Tag Archives: gender issues

“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare: A Critique on Women Leaders

It is believed that Antony and Cleopatra was written in 1607 or 1608, not long after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who died March 24, 1603. In the play, Shakespeare paints a disparaging image of Cleopatra as the Queen of Egypt, implying that women are not suited to be rulers. It is possible that Shakespeare was reflecting on the reign of Elizabeth and criticizing her through the character of Cleopatra.

Early in the play, Caesar criticizes Antony, claiming he is womanly and therefore not a fit leader.

You may see, Lepidus, and henceforth know,
It is not Caesar’s natural vice to hate
Our great competitor: from Alexandria
This is the news: he fishes, drinks, and wastes
The lamps of night in revel; is not more man-like
Than Cleopatra; nor the queen of Ptolemy
More womanly than he; hardly gave audience, or
Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there
A man who is the abstract of all faults
That all men follow.

(Act I, scene iv)

When Antony is preparing to go to battle against Caesar, his friend Enobarbus speaks with Cleopatra, who plans on assisting with the war effort. Enobarbus makes it clear that he does not respect Cleopatra as a leader and views her as nothing more than a sexual plaything for Antony.

Cleopatra:

I will be even with thee, doubt it not.

 Enobarbus:

But why, why, why?

Cleopatra:

Thou hast forspoke my being in these wars,
And say’st it is not fit.

Enobarbus:

Well, is it, is it?

Cleopatra:

If not denounced against us, why should not we
Be there in person?

Enobarbus:

[Aside] Well, I could reply:
If we should serve with horse and mares together,
The horse were merely lost; the mares would bear
A soldier and his horse.

(Act III, scene vii)

In the same scene, Antony’s lieutenant Canidius tells one of the soldiers that they are “women’s men” after Antony places the naval forces under Cleopatra. The disdain that the military personnel feel at having to serve under a woman’s command is evident.

Soldier:

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

Canidius:

Soldier, thou art: but his whole action grows
Not in the power on’t: so our leader’s led,
And we are women’s men.

(Act III, scene vii)

Finally, in the last scene, Cleopatra tells Caesar that the limitations of her gender are the causes of her frailty; in other words, the reason why she lacks the power to rule in the manner of Caesar, who represents male patriarchal leadership.

Sole sir o’ the world,
I cannot project mine own cause so well
To make it clear; but do confess I have
Been laden with like frailties which before
Have often shamed our sex.

 (Act V, scene ii)

Clearly, we have made vast strides toward gender equality since the days of Shakespeare, although we are not yet where we need to be. But I am grateful to be alive in a time where I have seen women leaders assuming their rightful place in the world. I look forward to the day when there are no longer male leaders or women leaders, but just leaders.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Sexual Metaphor in “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

I read this play back when I was in college, and what the professor who taught the class said about it was something that stayed with me ever since. He asserted that in Elizabethan times, “nothing” was a reference to female genitalia. A man had a thing, and a woman had no thing. So basically, you could rename this play “Much Ado About _____” (fill in the blank with your favorite vaginal slang). So when you read the play from this perspective, you quickly notice all the sexual puns and innuendos hidden within the text, which is something I figured we could explore in this post.

Early in the play, Benedick, one of the main characters, asserts that he will forever remain a bachelor, claiming that women are prone to fooling around and making cuckolds of their husbands.

That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she
brought me up, I likewise give her most humble
thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my
forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick,
all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do
them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the
right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which
I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.

(Act I, scene i)

It is also worth noting that his name can be broken down into bene dick, or good dick. According to Oxford Dictionary, the word dick started being used in the 1500’s as a term representing a fellow, or man, in the general sense (https://www.lexico.com/definition/dick). I don’t know whether Shakespeare intended to pun to mean “good man” or “good penis,” but certainly both apply to modern interpretations.

As the play progresses, Don John spreads some lies to make Claudio believe Hero, his betrothed, is not a virgin. Claudio then slut-shames Hero on their scheduled wedding day, in front of her and her family.

Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.

(Act IV, scene i)

So if we consider what has happened, Don John’s lies have made something out of nothing, or made a big deal about a woman’s supposed sexuality. And why would men make such an ado about a woman’s sexuality? Shakespeare quickly follows up in the same scene by pointing out that it is the biblical belief that a woman was responsible for original sin, and that a woman’s sexual desire is equated to a fall from grace and a loss of virtue.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar’s issue at my gates,
Who smirch’d thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,–why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

(Act IV, scene i)

In the final act, Don Pedro delivers four lines which for me encapsulate the essence of this play.

