Lady killers: Women, violence, and representation in medieval English literature

Lady killers: Women, violence, and representation in medieval English literature

Lady killers: Women, violence, and representation in medieval English literature

By Katherine Quigg Olson

PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 2008

Abstract: The women of medieval English literature kill children, invade kingdoms, torture devils, and murder their enemies. Lady Killers: Women, Violence, and Representation in Medieval Literature engages the representation of such women in a wide variety of hagiography, epic, historiography, religious writing, and secular legenda . The relationship between women and violence often conforms to binary gender: women are passive while men are aggressors. When women are violent, they are often read as mimicking masculinity.

The women in Lady Killers often defy such categorization; they exist outside of intelligible systems of representation. Only by moving outside the male/female or masculine/feminine binary, Judith Butler argues in Undoing Gender , can we begin to take on the challenge of such a character. In Lady Killers , I use gender as a category of analysis that disturbs rather than enforces essentializing claims about the relationship between gender and violence. By considering both how violent women are rendered intelligible and how their unintelligibility is represented, I explore the limitations of binary gender and argue that its failure opens up new ways of using gender to represent identity.

Introduction: In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir famously proclaimed that:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.

The category of woman is a social construct, but, according to de Beauvoir, there are also real biological differences between men and women. Rather than assuming that those biological differences translate into stable, coherent, and oppositional experiences of male and female bodies, de Beauvoir argues that every body is inhabited differently. The experience of being in a female body is far from monolithic; the presumption that all female bodies are the same only serves to perpetuate and naturalize sexism. Moreover, culture assigns significance to the differences between the male and female body, turning them into opposites and hierarchizing them. While biological differences are uncontestable for de Beauvoir, she also insists that they are responsible for defining Man as Self, the absolute human type, and Woman as Other, the inessential, and that this dialectic underwrites and perpetuates the secondary status of women.

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