Sex and Gender in Monsiuer Venus

I have a few questions about the presentation of gender and sex in Monsiuer Venus. Mostly, I’m going to try to work out whether the distinction between sex and gender is as great as it appears.

Monsiuer Venus creates a distinction between sex and gender, challenging the idea of biological determinism in gender. While Raoule is biologically female she perpetuates a masculine gender identity. Similarly, Jacques develops a more feminine identity as his relationship with Raoule develops. However, Rachilde suggests multiple times that Raoule’s male gender presentation is incomplete because Raoule lacks a penis. For instance, Rachilde says, “And yet, Jacques signed, you will always be lacking one thing!” (103) – referring to Raoule’s lack of a penis. It is iterated over and over that, “Roule, you just aren’t a man” You just can’t be a man!” (183). So, although there seems to be a distinction between biological sex and gender, Raoule cannot be a “complete” or “real” man. This seems to suggest a more determinist view of sex and gender.

I mentioned, in passing, that Jacques acquires a more feminine identity as his relationship with Raoule develops. Though he has a sort of androgynous look that Raoule describes at the beginning of the novel, he does not seem to have the same feminine gender presentation that he later has. It feels like Raoule, throughout the course of the work, is able to make Jacques more feminine. This makes me wonder if, to Rachilde, gender is something that is inherent in an individual, or if it is something that can be artificially constructed. She seems to be suggesting throughout this novel, that gender is something that can be constructed and is not necessarily determined one way or the other.

Although Rachilde’s characters defy gender norms, their gender identities perpetuate more traditional understandings of gender. For instance, Rachilde writes, “A strange life began for Raoule de Venerande, starting with the fatal moment when Jacques Silvert gave up his power as a man in love and become her thing, a sort of lifeless object who let himself be loved, because his own love was powerless. For Jacques loved Raoule with a real woman’s heart. He loved her out of gratitude, out of submission, out of a latent desire for unknown pleasures…” (92-93). Here, Rachilde associates ‘power’ with a masculine identity and ‘powerlessness’ with a feminine identity. This suggests that the power relationship between two individuals in a relationship is dependent on their gender – where the masculine individual has power over the feminine individual. Thus, even if Rachilde is distinguishing between sex and gender, she still allows for gendered terms to have certain traditionally societally accepted definitions of power in relationships.

Thus, while I initially thought that Rachilde was making a case against biological determinism, it seems as though her challenges to the determinist view of sex and gender do not run as deep as they at first seem. But I’m still left perplexed as to what, precisely, Rachile’s conception of gender is.

Modern Day Canon

So these are some blogs about the modern literary canon: one list of suggested modern books and two about multiculturalism/gender in the canon. (Note, these are not super in-depth articles or anything–just three of the links on the first pages of results for “modern day literary canon.”)

I mainly wanted to write this post to ask what you all thought modern day canon would look like/in fifty or a hundred years, what would people still be reading?

Paper Prompts for Cluster Three: Cultural and Knowledge Production

Please respond to one of the following prompts:

1. How do one or more of our authors conceive of and characterize a feminist voice or practice of cultural/knowledge production? In what ways might such practices subvert or destabilize normative or hegemonic accounts of what constitutes art, film, literature?

2. Choose one or two of our texts from this cluster and discuss their relationship to canonicity and/or cultural transmission. Are there normative or dominant practices of canonicity or knowledge transfer on which your texts comment, or against which they intervene? Discuss any strategies you identify in your chosen text(s) that indicate reconfigured patterns of cultural transmission or notions of canonicity, so as to allow for non-normative or countercultural production.

3. Simone de Beauvoir writes, in the introduction to the Second Sex, that “every concrete human being is always uniquely situated” (4).  Reconsider the question of the relationship of the particular (i.e. femininity or queerness) to the universal, now specifically in terms of cultural production and in relation to one or more of our texts from this cluster. How does the specificity or the situatedness of one’s class, race, or religion intersect with gender and sexuality as they pertain to artistic/knowledge production?  Is artistic or cultural production necessarily marked by gender, sexuality, race and other forms of identity, or are there universal or unmarked forms or practices of cultural production? 



Raoule’s power of naming

There is a lot of experimenting with gender identities in this book, but all the gender labels seem to be assigned by Raoule.

She is the one who describes Silvert as “a man as weak as a girl” (41) and thereby first assigns a female identity to him. She flips her identity between that of a “gentleman” (55) to “a woman right through to her pleasure” (56) then back to “ drowning man” (58) in a short time span. She usually applies the identity of a man to herself when it has to do with her relationship with Silvert. She says that “this man is in love” (68) or that she’s “a man madly in love” and then again “a man in love with a man, not with a woman” (73), where she also assigns the identity of man to Silvert. Yet she later declares that he really is a woman. She calls him a “beauty”, says he has an “instinctively feminine soul” (74) and decides to use female pronouns for him.

