Monday, October 6, 2014

Gender in the Middle Ages was more liberated than it is now???

Despite how most people may view the Middle Ages, its emphasis on gender roles was no wear near as conservative and ridiculous as the culture we’ve developed today. The difference in rigidity in gender roles between now and Medieval society is clearly shown by the anxiety expressed in writing of that time. Medieval writers seem unsure how to confront the issue of women being powerful and courageous and men being…well, women.  In contrast, our mainstream conceptions of gender are comfortably portrayed in very rigid roles, nowhere near as controversial and much blander than Medieval men and women.
In the Historia Brutus prays to Diana, goddess of the hunt. As a man who is supposed to be the ultimate hunter – the one who makes even pincer attacks manly – this seems a little problematic. In class we’ve also discussed how Mary transcends womanhood to take on the role of a savior in The Prioresses’ Tale. But does a woman have to be or become a god to contradict gender roles? I think Albina and Custance from The Man of Law’s Tale prove that they don’t have to defy humanity to become great. Both women were subjects of writing that portrayed them as defying the limitations set on women in that age.
What is more a complicated issue is the portrayal of men and men in relation to women in medieval literature. In all tales of Medieval heroes, a prevailing, although somewhat quieted, theme is how much sex the heroes are having. In addition to their hyper-masculine portrayals, I think this overcompensation would indicate insecurity in male roles. This expectation of males to be extremely sexual beings is the same if not worse today.
Because of rape culture today, men face a barrage of expectations and are penalized heavily if they don’t conform – especially at an early age. People weren’t prosecuted for being something in the Middle Ages, as we have discussed. In contrast, today we put an extreme amount of value on things like gender and sexuality. If people don’t conform to societal perimeters of their gender, they are automatically othered. Proof of this can be seen in ingrained cultural aspects like the use of “gay” as a negative term and the attachment to this term of any sort of deviation from gender norms – for example, the stereotype of gay men as feminine.
Oddly enough, the reaction to gender stereotypes has lead to even stricter definitions and classifications. A great example of this is the cable show, The Big Bang Theory, which, instead of contesting a more realistic role for men, further divides its characters into nerds and only complicates stereotypes about “unmasculine” behavior. If this behavior keeps up, we will end up with an impossibly complicated and even more unachievable idea of gender than we had before. At least in the Middle Ages they were willing to experiment with roles and weren’t afraid to defy stereotypes.
Of course, there are some lesser known shows and many books that are already working against this notion of restricted gender roles. Not to mention an ever growing movement being led by the trans and gender non-conforming communities of the world. In the interest of space it was easier to focus on the mainstream and its ever tighter constrictions on gender.


  1. I agree that while men and women have more of the same rights today than they did in the middle ages, our definitions of what constitutes a man or a woman has become more rigid. I've read that prior to the late 19th century, masculinity was more about being able to provide for one's family, being in authority, having a successful business, etc. Society today still has similar expectations, but due to women leaving the home and working ever since the industrial revolution and continuing today, the previous listed expectations were weakened and gender began to be identified by more specific and petty expectations. Society today polices gender on things such as colors of clothes, types of food, types of entertainment and activities, and others in addition to older expectations of gender. If you search for ridiculously gendered products on a search engine, you can find things that absolutely do not need to be gendered but are, partially because it would not be appropriate for a man to use things that might be considered feminine.

  2. I agree with what Grace is saying as well. The gendered products are one thing, but the gendered roles is another piece to that puzzle. Women now have the ability to be tomboys, and be more masculine (to an extent), but men are expected to be completely masculine, or else face consequences such as being seen as "weak' or "gay". Men are forced into this binary, where at one point they may have not have been, maybe as a response to the loosening of the expectations you mentioned. It's certainly interesting though.