Tho nothing ne coude do she
But wep and criede and wolde fle;
And he anon gan hire at holde,
And dide his wille, what he wolde.
(Sir Degare, ll. 109-12)
The evening after the Medieval Gender Reading Group meeting, I went to the train station. With twenty minutes to kill, I browsed WH Smith, and in doing so noticed the cover of Closer magazine. Here Jennifer Ellison (who may be familiar to you if you saw the recent The Phantom of the Opera), ‘defiantly’ says that she is proud of her body. She ‘won’t be bullied into being a size 8!’ Two images of her are on the cover: one where she is smiling, tanned, and (presumably) a size 8. In the other she looks tired, the focus of the picture on her soft stomach. Next to her photographs, another celebrity, Frankie Sandford (who earlier in the year Closer celebrated for dropping a dress size), is described as ‘defeated’; she ‘can’t keep punishing [herself] with diets’. Again, there are two pictures: one where she is slim and smiling; another where she is larger and drinking juice or a cocktail, the action screwing up her face so she looks sad.
Looking at these pictures made me feel sad, as well as angry. The editorial choice made by this women’s magazine is, in its misogynistic way, quite a clever one. The most prominent headline seems to be celebrating Ellison’s post-natal decision to be comfortable with her body; but the choice of images of her and Sandford make it clear that the real message of the cover is that the reader should want to know how these two fit, attractive women have let themselves go to seed. I imagine that a hundred photos of Ellison were shot as she stood, looking frankly very healthy for a woman who’s just had a baby, on a sunny beach, and I bet dozens where she smiled were discarded. The photo that was chosen to represent this story is one where she is squinting, her jaw is relaxed so that she looks jowly, and her stance draws attention to her bare stomach. This image says: if Ellison was stupid enough to say in public that she is happy with her post-natal body, then we will punish her by showing you this photo, where her sad eyes tell you that really, she can’t be content with her body at all. Meanwhile Sandford, who only in May was a poster girl for diet success, is punished by being shown filling her mouth with a sugary drink, her bare stomach gleaming and shot from the side so it is clear she is no longer a size 10. I wrote a while ago about female silence and misogyny, and I can’t help feeling that Sandford’s ‘defeat’ is shown by her mouth being stopped up, her body left to tell the viewers about her ‘failure’.
After running the reading group on the theme of rape, which used this text as the focus for discussion, I had all sorts of thoughts about how I might talk about rape culture in medieval literature and its resonances today. But then my eye was caught by this cover, and I was reminded of one of the parts of the discussion we had, where we noted the way the (nameless) princess in Degare has really no control over her own body. Her father covets her and keeps her from marrying, and she is ‘saved’ from his possibly-incestuous desire by being raped by a fairy knight. She then lives for the next twenty years in a limbo state, neither virgin or wife, until her son – Degare, the product of rape – finds her and, after nearly making the classic romance mistake of marrying her himself, reunites her with her rapist so they can be married. In discussion, one of the first points made by someone was that the narrative suggests the rape is the fault of the father; since he has not married his daughter off, and he indeed kills her suitors, the fairy knight has ‘no choice’ but to rape her. An uncomfortable idea for the modern reader, and indeed I think the text is more ambiguous than that; the knight could have chosen to challenge her father to single combat, but instead he waits until the princess is alone in the woods, and has his way with her, in a passage that makes it explicitly clear the princess has not consented. But the fact remains that the princess’s body is not hers to dispose of; for all the medieval Church’s preoccupation with consent, for an aristocratic woman, her marriage would be a transaction between men.
When the knight finds the princess, the knight says ‘Iich have iloved the mani a yer’, and uses this as justification for having sex with her, ‘Wether the liketh wel or wo’. He has loved her from afar, and as someone pointed out in discussion, that seems to be sufficient justification for him to take what he wants. His affections deserve reciprocation. I was reminded of Nice Guy Syndrome, where we’re encouraged to sympathise with ‘nice guys’ who spend so much time being good friends to women, only for those women to have the temerity to make their own relationship choices and go off with other men. Because men’s feelings are seen as so valuable, a woman who rejects affection must be a bitch. In stories where men feel unrequited love, they nearly always get the girl; women who feel unrequited love are often stalkers. The princess ‘wep and criede and wolde fle’, but the knight does what he wants – and afterwards has the temerity to offer her a ‘god dai!’ Unburdened of his lustful desires, the knight goes away. The princess is left to take her violated body home, and to hide her pregnancy:
Here wombe greted more and more;
Therwhile she mighte, se hidde here sore.
The knight, being a fairy, knew that she would conceive when he raped her. The princess’s body is a vessel he forced his way into. It’s unsurprising that all through her pregnancy, she ‘siked an sorewed swithe’. When her baby is born, and she abandons him out of necessity, she makes sure she leaves him with much gold and silver for his upbringing – and she leaves him with a pair of her gloves, so that he might one day find her. Typically, the gloves have been read as an incest motif, which is not surprising given Degaré’s mother’s strange request that Degaré should ‘ne lovie no womman’ except she whose hands the gloves fit, and because in late medieval England gloves were often a courtship gift. But now I am wondering if they are also a way that the princess tries to cling onto some ownership of her own body and her child. Because her body is not hers to dispose of, she has to hide her pregnancy, and give up the possibility of her child’s love. Taught family love by a possessive and controlling man, and introduced to erotic love by a rapist, it’s unsurprising that the model of love she emulates is dysfunctional. But in the end, she doesn’t even get her wish. Degare finds her, but he falls in love with another woman, and he marries her off to his father once he has found him, too. Is this a happy ending? I try very hard not to read medieval texts with my modern sensibilities, but I can’t help feeling this conclusion is more pragmatic than happy. The text has made it very clear that the princess was raped, and there is no suggestion that she loves her rapist. She blushes or grows pale when she sees him, but there is no indication that this is a joyful response:
Wonther wel sche knew the knyght;
Anon sche chaungyd hur colowr aryght…
The lady swounyd in that plass.
Princesses, it’s true, swoon from joy or excitement, but I think it’s telling that the text chooses not to elaborate on the princess’s feelings. She is married off to her rapist, because really, what choice does she have? It’s either that or stay with her possessive father forever, and medieval princesses are not meant to grow old in their fathers’ homes.
This all seems to have very little to do with a modern gossip magazine. But I was struck by the ways in which cultures that normalise rape also normalise trivialising female bodily experience and normalise critiquing the female body. Jennifer Ellison is, right on the cover of the magazine, described as a new mother. Her body has gone through the changes of pregnancy and birth. But her lack of desire not to revert to a pre-baby state is seen as ‘defiant’. She wants to own her bodily experiences, but she is punished for that by being shown at her ‘worst’. Rape culture ultimately tells women that they do not have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. Rape is only one result of a much deeper and more pervasive misogyny.