Monsieur Venus–Is this feminist?!
During class, the question of “Is Monsieur Venus feminist/progressive/queer?” was brought up and it reminded me of the following blog:
The blog parodies the often hypercritical environment of feminism in academia. Before I begin my own criticism of Monsieur Venus and how it’s not feminist, I wanted to note that while my criticism of the novel below is harsh, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel, as a novel. I believe that the text is best understood as entertainment, and should not be appropriated as some radical feminist or queer agenda or ideology.
I believe that Monsieur Venus is not feminist/queer for three main reasons: the novel relies more on the gender binary than it challenges it, the novel is written in a voyeuristic manner which fuels the excitement/appeal of the story, and the story stigmatizes gender-nonconforming individuals.
1) The novel relies more on the gender binary than it challenges it
Monsiuer Venus could easily be read as a progressive message on gender and sexuality because of the gender-bending protagonist, Raoule. However, gender-bending alone is not inherently progressive. Furthermore, while Rachilde certainly challenges gender norms, she ultimately perpetuates them. For example, in the following passage:
“A strange life began for Raoule de Venerande, starting with the fatal moment when Jacques Silvert gave up his power as a man in love and become her thing, a sort of lifeless object who let himself be loved, because his own love was powerless. For Jacques loved Raoule with a real woman’s heart. He loved her out of gratitude, out of submission, out of a latent desire for unknown pleasures…” (pg. 92-93)
Rachilde draws a nexus between “power” and “masculinity” and “submission” and “femininity.” In other words, she uses masculinity as a synonym for power and femininity as a synonym for powerlessness. This passage suggests that in every relationship, the more masculine individual has power over the more feminine individual. Thus, even though Raole is biologically female but is effectively the “male” in the relationship, this gender-bending is far from progressive and actually is just reinforcing and perpetuating unfortunate societal understandings of gender.
2) The novel is written in a voyeuristic manner which fuels the excitement/appeal of the novel
Monsiuer Venus is such a fascinating and engaging read because it titillates our enjoyment of voyeurism, scopophilia and fetishism. Rachilde’s use of the third person perspective amplifies the voyeuristic nature of the novel by encouraging the reader to look onto the characters as some spectacle. If Rachilde has used a different point of view that let the viewer see from the perspective of say, Raoule, I think the novel would have been more feminist because this would allow the reader to engage and empathize with Raoule rather than simply watch her.
Furthermore, like Marie Silvert listening through the hole between her wall and her brother’s, we are privy to the private relationship between Raoule and Jacques in a voyeuristic manner because of the nature of the relationship. For the majority of the novel, Raoule and Jacques only exist together when in private. That is, their relationship is mostly private and “behind closed doors.” By making the relationship so private, Rachilde seems to insinuate that the relationship is in some way “wrong” or “unacceptable.” Also, making the reader privy to this secretive relationship titillates their curiosity in a way that fetishizes Raoule and Jacques and depicts their relationship as more of a guilty spectacle than a legitimately intimate one.
3) The story stigmatizes gender-nonconforming individuals
While reading Monsiuer Venus, I was reminded of the villain in The Silence of the Lambs.
The film received a huge amount of criticism from the trans and queer community for villainizing and pathologizing people with non-conforming gender identities and presentations. In the Silence of the Lambs, the murderer/villain is a cross-dresser who kills women to construct a “woman suit” in order to make himself a woman.
Similarly, Rachilde villainies Raoule by making the reader fear her. The very preface of the novel, “We warn our readers that at the very moment they are cutting these first pages, the heroine of our story is perhaps going past their front door,” explicitly depicts Raoule as someone to be feared. This warning is solidified at the end of the novel when Raoule essentially murders Jacques, defiles his corpse, and has sex with it. This unfortunate depiction of someone who does does not conform to their biological gender invites the reader to see these people as disturbed, dangerous, and disgusting. Thus, despite any apparent challenges of gender throughout the novel, ultimately the reader is left with a disturbing image of Raoule that stigmatizes gender-nonconforming individuals.