Gender Subversion in The Passion

‘No one will see so long as she wears shoes and when it comes to a husband, why it won’t be the feet he’ll be interested in’ (Winterson 55).

Image by: Olaf Hajek

Image by: Olaf Hajek

Villanelle enters the world presenting attributes of a gender to which she does not belong. Only boatmen were born with webbed feet and the mystical ability to walk across water, and yet Villanelle has skin between her toes that rejects the knife of the overzealous midwife – leading to the telling quote above. Women were meant to find a husband and bear children, and even this strange child could not escape the expectations of her gender.

Judith Butler writes, “My suggestion is that the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised and consolidated through time. From a feminist point of view, one might try to reconceive the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts rather than a predetermined or foreclosed structure, essence or fact, whether natural, cultural, or linguistic. (406) This suggests that the body is entirely separate from gender. Gender is not pre-determined, but rather the leftover bits of all of the elements that force it into being necessary. Villanelle defies the rules of cultural gender from birth, but it is assumed that shoes will keep society from discovering her otherness.

Villanelle, however, takes to playing games with gender, switching back and forth between dressing as a man or as a woman whenever it suited her. She felt powerful keeping others from guessing the true nature of her gender. One could argue that Villanelle was conflicted because she takes on a lover who is a woman, but then marries a man who is much more interested in her as a man, but it seems as if Villanelle believes that gender is as much of a construct as Judith Butler does. Villanelle says, “I am pragmatic about love and have taken my pleasure with both men and women, but I have never needed a guard for my heart. My heart is a reliable organ.” (63) She takes on a more male constructed gender role by taking pleasure when it pleases her instead of playing the role of chaste woman. She also chooses to raise a child by herself, rather than take comfort in an offer of marriage.


While we are looking at The Passion through a feminist lens, it still seems important to discuss Henri’s gender presentation. While less outright gender deviant than Villanelle, Henri still does not neatly fit the stereotypical male role he has been cast in. He is a petite male, “No one over five foot two ever waited on the Emperor.” (Winterson 1), and his delicate bone structure keeps him from seeing battle for longer than most of the other soldiers at camp. While other men take out their horror and loneliness on the prostitutes provided by the military, Henri is almost afraid of them – preferring instead to keep to himself. Then there is his admitted love for Napoleon that keeps him going – perhaps it is not overtly sexual, but Henri does refer to it as a passion. Henri seems almost afraid at times that Bonaparte will realize how he feels about him, “Perhaps he saw how I blushed, perhaps he knew my feelings, he knew those of most people.” (40) It is only later when there is nothing left to love that Henri starts to hate him – an feeling almost as intense as the love he once felt for him. It does seem as if Henri is kept close because he blindly idolizes Napoleon, and also poses no threat to his masculinity.

Butler also discusses how ideas of gender are based on people acting them out in expected ways:

Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed. It seems fair to say that certain kinds of acts are usually interpreted as expressive of a gender core or identity, and that these acts are usually interpreted as expressive of a gender core or identity, and that these acts either conform to an expected gender identity or contest that expectation in some way. (411)

We see women acting in the way we expect women to because of a cultural expectation, and interpret it as expressing a normative femininity. It is just a performance, and gender does not come from nature in the same way that sex does. Villanelle was born a girl (despite her strange feet) and Henri was born a boy, and yet both of them had a much more fluid gender expression.

There is one point, however, where Henri is narrating and says, “Soldiers and women. That’s how the world is. Any other role is temporary. Any other role is gesture.” (49) It seems like this sentence directly contradicts much of Butler’s arguments, though he does use the word role to describe this idea that he is presenting us with. Butler does say:

The body is not passively scripted with cultural codes, as if it were a lifeless recipient of wholly pre-given cultural relations. But neither do embodied selves preexist the cultural conventions which essentially signify bodies. Actors are always already on the stage, within the terms of the performance. Just as a script may be enacted in various ways, and just as the play requires both text and interpretation, so the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives. (410)

Yes, these roles feel like nothing more than gesture because these cultural ideas of gender predate and even restrict the ways in which bodies are allowed to express themselves. The play is set, and everyone is expected to act out their parts given certain guidelines.

Even today, men are expected to play the role of soldier, while putting every other part they play aside for a time. Women are expected to play the role of damsel and homemaker, while they wait for their men to return. One has to wonder though, how are traditional gender roles subverted now that women can become soldiers as well?

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