Myrtha and Marie: Monsters and Monarchs
One need not look far in any literary direction before coming across the trope of a powerful, and therefore villainized woman whose very nature threatens that of men. If one were to choose to look down the line of ballet librettos to come out of France in the 19th century, one might arrive at the story of Giselle. The collective of Wilis in the second act utilizes its mob-like make to intimidate, and it is effective. Whether they are read as a group of lesbians, feminists, revolutionaries, prostitutes, or single women, what is made clear is that they have ignored some sort of social more they ought not to have. Perhaps their sexuality was not being channeled properly (as in with the wrong people or in the wrong amount), or they failed to remain in the distinctly domestic space allocated to them. The character of Queen Myrtha, as well as her Wilis in the 1841 ballet Giselle, materialized as yet another depiction of the public anxieties surrounding the increased social and political mobility of women during and after the French Revolution, helped continue the dehumanization and corporeal critique of female monarchs, and presented the imagined apocalyptic consequences to excess female power.
According to gender roles of the time and place, women belonged at home behind closed doors, responsible for taking care of the house and children. They were not to be out rioting and partaking in revolutionary-related public disturbances, and certainly not experiencing sexual encounters before or outside the marriage bed. The increased presence of women in the public and political spheres was a highly contested shift in social structure and to tame them was “one convenient path to stability” as the traditional sense of order was being disrupted (Sanborn and Timm 49).
While Priya Thomas, in her article titled “Revolutionary Monsters: Provocations of The Hypermobile Other in La Sylphide” does not broaden her claim that “representing freely mobile women as monstrous allegorizes the perceived dangers of female mobility” (300) to include Giselle, enough similarities exist between sylphs and Wilis for the extension to be made. They are both hypermobile, nonhuman groups of female creatures who exceed their normative bounds (Thomas 300). The marriage plot fails in both ballets to stress that class lines are not to be transgressed for love or lust and relatedly, that illicit female sexuality cannot go unpunished. In La Sylphide, the seductive sylph who tried to lure James away from his proper match is eventually killed, just as Giselle is for falling in love with a man she cannot have. One explanation for her extreme reaction to the exposure of his true identity, is that they were engaging in premarital sex. If this had been the case, in one instant she would realize she has no prospects given the loss of her best social and economic bartering card—her virginity. With this turn of events, she dies and becomes a “flying monster that embodied the July Monarchy anxieties about the public visibility and mobility of political women in the French Republic” (Thomas 308).
One particularly famous, real-life “monster” from this era worth focusing on is Marie-Antoinette. In a way that mirrors Thomas’ argument, Lynn Hunt in the “The Family Romance of the French Revolution” shares that many male revolutionaries began to associate the idea of a “woman-man as monster” (91) with women daring to enter the French public sphere, referring to all the times when the Queen was depicted or labeled an “insect,” “beast,” “spider,” “vampire,” “panther,” “tigress,” and finally “monster” (110-112). Hunt sadly but accurately positions the Queen as “the emblem and sacrificial victim” of challenged gender boundaries in the Revolution (114).
Women adhering less and less to previously unchallenged guidelines regarding proper sexual behavior was also a source of enormous cultural anxiety (Banes 31), and if there was ever a woman whose sexual conduct was broadcast and subsequently criticized, it was Marie-Antoinette—for “impugning the sexual propriety of a powerful woman revealed itself to be a remarkably effective weapon” (Sanborn and Timm 34). Beyond being accused of orgies, adultery, and incest, the by far most intriguing charge brought down on her was that of “tribadism,” or the period-appropriate term for lesbianism. These allegations can be traced back to the Austrian court (Hunt 104-105), and as it is said in Antonia Fraser’s biography of her life, Marie-Antoinette was at one point called “the monster who escaped from Germany” (258), with her “Germanic vigor” to blame for her insatiable sexual desires (280). The inclusion of references to her ethnicity in attempting to rationalize her sexual crimes becomes even more interesting when one is reminded that Giselle is set in Germany. It’s here that a correlation between Myrtha and Marie-Antoinette, both dehumanized, oversexualized, and lambasted female monarchs, can be drawn. Foreign queens often attracted considerable negative attention and were portrayed as evil (Hunt 89) and after all, “who could respect such a creature as a woman, let alone a queen?” (Fraser 280). This last rhetorical inquisition could apply equally to both women.
