something that we cannot ignore when teaching, but how far should we/ can we go? Has anyone come up against resistance (either from students or elsewhere in the department)?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Is Popular Romance Homophobic?

I've recently posted at Teach Me Tonight on male homosexuality in heterosexual popular romance, and am reposting here. I recently came across the following passage in a Mills & Boon 'Modern Romance' sheikh title I'm researching. The passage struck me as odd, gratuitous and distinctly homophobic.

The heroine, Tally, is arguing with the hero, Sheikh Tair, trying to convince him that he is not as monolithically violent as he appears to be. The conversation goes as follows:
Tally: "You might say you're a brutal, vengeful man, but I don't see it. Your men adore you-"
Tair: "Please don't say my men and adore in the same sentence. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."
Tally: "The point is, you know your men care about you."
Tair: "You're confusing affection and respect. My men don't care about me. They fear me. Two significantly different things."
(Jane Porter, The Sheikh's Disobedient Wife, p. 105)
The line which gave me pause was Tair's comment 'It makes me extremely uncomfortable'. No explanation is offered for this statement, and the conversation swiftly moves on. But this jarring, homophobic comment stayed with me, as I began to think about how gay male sexuality is figured in heterosexual popular romance. How does this hero get away with being so homophobic?

Clearly, the context of the desert culture of the sheikh romance cannot be ignored here. As parts of the contemporary Middle East and Africa continue to criminalise homosexuality, it could be representational accuracy that leads this hero to espouse homophobic views. Yet given that these romances deliberately distance themselves, both geographically and in political terms from the reality of their Middle Eastern and North African settings (for example in the creation of fictional nation states over which the hero rules), it seems unlikely that this statement is simply a reflection of contemporary social politics.

Perhaps this homophobia is part of the hero's overtly constructed masculinity. Sheikh heroes are amongst the most deliberately masculinised Harlequin Mills & Boon hero; the traditional dress he wears, usually a keffiyeh or dishdasha and a long robe, seems to carry the danger of making the hero appear effeminate. This is frequently addressed and vociferously denied in sheikh romances:
Like her, he wore a long, loose robe. But, far from making him look effeminate, the outfit somehow accentuated the width of his shoulders, the whipcord strength of his body, his innate masculinity.
(Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure, p. 109).
Is it possible that this homophobic comment serves to further masculinise (in the sense of heterosexualise) the sheikh hero (whose masculinity already treads the borderline between effeminacy and masculinity)?

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of critical work on male homosexuality within heterosexual romances (perhaps because of its usual lack of mention), although a Teach Me Tonight post from 2006 discusses homophobia in romance. There has, however, been considerable work on lesbian romances and Stephanie Burley has considered the homoerotic potential of the romance, although this article focuses on women as the primary readers and authors of romance ('What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance').

My reading expertise does not stretch far beyond modern sheikh romances, and homophobic references such as this do seem to be rare. But I would be very interested to hear about any other references to homosexuality (both positive and negative) within heterosexual popular romance. I wonder:
  • Is gay sexuality always undesired/rejected in heterosexual popular romance?

  • Is there room for the homoerotic in these romances?

  • And how do these compare with representations of female homosexuality (of which, in heterosexual romance, I have encountered none)?
These are certainly questions I will be considering in my future romance reading.


  • Stephanie Burley, 'What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance', Doubled Plots: Romance and History, ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003)

  • Jane Porter, The Sheikh's Disobedient Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006)

  • Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)