"The Creation of Anne Boleyn" and Third-Wave Feminism: Susan Bordo’s New Look

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

I am something of an Anne Boleyn aficionado. Ever since I was eleven years old and my mother bought me a gold-edged book about Elizabeth I, I’ve been fascinated by her raven-haired, ill-fated mother. Who isn’t nowadays? With the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s blue-eyed Anne in The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s controversial portrayal, it seems like everyone and their mothers are jumping on the Anne bandwagon. This is both a blessing (to learn about history and influential historical figures) and a curse (those who do not care to research take badly presented television and film characters as historical truth). That is why I was so hesitant to read Susan Bordo’s new sociological study on the many manifestations of Anne Boleyn that have surfaced for the past 500 years: I was afraid of another Anne portrayed a la The Other Boleyn Girl: inherently evil, incestuous, ruthless, and altogether fabricated.

I needn’t have worried. Bordo is an interesting mix of Internet Anne fan and educated, intellectual force; her background and education, along with her love of Anne, makes this book a tribute to a strong, intellectual woman many of us have come to adore. The first section of the book deals largely with Anne’s contemporaries and the Imperial ambassador Chapuys’ venomous portrayal of Anne that seeped into every  portrayal of her for the past five hundred years. This was the part of the book I wanted to skip; having read Weir, Ives, et cetera, I was more than familiar with the conflict of fact and fiction, interpretation and politicization of Anne’s image, and I was glad when the book morphed into a sociological history of Anne. This is where Bordo sparkles.

By giving examples of how Anne Boleyn has been portrayed for the past 500 years, Bordo comes close, closer than many a biographer or historian, to dissecting what it is that makes Anne Boleyn such a magnetic, seductive personality. Henry VIII divorced his wife of twenty-four years to be with Anne, and split apart the Catholic Church to marry her. In contemporary culture, the figure of Anne Boleyn is polarizing: there are those who hate her and subscribe to the notion that she was ruthless and venomous; and there are those who love her, enshrining her in the robe of early feminism and idolizing her. But Anne Boleyn and feminism are a troubling combination, as are all the moments when contemporary ideals are placed in the minds of historical figures. Anne Boleyn was not a feminist. Yet is there some strength to be gleaned from thinking she was? What do Anne Boleyn and “third-wave” feminism have in common?

Bordo admits in the book that “we always write from our own time.” (259) Thus, Anne has become a bit of a feminist role model for women today, as Bordo mentions in her book. In one chapter, she interviews a group of twenty-something women on their perception and opinion of Anne and finds their responses quite telling. One calls Anne “the original feminist”—with Bordo’s caveat that this particular brand of feminism is of the “’third-wave’ variety—a woman of contradictions who cannot be ‘lassoed’ or ‘pigeonholed,’ who skillfully walks the line between sexuality and sluttiness, playfulness and power. So if Anne were alive today, she’d be ‘provocative but not slutty.’ At Oktoberfest, ‘she would be flirtatious, magnetic.’ But then she’d leave the guys dumbfounded by going home alone,” Bordo writes. (250) A majority of the interviewees took the same stance, refusing to characterize Anne in simple terms, and echoing contemporary feminist ideals that Anne, in her life, did live by.

If for no other reason, this is why Bordo’s book deserves a read. As an Anne admirer, I find her story one that is both tragic and inspiring, complicated and arresting. No, Anne was not a feminist and to say so would be anachronistic, but one may learn about modern feminism by studying her, rejecting The Tudors (in part) and The Other Boleyn Girl, among dozens of others, and learning about her actions, motivations, and weaknesses. Anne Boleyn is an example of that long-abhorred virgin/whore dichotomy; she has been vilifed as a slut and homewrecker or else championed because of her self-proclaimed virtue. What she has rarely been considered, however, is a human, except by those who have studied her. One interviewee stated, “It’s far too simplistic to define her as either an ‘angel’ or a ‘devil.’ (251) She was an intelligent, educated, highly sophisticated woman, who certainly possessed many flaws, significant among them being considerable arrogance, but who was far too complex to be dismissed as simply a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ character…” (251-52) This is the pull Anne has for me as well, a woman of contradictions and flaws, who is nevertheless empowering without requiring a rejection of femininity. It seems I am simply one of the many who have commandeered Anne Boleyn as a role model for feminism, and anachronistic or not, five hundred years later, she’s relevant to today’s young feminists.

References

Bordo, S. (2013) The Creation of Anne Boleyn. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

What "Middlesex" Taught Me About Gender Identity

Last week, I found myself re-reading that modern classic and Pulitzer-darling, Middlesex, and ruminating again on how much influence the novel had on my own gender identity. In this unforgettable novel, Eugenides weaves a complex, harrowing story of how a young girl, Calliope Stephanides, ended up with an intersex condition known as 5-alpha reductase deficiency. As a teenager in the 70s, Callie struggles immensely with both her sexuality and how she defines her gender. However, eleven years after the novel was first published, the last decade sheds more light on Callie’s story, and has served as a guidepost for the expression of my own gender identity.

