The Affirmative Other:
‘I Joan’ and ‘Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic’
‘I Joan’ at London’s Shakespeare’s Globe would have vindicated sceptics at the time of the Hundred Years’ War who decried that no woman could lead the French army to victory. In Charlie Josephine’s zappy version of the story, there was no doubt — no way was Joan a weak and feeble woman. They must have been non-binary. Of course, this wouldn’t concern anyone if the historical evidence of women’s strength and intelligence wasn’t subject to systemic erasure, a relentless campaign displacing female subjects and women’s agency with carnal or deified objects.
Before it opened, even the promise of the Globe’s production riled certain factions. Some commentators felt the play must be an example of pushy trans entitlement, appropriating a precious female role model. Will Eugenia Charles, Mary Wollstonecraft and Boudica be next? To be fair, such concerns were aired on the stage when Joan, rendered in a spirited Daniel Radcliffe Harry Potter persona by Isobel Thom, highlighted such tensions in the quip, ‘To have a female body in a man’s world is to be constantly at war, they say. If you don’t feel comfortable in that body, it’s civil war.’ On the opening night, this line, like many, elicited joyful whoops from the audience, probably experiencing their first ever unashamedly non-binary theatrical experience.
Sadly, in this constant war, inequality is affirmed in insidious ways, relentlessly. Power is fixed, and vulnerability is kept unstable. Consequently, trans and non-binary gender affirmation is never at the expense of solid patriarchy and the male supremacist viewpoint. To make matters worse, exhibitions such as British Museum’s ‘Feminine Power: the divine to the demonic’, coming to the end of its run just as I Joan was premiering, give the impression of changed equilibrium, the title betokening a celebration of strength. The exhibition behind this strapline did no such thing. In fact, the objects presented in an elaborate maze of steely walled displays affirmed negative stereotypes and, unacknowledged, the spectacle of difficult women framed by male desire and distrust.
The Feminine Power exhibits were heaved from their cultures, stripped of independence, and set in the universal museum culture of acquisition and possession. They were largely votive ceremonial objects, interspersed with the work of contemporary artists representing seemingly random female (and occasionally androgynous) deities. In this situation, masculinity typically connotes culture and husbandry, and so, control — the familiar patriarchal check on women’s ambition and access. Various goddesses in the exhibition are aligned with unpredictable forces, from the Hindu Kali’s corrective bloodlust, garlanded with a string of severed heads, to the volcanic Pele from Hawaii. Fixing a goddess in an idealised deified form counters any impetuous volatility. Despite the exhibition’s promise of empowerment, goddesses are constrained, regulated, even if by appeasement. And, in this way, these were just more difficult women, like the witch, the hysteric, or the contemporary pathologised woman whose normal state, achievable through medication, if not older tortures, is decreed to be passive. There is another alternative, as in Joan’s case, realignment.
At the British Museum, the goddess woman was inevitably held to an idealised standard. She was isolated and categorised. Classification ran through thematic sections of Nature, Desire, Evil, and Defence to Compassion. The Chinese goddess Guanyin and their Tibetan counterpart Avalokiteshvara presided over this latter final zone, where an exhibition text informed visitors that Guanyin ‘is said to transcend gender and may take any form (…) female or male.’ Thus at the conclusion, the exhibition narrative capitulated, like Joan switching from biological sex to gender experience. Joan tested the limits of male deference as she struggled to gain respect and motivate the French soldiers. It was not until a raggle-taggle brigade of the common people augmented this force that the campaign built momentum. The new troops fell in willingly with Joan’s sacred calling, or specifically in the Globe’s production, LGBTQ+ dynamism. In the exhibition, Guanyin retained the appearance of a goddess, but the suggestion of an intersectional character changes the stakes of the compassion embodied. A shift away from empathy, care, and equanimous resolution to compassionate resolve. Such a shift occurred at a turning point in I Joan.
Overlooking the gory crimson fields of carnage around the reclaimed city of Orléans. Joan’s determination to vanquish the foreign occupation faltered before they acceded that for sustained victory military zeal must be proven in a succession of bloodbaths. The reflective moment spurred a further deliberation around Joan’s growing awareness of the possibilities of gender fluidity and, with the change of definition, unflinching vitality. It was a potency that could override compassion for the dismembered and fallen. Joan deferred to a masculine imperative and to God. However, Joan conceives of God as female, a ‘she’ already defined as ’at war’ with male assertiveness. Fortitude is Joan’s mantra, mind over body, individuality over biological self, and lone individualism above a Christian spirit of bifurcation — Madonna and God’s son, earth and heaven.
The ebullient advocacy in Joan’s performance was specific to time and place. It was a celebration of permissiveness in a venue for Shakespearian renewal. But power and empowerment are never simple. For example, power at the heart of Feminine Power is conflicted and ineffective, partly because the exhibited artefacts were adrift from their indigenous frames of reference. There was no indication of the roles women played in the artistic conception or fabrication of the objects or of women’s status in the devotional systems and rituals they embody. The cross-cultural thematic programme, described in the publicity as ‘what femineity means today,’ was institutionalised. The effect was amplified by parallel commentaries from established writers, academics, broadcasters, and British Museum board members. Anodyne thoughts, such as “a woman can be multifaceted”, were printed with the exhibit captions. The gesture suggested that, as in I Joan, the feminine is interpretive, fluid, and open to reinventions. Ultimately a goddess or a female saint can be empowered only as they move further from womanhood.
Oppression is the corollary of power; in Joan’s campaign, bloodshed, and, at the British Museum, the imposition of an interpretive agenda. The theatre audience would need to scroll back fifty years to witness a vanguard spectacle of feminine empowerment, to Jill Poserner’s lesbian drama ‘Any Woman Can’ 1976. The play was performed by Gay Sweatshop in their season, ‘Homosexual Acts.’ The play’s protagonist, Ginny, delivers the lines, “She loved me but she was determined not to touch or be touched by another woman. She never totally committed herself and that was her escape back to the straight world. She didn’t hurt me, she was too loving to hurt me, but I don’t like to think what she’s done to herself.” Poserner’s words express capitulation in the war within the self, consolidation. Retreat in contrast to Joan’s perpetual advance. Joan champions the instrumentality of liberal democracy, endlessly hospitable to disputation and refinement. The context is worth noting. Gay Sweatshop’s productions took place at the margins of the theatrical world. The anxiety and frustration expressed by pundits anticipating I Joan’s opening was not with the subject but with its profile, propelled to centre stage.
Feminine power is an oxymoron. I Joan opened with a monologue on the divinity of trans people. Joan’s conception of the divine is nothing but internal instinct. Joan urged the audience to follow as if to do so would be to pursue personal authenticity. In the end, the challenge of I Joan is not gender identity but gender identity occupying the centre. For Gay Sweatshop, a marginalised collective sought a platform and group definition. They encountered obstacles, even violence, as the heteronormative centre defended itself against contamination. I Joan brought ambiguity to that platform. In the centre, there remains a decisive leader, an always male I.
Feminine power: the divine to the demonic was at The British Museum, London from 19 May 2022 to 25 September 2022.
I Joan was at Shakespear’s Globe London from 16 September to 22 October 2022.