The Misgendering of Joan of Arc

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Joan of Arc” (1882) (via Wikimedia Commons )

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but gender variance has existed throughout human history. Many Catholic monks and saints were gender-fluid, with some only discovered as such after death. Union Army soldiers cross-dressed as men and endured forced feminization after the Civil War. An entire German institution faced Nazi destruction for advancing the science of medical transition. If this seems unfamiliar, it’s because powerful people have worked tirelessly to maintain social dominance over our bodies, and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) have stepped in as their cultural arbiters.

Despite its perceived novelty in mainstream media, transness — particularly transmasculinity — has evolved with science as we expand our understanding of the human body. Literature and art from the Middle Ages, too, reveal how women underwent extreme procedures to transition into men, all based on medieval speculations about the reproductive system, including that a vagina was just an inverted penis. With that in mind, I want to consider how art history has suppressed transgender histories, particularly with genderqueer martyr Joan of Arc. 

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Artistic renderings of Joan have de-emphasized the young French saint’s gender identity for centuries, as might be expected with such an influential historical figure. But the fact remains that the English crown burned Joan at the stake specifically for refusing to conform to gender and claiming that God ordered it. Joan’s place in trans, nonbinary, intersex, and asexual studies today thus represents a greater struggle to untangle how her image became so highly feminized.

Martin Le Franc, “Le champion des dames” (1440) (via Wikimedia Commons)

We know from historical records of the Hundred Years’ War era that Joan presented as a man with short black hair and wore shirts with shorts, doublets, leggings, and boots. Why, then, is she so damn feminine in artistic portrayals? While the only portrait made in Joan’s lifetime did not survive, other 15th-century works are well-preserved. Take for example a 1440 illumination by the poet Martin Le Franc that portrays Joan in the same scene as biblical heroine Judith, a fellow icon of art history, who passes Joan the decapitated head of Holofernes as if between generations. The French knight thus served as an early champion of women’s revenge, despite never advocating for such.

After the French Revolution, which saw the rise of an overtly patriarchal bourgeoisie, male artists continued to paint Joan as conspicuously feminine. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicted long, strawberry blonde hair and a patterned dress over Joan’s armored legs. Other 19th-century works were highly provocative in their sexual politics, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s final painting. Others by Jules Bastien-Lepage and Jules Eugène Lenepveu show periods in which Joan would have worn women’s clothing, including peasant origins and final moments at the stake, when the English crown forced her to burn as a woman. 

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII” (1854) (via WikiArt)

In the early 20th century, first-wave feminists in Britain and the United States used Joan’s likeness to advance the cause of women’s suffrage. Highly feminized illustrations appeared on political posters and magazines advocating for the right to vote and participate in the labor force. A Suffragette Weekly cover design by Hilda Dallas shows a shapely Joan with snatched waist and ruby red lips holding a banner for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Liberal feminists, therefore, viewed Joan as a womanly warrior against the patriarchy who also represented modesty and self-reliance during the rise of the “New Woman.” 

Today’s French nationalists likewise perceive Joan as a woman who got things done. Followers of far-right leader Marine Le Pen (including Brigitte Bardot) describe the politician as a contemporary reincarnation, and she makes an annual pilgrimage to the gilded statue of Joan outside the Louvre. Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened, which famously blamed progressives for the 2016 election loss, claims that Joan “said a lot of interesting things” before death. No such evidence of gender variance exists here; rather, these powerful women claim Joan as a representative of bourgeois feminism, even if historical evidence suggests otherwise.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, “Joan of Arc” (1879) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As contemporary feminism expands to uplift queer people of all genders, these reactionary forces are clinging to an aesthetic idea of medieval history as a proxy for anti-trans ideology. It seems hard to imagine this all happening without artists, such as those during the French Renaissance, visualizing these stereotypes — many of whom were cisgender men. Nonetheless, contemporary queer artists and writers are reframing Joan as an icon of trans and Christian identity, including Leslie Feinberg and Katy Miles-Wallace. As author Kittredge Cherry recently wrote, “Cross-dressing was illegal, but what really upset the church authorities, then as now, was the audacity of someone being both proudly queer AND devoutly Christian.”

To be sure, TERF ideology is a reflection of the ascendant far right, reinforcing notions of cisgender women’s biological inferiority and their continued subjugation. Looking online today, it’s easy to see the difficulties in proving that Joan of Arc may not have been a cis woman. Observe the controversy surrounding the Globe theater’s new production, I, Joan, which portrays Joan as nonbinary; unsurprisingly, TERFs have accused nonbinary playwright Charlie Josephine of canceling them. Even liberal feminists seem unwilling to acknowledge how this feeds right back into patriarchy, perhaps because they view Joan as one of few medieval women to achieve such fame for infiltrating male-dominated institutions. As Helen Castor writes, “there is incongruity in the idea that a medieval visionary who fought for the God-given rights of her king should become, half a millennium later, an inspiration to campaigners for women’s right to vote in democratic elections.”

