Being the Perfect Feminist
Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week.
When I found out Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick died this past Sunday, I went home and opened my copy of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. It looks a lot liked Richard Kim’s copy of Epistemology of the Closet, which he described in his own tribute to Sedgwick in The Nation this week: “text underlined in four different colors of pencil, emblazoned with streaks of yellow and green neon highlighter. Little enigmatic notes crawl up and down the margins of dog-eared pages, and decomposing Post-it notes…”
I read and re-read Between Men as I wrote my thesis during my Senior year of college (I titled it Entourage: On the Performance of Masculinity, and yes that is Entourage the HBO series). My inscriptions in the book are now hard to make out, but I can tell when I really got something by the amount of exclamation marks I wrote on the page. As I tried to decipher my annotations two years later, I started reading…
The subject of Between Men is the “erotic triangle”—and notably not synonymous with menage a trois. In the second chapter, “Swan in Love: The Example of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Sedgwick uses Shakespeare’s sonnets to explain the “erotic triangle” configuration of one female and two male subjects, a running motif in English literature, and consequently the topic of Between Men. If you ever took an English literature class, most likely the question of characters’ sexuality came up in discussion. We love finding homoerotic undertones. These discussions can be endless because of the nature of subtext: it’s intangible and subjective. Between Men helps readers manage the discussion of relations between men without pointing to biology or love. Rather, Sedgwick explains how gender implicates the “erotic triangle” and what this means in more concrete terms: power. She uses Shakespeare’s Sonnets to lay out the tenets for understanding the role women play in the continuum of male bonding.
The Sonnets are the perfect example of the “erotic triangle” because of their characters: the poet (Shakespeare), the fair youth, and the dark lady. Throughout the Sonnets, the female is the “vehicle” which brings men closer together. She is “evil” while the fair youth is an “angel.” She is reduced to her “will” (Elizabethan for “sex drive”) and men take turns sleeping with her, only building their solidarity. And while the bonds between men are virilizing, the relationship between a man and a woman is a “radical degeneration of substance.” Ouch.
Were the relationships between men perceived as strange? Not at all. According to Sedgwick, Elizabethan England was not unlike the erotically charged mentorship role that men took on with young boys in classical Greece. Sedgwick notes: “There were no perceived discontinuity between the male bonds at the Continental Baths and the male bonds at the Bohemian Grove or in the board room or Senate cloakroom.” Women were still on the same level of slaves (part of the mentor’s job was teaching young boys how to command women and slaves), proving that while heterosexuality maintained patriarchy in both societies, homophobia did not. Sedgwick compares this to the era of Shakespeare in which “male-male love…was built into the system. A wife wasn’t seen as an opposition, a hurdle, something to get jealous about because it was an institution.” In modern times this might equate to: “it is what it is” (shrug).
When people ask what I wrote my thesis on, I say, “It’s about guys wanting guys.” They assume I mean that I’m talking about homosexuality, but it wasn’t at all. I’ve never seriously studied biology, nor do I dig Freud. Sedgwick gave me a framework for making sense of power, and it’s one I continue to refer to as I try to make sense of artistic mediums and life, and their significant overlap. Everyday women—both fictional and non—choose whether they want to be docile or not; but as we know, it’s not always that simple. I was unfortunate enough to work in an environment not so long ago that had a long standing tradition of “boy’s club.” As a result, men could get away with lackluster performance and lewd remarks, and not much was done about it because their “establishment” had been around for so long, and the community supported them. At the same time, many women have taken advantage of both their role as the objectified sex object and men’s group perverseness, commodifying themselves to make a living—we see rather untalented celebrities do this all the time. These women are either seen as business savvy and autonomous, or pandering to and reinforcing what Sedgwick called an “unsymmetrical erotic triangle.”
How should women assert their power? There are a lot of opinions today about how this should be done; authors, leaders, and the media have their own ideas of what’s too feminine and what’s not enough, which actions are transformative and which perpetuate patriarchy. Admittedly, it’s difficult at times to not feel some “feminist guilt”—can watching The Hills and getting hair highlights be the assertions of a confident woman? Or are these actions damning all womankind in tiny increments?