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?


What are the Digital Humanities? – Final project for DH306 My project plans always evolve slower than I would like, so it is no surprise that this one has followed suit. I spent hours playing with every app. imaginable and re-reading all of the assignments from the term. I’ve … Continue reading

A Mix-tape for Claudius (Hamlet Final Project)

Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing. – Rob Gordon (John Cusack) … Continue reading

Final Video Detournement Project for Digital Composition

For my final project in my Digital Composition class we were supposed to take all of the lessons from the term and come up with an original way of showing what we had learned. I chose to do another detournement project. I took this video by the band Anti-Flag:

It is a social and political commentary by a band that takes themselves fairly seriously, so I decided to change the method of delivery and see how it changed the context of the message. I used the tool Xtranormal in order to make this countrified cartoon spoken word video:

Lyrical Detournement Video
by: Twinmamameg

It was a lot of work making this short video, but I am a little proud of how it turned out. It takes serious content and makes it almost laughable. I still prefer the original version, but I can appreciate how life takes itself a little too seriously at times and requires a bit of silliness every now and again.

Controlled Chaos – An Exercise in Detournement

We had a group project for our Writing For Contemporary Media Class that required us to detourn (or change the meaning of something in simple terms). Thomas Wolfe and I chose to add words to the poem “What The Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver (his words are in bold). This is the chaos we created:

He said it doesn’t look good

♬♬Besides functionality, code also possesses literary value.

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

map those territories, define terminologies, and create contexts

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

What we’re experiencing for the first time is the ability of language to alter all media,

I quit counting them

Materiality- fluidity, plasticity, ductility, malleability—-

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

How can we regard something that might in another configuration be extremely valuable?

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

a word processing document is an example of a microclimate where the variables are extremely limited and controlled and yet the true possibilities are endless.

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

èI said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

There’s nothing stable about it: even in their most abstracted form, letters are embedded with semantic, semiotic, historical, cultural, and associative meanings.

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

Physical geography. Overlay it with psychogeography—mapping the psychic and emotional flows of a city instead of its rational street grids—-DRIVE THE BUS!

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

the city is an ecology, a series of networks, each replete with its own potential for meaningful exchanges and encounters. NO RELATION TO ADMINISTRATIVE BOUNDARIES. OBJECTIVE PASSIONAL TERRAIN/LOGIC OF SOCIAL MORPHOLOGY

½ I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

What are your sources? Oh we have plenty of sources. You can ask and we can tell. Just follow the links. Point and click your way to the beginning. It is the point that the beginning is not so sure and steady at hand. Like choppy water on this grey and dusty Oregon/Idaho day. Yeah, the location is a multitude. Two locations. Two locations with two beginnings and not an end in sight. Just be glad your fair (fare) is paid and bought for. Come on now, get loose, get ready and read. Cut and paste your way. Concrete poetry.

Do you remember floating down the 405 awash in that California sun? No? yes? The freaks along the boardwalk sailing past feet up off the ground eyes twinges and groggy and full of redo. Come on now.

Cite your damn sources. Please. Give credit where credit is do (due). Do your own work. Use the gifts and make sure they remain intact. Here, at ‘intact’ is the point of contention. What are you borrowing and what are you taking and what are you taking out on loan? Borrowing and Loaning. What is the difference? Difference. “the transparency of the clearing means a maintenance of the invader’s specific right over a territory in which he claims to settle, of his power to penetrate. What this week is circling around can be identified as a phenomenon of retention. What are you retaining and what have you borrowed that make this retention possible? The bordering of our two states now is like so much imagined refuse.

I take the words from the page and rearrange them to fit what burns inside. Your pulse quickens, the sweat breaks upon the back of your neck, you are lost amongst the words seeking direction. I have none to give. Turn left.