My project looks at representations of liminal and queer femininities to trace a long genealogy of sorts. By bringing manuscript illuminations from the moment when ‘femininity’ was coined in Middle English (14th-15th C.) into conversation with contemporary UK-based artists calling for non-binary, speculative approaches to femininities, I hope to show that binary associations of femininity with womanhood do not do justice to the complexities of historical uses of the term as well as to think about how both the medieval and the modern might be engaged in projects of imagining alternatives.
Title of Proposed Research:
Forsaken Femininities: The Long History of Femininity from Medieval to Modern and Monstrous to Divine
My PhD makes a timely contribution to queer, feminist, and medieval studies where intersectional, non-binary frameworks are emerging, but where the feminine figure remains oft-erased. It reshapes modern queer and feminist discourse by exploring the legacy of late medieval femininity. I explore late medieval illuminations of maternal monks and vulnerable Christ-figures, effeminate sodomites and apocalyptic whores, femmes in courtly romances and bodies feminized through frailty. I further consider their resonances with contemporary queer artists who likewise challenge presumptions of white, female, and able-bodied femininity. This interdisciplinary research detaches femininity from femaleness to centre its intersectionality, cross-temporal resonances, and methodological value.
Aims and Questions
My PhD harnesses the legacy of femininity since the late medieval period to reshape modern queer and feminist discourse. It also draws on approaches to femininity taken by contemporary queer artists to develop an interdisciplinary interpretive framework which can help us rethink gender in medieval studies. At its core, this dissertation aims to centre femininity. I ask:
- How can femininity be qualified when detached from ‘femaleness’?
- What methodological framework best facilitates a cross-temporal analysis of representations of femininity?
- What late medieval images and audiences fall under the scope of this framework and how might they be interpreted?
- Where are the resonances between these medieval femininities and those taken up by contemporary artists?
At this point in my research one of the greatest shifts has come from discovering that ideal premodern femininities are perhaps incongruous with and indeed ‘queer’ by modern measures. Both my medieval and modern case studies demonstrate that only fluid, intersecting qualifiers can begin to represent the scope of femininities operating in history and in our daily lives. Designing a methodology to respond to this intersectional fluidity, I argue that modern political uses of femininity will benefit from a history which refutes new dichotomies while supporting the abolition of old ones. Likewise, I hypothesize that contemporary artists’ engagements with femininity are producing new language that will be helpful for exploring the complexities of premodern gender.
The late medieval case studies underpinning this research are primarily spiritual, didactic manuscripts made in England c.1200-1500 CE and located at the British Library, the J Paul Getty Museum, and the Bodleian Library. Contemporaneous courtly romance manuscripts made in France are also included: specifically, Le Roman de Silence (University of Nottingham), Yde et Olive (University of Turin), and Le Roman de la Rose (Bibliothèque nationale de France). These manuscripts have guided the development of the dissertation into five thematic chapters inspired by their respective representations of femininity and, in turn, have been selected for their resonance with my interpretive framework.
Engagement with the practices of contemporary artists, such as Sin Wai Kin (previously known as Victoria Sin), Jen Powell (Adam All), Eleanor Burke (Apple Derrieres), and Tai Shani will be used to advance queer interpretations of the medieval. Likewise, the medieval will reshape our understanding of their contemporary negotiations of femininity. These artists are making their own challenges to presumptions of white, female, and able-bodied femininity and exploring embodiments of queer femininities detached from ‘femaleness.’ They are also creating new language (textual and visual) through their experiences in contemporary queer communities which can expand current theoretical vocabulary.
I am already working with many of my medieval and modern case studies and I been to the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the University of Turin, and the University of Nottingham.
Research Design and Methodology
Using an interdisciplinary methodology, I am creating a framework that centres femininity in its practices and its subjects. This framework spans the disciplines of art history, sociology, literary criticism, and gender studies. Drawing on Rhea Ashley Hoskin’s work on femme theory, Judith Halberstam’s low theory, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s methods of reparative reading, I aim to make femininity and queerness part of the project’s inherent structure. Hoskin is the sociologist who first proposed ‘femme as theory’ and she establishes initial goals for femme-centric methodologies. The most central to this project are taking a systemic lens, intersectionality, and centring subjective femme identities (2021). Halberstam’s low theory is about the possibilities of queer failure. It is well-suited to this project since femininities fail extraordinarily: ideological femininity fails by design as the necessary antithesis to hegemonic masculinity, while femininities that intersect with queerness, ableism, ageism, or racialization fail twice over by being feminine and by not being ideologically feminine. By not resisting femininity’s ‘lowness’ on the hegemonic ladder—whether a medieval ladder of heaven-bound devotional practices or modern ladders of capitalistic success—this project answers Sedgwick’s call for reparative reading. Sedgwick’s reparative reading balances against paranoid reading, which offers transhistorical conceptualizations of queerness through belief in exposure, and instead returns value to pleasure and positive affect. She breaks with notions of a linear, genealogical march forward to embrace queer possibilities and “flashes of queer recognition” between past and present (1997). Her rehabilitation of the “merely aesthetic,” privileging of “fragments,” and “respectful interest in weak as well as strong theoretical acts” all resonate with the aim of building a feminine framework.
My dissertation carries femme into medieval art history. Femme as an identity was originally claimed by 1940s working-class lesbians and it now refers more broadly to queer femininities that deviate from patriarchal ideals. There is precedent in medieval studies and art history for considering femininity and femmes (Kim, Bychowski, Watt, Kłosowska, Sauer, Mills), but this dissertation is unique in centring femininity as its subject and methodology. Its timeliness is evidenced in the increase of interdisciplinary interest in femme (Hoskin, Camilleri and Rose, Scott, Volcano and Dahl) and in recent publications in premodern studies (DeVun and LaFleur). There is also precedent in medieval studies for cross-temporal queer analysis. I draw especially on the work of Robert Mills, Roland Betancourt, and Karma Lochrie. Mills fashions an approach to anachronism that makes it method and quality—a quality inherent in objects themselves—and advocates for medieval objects’ “enduring contemporaneity” (2018, 80). Betancourt likewise embraces productive anachronism to analyse slut-shaming, virginity, and trans* identities (2020). Lochrie’s work informs my approach to ideas of normativity and the medieval lack thereof.
It might be said that femme is currently understood more broadly, powerfully, and fluidly than ever before in contemporary queer communities. Moving away from its initial use by working-class lesbians of the 1940s, ‘femme’ has been adopted by people of all genders as a source of pride, activism, ferocity, and glamour. This ‘glitter bomb’ of femme expansion makes work on its long history ever-more pressing. The potency of femme as a political position will be limited without nuanced understandings of its systemic relevance, historical specificities, and potential as a value system. Politicized femininities also risk narrowing their impact as a movement from a paranoid position if femmes do not have access to the feminine fragments that preceded and surround them. Rather than exposing a long history of feminine devaluation, this dissertation takes pleasure in the excesses offered by histories of femininity and gathers them for future femmes building on the possibilities of feminine failure.
Art History as a discipline is well-poised for this research on femininity—femininity itself often being qualified by aesthetic and performed signifiers—while also standing to benefit. Critiques of the masculinist values inherent in Art History reach back to Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker’s foundational Old Mistresses. This dissertation builds on their work by focusing on femininity itself rather than the implications of the feminine stereotype for women. Centring femininity in the content and form of this project sets it up to show the layers and intersections at which femininity operates, its cross-temporal specificities and resonances, and its value.