Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Forest of Clothing

One useful concept to be familiar with when discussing people who are transgender is the distinction between biological sex and gender, the word "gender" over the past sixty years coming to refer to how an individual perceives him or herself and the role he or she inhabits in society. To understand the distinction, it can be helpful to see how sex and gender were regarded before the distinction was well known, so this is one of the more interesting aspects of 1965's Madamigella di Maupin. Based on a 1835 novel only very distantly based on the real life Mademoiselle Maupin (who, it must be said, was far more interesting) the film is primarily a satire of the French aristocracy and at times sharply funny. But its central character, a woman who pretends to be a man, provokes an illuminating glimpse of attitudes towards gender roles, homosexuality, and sexism.

The film opens with a garden party in the French countryside where the wealthy men and women laugh about the imminently invading army. Among them is the beautiful coquette Magdeleine (Catherine Spaak) who tells a suitor that she'd find him more interesting if he pushed her on the swing instead of asking her first. Near the end of the movie we learn he ends up living with another man "as though married"--and he's smitten by Magdeleine before she assumes a male identity. This is a rather subtle point, like a lot of the film's humour it depends on ripples of a lack of self-awareness in the aristocracy we only see the edges of.

When they're warned to abandon their homes and flee because mercenaries are rampaging and raping both men and women, Magdeleine's father disguises himself as a women. His reasoning is that while his obesity and age would be no impairment for male beauty this wasn't the case for women--"Men are always handsome" he says to which another man replies, "In other circumstances that would be comforting." He disguises his daughters as clergymen figuring that whatever else the mercenaries might be they are at least good Catholics.

So much for that.

Magdeleine escapes their clutches only to be pressed into military service by a group of soldiers who deem her, under the name "Theodore", fit enough for service when they see she can flex her index finger.

No-one has any trouble accepting Theodore as a young man. One man, d'Albert, falls in love with Theodore and wishes either Theodore was a woman or he was a woman himself. Male characters in the film are terrified at the prospect of same sex romance but one can take their homophobia bundled with everything else they have foolish apprehensions about so that while the director of the film and the writers of the story may have indeed been homophobic themselves the context of a farce casts an equally clear light on the bigotry.

Magdeleine falls for the captain of her regiment, Alcibiade (Robert Hossein), who's somewhat alarmed to find he's falling for Theodore, a fact exacerbated when the two rather absurdly find themselves cast in a parlour production of Shakespeare's As You Like It with Theodore cast as Rosalind. So Magdeleine is a woman posing as a man playing a woman posing as a man.

The ending of the film takes us back to a much more romantically conventional place but along the way we have an actually pretty satisfying portrait of the malleable and illusory dictates of society when it comes to the appropriate presentation of sex.

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