In his book A Queen History of Ballet, Peter Stoneley refers to Theophile Gautier, the author of Giselle’s libretto, as being a key figure who exemplifies anti-establishment critique (27). Looking back to the pornographical and satirical materials containing censorious depictions of Marie-Antoinette, similarities can be found between them and the storyline of Giselle. In her essay titled “Pass as a Woman, Act Like a Man: Marie Antoinette as Tribade in the Pornography of the French Revolution,” Elizabeth Colwill explains that the consumers of these widely circulated, queen-critiquing pamphlets would have found the images contained in them to confirm their own impressions of nymphomania being the “feminine norm” and women’s excessive desires being “pathological” (154). In other words, Marie-Antoinette was simply being accused of acts people already assumed she would be partaking in, purportedly, being the salacious, out of control woman that she was. In one sapphic pornographic story about Marie-Antoinette and her acquaintance the Princesse de Lamballe, Marie-Antoinette says to her friend “If one day men abandon us, we know how to replace them” (Colwill 154). The blatant disregard for patriarchal heterosexuality alluded to in this portrayal of the queen only functioned to “signal the double transgression of abandoning man and assuming his sexual prerogatives” (158).
On the other hand, we have mythological Myrtha. She is the queen of a tribe of creatures whose dancing, according to Cecile Nebel is “orgiastic,” “fueled by sexual frustration,” and whose libido is so inexhaustible it raises them from the grave (91-92). A need and ability to seduce so powerful that it creates zombies is certainly a threat worth trying to contain. The “dancing” in question here is no doubt a metaphor for sexual pleasure, and in this case it’s strong enough to kill men, creating a “sadistic erotic spectacle” while conveniently stopping any male competitors from challenging Myrtha’s rule (Stoneley 31). These two instances of women forsaking men work to present the dangers of a sexuality so voracious that it knows no limits and does not exclude any acts or genders.
Changes in government and certain legislative moves were also being made to address the anxieties surrounding women on the move. The first was in 1791 when the National Assembly decreed that in the event an underage son became king, his closest male relative would become regent (Sheriff 51). Up until this point, mothers and queens had the opportunity to fill this role if appointed by the king. It can be inferred that this was not enough to put the panic to an end, through the emergence of the revised Charter of 1830, which reiterated the barring of women from France’s throne (Margadant 1468). Although initially written in 1814, it was made more clear sixteen years later, after fears regarding women’s acquisition of place or power were stirred up yet again. Further, Louis-Philippe’s wife Marie-Amelie was conspicuously absent from public life as early as 1835 into the 1840’s (Margardant 1488). This helps to confirm there was still no successful way to be a female monarch at the time when the ballet was premiered (almost 50 years after the execution of Marie Antoinette) and given the fragility of the monarchy, it was best Marie-Amelie stayed hidden away and only brought out on the most conservative, domestic-related, and appropriate of occasions. The opposition press was forced to leave her be as long as her public sexuality and interest in politics were both kept to a minimum (Margadant 1491).
At first one could argue the confinement of women was for their own good, as the Wilis were “young women destroyed by their own nymphomaniacal devotion to pleasure” (Stoneley 30-31) simply because they lacked the awareness and ability to function sensibly within their desires. This could be opened up further to say that women’s libido is just so potent it would “explode and wreak havoc” on all of society if the necessary reins were not utilized (Nebel 92). Essentially, the mobile woman embodied the seductive dangers of physical and sociopolitical freedom in way that the bourgeoisie could not ignore or permit, convinced of the horrible, inevitable consequences that would come in doing so (Thomas 318).
The land in which Myrtha rules and the Wilis exist is violent yet sensual, organized yet lacking reason. This is the envisioned outcome of an all-female community whose leader has acquired too much power. Situating Giselle as the anti-Myrtha by making her nurturing, forgiving, and having her “turn her back on female community and terrorist feminist activism” (Banes 24), the ballet asserts that the dominant woman is the evil woman (Stoneley 31). Banes describes one reading of the Wilis as “a group of women who only find pleasure in each other’s company and go around killing men” (31). Men are cast aside as unnecessary, and if they mistakenly find themselves in this misandrist territory they are quickly exterminated, their lives taken without exception or regard. This certainly does not sound like a normal or rational place, but rather a “netherworld ruled by women devoid of human distinction or human feeling” (Banes 29).
Society fearing women in power is neither novel nor with expiration. From Marie-Antoinette, to Margaret Thatcher, to Hillary Clinton, the phenomenon is so established and timeless it “might be designated the Marie-Antoinette syndrome” (Saint-Amand 254). Marie-Antoinette “represented the contradictions in the social, political, and gender systems of her day” (Goodman 2) and was therefore subjected to constant attack on and disfiguring of her physical body just like any other woman who dared enter the public sphere; they were bestialized, losing their femininity and humanity in the process (Hunt 116). In Giselle the queen of the Wilis, Myrtha, also fell into this category. Her transgressive, inhuman physicality represented the “sociopolitical horrors and excesses of the French Revolution” (Thomas 300). Myrtha served as yet another literary device through which the social backlash against women’s encroachment on spheres, realms, and institutions previously occupied exclusively by men could be expressed.
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