Gender in Monsieur Vénus and Today

It is sometimes hard to tell in Monsieur Vénus how exactly gender and sexuality are being portrayed. This is in part, I would guess, due to the process of translating Monsieur Vénus from the original French, a language that includes gender agreement in adjectives and even some verbs, to English, though having not read the original French yet, I cannot say this for sure. Even in the original French, however, I imagine that there is a great deal of gender ambiguity, and this is very much a deliberate approach. There are times when Raoule identifies as a man and times when Raoule identifies as a woman. This can be seen abundantly during one of Raoule’s conversation with Raittolbe, when Raoule first tells him about Jacques. Similarly, there are times when Jacques identifies as a woman and times when Jacques identifies as a man, though as the novel progresses Jacques identifies increasingly often as a woman.

Gender, at least for these two characters, is fluid. By the end of the novel, the gender labels that might seem closest to being appropriate for these characters are transgender, in the case of Jacques, and two-spirited, in the case of Raoule. However, it remains difficult to say. The language some use today to describe gender certainly wasn’t around in 1884, when the novel was written, and so it is difficult to apply any kind of contemporary categorization to the situation. Gender and sexuality in Monsieur Vénus was deliberately ambiguous and changing, in part perhaps because Rachilde seems to have intended that it be shocking, in order for the book to sell better. Rachilde thus took advantage of the limitations of gender binary mentality to create a shocking and as a result popular novel.

Gender binary is still the go-to formula for contemporary views of gender, at least in most of the Western world. Most people make little if any distinction between the concepts of “sex” and “gender,” though they are in fact entirely separate notions, a concept that this novel begins to explore. Sex refers to the physical body (female, male, intersexed, etc), gender to social constructs, some of which were traditionally associated with a given sex (woman, man, transgender, genderqueer, etc). Many forms today ask you to identify your gender, with the listed options being male and female. Not only does this conflate two distinct concepts, but also leaves no room for people who are neither one nor the other, such as intersexed people and transsexual people who are still in the process of sex reassignment surgery. Gender roles are played out on a regular basis, from commercials advertising housecleaning products almost always featuring women to men being the expected instigators of sexual and romantic relationships. Transgender and other gender-nonconforming people are still sometimes the victims of the kind of abuse that Jacques receives from Raittolbe, from people as confused and dogmatic about gender and sexuality as Raittolbe is for most of the novel. While there are certainly groups of people who are aware of gender and sexuality issues, it is taking a long time for this movement to advance into the mainstream. One can imagine that Monsieur Vénus would still be shocking to many if not most people today.

–M.P.

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Filed under Week 3 Reviews: Rachilde

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