Program cover design by Benjamin Moran Dale for the Woman Suffrage Procession, c. 1913 (via Wikimedia Commons)
American suffragist Inez Milholland appears on a poster for the March 3, 1913 procession, c. 1913 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, queer theorists working to untangle fascist far-right influences on medieval studies face discrimination from across the ideological spectrum. Dr. Gabrielle Bychowski, a professor at Case Western University who calls Joan the “Patron Saint of Dysphoria,” identifies how conservative notions of the Middle Ages perpetuate an “entrenched right” in the field. In her essays and scholarship, Bychowski argues that trans people actually existed back then, and that evidence for that was present in art all along.

“For centuries prior, there were numerous fictional examples exactly matching Jeanne, including assigned-female-at-birth French knights who transitioned to men and became warriors lauded for their martial skill,” Bychowski told Hyperallergic. “By the time Jeanne showed up in real life, therefore, the culture was already primed. Did Jeanne face persecution on the battlefield? Yes, but the French had enough of a cultural history that acknowledged trans men’s existence. And part of that is based on a patriarchal, misogynistic hierarchy in which men are believed to be inherently better than women.”

William Haskell Coffin’s 1918 poster for the United States Department reads: “Joan of Arc Saved France; Women of America Save Your Country; Buy War Savings Stamps.” (courtesy North Carolina Digital Collections)  

Bychowski claims that transphobic historians often envision an imaginary past devoid of queerness and a future along similar lines. But in reality, social conditions of the time allowed for the acceptance of trans men over trans women, and Joan was far from the only warrior to be accepted as such. Any gaps in history, she claims, are due in part to a lack of representation in the field, allowing TERFs and white nationalists to appropriate Joan as a symbol of their conservative origin myths.

“The English clearly saw Jeanne as transgender enough to die for it,” Bychowski said. “You can see it in the retrial documents from the courts of continental Europe. France was England’s wartime enemy, and the original trial was obviously not a fair one, so the French sought to prove Jeanne’s innocence. Interestingly, they brought up Thomas Aquinas citing exceptions to the statutes that forbid cross-dressing, as well as St. Marinos the Monk, or Mary or Marina, to make their case.”

St. Marinos the Monk and St. Mary of Egypt as shown in the St. John the Merciful Polyptych, c. 16th century. Despite living as a man, Marinos is still portrayed as womanly. (via Wikimedia Commnons)

For many queer medievalists, researching this topic poses significant ideological challenges within academia. Earlier this year, Norwegian scholar David Carrillo-Rangel’s paper “Trans-Europe: Joan of Arc or the Performativity of the Abject” was rejected by the International Congress of Medieval Studies for being “thematically and qualitatively inconsistent” with their publishing standards. Carrillo-Rangel, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, examined the music video for Madonna’s “Dark Ballet,” directed by Emmanuel Adjei, which features queer artist Mykki Blanco as a Black, HIV-positive Joan, contending that interpretations like this introduce the possibility of a historically trans patron saint.

“It is a fact that Joan of Arc was burnt due to the habit of wearing men’s clothes, whatever the reason,” Carrillo-Rangel told Hyperallergic. “That, according to the most conservative version of the dictionary, allows us to talk about Joan of Arc as a crossdresser, and this is very important in terms of representation in art.”

Still from the Shakespeare’s Globe production I, Joan (photo by Helen Murray, courtesy Shakespeare’s Globe)

Carrillo-Rangel points to Ana Torfs’s slide projector installation “Du mentir-faux” (2000), in which the artist translates historical sources on Joan’s life and death into contemporary images of androgyny. Despite all challenges, Carrillo-Rangel believes that artistic interventions can help bridge the cultural divide among trans theorists and feminists, or at least inspire further investigation.

“Queer archives need to dig deeper into the past along with their important work documenting the history of activism in the 20th and 21st centuries,” Carrillo-Rangel said. “By redirecting the conflict to a queer-TERF opposition, we miss the conservative offensive of hegemonic masculinity to which both communities become accessories to further oppression.”

In times like these, it is important to remember how fascism really works. As an example, we can look to a piece of anti-British propaganda from the Nazi puppet government of Vichy France. Joan of Arc appears in chains with a bob haircut inside the phrase, Les assassins reviennent toujours sur les lieux de leur crime (Killers always return to the scene of the crime), comparing the Hundred Years’ War to the Allied bombing of Nazi-occupied cities. This cunning rhetorical strategy, which the far right still employs today, reframes the oppressor as savior by appealing to women’s perceived vulnerability. The task now should be to ensure that no one falls for this anymore.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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