How Renaissance-Era Sexism Connects the Fights for Gender Equality and Trans Liberation

Looking at the last few years, it might seem as though the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people have made great progress. Several openly transgender candidates were elected to state and municipal office in November, and the armed forces began accepting transgender recruits earlier this year. Last month, Laverne Cox was Cosmopolitan magazine’s first openly transgender cover model, and the Oscars just featured their first transgender presenter, Daniela Vega.

But each step forward seems to be met with pushback from the Trump administration—including repeated attempts to ban trans-identified people from serving in the military and news that officials at the Center for Disease Control now have a list of forbidden words that include “transgender.”

Until we address the hidden role played by misogyny and anxious masculinity—the dual assumptions that women are lesser than men, and that femininity has the capacity to devour or dissolve masculinity—we’ll continue to take one step back for every two steps forward when it comes to rights and attitudes around transgender and gender non-conforming people. To be sure, these aren’t by any means the only factors at play in transphobia. However, misogyny and anxious masculinity add fuel to political attempts to hold back transgender rights—and make social change even more difficult in a culture that constantly reinforces difference.

As the 21st century reconsiders the meaning of gender, we are weighted down with old prejudices and preconceptions, many with secular, even scientific roots. As a scholar of the Renaissance at Northwestern University, I often teach the differences between modern medicine and its 16th-century equivalents. On attitudes around gender, these differences are surprisingly small, and looking through the lens of Renaissance beliefs brings some remarkably persistent anxieties into clear view.

Francis Hyman’s painting of a Shakespearean wrestling scene from “As You Like It,” one Renaissance text dealing with issues of gender identity.

People in the time of the Renaissance were fascinated by those they called “hermaphrodites.” Numerous 16th-century scientific texts debated theories surrounding people who didn’t conform to strict ideas about what was male and what was female. On the one hand, hermaphrodites were seen as natural wonders, signs of the infinite variety of which Nature was capable; on the other, they also came to be associated with fraud and sexual deceit as well as the “deviancy” represented by male and female homosexuality and transvestitism.

In the early modern period, the sexes were not only medically defined; they also had crucial legal implications. In Renaissance France for example, one’s sex determined whether one could legally marry, bear witness, inherit, hold public office or act as a guardian for one’s own children. Women who passed themselves off as men were therefore illegally usurping men’s rights, and were punished with death. For their part, men who dressed, acted or loved in ways that ran counter to gender norms “feminized” themselves into positions of weakness and denigration.

But, it didn’t end there. Sixteenth- and 17th-century physicians thought certain biological forces could actually transform women into men. However, the opposite was believed impossible because, as Ambroise Paré, surgeon to four French kings and one of the foremost medical minds of his time wrote: “Nature always moves toward what is more perfect, and never, on the contrary, makes that which is perfect become imperfect.” Indeed, beneath all of the medical theories swirling around sex and gender lay unquestioning legal and cultural beliefs in the superiority of men.

But superiority did not mean safety: the status of man was an anxious and precarious one, as the Renaissance’s fascination with hermaphrodites shows. Even the very term “hermaphrodite,” deriving from a Greco-roman myth, symbolized the dangers of female aggression and the loss of manhood. In the story, Hermaphroditus was a handsome young man with whom the nymph Salmacis fell in love. He rejected her advances, but when he dove into the pool where she lived, she followed him in and wrapped herself around the struggling youth in what the great Roman poet Ovid describes as a violent sexual assault. The nymph prayed to the gods to ask that they never be separated, and the gods fused their two bodies into one that was neither male nor female, but both. According to Ovid, the newly “enfeebled” Hermaphroditus cried out in despair, “though not with manly tones,” to curse the pool where he had been made only a “half-man.”

The Renaissance hermaphrodite symbolized masculinity under threat. Throughout the legal and medical writing on this subject ran a current of deep misogyny—a current still with us today, and one that exacerbates forms of discrimination against those who don’t conform to modern gender norms. It is rooted in the same old mistrust of women on the part of an outdated notion of masculinity made to see itself as constantly under attack, at risk of being weakened and dissolved by the feminine.

Even in 2018 femininity is still a synonym for weakness. And while transgender women like Cox, Danica Roem or Caitlyn Jenner seem to figure more prominently in the public imagination than transgender men, transgender women and especially transgender women of color are also disproportionately victims of violence. From the viewpoint of Renaissance medicine, to change from female to male was a natural move from the flawed to the ideal. Transgender women, however, would have represented an unthinkable contamination of perfect masculinity with the defective, the female.

In many ways, modern American masculinity is no less anxious than its Renaissance counterpart. Shampoos and skincare products today still single out male consumers with bold lettering indicating the product is “for men,” sharper scents and dark-colored packaging. Ad campaigns like Q-tips’ 2014 rebranding as “Men’s Ultimate Multi-Tool” single out male consumers as though to protect them from those other, girly cotton swabs. Strategic advertising aimed at men isn’t balancing gender categories in the grocery or drugstore, or in commercials for cars and restaurants—it’s reinforcing them. Do we really think someone’s manhood will wash off with lavender-scented body wash? If so, perhaps the time has come to rethink so much cultural messaging that works to make men afraid.

Fear and anxiety are hardly a basis for good policy. These old prejudices—ones that see what is female as both weakness and contagion—persist because, historically, we’ve not only thought of sex as a binary system, but also as a hierarchical one. This outdated framework makes transgender and gender non-conforming people particular targets because they are seen as “transgressing” not simply horizontally, across gender categories, but also vertically, between the degrees of privilege and superiority among them.

Much has changed for the better since the time of the Renaissance, but not everything. In some ways beliefs from the 16th century about gender were more flexible than ours. Paré himself recommended looking at behavior and personality, as much as at anatomy, when determining the sex of a Renaissance “hermaphrodite.” Taking a page from very old books to help us reconsider our stiff, white-knuckled grip on anxieties around masculinity won’t make men weak or women predatory. In fact everyone may just breathe a little easier without the constraints that policing gender norms have placed throughout the centuries on personal freedom, relationships, and self-expression.

Our present moment could bring about a genuine shift. Recent steps forward for transgender rights, coming at the same time as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, are an important opportunity to rethink the pressures we place on people of any identification to conform to certain ways of acting, thinking, dressing, loving and living based on preconceptions about gender. It’s also a chance to reexamine where some of this rigidity comes from: old, sometimes silent but enduring assumptions that one of these categories is simply better, stronger, more worthy—but also terrified—of the other.

Dr. Cynthia Nazarian is an assistant professor in the Department of French and Italian at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow. She is the author of Love’s Wounds: Violence and The Politics of Poetry in Early Modern Europe.

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