It might seem out of place to centre a man’s work in the final part of this book review; but Kate Millett chose to conclude Sexual Politics with an analysis of Jean Genet’s plays (which is not the same thing as a general critique or “appreciation”) , and I’m glad she did, because it makes for an electrifying climax. The last chapter will send chills down your spine.
“A bastard, Genet was repudiated at birth and left at an orphanage; the double rejection of what can only be described as an error from inception. Adopted then by a family of narrow Morvan peasants, he was found stealing and sent to a children’s prison. There he experiences his final ostracism in being subjected to rape by older and stronger males. He has now achieved the lowest status in the world as he saw it; a perfection of opprobrium in being criminal, queer and “female”. It remained only to study and refine his role, thus the wallowing in self hatred which Satre and Genet describe as the “femininity” of the passive homosexual. He is feminine because ravished and subjugated by the male; therefore he must study the slavish gestures of “femininity” that he may better exalt his master. “(p.18)
Having reached rock bottom as a young beggar and a whore in Barcelona, and with nothing to lose, he began to write. Genet writes about gay men’s mimicry of heterosexuality. As they attempt to create their own culture the only model they have is the dominant heterosexual paradigm and by parodying it they reveal it as the farce that it is. He reiterates what radical feminists know: that sexual role is not connected to biology, but is a class or caste system which “apes” the larger society, the “masculine” and “feminine” roles required of each sex. He caricatures the roles, exposing them as grotesque. His homosexuals reach the core of what heterosexual society is about– the essence of it–which is, even now, mistaken for “male” and “female”. He creates an entire world of pimps and queens, sadists and fairies, macs and females; but in this “mirror” society of Genet’s worst of all is to be female :
“This is murder: submissive to a corpse, neglected, unnoticed, gazed at unmindfully and manipulated from behind, the girl queen is metarmorphosed into a contemptible female object. She does not even have for the pimp the importance that the sadist attributes to his victim. The latter, though tortured and humiliated, at least remains the focal point of her tormentor’s concern. It is indeed she whom he wishes to reach, in her particularity, in the depths of her consciousness. But the fairy is only a receptacle, a vase, a spittoon, which one uses and thinks no more of and which one discards by the very use one makes of it. The pimp masturbates in her. At the very instant when an irrestistible force knocks her down, turns her over and punctures her, a dizzying word swoops down upon her, a power hammer that strikes her as if she were a medal: “Encule!” [Faggot]” (p.17)
He is describing what it means to be female in society. But he is also showing us what it means to be male. Millet explains :
“It is to be master, hero, brute and pimp. Which is also to be irremediably stupid and cowardly. In this feudal relationship of male and female, pimp and queen, one might expect exchange of servitude for protection. But the typical pimp never protects his slave, and allows him/her to be beaten, betrayed or even killed, responding only with ambiguous amusement. One is naturally curious to discover just what the queen does receive in return. The answer appears to be an intensity of humiliation which constitutes identify for those who despise themselves.” (p.18)
Genet concludes, and Millet agrees, that the entire social code of “masculine” and “feminine” is odious. To be taught to be “masculine” is to identify with “force, cruelty, indifference, egotism and property”.
Our Lady of the Flowers
In Our Lady of the Flowers the homosexual code becomes a satire of the heterosexual one and their earnestness to imitate bourgoisie society calls all heterosexual behaviour into ridicule. From the play:
“Slang was for men. It was the male tongue. Like the language of men among the Caribees, it became a secondary sexual attribute. It was like the colored plumage of male birds, like the multi coloured silk garments which are the prerogatives of the warriors of the tribe. It was a crest and spurs. Everyone could understand it, but the only ones who could speak it were the men who at birth received as a gift the gestures, the carriage of the hips, legs and arms, the eyes, the chest, with which one can speak it. One day at one of our bars, when Mimosa ventured the following words in the course of a sentence “…his screwy stories…” the men frowned. Someone said with a threat in his voice: “Broad acting tough.” (p.19)
Genet carried with him a womanlike sex ethic founded on sexual guilt and inferiority. He operated his sexuality both as a punishment and a confirmation of his status.