Gentlemen both, we will not wake your patience.
My heart is sorry for your daughter’s death:
But, on my honour, she was charged with nothing
But what was true and very full of proof.

(Act V, scene i)

I interpret this as asserting that Hero was deemed guilty for no other reason than that she was female, or had no thing. There would be no ado if she had a thing. It appears to me that Shakespeare was asking the questions: What is the big deal about sex? Why do we care whether a woman is a virgin or not? Does a person’s sexual experience or gender matter all that much in the grand scheme of things? Why do we make much ado about nothing?

In our modern culture, we have made great strides toward equality and acceptance of one’s gender and sexuality, even though we still have a ways to go. I think Shakespeare would be glad that we are making less ado about nothing.

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“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte: A Polemic Against the Patriarchy

This is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought a used copy many years ago, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

Emily Bronte published this book in 1847, and it provides a harsh view of patriarchal authority which sadly still resonates today as we continue to grapple with issues of gender inequality and the abuse of women.

After Catherine is forced to wed her cousin, Linton, we are presented with a horrific image of Linton’s plan to seize everything that was once Catherine’s, as well as physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon Catherine by Heathcliff, Linton’s father.

“He’s in the court,” he replied, “talking to Dr. Kenneth; who says uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine; she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of her room, and let her out; but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all mine. And then she cried, and took a little picture from her neck, and said I should not have that; two pictures in a gold case, on one side her mother, and on the other, uncle, when they were young. That was yesterday—I said they were mine, too; and tried to get them from her. The spiteful thing wouldn’t let me: she pushed me off, and hurt me. I shrieked out—that frightens her—she heard papa coming, and she broke the hinges and divided the case, and gave me her mother’s portrait; the other she attempted to hide: but papa asked what was the matter, and I explained it. He took the one I had away, and ordered her to resign hers to me; she refused, and he—he struck her down, and wrenched it off the chain, and crushed it with his foot.”

(pp. 204 – 205)

The physical abuse is clear, but the psychological abuse is presented symbolically through the image of the locket. Heathcliff demands that Catherine give Linton the picture of her father as a symbolic gesture of her giving up all connections to her familial past and essentially becoming the property of her husband. She is not only required to relinquish all tangible property, but she must let go of her soul, of who she is, and thereby become nothing but a piece of human property, which can be done with as her husband chooses. When Catherine attempts to resist, the crushing of the locket represents the domination of patriarchal authority over her, stamping out all connections to her former self.

After Linton dies, Heathcliff takes possession of everything that once belonged to Catherine and her family. At one point, Catherine wants to use a small plot of land to create a garden. Heathcliff’s response demonstrates the patriarchal belief that a woman has no rights to any property.

“You shouldn’t grudge a few yards of earth for me to ornament, when you have taken all my land!”

“Your land, insolent slut! You never had any,” said Heathcliff.

“And my money,” she continued; returning his angry glare, and meantime biting a piece of crust, the remnant of her breakfast.

(p. 234)

While this book shows that we have come a long way, it also reminds us that we still have a ways to go. There is still gross gender inequality, as well as disparity between socio-economic classes. But as long as strong voices such as Emily Bronte’s speak out against inequality, we can continue to move forward as a society.

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Thoughts on “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

One great thing about being in a book club is getting to read books that would have otherwise not been on my radar. This is one such book. I don’t think I would ever have read it if it wasn’t the selection for this month.

The story is dark sci-fi, about a future world where women have physically evolved so that they are able to generate electrical energy within their bodies. This new power causes a paradigm shift where women become the dominant gender. But as we all know, power corrupts, and the women become abusive in the same way that men are abusive in a patriarchal society.

Social change almost always happens at a grassroots level.

“There is a scent of something in the air, a smell like rainfall after a long drought. First one person, then five, then five hundred, then villages, then cities, then states. Bud to bud and leaf to leaf. Something new is happening. The scale of the thing has increased.”

(p. 108)

A great metaphor for social change is the wave. Waves begin small, as ripples, like the beginnings of a grassroots movement. But then the wave grows until it becomes a powerful force, obliterating the old paradigm.

“It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. The only wave that changes anything is the tsunami. You have to tear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

(p. 148)

Changing a power structure is never easy. Like an old tree, its roots and branches spread out and become entwined in society in ways that are not always obvious.

She sees it all in that instant, the shape of the tree of power. Root to tip, branching and re-branching. Of course, the old tree still stands. There is only one way, and that is to blast it entirely to pieces.

