Monsieur Venus: Is This Feminist?!

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:

http://isthisfeminist.tumblr.com/

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.

-Ripley

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3 Comments

Filed under Week 4: Rachilde's Monsieur Venus

3 responses to “Monsieur Venus: Is This Feminist?!

  1. Ash

    While I think all of your points are valid, and that if this novel were published today I would consider it pretty exploitative and alienating of gender-nonconforming individuals, I’d like to posit that the premise of the novel, that gender roles in sexual relationships, even the “essence” of masculinity or femininity, are dependent on behavior and not biology, is an incredibly radical notion for a time in which gender defined every aspect of a person’s role in society. Simply the fact that Raoule is able to be a man/masculine person and that she is able to turn Jacques into a woman/feminine person shows us, the reader, how gender can be artificially constructed.

    In your argument, you mention that Rachilde “uses masculinity as a synonym for power and femininity as a synonym for powerlessness.” This is true, and it’s definitely a sexist definition of masculinity and femininity. The fact that these are roles which can be taken on by either men or women in the book also says, however, that women are not necessarily powerless by nature and the same for men, that society is what makes them that way. Perhaps the “real women’s heart” is something that can only be cultivated by outside forces. I find the whole book, while at times alienating and judgmental of Raoule’s behavior, to also be a powerful argument against biological determinism. That, at least, is a solid feminist aspect of the story.

  2. @Ash Thank you for your comment!

    I think you bring up another really interesting question: Does Monsiuer Venus challenge biological determinism? I agree with you to some extent–on the surface, the fact that Raoule is “changing” her gender through behavior certainly suggests a challenge to biological determinism to some degree.

    However, as we talked about in class, Rachilde suggests in a number of passages that Raoule’s transformation to become a man is “incomplete” and ultimately “impossible” because Raoule does not have a penis.

    For example, when Rachilde writes, “And yet, Jacques signed, you will always be lacking one thing!” (pg. 103) she appears to be insinuating that Raoule cannot fully become a man because she does not have a penis.

    Raoule’s “incompleteness” as a man is further illustrated through Raittolbe when he tells Jacques, “Now you’ll find out what a real man is like, scoundrel!” as if suggesting that Raoule is not a “real man” (pg. 120). Later in the novel, Raittolbe kills Jacques with the penetration of a sword, which as Petra suggested, can be read as phallic imagery.

    Thus, this focus on the phallus as central to Raoule’s “incompleteness” as a man seems to suggest a determinist view of sex and gender.

    —-
    Ripley

  3. Pingback: The Transience and Authenticity of Transgression | Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies

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