“As with many of the married couples whom Rainwater studied, sexuality is directed towards the male organ, thought to be the real actor and purpose of coitus. Since the male has so little interest in her pleasure, the queen, like traditional woman, rarely enjoys orgasm. Macs hardly ever condescend to jerk off a queen, and Divine is forced to finish in the toilet, place of excrement and shame. But like the atrical whore or a dutiful wife, the queen groans and faints to convert her suffering into the appearance of joy.” (p.341)
Just like heterosexual males, Genet’s pimps and macs use the queens as scapegoats to hide their own homosexual impulses. But it is ironic that here both groups are males, and their role is arbitrary, revealing it to be the function of an oppressive system, a system otherwise known as gender. The political purpose of gender, of course, is to announce to the world your place in the two-tier caste system. There is no place fo ambiguity:
“Particulars of status are observed with such excess of zeal, such tribal rigidity, that the final impression is humorous. Genet’s own attitude fluctuates between obsequious acceptance and tongue-in-cheek mockery so that the total effect is satiric, and increasingly so as the oblique parody one finds in his prose fiction develops into direct statement in the plays where a feminine or 0ppressed mentality is extended to the other political contexts of race, class and colony.” (Millett p.344)
Just like women, his queens embrace their lowliness and convert it to grandeur. Their masochism is converted to sainthood. Millet asks: “How else does the good woman traditionally excel except through suffering?”
The play is set in a brothel and is a theory of revolution and counterrevolution. After studying the world of pimp and faggot, Genet began to understand that sexual caste supersedes all other forms of inegalitarianism: racial, political or economic. What he demonstrates in The Balcony is that any revolution is pointless if it ignores the women. In other words if it is not a women’s revolution, then it is no revolution at all; any political change can be described as nothing more than a “shift” of power, because women’s oppression is the basic unit of exploitation and oppression. Not only is it the basic unit but it is the basic model for all other oppressions. Similarly, history shows that the success of any political revolt all depends on the ready involvement of the female population.
Genet knew that by dividing human beings into two groups, and designating one group power over the other, all human relationships become corrupt, as do every area of thought and experience.
The first scene takes place between a prostitute and a bishop, and epitomizes the power difference between the two.
“The cleric holds power only through the myth of religion, itself dependent on the fallacy of sin, in turn conditional on the lie that the female is sexuality itself and therefore an evil worthy of the bishop’s condign punishment. By such devious routes does power circle round and round the hopeless mess we have made of sexuality. Partly through money: for it is with money that the woman is purchased, and economic dependency is but another sign of her bondage to a system whose coercive agents are actual as well as mythical. Delusions about sex foster delusions of power, and both depend on the reification of woman.” (Millett p.21)
The Bishop is actually a gas man. He wants to vicariously share the power of the church by playing dress up. Through this we see a satire of the sexual class system. Even those men who are relegated to reading the gas meters “may still participate in the joys of mastery through one human being any male can buy–a female as whore.”(Millett p.21) The prostitute gains nothing.
In Scene II, aspects of Genet himself manifest in the play because the whore is a thief and a criminal. This time it is a bank clerk who can play at Justice and Morality by acting out his own fantasy of becoming a judge. Men can order for women to be punished, or like god they can magnanimously grant mercy. Then in Scene III, a “General” converts his whore into an animal so he can play at being a hero.
“No matter with which of the three leading roles of sinner, malefactor, or animal the male client may choose to mime his delusions of grandeur, the presence of the woman is utterly essential. To each masquerading male the female is a mirror in which he beholds himself. And the penultimate moment in his illusory but purchasable power fantasy is the moment when whether as Bishop, Judge or General, he “fucks” her as a woman, as subject, as chattel.” (Millett p.21)
Millett states that in order to be free we must first destroy the great cages, the elements of myth: the cleric, the judge and the warrior, three useless entities which have enslaved our consciousness by convincing us they are important. Secondly the omnipotence of the police state must be acknowledged, and taken down. Last is the cage of sex: “the myth of sin and virtue, the myth of guilt and innocence, the myth of heroism and cowardice on which the Great Figures repose, the old pillars of an old and decadent structure, are also based on the sexual fallacy. (Or as one is tempted to pun, phallacy)”(p.22)
Ultimately, the revolution in The Balcony fails, and degenerates into counterrevolution. The new order merely apes the old, because there is no vision of a new alternative. The actors are rebels, not revolutionaries:
“If we behave like the other side, then we are the other side”, Roger, the most intelligent and dedicated of all the rebels predicts, knowing that “instead of changing the world, all we’ll achieve is a reflection of the one we want to destroy”. And so the popular upsurge, unaccompanied by any change of consciousness, can be merely a coup d’etat , ending, as coups do, in a fascist junta.(Millett p.352) “
Millet seems to be suggesting that changing women’s consciousness is the only way as many will happily defend men’s interests to the detriment of their own. Real change can never take place through power-sharing, or power-seizing, only through the creation of an alternative vision. There is a big difference between a “rebel” and a “revolutionary”. Becoming a rebel is one way of conforming; the end result is that your wheels spin deeper in the sand.