Raittolbe seems to understand her because he tells her before she claims a manly identity in front of him that “two boys hearts, two hussars’ hearts must both be much the same color red” (54). I think that is what makes her accept his advances and afterwards trust him enough to confide in him about Silvert.

There is one instance where it is mentioned that Raoule’s aunt calls her her nephew when she paints or fences (28). However, Raoule uses that too when she tells Silvert “remember, now, that I’m a boy. An artist whom my aunt calls her nephew” (37).

So we see here that Raoule finds power in language and naming, a power that women usually don’t have, but that she is able to exert because of her wealth and social status.

Monsieur Venus and the Sexuality of Raoule

In Monsieur Venus, I was surprised by how sexuality and sex are addressed, particularly in Raoule’s case. Rachilde writes of Raoule having sexual desires that she desired to express, which seemed to be a bit of a taboo for a woman during that time; virginity was highly valued, and Raoule’s aunt Mademosielle Ermengarde actually becomes concerned with her health when Raoule begins acting differently. On pages 25 to 26, Rachilde describes when Raoule underwent a “complete change” after seeing a special kind of book. A concerned Ermengarde fears that Raoule could have a “serious illness” and calls in doctors to examine her niece, “[who] closed her door to them. However, one of them, very elegant in his person, witty and young, was clever enough to get himself admitted by the capricious patient. She begged him to return, and moreover there was no improvement in her condition” (26). What stands out to me in this paragraph is how Rachilde writes about Raoule’s sexual desires and engagement. Sex is not outright addressed but merely alluded to—many times, Raoule’s desires are described in their intensity, but not explicitly stated. I think it’s interesting that there is a deliberate avoidance of discussing sex. I kept thinking of Cixous’s “The Laugh of Medusa” article that we read last week, in which she urged women to write “for women”, to articulate their desires, speak for their bodies, etc. Rachilde is very much so writing “for women”: though more shy in the manner in which she addresses sex, she is still addressing it as something that a woman wants and is actively initiating. Her use of third person perspective allows for somewhat of a distance as she writes about Raoule’s desires; nevertheless, her thoughts and passions are still expressed to the reader.

This kind of discussion of sexuality is unexpected for this time period, especially in regards to Raoule. As a woman, she takes on a very different role sexually than what we have seen thus far: she is the initiator, aggressive and instigating this kind of sexual relationship. But I guess I still feel as though Rachilde is not comfortable in frankly addressing sex and sexuality—it feels as though, while she is writing bout a new/different kind of woman that desires to have sex and actively pursues it, Rachilde still tries to use subtler or not extremely evocative language in order to make her writing not too racy or “inappropriate”. 

Feminine Writing

A topic we’ve discussed with increasing frequency is whether there is actually such a thing as feminine writing. Cixous said yes, but Nochlin argued against the idea. Looking at Monsieur Venus through that lens… doesn’t really help the tension.

One level, it must be a feminine text because it is written by a woman, but on another, it is published under a pseudonym (either a masculine or gender-neutral one–can anyone confirm this?), so it does not explicitly state its femininity.

Another level, the text is about a woman and her interactions within her social sphere. But even though her independence is liberating and empowering, she often does this through assuming masculine traits. The introduction states,” [Rachilde’s] powerful female protagonists… are frequently disarmingly unfeminine (as is literally the case for Raoule de Venerande in Monsieur Venus). Thus Rachilde appears to embrace and reclaim characteristics that would be identified with abusive enactments of power prerogatives and associated with certain constructions of masculinity or with social class or economic power” (xxi).

I find this quote fascinating because it seems to imply that Raoule gains her power by being unfeminine, which seems to support the same trends of masculine power that were prevalent. However, in class we discussed the possibility that the feminine text is that which subverts the traditional framework . Would this be an example of that? Rachilde does push the gender binary through her language (especially with the use of pronouns). So if Raoule is a strong character because of the masculine traits she adopts, does the fact that she is a woman who is adopting these traits make it subversive? Or a case of a woman trying to gain power by acting like a man and denying her own femininity? (I feel like the latter is less likely, because there are moments where she does seem very feminine… but they also seem like places where she feels like she is being weak. So there’s some food for thought.) This also reminds me of Scott and her views on the gendered language of power, though I’m not sure how she would feel about this text.

The following part of the introduction seems to offer a solution to that. If we view feminism as requiring a feminine language (not succumbing to male structures), then Monsieur Venus cannot be a feminist text (is that different from a feminine text?). However, this novel does challenge concepts of what is masculine and what is feminine through the masculinization of Raoule and the feminization of Jacques (who exists as an object for both Raoule and his sister). The idea of subversion as feminine or non/masculine rises up again. This text does lead me to believe that subversion is an important role in feminine writing, but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, because there are male writers who are also subversive in their writings (Flaubert with Madame Bovary, perhaps? I don’t know how well this holds up). Are they then creating feminine texts?