At the end of the novel, when Callie has chosen to identify as Cal, he expresses a tempered joy that his father died before “missile shields and global warming and September 11 and the second president with only one vowel in his name.” (512) Yet now, eleven years after Middlesex was first published, we have had our first biracial president. We’ve had more terror scares, more threats of attack. And then there are the cultural aspects of contemporary American life: gay marriage is legal in fourteen states and is quickly gaining political supporters across America; rape culture is addressed and condemned with more virulence than ever before; and personal technology has changed the way people relate to each other and to themselves.

Technology has progressed to the point where nearly everyone has a smartphone and multiple social media accounts, and thus are quickly searchable, their identities outlined by Instagram photos of nights out, lunch preferences, and time lounging on the couch with a pet. Twitter feeds are the way we get to know people now. Blogs allow each person an audience and a forum to express him- or herself with few or no boundaries. So, keeping in mind this social atmosphere, where is Cal now? How would he have responded to this world? And more importantly, what would Eugenides have written had he published Middlesex in this decade instead of the last?

In my mind, I see Cal as a fiftysomething apolitical yet optimistic and outgoing man. Not an activist or a demonstrator, but perhaps he would have written an article or two for the Huffington Post. I like to think that in contemporary America, Cal would have been met with acceptance and understanding, rather than the inhibiting fear of rejection he exhibits with romantic (and to some extent, platonic) relationships in the novel. Rediscovering Middlesex has allowed me to ponder and plumb these questions about how the American social landscape has changed in the last ten years, and how the complexities of gender identity have permeated the consciousness of more people than ever before.

How? Gender dysphoria is no longer classified as a “disorder” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as of May 22, 2013. Previously known as “gender identity disorder,” the newly rechristening of GID represents a shift in the way we relate to and understand gender identity. Rather than as a dichotomy of male versus female, gender identity has evolved into a broader spectrum. Transgender individuals are seen less as anomalies and their experiences are more widely shared and understood. The complexities of gender identity affects us all; as Cal states, “We hermaphrodites are people like everybody else.” (106)

The most poignant part of the book, in my reading experience, was the point at which Cal[lie] decides he does not wish to undergo any kind of operation to become either anatomically male or female. His decision echoes an earlier statement made in the narrative by the forty-one year old Cal: “hermaphroditic genitals are not diseased.” (106) Cal does not wish to join either “team,” so to speak. He admits to not feeling fully integrated into the community of men (he doesn’t like them that much) and also states that he never felt out of place as a girl. Cal, apolitical throughout, admits that his decision to be a man hinged on his sexual preferences, not on a feeling of belonging to a preordained gender identity. He is, allow me the indulgence, a middlesex.

Whenever I read Middlesex, I identify so closely with Cal/lie. I don’t mean that as a cisgender female I know what it is like to be intersex; simply that the description of gender in the book got me thinking. It got me thinking about myself as a twenty-two year old female, somewhere between girlhood and womanhood, and all the ways in which I express gender identity internally and externally. I thought about my speech habits, the way I behave on dates, how I address men, how I carry on conversations, my wardrobe choices, my choice of friends, of jobs, even of bars. I realized how subtly my decisions were influenced by the female gender identity to which I belong, and it also allowed me to realize the many freedoms contemporary women enjoy, more than they ever did in Callie’s 1974.

As a fourteen-year-old patient to the sexologist Dr. Luce, Callie describes being interviewed by the doctor: “He watched my facial expressions; he noted my style of argument. Females tend to smile at their interlocutors more than males do. Females pause and look for signs of agreement before continuing. Males just look into the middle distance and hold forth. Women prefer the anecdotal, men the deductive.” Cal recognizes these as stereotypes, “limited but useful.” (417) Back in 1974, gender lines were much more distinctly drawn. These lines, though very much still intact, have grown fuzzier in the intervening decades between Callie’s adolescence and my own.

For example, I can pay the check on a first date, and happily. I can confidently express opinions without pausing to smile winningly, eager for acceptance. I can respond to an older man’s “honey”s or “sweetie”s or “gimme a smile, beauty”s with as much hostility as I deem appropriate. I don’t find it necessary to defer to a man’s perceived power, or allow my behavior to fall in line with a preconceived notion of femininity. I feel free to reject gender norms and, as much as possible, live with the knowledge of their influence and try to combat it.

Yes, there are still many obstacles to living free of the gender dichotomy, but, perhaps like Cal would have felt these days, I feel more optimistic about social change. Neither an activist or a demonstrator, I am, like Cal, a person, and a writer. Maybe we’re all a bit of a middlesex if we allow ourselves the freedom to choose neither, or both, to live as a person without succumbing to gendered expectations.

References

Eugenides, J. (2002). Middlesex. New York, NY: Picador.