(p. 364)

And often, it is only when historians look back on events, can we get a perspective on how the power structure shifted and what events might have contributed to the shift.

When historians talk of this moment they talk about “tensions” and “global instability.” They posit the “resurgence of old structures” and the “inflexibility of existing belief patterns.” Power has her ways. She acts on people, and people act on her.

(p. 370)

This book makes me think about the power structures in the world today: political, social, economic, etc. As change seems to occur faster and faster in our high-tech world, I cannot help but wonder just how much longer our current hierarchies of power will last. Sometimes I feel that the tsunami is racing toward our shore. I suppose I can only wait and watch.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 4: The Portrayal of Women

quixoteandwomen

So for this post, I wanted to look at the way women are portrayed in Don Quixote. I’ll start by sharing a few passages and then provide my thoughts.


If, then, the mine of her honour, beauty, virtue, and modesty yields thee without labour all the wealth it contains and thou canst wish for, why wilt thou dig the earth in search of fresh new veins, of new unknown treasure, risking the collapse of all, since it but rests on the feeble props of her weak nature?

(p. 337)


At these words Luscinda looked up at Cardenio, at first beginning to recognise him by his voice and then satisfying herself by her eyes that it was he, and hardly knowing what she did, and heedless of all considerations of decorum, she flung her arms around his neck and pressing her face close to his, said, “Yes, my dear lord, you are the true master of this your slave, even though adverse fate interpose again, and fresh dangers threaten this life that hangs on yours.”

(p. 377)


I follow another, easier, and to my mind wiser course, and that is to rail at the frivolity of women, at their inconstancy, their double dealing, their broken promises, their unkept pledges, and in short the want of reflection they show in fixing their affections and inclinations.

(p. 525)


At first, I felt disgusted and angered at the way women are depicted in this book. I find it deeply offensive to assert that anyone’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation makes that person less than equal. I understand that ideas shift throughout history, and what is considered an acceptable belief at one point can be completely rejected at another stage in history, but that still doesn’t make it any more palatable to me.

But as I sat and pondered on this, an idea struck me that changed my view of how Cervantes was portraying women. This text is a complete farce. It is meant to be ridiculous and comical, while addressing truths between the lines. This made me begin to wonder if Cervantes was putting these beliefs out there as being ludicrous, in the same way that Don Quixote’s beliefs regarding chivalry are completely insane and comical. And the more I thought about this, the more it seemed to ring true for me. I believe that Cervantes was pointing out just how silly the established belief of women being lesser than men actually is. He basically used comedy as a form of social criticism, and I love that.

When artists challenge the paradigms of their time, humor is a great tool. It is less threatening, but still forces people to face their prejudices and biases, a tradition that is still alive and well thanks to SNL and Stephen Colbert.

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Scarlet Witch: Issue #07 – Male/Female Duality and the Subtlety of Artistic Expression

ScarletWitch_07

This arc continues to surprise and impress me. Not only is the writing and artwork excellent, but the creative team is bold enough to incorporate thought-provoking ideas. And they do so in a way that challenges to reader to look below the surface at to what is implied instead of what is overtly stated.

In this issue, Wanda collaborates with a Hong Kong detective named Alice Gulliver, also known as the Wu, who possesses mystical power. Alice is an intriguing character, specifically because of her balance of male and female energy. She has managed to incorporate aspects of her father and her mother into her being, becoming a balanced individual that transcends gender roles and bias.

Alice: My father was a Hong Kong detective, killed by one of the triads. My mother was the city’s magical heroine, the August Wu of the Coral Shore… murdered by a demonic entity.

Wanda: So you chose your father’s life and keep your inherited powers a secret?

Alice: On the down-low, that’s right.

A sign of great art, in my opinion, is to express something subtly, through what is consciously left out of dialog and what is conveyed through images. In this tale, there is a sexual attraction between Wanda and Alice that is only hinted at through the dialog and the images, particularly the eyes. I’ve always felt that eyes are the most expressive feature of a person’s face, and the artists captured an attraction through the way the eyes are rendered. It’s subtle, but clearly there.

At the end of the issue, Alice hesitates for a frame, eyes are averted, building tension. Then in the following frame, her eyes turn back to Wanda as she springs a question.

Alice: Hey… err … do you want to grab a drink? We can discuss how I do things differently.

Wanda: I don’t drink, Alice. I’m sorry.

Alice: How about tea? I know an amazing tea house.

Wanda: Oh. Now tea, I do.

And in the final frame, the two women walk off together.

