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Androgyny (2019-11-04)

1572 miniature portrait of Elizabeth Tudor by Nicholas Hilliard, courtesy of Lara Eakins' excellent tudorhistory.org website. 1572 miniature portrait of Elizabeth Tudor by Nicholas Hilliard, courtesy of Lara Eakins' excellent tudorhistory.org website.
1572 miniature portrait of Elizabeth Tudor by Nicholas Hilliard, courtesy of Lara Eakins' excellent tudorhistory.org website, july 2019.

Among my research readings of late has been a small selection dealing with women as participants in learning, teaching, and performing rhetoric. As usual, women have done all of these things and managed to do them in even the most hostile environments. Quite apart from whether they were doing so in order to challenge oppression they were experiencing because of their sex, this participation is intriguing in its suggestion that it is some way fundamental. We humans need to speak effectively to one another, which need not mean persuasively, it can simply mean to speak in a way that your audience is able to hear and understand what you are actually saying. This can be trickier to do than it might seem at a brief glance. One book in particular dealt with this issue as part of what author Cheryl Glenn characterizes as a "regendering" of the history and historiography of rhetoric, Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition From Antiquity Through the Renaissance. I was particularly struck by her discussion of Elizabeth Tudor, who had to have rhetorical brilliance and a hell of a lot of luck on her side to survive to take the throne in the first place. Glenn discusses the major elements of Elizabeth Tudor's rhetorical toolbox, including several key pages on her manipulation of the image of the androgyne.

Unfortunately it is basically impossible for me to link to any sensible articles online about "androgyny" or the androgyne image. My preference would be to link to some pages that summarize the nature and origins of this image in antiquity, because those are the precedents that Elizabeth Tudor would have started from. She read and spoke fluently in latin and greek, and despite her social class and position was no dilettante. One version I can refer to is Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium, in which he tells how humans began as four legged and two headed, perpetually joined together in heterosexual and homosexual pairs eventually torn apart by a jealous Zeus. The heterosexual joined pairs would then be an example original androgyne. As the text continues, the symposium participants – who are too hungover to drink much and therefore sobre enough to cope with an erudite philosophical discussion – eventually begin to discuss something that sounds more like current notions of androgyny. In this case, men who behave like midwives of excellence in the soul, that is combining "feminine" and "masculine" techniques to help another man achieve excellence.

Glenn notes that while Elizabeth Tudor strategically extended and applied the notion of androgyny to manage the cognitive dissonance her role as a female monarch might cause in england, this did not change conditions for women generally. That is, heedless of her power, Elizabeth Tudor never so much as gestured at changing the laws so that girls and women ceased to be chattel under her reign. Far from it. If anything, she reinforced the generally poor position of girls and women via setting herself up so firmly as an exception given an exceptional destiny. Indeed, her androgyny was far from threatening, and the notion itself was not associated in any way with social change. The late sixteenth century was a while ago, though, and so that may have contributed to the optimism Feminists felt in the 1970s when they attempted to reclaim and reframe androgyny. Their whole point was to break down, preferably for good, sex-role stereotypes and other elements of gender so that nonsensical notions of "femininity" and "masculinity" could no longer be used to oppress anyone. Unfortunately, the androgyny strategy didn't work, as it probably couldn't, since it still effectively takes the male and masculine as default and the female and feminine as aberrations from it. And, it still leaves untouched the notions of "masculinity" and "femininity" and associated sex-role stereotypes in the first place, which is the annoying "gotcha" of the term.

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