By the time he wrote The Blacks, Genet had moved forward in his politics. His characters do not meet the same fate as the rebels in The Balcony because they have already invented alternative values not based on the dominant white culture. Through analyzing and describing their tactics, Millett is giving women a lesson on how to proceed:
“Against the absolute value of white in Western culture, which has appropriated everything from God to cleanliness, they assert the power of black. In a prefatory note, Genet asks “what exactly is a black? First of all, what’s his colour?–a conundrum which implies both that color is relevant to common humanity, and secondly, that blackness is the route to revolution in a white supremacy. There is no insuperable contradiction here, for revolution would scarcely be a necessity to blacks as blacks, without the politicization white has effected upon black by basing its oppression on racial pigmentation–on blackness. In order to escape the identity their masters have given them, the blacks must first objectify it. They accomplish this by ridicule and exaggeration…Next they must develop and identity of their own choice, for Genet is correct in assuming that the emergence of a positive collective identity precedes revolutionary awareness and marks the difference between it and pointless uprisings which only spin back into further reaction.
The Blacks is a turning point in Genet’s exegesis of the politics and psychology of oppression, marking a move away from defeated self-hate to dignity and self-definition. And, finally, to rage. Blacks, colonials, women, all prisoners of definitions imposed on them by others, must, if they are not to become the victims of their own self-loathing…or of their traditional illusions… find freedom by an angry assertion of selfhood and solidarity. Exploring the vexed and complicated problems of sexual and racial politics, Genet suggests that whites have divided blacks, as the colons did the Algerians, by introducing or capitalizing upon a variety of sexual hostility which provides a particular set of advancements for white ends. Among the blacks this has been effected by the proposition that the white master’s aesthetic is embodied in “his woman”, a bit of property he advertises so that it might be coveted, coveted so that the act may be punished. Meanwhile the black woman is imprisoned as her master’s whore–“Every brothel has its negress,” I make my troops tear off a piece every Saturday,” the White Governor chuckles.”
“For the white distorts love and sexuality in his subjects, forcing the black male to accept both the white woman’s beauty, and scorn of the black woman. “I hate you,” Village confesses to Virtue. “I began to hate you when everything about you would have kindled love and when love would have made the men’s contempt unbearable.” Unable to “bear the weight of the world’s condemnation,” he has shared its distain. Exorcising the myth which has bewitched them, the black lovers must first repudiate the white fallacy that the female is an aesthetic object and that beauty itself is white. Until this lie goes, Village cannot love Virtue, Charley’s despised prostitute, who, of all the blacks, is “the only one who experiences shame to the bitter end.” The signal of the play’s victory is his final acceptance of her.”(p.354-345)
Millett encourages women to follow this path.
“In Felicity’s magnificent evocations of Africa, the force and magic of an entire continent is gathered:
Dahomey! Dahomey! Negroes from all corners of the earth, to the rescue! Come! Enter into me…Swell me with your tumult!…Penetrate where you will, my mouth, my ears–or my nostril…Giantess with head thrown back, I await you all. Enter into me, ye multitudes, and be, for this evening only, my force and reason…
Tribes covered with gold and mud, rise up from my body, emerge! Tribes of the Rain and Wind, forward! Princes of the Upper Empires, Princes of the bare feet and wooden stirrups, on your caparisoned horses, enter! Are you there, Africa with the bulging chest and oblong thigh? Sulking Africa, wrought of iron, in the fire, Africa of the million royal slaves, deported Africa, drifting continent, are you there? Slowly you vanish, you withdraw into the past, into the tales of castaways, colonial museums, the works of scholars, but I call you back this evening to attend a secret reveal.”
Having made the world in the image of whiteness, white rule proposed its own narcissism as an absolute value against which blackness, unable to conform, can only be defined as deviate, inferior. Against this myth, the anger of the black women is fiercest of all: “We, the negro women, we had only our wrath and rage,” they seethe. Most oppressed of all, dismissed as a “tame captive” even by men of her own kind, men whom they must ever suspect of desire for the whites’ own ideal decorative feminine nonentity, the fury of women like Bobo or Snow is scarcely under control. “From far off, from Ubangi or Tanganyika, a tremendous love came here to die licking white ankles,”Snow accuses Village, her distrust and resentment puncturing the ritual surface of the black mass with psychodrama. The real force of hate, the rock-bottom determination of the blacks lies with the women, who are not tempted like Diouf to sell out for the public office of “spokesman”, or like Village, for the moonshine of white romance. At the bottom of the racial-sexual totem there is only one place to go. Archibald, the master of ceremonies, exhorts his players: “Negroes, if they change toward us let it be not out of indulgence, but terror,” but he has no need to incite the women, only to restrain them. They are constantly transcending the ritual denunciation their role demands and breaking out into actual fierceness. Snow tears and bites the flowers which bedeck the catafalque, an act not called for in the rite and one rebuked as “needless cruelty.” Here, just as in The Screens, Genet has placed the most fearful revolutionary passion in the women. (Millett p.356)
Male writers such as Norman Mailer, D.H Lawrence and Henry Miller each regarded women as an annoying minority problem, which (with a little help from violence) could be easily kept under control. Genet, on the other hand, regarded woman’s anger at her ancient subordination as the potential root of drastic social change. In The Screens, the women are the revolution.
