Progress surely ought to mean an expansion of what is available – a widening of possibilities for expression and joy, which is why, when reflecting on our society’s ‘progress’ in its attitudes towards gender, the path from then to now seems arbitrary and bizarre. How did we get from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and its playful, free attitude towards sexuality and gender to our own rather stuffy, oddly oppressed, time where men in skirts sparks derision, and women in politics are condemned to the realm of the Angela Merkel ‘Power Suit’.
The European Renaissance was in part about returning to the ideals and philosophies of the Ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, digging up and re-reading Plato, Socrates, and Galen. In the Renaissance’s beginning, the coronation of Henry VIII (I know people disagree, but when don’t they?), England was on the precipice of an international crisis. A bloated, horny, aristocrat governed the country and set about splitting from Europe, changing the face of English society forever. How crude (and cheap) of me, but how familiar.
When I think of the fundamental shifts undergone in the Renaissance, with the switch to Protestantism, the emergence of market capitalism, and a woman becoming a national symbol, I think of our capacity for change. Out of that political turmoil, fundamental structures were challenged, and England broke away towards something new. Good or bad, change, when we put our minds to it, is astonishingly doable.
So why does gender seem exempt? I do not begrudge those Renaissance thinkers for not legalising homosexuality and ending the entailing of estates – theology was, back then, a study that encompassed everything, and the Bible is not exactly supportive of these things when taken literally. But, science and society have advanced; we are at a point now where we are aching to move on from the past.
Or, return. As mentioned, the European Renaissance was partly about returning to Ancient modes of logic and philosophy. So, let’s give it a go. The Romans had a system of sexuality which was wildly different to our own, one that centred on dominance and submission, or about putting it in and getting it in. This crossed across genders, and bisexuality, as we would term it, was much more common in pre-Christianity Rome. Top and bottom were their reference points, something that is sneaking into our current language but not moving much further past a woke joke.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. It was extremely patriarchal, with very little reference to women; they were always being sublimated to the submissive role. But that doesn’t matter. We’re older and wiser now, and the past’s ideas needn’t be user ready. We can use this concept, I think, to look at gender and have a much-needed rethink. It is silly and immature to limit make-up, good clothes, and nail polish (especially nail polish) to women. Forget for a moment about all the pain and discrimination this entails, all the toxicity it encourages, and it still makes no sense.
We are at an interesting, odd time. We have a woman of Asian heritage in charge of the Home Office, aggressively targeting refugees and asylum seekers; we have the 19th straight, white man in charge of the supposedly more feminist party, and statues of slavers are being pulled down by their desendents, and by the ancestors of slaves. The old rules are dying.
This is thus a fantastic opportunity to reintroduce and mess around with ideas of gender, which seems to me to be the least talked about, probably because it affects (and thus implicates) everyone in every country.
Going back to Twelfth Night, the fair, grieving widow Olivia falls madly in love with ‘Cesario’, who is really Viola dressed as a man (and, on the Elizabethan stage, was a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man; tell that to the bulldog-looking England fans who moan about how ‘they/them’ pronouns are just a new-fangled, academic complexity). Obviously, Viola has a twin brother Sebastian for whom Olivia falls. But, I always thought this a shame. Again, I don’t begrudge Shakespeare for not including a lesbian love story on the censored, protestant, 1600s stage. But now, I think we read this differently and, potentially, in a more interesting way. Shakespeare, as always, hints and alludes to the possibility; he shows a woman fall in love with a woman, and lets it seem natural, funny, scary. Surely we can manage dresses for men.
As usual, this will probably be left to a few queer, brave people to set the trend. Maybe in today’s world, all we need is for Trump to piss off and H&M to ditch gender sections, and it’ll all solve itself. But, we need to start somewhere. They wore garters and capes in the 1700s; some Roman Emperors had husbands. We must harness the energy of this change and get to some sense of possibility. I sense it coming, in the distant future. After the coronavirus especially, things seem on a knife edge which, for reformers, is an opportunity. Back to normal has never seemed so unappealing.
So, let’s stop normal coming back and reach into the past – take what we like, forget what we don’t, and apply it to now. The Renaissance was a time where change was unavoidable, and people all over the land had to come to terms with flux. Our modern political chaos is challenging the normal; like the Reformation, like the fall of Rome, like the American, the Chinese, and the Russian revolutions, what comes afterwards has the potential to be unrecognisable. Like getting into drag.