Joan of Arc Kissing the Sword of Deliverance, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1863)
En route to the opera the other night, I saw a car whose bumper sticker read â€œQuestion Gender.â€ It was doubly apropos, since at that moment the beloved and I were, in our own car, talking with two friends about their son, now five years old, who questions gender daily: he has for years identified as either a girl, or as a boy whoâ€™d rather be a girl, preferring to wear girlsâ€™ clothes and asking to be addressed by a girlâ€™s name both at home and at school. And, as it happened, we four were off to see Tchaikovskyâ€™s rarely-produced The Maid of Orleans, a.k.a. Jeanne Dâ€™Arc, the only opera in the Western canon celebrating a sword-brandishing, dauphin-saving, cross-dressing farm gal.
I was looking forward to seeing this she-ro glorified on stage, knowing no more than the basic historic plot-line and the one well-known aria from the opera. Imagine my surprise when, after the half-time, the plot of the opera takes a severe southerly turn and Joan falls for the turncoat Duke of Burgundy. â€œThe Duke of Burgundy?!â€ you ask, in horror, as you lunge to your keyboard to Google â€œJoan of Arc.â€ To which I must answer, Yes. It is he. In Tchaikovskyâ€™s opera (for which, quite unfortunately, Tchaikovsky broke tradition and actually wrote the libretto as well) Joan falls for the Duke, on sight, on the battlefield, and she just canâ€™t bring herself to behead him, as she knows she should. (Initially I thought she was just having a fit of pacifism and had suspended my condemnation, but no; the plot moves inexorably toward unrequitable love and away from unvanquishable heroism.)
Spoiler warning: I will now give away how the opera ends. Joan dies, burned at the stakeâ€”ah, but you knew that. What you didnâ€™t know (unless you know the Tchaikovsky opera) is that she dies NOT for refusing to renounce that she received her marching orders directly from God his/her bad self, nor was it for refusing to take off the menâ€™s duds sheâ€™d been sporting, the better to do Godâ€™s will out and about on the battlefiled (and, notes the scholarship[opens PDF], the better to foil sexual assault both there and in the English prison in which she lived out her last year). No, she burns to death for being unwilling to deny she’s unpure, and we are very clearly given to believe it’s her love of Burgundy, and we’re not talking the wine here, that impurifies her. I spent the last act with my mouth agape.
The aestheticized burning death of St. Joan at the end (marked by a quantity of stage smoke better suited to a Broadway production), felt particularly abominable, given what this historical figure actually died for. It couldnâ€™t help but evoke for me the medival burning executions of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of accused witches, whose real crimes, alongside paganism, holistic healing, and irritating their neighbors, most certainly included revolutionary gender role insurgency.
It also made me think back to our friendsâ€™ son, and the consequences people have paid for transgressing gendered boundaries. I wondered what he’ll have in store for him (it matters not whither he goes with his gender), nearly seven centuries after Joan swung a broadswoard. We have a fairly rich palette of resources with which to understand and support kids like him, including, god love â€˜em, a Wikikpedia entry on â€œgenderqueer.â€ Still, it is heterodoxical at the least, heretical at the most, to disentangle the biological sex you’re born with from the male/female gender roles conventionally assigned to that sex. And my hunch is it’s a bigger deal adbicating male privilege, going M>F, than it is hijacking it, going F>M. But I only have my experience as a gentle-manly lesbo to go by. Brandon Teena would have a lot more to say on the matter than me, as would Gwen Araujo. They speak volumes, posthumously, and I have to believe their deaths, like Joan’s, will change the lives of those to follow.
To all of us, in the here & now and in the hereafter, I sez Go it, sister, and let the devil take the hindmost.