I’m really impressed that a main-stream comic has taken on sexuality and gender issues. It takes courage, especially in an environment that appears to be more and more hostile to the LGBT community (looking at the states that have recently enacted legislation restricting rights of LGBT citizens).

I recently listened to a TED podcast that talked about moving beyond tolerance, and I have been thinking about that a lot since listening. Tolerating people who are different is not enough. We need to embrace diversity and not merely tolerate those who are different. I think this comic is a step toward embracing differences, and for that, I applaud the writers and artists who collaborated on this.

Cheers, and thanks for stopping by.

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JLA Witchblade

JlaWitchblade

Several weeks ago, when I went to the comic store to pick up my latest issues, the woman working there told me that they had gotten this graphic novel as part of a collection they purchased. Since they know I am a Witchblade fan, they set it aside for me in case I was interested. The price was right, so I figured I would purchase it. It took me a while to get around to it, but this morning I finally got around to reading it and it was pretty good.

The graphic novel is a stand-alone story and was published in 2000. The basic premise is that Kenneth Irons has enlisted the help of Lex Luthor in acquiring the Witchblade. Sara is injured and taken the the Justice League headquarters for treatment. While she is there, the Witchblade determines that Wonder Woman is the more powerful female, hence more suitable bearer, and the artifact detaches itself from Sara and “chooses” Wonder Woman. The result is that Wonder Woman becomes corrupted by the weapon’s darker power and turns on the other members of the Justice League. At the climax, there is a confrontation between Sara Pezzini and Wonder Woman.

I found this tale to be entertaining and fun. There is nothing deep or thought-provoking, just a basic retelling of the classic “power corrupts” motif. There was some irony here that did not escape my attention, though. The women characters were definitely depicted as sexually idealized, which is annoying. But the irony is that at one part of the novel, Wonder Woman is addressing the United Nations, scantily clad and looking like a teen poster pinup, and talking about the importance of women opposing patriarchy and assuming leadership roles in the world.

… As you are all well aware, our mother planet faces grave economic, environmental and social problems; in order to solve them—I call upon women across the globe to rise up and throw off the yoke of patriarchal tyranny!

I was glad to see that there was at least an attempt to promote gender equality here, but as is evident, there is still a long way to go.

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“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin

LeftHandDarkness

First off, I want to say that this book is outstanding. If you have not read it, then you must add it to your list. It works on so many levels. I am only going to be able to scratch the surface of this book’s depth. There is a lot of deep symbolism woven into this beautifully vivid and well-written piece of literature.

The basic premise of the book is that an envoy named Genly Ai visits an inhabited planet to inquire whether they are open to joining an interplanetary alliance whose goal is to share culture and ideas, thereby advancing the various civilizations. The planet Gethen, which Ai is visiting, is populated by beings who are bi-gender and take on a dominant gender when time comes to mate.

Le Guin uses the ambisexual Gethenians as a Jungian symbol for unified persons. They symbolize a balance between the anima and the animus. And while they recognize the existence of duality, they have an innate sense of oneness.

Ai brooded, and after some time he said, “You’re isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism.”

“We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

(p. 252)

Le Guin expands on the concept of opposites combined into a balanced whole, employing symbols of light and darkness, of fire and ice, of life and death, to represent the importance of a balanced duality to maintain a spiritual whole.

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are on, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

(p. 252)

Throughout the book, the symbol that kept coming to mind for me was the yin and yang. As I was to discover later on in the book, this was intentional on the part of the writer.

“Fear’s very useful. Like darkness; like shadows.” Estraven’s smile was an ugly split in a peeling, cracked brown mask, thatched with black fur and set with two flecks of black rock. “It’s queer that daylight’s not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.”

“Give me your notebook a moment.”

He had just noted down our day’s journey and done some calculation of mileage and rations. He pushed the little tablet and carbon-pencil around the Chabe stove to me. On the blank leaf glued to the inner back cover I drew the double curve within the circle, and blackened the yin half of the symbol, then pushed it back to my companion. “Do you know that sign?”

He looked at it a long time with a strange look, but he said, “No.”

“It’s found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness . . . how did that go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.”

(pp. 286 – 287)

As I said at the beginning of the post, there is no way I can cover everything in this book. In addition to what I mentioned, the book also explores social and political structures, how myths evolve from actual events, concepts of patriotism, and spiritual and psychological exploration. While this book falls into the “science fiction” category, to me it is much more and transcends the genre. I highly recommend this book to everyone. If’ you’ve read it, feel free to share your thoughts below.

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