The play opens with a European colonialist lording it over an Arab male, who in turn takes it out on his woman “who, if she is lucky, takes it out on her daughter-in-law” (Millett p.356)
“In the first scene, Said is on his way to marry “the ugliest woman in the next town and all the towns around”, fuming that he is stuck with her: In the scale of capital and marriage values, his own poverty is presumed to match her ugliness. It’s hard to tell if her face is a real or imagined catastrophe, since Leila the bride wears a black bag throughout the entire performance, stark evidence of her nonentity, enslavement, and exclusion from human experience. Said’s mother, a traditional Arab woman, tags behind him carrying a valise of gewgaw wedding presents. A devout male supremacist, she is persuaded her son will “be less of a man” if he were to condescend to come to her aid in public. Leila is Said’s salvation as well as his fate; her very odium epitomizes the Arab’s colonial situation. Scorning her with fierce ardour, Said becomes a dangerously disgruntled colonial. More an allegory than a character, Leila the loathed woman, is a symptom of the general degradation of the Arab world. If Said the Arab hates her, he hates himself, for no people are capable of self-respect, if, like Genet’s Muslims, they so fervently despise half their population”(p.357)
“It is Said’s very hatred of his own situation, not so much exacerbated, as summed up in his wife (who is his unrelenting malheur, his unique misfortune, the contemptible odor that follows him like a shadow from trouble to jail to a life of total alienation) which becomes the fuse of the revolution. Said’s strange discontent is potential political dynamite.
But if Said becomes somewhat miraculously (in view of his determined apolitical nature) not only the model, but the “flag” of the revolution, its spirit and activity comes from a group of old village hags still more lowly than he. This is appropriate in Genet’s scheme, a revolutionary politics whereby bottom dog should bark loudest. To the Arab male groaning under foreign occupation, the women present a longer and more complete history of resentment:
Ommu: For a thousand years we women have put up with being your dish rags… but for a hundred years, you’ve been dish rags: thanks to you the boots of those gentlemen have been a hundred thousand shining suns…”
It is old Kadidja who screams out the first words of insurrection at a sedate Moslem civil gathering from which she is officially excluded:
The Dignitary (wearing a fez and a blue, western-style suit with many decorations. Into the wings): Remain quiet. Everyone must be dignified. No children here. Nor women.
Kadidja: Without women what would you be? A spot on your father’s pants that three flies would have drunk up.
The Dignitary: Go away, Kadidja. This isn’t the day.
Kadidja (furiously): It is! They accuse and threaten us, and you want us to be prudent. And docile. And humble. And submissive. And ladylike. And honey-tongued. And sweet as pie. And silk veil. And fine cigarette. And nice kiss and soft spoken. And gentle dust on their red pumps!…I won’t! (She stamps her heel)
This is my town here. My bed is here. I was fucked fourteen times and gave birth to fourteen Arabs. I won’t go.”
And against the bumptious inanity of the landowner Sir Harold, it is Kadidja who cries out her people’s first challenge–“I say that your force is powerless against our hatred.” In retaliation, Kadidja is calmly shot down by the whites whereupon…her ghost begins the revolution. (p.358)
Kadidja and Ommu were the personifications of the popular rage. The new Arab army, like the French legion, are but the old oppressive virility cult subsidized by the state, another set of bullies, in power through a new establishment. And as officials, they are infinitely more noxious than individualist criminals or the Big Shots of Mettray. Of the triad of matriarchs who proclaim the spirit of the revolution, Kadidja and Said’s mother (who grew so unconventional she lifted her hand to a man and strangled a French soldier) have been ghosts long enough to go beyond politics. Only Ommu is left. And her only course lies in “bottling” Said, the symptom of that crushing ignominy which, through the example of its ulcerous spiritual condition, first excited the tumult. Said is the product of the colonial system,a way of life, which since it producted the revolution, must never be forgotten. If the shame of the past were obliterated, the Algerians would also be left without purpose. So Said must be preserved in art, or as Ommu puts it, he must “become song.” (p.360)
While Said and Leila become legend and memory, Ommu or some other prophetess will go on agitating, preserving the meaning of recalcitrance. Curmudgeon folk figure, one counts on her not to “kick off” as she’d like to, but to carry on “burying this one, screaming at that one: I’ll live to be a hundred.” Emblem of woman, she has lived to see mulish arrogance once again stifle her freedom and suborn her humanity. Having been a “dish rag” for a thousand years, she has time, patience and experience. Since she is deathless resistance and a new spirit in the world, there is hope yet. And the revolution which liberates Said and Ommu will not only be the last, but the first.” (p.361)
This is Part Three of a three-part post.