Illustration by A.C. Michael (active circa 1903-1928). Color lithograph. Located in a private collection. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Transing Joan

She, Joan. You, hack

Artillery Row

A couple of years ago, I took one of my sons to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It and The Tempest. The first play, a Royal Shakespeare Company production, made an enormous deal of the fact that the female Rosalind disguises herself as the male Ganymede. How queer! How fluid! Best include an on-stage breast-binding scene and references to Judith Butler in the programme! 

The Tempest, meanwhile, was a low-budget, all-female production. It was sharp and funny, playing fast and loose with the original version, and having enormous fun puncturing Prospero’s (and by extension, Shakespeare’s) pretensions to magic-making. The production made no claims to being political, but gender politics were everywhere. 

In one production there was a point to playing with gender; it was challenging, expansive, riffing on the relationship between art, sex and power. In the other, there was no point, imagination and artistic consistency having been swapped for a branding exercise. 

This difference — between curiosity and rigidity, political exploration and political posturing, playfulness and cynicism — is one that exists not just in art but in feminism, and in history writing. I thought of it when reading a piece by Michelle Terry, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, announcing the play I, Joan

Exploring the life of Joan of Arc, the play “uses the pronouns they/them”. In this reading, Joan is no longer an exceptional woman; by being exceptional, she is no longer a woman at all. 

Eager to ward off accusations of historical inaccuracy — or outright sexism — Terry indulges in a mixture of random obfuscation and artsy waffle:

… ‘they’ to refer to a singular person has been traced by the Oxford English Dictionary to as early as 1375, years before Joan was even born … theatres do not deal with ‘historical reality’. Theatres produce plays, and in plays, anything can be possible. The Globe is a place of imagination. A place where, for a brief amount of time, we can at least consider the possibility of world’s elsewhere.

Well, sure. It’s all made up, anyway. I just think that if you value the imagination — and believe, as I do, that it can be used to transform our awareness of what exists beyond the stage — you ought to be able to tell the difference between increasing imaginative possibilities and taking them away. 

A Joan of Arc with gender-neutral pronouns is undoubtedly fashionable. One of the consequences of the recent insistence that gender identity is more significant than biological sex has been the recasting of those who fail to meet the stereotypical standards of cis womanhood as trans or non-binary. 

This includes both historical figures — Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Bulkley/James Barry, George Eliot, Stormé DeLarverie, Jennie Hodgers, Hatshepsut — and fictional characters – Little Women’s Jo, The Famous Five’s George, Shakespeare’s Rosalind. Whenever you find an interesting woman — or even just a woman called George — you should always consider the possibility she’s a man. 

I also find it profoundly stupid and unimaginative

As a feminist, I find this incredibly depressing. As someone who cares about art, I also find it profoundly stupid and unimaginative. As Gerda Lerner wrote in The Creation of Patriarchy, “it is only through the discovery and acknowledgement of their roots, their past, their history, that women, like other groups, become enabled to project an alternative future”. To conceptualise a female legacy at all is a tremendous creative endeavour; too many people cannot be bothered. 

The transing of women who cannot speak for themselves — either dead or fictional — is not a break with patriarchal norms. It is an extension of them. It tells women and girls not just that there were too few women of significance to matter; it suggests that to be significant is not to be female at all. 

Through this process, we are once again cut off: from our bodies, from our pasts, from our futures, from every woman who went before us, every woman yet to come. To those who do this and claim to be playing with borders, expanding possibilities, offering different versions of selfhood, I say this: it is neither creative nor clever take something remarkable and drain it of everything that made it so. This is an act, not of bravery, but one of fear. 

We need art that challenges, reverses or dismantles normative beliefs about sex and gender. We also need to distinguish between that kind of art and art that reinforces gender norms because it is unable to engage with that which is already disruptive.

In the Tempest production, questions were asked about the very nature of sex and exceptionality. Why has genius been so associated with the penis (or Prospero’s “big wand”, as one song put it)? It is possible to pick away at this without denying — while still respecting — Shakespeare’s own uniqueness. This is interesting and challenging. The approach to gender in As You Like It was neither of these things.

It amounted to “Rosalind dresses as a man and gives herself a man’s name — ooh, that’s like being trans!” When actually, it isn’t, unless being trans involves trying to pass as the opposite sex in order to avoid being raped in the Forest of Arden (that Rosalind would have originally been played by a male actor is not “like being trans” either. A man playing a woman pretending to be a man is not so mind-blowingly complex it requires 50 pages of Gender Trouble to explain it).

I am bored with the dull and regressive trying to pass itself off as the complex and progressive. If you have not understood the original stories — if you don’t appreciate what was already subversive about Joan of Arc as a woman, or The Second Sex, or gender-bending eighties pop stars — then no, you’re not in a position to subvert any narratives. In such a situation, your very attempt at subversion becomes a reinscription of the norm. 

Trans politics, as currently conceived, cannot lead to great art or history because it is not interested in what makes us human. Complex motivations, and the way in which we are shaped by our relationships with others, are of no interest to it. Joan of Arc, James Barry, the next starving girl who wants her breasts cut off — chuck them all in the box marked not-female. You don’t explore, you don’t ask questions, you only affirm. 

Female experience has long been excluded from the stories that are deemed to matter. If, in the case of those females who still manage to stand out, we place curiosity about what makes us who we are off-limits — if we decide even these people are worth nothing more than a diagnosis of gender dysphoria — then we are not just telling girls there were no exceptional women. We are suggesting even those females deemed special enough to count as not-women aren’t that interesting. Their lives do not merit anything so grand as any serious social, historical and relational context. 

Nobody — not even Morrissey — knows how Joan of Arc felt. Her life is worth imagining and re-imagining. It is not there to be appropriated and stripped of meaning, pared down to a sexless they/them. That is the opposite of art. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover