The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Oswald, King and Saint: His Britain and Beyond   |   Issue Editor: Michelle Ziegler

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Locating Maserfelth

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Women Refusing the Gaze: Theorizing Thryth's "Unqueenly Custom" in Beowulf and The Bride's Revenge in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume I

Jessica Hope Jordan  
University of California, Davis

© 2006 by Jessica Hope Jordan. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2006 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

§1.  Like fantasy, film is a knife that cuts in both directions: it can provide crucial support for ideology, but it can also [...] take us to an encounter with the gaze that would otherwise be obscured in our experience of social reality (McGowan 2003, 39)

§2.  The Thryth Digression at lines 1925-1962 of Beowulf disrupts a patriarchal narrative. The decision by Thryth to execute her retainers for openly daring to stare at her (eagum starede) spurs a comment by the Beowulf poet that suggests an underlying cultural assumption that a woman should passively accept being the object of the male gaze:

                                         Ne bið swylc cwenlic þeaw
idese to efnanne,               þeah ðe hio aenlicu sy,
þaette freoðuwebbe              feores onsaece
aefter ligetorne              leofne mannan. (Beowulf ll. 1940–1943)

The poet appears to question the validity of Thryth's motive for having the men killed. Marijane Osborn and Seamus Heaney translate these lines as follows (emphases added):

                                         Such is no queenly
practice for a lady, though peerless she be,
a peace-weaver taking, because of pretended
, the life of a loving man! (Osborn 1999, 31)

                                         Even a queen
outstanding in beauty must not overstep like that.
A queen should weave peace, not punish the innocent
with loss of life for imagined insults. (Heaney 2000, 132)

Whereas Osborn calls Thryth's motive a "pretended affront" and Heaney refers to it as "imagined insults," Thomas Shippey translates lige-torn more harshly as a "lying accusation":

It is not a queenly custom (cwenlic þeaw), the poet comments, for a peace-weaver (freoðwebbe) to seek lives by lying accusation, however beautiful she may be. A natural explanation so far would be that "Modthrytho" resents being looked at, and charges those who do it, falsely, with a form of sexual harassment. (Shippey 2001)

§3.  While clearly implying that it is an extreme action for Thryth to have her retainers killed for staring at her, the poet also implies that being stared at by men is something Thryth should peacefully accept. His describing her "affront" or "insult" as a lie (lige-torn) suggests that Thryth is making up excuses for killing these men who stare at her, when instead she should passively accept their appropriating gaze.

§4.  Most would agree that Thryth having these men executed for merely gazing at her is an extreme response to what seems like a small insult. Themselves responding to her apparent excess, Shippey (2001) describes Thryth as "a queen who [...] behaved cruelly and irrationally, having men executed for no reason," while Klaeber (1922, 187) calls her "a haughty, violent maiden." In fact most traditional critics have found that Thryth's aggressive act of having the men killed locates her outside of what good "queenly" behavior should be. A good queen, according to the poem, would behave like Weahltheow, the Danish queen who circulates amongst the warriors at their feasts and bestows upon the most deserving warriors honors of compliments and gifts. Critics thus read Thryth's abrupt appearance in the poem as just one of the many contrasts in the poem, and especially as she appears where she does in contrast to the good cwen Hygd. According to Osborn (1999, 49) this queen introduces Thryth's story into the poem as she "contemplates" the actions of the "wicked" Thryth. Gillian Overing (1990, 102-103) emphasizes the "persistent ambiguity" that the Thryth digression brings to the poem. Overing additionally reads Thryth as, with "the notable exception of Grendel's mother, the most unwomanly, unqueenly female in the poem: she is vain, mean, proud, apparently gratuitously violent, aggressive, power hungry, and initially displays an almost casual contempt for men."

§5.  Discussing the apparent opposition of Thryth and Hygd, Overing (1990, 102) notes that it is "an instance of the Beowulf-poet's technique of presenting contrasts," although she also notes that "by such a circuitous route, a place is found for the unmannerly queen in the larger context of the poem, one that connects and assimilates her through opposition." She sees this as a way of demonstrating how interpreting Thryth's disturbing actions has been problematic for many critics. For the purpose of this article, however, I wish to develop Overing's insight about Thryth's "persistent ambiguity." Part of my article's purpose is to question the poet's apparent assumption, as well as those of traditional critics, that having men stare at Thryth is a "pretended" or false and not a real "insult." When men stare at a woman in a sexually desiring way, can this not also be considered, a form of sexual harassment? Shippey explicitly suggests this idea, but from his own comments does not appear to agree with it. Teresa de Lauretis (1984, 6-7) writes, "What happens, I will ask, when woman serves as her own looking glass held up to women? Or further, with another metaphor, when women look into Perseus' shield while Medusa is being slain?" In this case, perhaps more intriguingly, I will ask what happens when a woman watches the men being slain?

§6.  The Thryth episode is useful for addressing current feminist concerns in Anglo-Saxon literature, not only because of its persistent ambiguity, but also its apparent, however brief, inversion of gender roles, precisely the kind of inversion of a feminine/masculine binary that, as Claire Lees (1997, 149) has argued "can work toward changing lingering traditionalist notions of reading gender in Beowulf. Addressing the validity of the concept of patriarchy," she writes, "would be a necessary next step."

§7.  Thryth's inversion of gender roles has received little critical treatment. Overing (1990, 102) notes that "the figure of Modthryth herself and the notion of a possible separation or individual identity for her not dependent on binary classification have not received much critical attention." Shippey (2001) also states that "the question of the episode's point remains almost as obscure as ever." However, Osborn (1999) offers a partial demystification of the episode when she reads Thryth as a method of identity formation for Hygd. One of the most persistent explanations (surely valid so far as it goes) is that [Thryth] "is included in the poem on account of her marriage to Offa, whose Mercian descendant, Offa II, might have been flattered at the reference" (Overing 1990, 102). Shippey (2001) supports this idea and expands on it: "the historical queen, wife of Offa II, Cynedrida or Cynethryth, resemble[s] the character in Beowulf at least in bad reputation and complicity in murder." Overing insists however, that the traditional critics' need for Thyrth's "assimilation [. . .] requires oversimplified binary rationalization: aggressive 'masculine' behavior is not a 'lady/queenlike custom' (cwenlic şeaw), and is thus construed as a force for evil" (103). Thus the assessing of Thryth's behavior as "unqueenly" suggests the kinds of patriarchal gender assumptions I wish to question, while also intending to assign Thryth as much agency as is possible, as Osborn starts out to do when she writes that Thryth "takes control of her own life-story" (63).

§8.  In "Old English and Feminist Criticism," Claire Lees (1997, 152) points out how that "women have always been present in originary narratives—whether of the culture or the discipline—although their presence has sometimes been elided, erased, forgotten, or not full assessed." Lees is adamant that critics must place these representations in their "sociohistorical" context and that one cannot read gender transhistorically: "simply put, Anglo-Saxon gender relations and their cultural representations cannot be separated from the sociohistorical circumstances that create them." However, Carol Braun Pasternack (2003, 170) in her article, "Post-Structuralist Theories," asserts the efficacy of this methodology when working with Old English texts:

Though certain strains of post-structuralism have been criticized as ahistorical (and some of the theories can be practiced that way), post-structuralist theories can provoke new historical analyses and can provide questions and methodologies that shed new light on Old English texts and Anglo-Saxon cultures, in part because their interventions do disturb the seeming clarity with which medieval texts have represented their world to modern scholars. More than anything else, post-structuralist theories help us look at the texts not as direct representations of culture but as participants in the construction of meaning for Anglo-Saxon culture and society, and thereby in the construction of the culture and society themselves. (Pasternack 2003, 170)

Pasternack (2003, 167) continues: "A feminist inquiring into any cultural document of the Anglo-Saxon period will find herself asking about the woman in or absent from the text, and about her relation to that woman—not at the expense of other interdisciplinary questions about origins, genre, subjectivity, aesthetics, and gender, but perhaps because of them." In "Negotiating Gender in Anglo-Saxon England," Pasternack further asserts that "in the Middle Ages [. . .] there was no single, fixed idea of the masculine and the feminine as essential qualities" (107). This medieval concept of gender echoes that of postmodern notions of gender as a continuum and thus a poststructuralist approach to the Thryth digression is especially useful as it allows us to probe Thryth's relation to her own culture and ourselves, while also "reading against the grain of patriarchy," a process which "advances the project of reconceptualizing the historical difference of Anglo-Saxon culture, highlighting both the nature of patriarchy itself in specific historical formation and the nature of individual participation within it" (154).

§9.  In discussing the "few attempts to place feminist concerns [. . .] or indeed women at the beginning of Anglo-Saxon culture," Lees (1997, 148) mentions "the masculinist structure" of the discipline. The masculinist "contradiction" of the Thryth digression is a point where the narrative slips, allowing a visible gap in the text where a both a covering up and a heroic admiring may be said to occur. Thryth's disruption of the narrative reveals an underlying inversion of gender construction as well as the structural or symbolic system which attempts to contain it. The episode exposes a contradiction where a kind of slippage occurs, revealing a more complicated vision of an Anglo-Saxon cwen than the Christian scop, who, apparently overwriting an originary narrative, may have intended, and in any case, most definitely attempts to obscure.

§10.  Of interest is precisely how Thryth goes about causing the eruption in a patriarchal narrative: Thryth's "transgression" occurs because of a visual dynamic, explicitly explained in the text as her dislike at being "stared at" by men. Sarah Stanbury (1997, 263), who works on problems of visuality in medieval texts, laments the dearth of critical works in this period which give visual dynamics any treatment: "Indeed, few recent studies of spectatorship, either those that describe the gaze as a gesture and psychoanalytic marker of subjectivity or those that have explained visuality as a sociocultural index of regimes of economic and political power, have drawn on documents that antedate the Renaissance, and especially the eighteenth century." She writes that, in particular, "the paradigm of the "male gaze," [. . .] emerges from a selected history that has given us brilliant accounts of the ways in which visuality in the West from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries intersects with psychic, cultural, and political structures, but that has scotomized the Middle Ages." In her insightful article on Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, "Regimes of the Visual in Premodern England," she discusses the cultural-historical gaze at Griselda's body and further connects the postmodern concerns of visuality with feminism and its discussion of patriarchal power. She defines the dynamic of the "male gaze" as "the recapitulative, appetitive construction of male identity and patriarchal hegemony: power relations in the modern state and in the modern male psyche are played out in a drama of desire and fear, authority enacted visually through mastery of the complex nexus of terrors that women represent" (262).

§11.  Most notably feminist film theorists have often relied upon this "gendered visual metaphor" of the "male gaze," as a way of explaining gender inequities of power. Reading a text through the male gaze necessarily reinscribes the male/female binary as a way to describe these inequities. In Technologies of Gender, de Lauretis (1984, 110) argues that when reading through the male gaze feminist critics remain imprisoned by patriarchal terms. De Lauretis critiques the notion of "sexual difference" as the basis for a cultural definition of gender, wherein her argument attempts to elide the masculine/feminine binary. A similar position is later taken up by postmodern feminist theorist and social constructionist Judith Butler in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, where Butler effectively deconstructs the binary, positing instead a "gender continuum." However, in Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, Diana Fuss (1989, xii) points out that "essentialism and constructionism are deeply and inextricably co-implicated with each other," and that "essentialism can be deployed effectively in the service of both idealist and materialist, progressive and reactionary, mythologizing and resistive discourses." Thus there remains a way to read to read Thryth as an object of the "male gaze": by initially using these binary notions of gender a critic can ultimately explode them. When reading through these binaries, the critic can first recognize how they are bound up in these patriarchal strategies but push further, ultimately deconstructing the patriarchal narratives. The Thryth digression is especially useful for this method because Thryth herself does this: she calls attention to the "male gaze," effectively inverts it, turns it back on itself, and thereby deconstructs a "naturalization" or "essentialization" of the male gaze. This method further reveals the "terrors" such women represent for patriarchy.

§12.  While the dynamics of visuality and deconstructing the male gaze all relate well to the Thryth digression, another intriguing aspect of the digression lies in its emphasis on violence: Thryth orders that the men be killed for gazing upon her. The violence that erupts in the digression creates an attraction for a postmodern reader as well as for a poststructuralist critic because it reveals, as in the words of Janet Thormann (1997, 65), "Old English poems share with contemporary popular culture a fascination with and immersion in violence. Beowulf is a poem about bodily violence. Violence is inextricable from the structure of the culture the poem, [and] represents, as well [. . .] the structure, content, and impetus of the narrative." But the violence is not always gendered male. Carol Clover (1993, 381) has noted that these ancient "literature" are "rich with scenes, both historical and legendary, that turn on male humiliation or defeat at the hands of women." When we read through violent acts by women that are committed against men, and refuse to buy into patriarchal desires to demonize these women as "hysterics," we can finally "begin to speculate about those other female desires concealed within them" (Lees 1997, 154).

§13.  Overing (1990, 104) was first to develop the idea that Thryth "rebels" against and "refuses" the masculine gaze: "By refusing to be held in the masculine 'gaze' Modthryth underscores the connection between seeing and masculinity, between the eye and the phallus." Overing's insight may be extended here. Thryth's "refusal" represents not only a refusal but a challenge of the gaze.1 It is useful to locate her, as Stanbury (1997, 266) does the body of Griselda in The Clerk's Tale, as "a female body strategically at the center of both an individual and a public masculine gaze." Like Griselda, Thryth's "body is both a place of resistance and a piece de resistance" (262). Thus Thryth's "rebellion constitutes a direct confrontation with the masculine symbolic order of the poem: "Despite her beauty, Modthryth will not consent to be a feminine spectacle in a masculine arena" (Overing 1990, 104). Thryth's violent rebellion, then, places her less in "contrast" to such queens as Hygd or Wealhtheow, and more precisely in relation to the ethos governing warrior societies and the expression of their use of violence in the poem. As Thormann (1997, 67) points out in "Beowulf and the Enjoyment of Violence," "Ultimately, violence in Beowulf is a system of justice based on revenge."

§14.  Taking this view, the Thryth digression appears less a story of a "wicked" cwen and becomes instead a revenge narrative, a narrative that fits with the warrior ethos contained in the poem itself.2 Yet what does not fit is the way Thryth's narrative erupts as anomalous in terms of the way other women are presented in the poem. This eruption represents a kind of slicing or penetration into the narrative that exposes patriarchal attitudes as well as meeting the patriarchy on its own terms.

§15.  When reading from a postmodern perspective, the connections between the Thryth digression and similar dynamics of visuality found in later texts, both literary and filmic, become much clearer: Reading the through the "male gaze" transhistorically recovers instances where women have been "demonized" not only through patriarchal overwritings or coverings, but additionally through traditional critical readings, thereby allowing us to identify further instances of women who disrupt the patriarchal narrative(s).

§16.  The significance of the refusal and challenge of the gaze for literary and film theory is that when representations of women appear that refuse to be the passive objects of the male gaze they reveal a more accurate view of Jacques Lacan's dynamic of the gaze than Laura Mulvey's reading of Lacan, in that: 1) in response to the refusal of the gaze, the controlling male gaze (spectator) now becomes the passive object (objet petit a) which is subsumed into 2) an identification within the (on-screen) object 3) wherein the now passive objet petit a desires to be controlled by the (on-screen) object and, 4) in this desire to be controlled by the object, the objet petit a desires a confrontation with the "trauma of the Real."3 While Overing (1990, 102) states that when Thryth "rejects objectification, [she] refuses to be an objet petit a," this follows Mulvey's interpretation of Lacan, a reading which, in its Foucauldian distortion,4 includes only half of the Lacanian gaze dynamic. When the full Lacanian gaze dynamic is applied to Thryth, she is, as Gaylyn Studlar (1992) has previously explored in her theories of spectatorship, fulfilling a "masochistic desire by the spectator to be controlled by its object." By killing off the male gaze, and by refusing to be the passive object of spectatorship, Thryth and violent women in postmodern cinema, are, in effect, killing off their spectators, turning them instead into passive objects to be controlled by an active woman's image, wherein the spectator becomes subsumed into the realm of the imaginary, and mesmerized by a traumatic encounter with the Real.5

§17.  De Lauretis (1984, 8), concerned about the "essentializing nature" of reading texts through the male gaze states that this method places the "position of woman in language and in cinema [as] one of non-coherence" where "she finds herself only in a void of meaning, the empty space between the signs." What de Lauretis does not make clear is how she uses Mulvey's misreading of Lacan. Instead of an "empty space" the position between signifier and signified, the symbolic and imaginary,6 should be more accurately read as one that is full of meaning. If the space is read as the Lacanian "real" then it becomes more profound and brings forth an "originary" trauma, or rupture, which underlies, undermines, and enters into, the symbolic. Thus, the image of woman is not void of meaning, but everything which helps to constitute, or structure, meaning, regardless of how patriarchy would care to "suppress" or "repress" her through its discourse. When Overing (1990, 104) speaks of "Modthryth's rejection of the gaze [. . . as] expos[ing] its particular oculocentric tyranny," she also notes that Thryth does not "shatter both the illusion of subjectivity and the privileging of the subject that attends the apprehension of the world." I would argue that Thryth notably and persistently "shatters the subject." "'Cultural artifacts,' Pasternack (2003, 182) notes, are 'socially symbolic acts' in that they resolve on the 'imaginary' plane the 'real' contradictions that continue to trouble the society."

§18.  Thryth's killing off her own spectators, i.e., having them killed, demonstrates the presence of women who are in positions of power over men. While her position as "queen" allows her the "the intersection of class and gender interests," (Lees 1997, 155), there remains much critical debate as to whether Thryth was initially a cwen or not. Osborn (1999, 61) writes that "Thryth is not at all a good queen here at the beginning of her story—not yet even a queen, in fact." Shippey (2001) designates her as a "twice-married queen." Osborn translates "sinfrea" as "great lord," asserting this as a reference to Thryth's father rather than a first husband, and thus raises the possibility of a "suppressed narrative of incest." (Osborn 1999, n. 53) If "great lord" does indeed refer to her father, the case can be made that Thryth's fighting back, her having the men killed, would arise from her, understandably, being very "touchy" about being looked at by men; as a possible rape or molestation victim, she would certainly be more predisposed, than say Hygd, to reject the male gaze.

§19.  Thryth's presence also reveals, from the Beowulf poet's anxiety about her "unqueenly" behavior, that women like Thryth posed a real threat to a patriarchal order. Shippey (2001) writes of the "suddenness of the intrusion," while Overing (1990, 139) mentions that "her story is 'very abruptly introduced and is the most difficult of all for 'whole-hearted admirers' to justify." Osborn (1999, 60) notes that "the poet has appeared to critics to be at his most inattentive when into his account of Hgyd, queen of the Geats, he suddenly thrusts Thryth, apparently with no thought for coherence." The very abruptness of her intrusion suggests that instead of wholly erasing her, the Christian scop decides to leave her in while partially eliding her transgressive actions through her reassimilation into the patriarchal plot through marriage. While one can only surmise, perhaps he does so because of the (transhistorical) strange admiring for women of strength by many male authors, an admiring which is demonstrated over the centuries by the many appearances of strong women in texts written by men. Overing (1990, 102) recognizes Thryth's "power to disturb," but she names this power as Thryth's "hysterical potential." In contrast, I assert that Thryth's sudden and even violent rupture of the poem, represents more accurately an eruption of the trauma of the Real into the poem; in other words, her presence represents the Derridean aporia, or contradiction, at the center of the text which may reveal the presence of a more originary narrative, one which erupts the Christian poet's presumed palimpest. While this can be slippage on the part of the poet's part, it in fact may not be so.

§20.  Interestingly, Osborn (1999, 62) eloquently writes that, halfway through the digression, "the story pivots, like an ancient pair of scales, on the point where Hemming's kinsman enters and another story is told." This "pivoting" occurs just as abruptly as Thryth's initial appearance. Here, her re-assimilation to the masculine symbolic order occurs, because, while briefly allowing her momentary rupture into the narrative, the Christian poet is now obligated again to cover her originary narrative with that of his own. While Overing (1990, 58) notes that "Bloomfield comes close to dismissing her when he emphasizes the 'interrupting quality' of her appearance in the poem, and sees her story and other scattered digressions in the last part of the poem as products of heroic senility," from our reading, this seems unlikely when one considers the nature of Thryth's interruption as moment that so well demonstrates the poem's heroic culture it cannot be left out. In considering the poet's purpose for eliding her heroic aspect, Lees (1997, 157) mentions that within critical discourse on Anglo-Saxon life, as well as in the texts themselves, far too often "women [. . .] are represented as differently 'other' to the main concerns of warrior life."

§21.  When Overing (1990, 105) asserts that "despite her dramatic rejection of a fundamental premise of the symbolic order, Modthryth does not achieve rupture, or make a change, in that order," she overlooks that Thryth, does indeed achieve several "ruptures": first, she "ruptures" the poem itself; second, she literally ruptures the men's bodies as she has them killed; and third, she ruptures the masculine/feminine binary which has been inscribed for her by the poet. According to Carol Clover (1993, 371), a female character like Thryth is "unusual for the better. Although the woman who for whatever reason plays life like a man is occasionally deplored by the medieval author, she is more commonly admired—sometimes grudgingly, but often just flatly."

§22.  If, as according to Clover, masculine traits in both women and men were valued by early Scandinavian and Germanic cultures,7 then the Beowulf poet is commenting on the Christian views that overlie the values of a pagan society by implying that Thryth should just put up with being a passive object of the male gaze. According to Klaeber (1922, 190), this attitude is consistent with "the author's strong disapproval of Thryth's behavior (line 1940) [and] is quite in keeping with his moralizing, didactic propensities shown in various other passages."

§23.  Clover (1993, 372) asserts that "this is a world in which 'masculinity' has a plus value, even (or perhaps especially) when it is enacted by a woman." Clover's discovery in early Northern European cultures of a gender continuum similar to postmodern ideas explains in part why female characters like Thryth appeal to postmodern readers: "What I am suggesting is that this is the binary, the one that cuts most deeply and the one that matters: between strong and weak, powerful and powerless or disempowered, swordworthy and unswordworthy, honored and unhonored or dishonored, winners and losers" (380). Thryth, in spite of her so-called "wicked" crime, or "firen," persistently emerges as both a powerful and active character. Thryth's active resistance overturns "most interpretations of women in Old English literature [that] make them resemble the passive women of the novel" (Damico 1990, 12).

§24.  Through our critical recognition of Thryth's refusal of the gaze, as well as her active control of it, we rescue Thryth from her previous representations in literary criticism where she has been depicted as just a murderous queen who suddenly becomes rehabilitated from her old, bad ways after she meets a man she truly loves, her subsequent husband, King Offa of Mercia. Shippey (2001) writes of Thryth as "a queen who first behaved cruelly and irrationally, having men executed for no reason, but then after her marriage to Offa the legendary Anglian hero became a model wife and mother." However, Osborn (1999, 63) points out "that Thryth is the only woman in Beowulf reported to 'love' someone." Thus Thryth continues to gain agency through choosing a man she loves over falling prey to the gaze of other men. In her seeming reabsorption into the narrative, Thryth holds a position similar to Griselda as "on the one hand Griselda defines the feminine as object of the gaze, and on the other she demonstrates a simultaneous reluctance to capture, to hold down, or use the female body as an image in representation" (Stanbury 1997, 282), or, as Clover (1993, 385) states, "this expansion of the masculine was presumably predicated on the fixing of the female and her relocation at a safe distance."

§25.  In terms of Thyrth's "masculine" expression of warrior culture, Clover (1993, 364) notes that there existed "an aspect of early Scandinavian culture, and perhaps Germanic culture in general, [of] a sex-gender system rather different from our own, and indeed rather different from that of the Christian Middle Ages." Instead of more familiar modern ideas of rigid sex roles, Clover designates in early Germanic culture an opposition of the attributes of what she names hvatr/blauðr (hard/soft), a distinction that works more as "a gender continuum than a sexual binary" (377). Possessing the attribute of being hvatr was apparently highly valued regardless of biological sex: "that is, although the ideal man is havtr and the typical woman is blauðr, neither is necessarily so; and each can, and does, slip into the territory of the other" (377). Thus Thryth can be seen as a queen who possessed the positive cultural attribute of being hvatr. Of course, the very fact of her presumed aristocratic position (if in fact she was a queen) gives an added dimension to her actions in that she functions not only as capable of transcending gender expectations, but that she also possesses her power by virtue of her class position. Clover refers to this advantage when she writes that "the social position of the aristocratic woman in Anglo-Saxon England was much stronger than previously believed. [. . .] Anglo-Saxon women exercised considerable economic independence and enjoyed a relationship of 'rough equality' to men" (377). Thryth's "unqueenly custom" represents much less an anomaly in the gender practice of her own culture than it does the Beowulf poet's Christian culture, and one may add, historical gender practices that preceded a postmodern recognition of a gender continuum.

§26.  History gives us a wealth of texts upon which we can draw for such examples of hvatr or heroic women.8 Feminist scholars have often remarked that "from the outset of the scholarly tradition, readers have been startled by the extraordinary array of 'exceptional' or 'strong' or 'outstanding' or 'proud' or 'independent' women—women whose behavior exceeds what is presumed to be custom and sometimes the law as well" (Clover 1993, 366). One can think of many such examples: Cleopatra, Dalila, Judith, and St. Margaret, among others. Interestingly, these women are often, as is Thryth, associated with a knife or sword, and thus appear in literature as the so-called "phallic women." Cleopatra "wears" Marc Antony's sword, while Dalila cuts off Samson's locks with a knife, just as Judith wields a heavy sword to cut off Holofernes' head. Queen Thryth has her potential suitors put to death with a "damascened sword." In a warrior culture "the role of penetrator is regarded as not only masculine but boastworthy regardless of the sex of the object" (374-375).

§27.  When women wield such phallic power as "in the case of Lady Macbeth and Medea, for example, the woman's emotional life loses in intensity and effectiveness because they have been presented as unbalanced, a situation that does not occur with a hero like Lear" (Damico 1990, 10). When discussing "what makes a good queen," Shippey (2001) writes that while "the 'Modthrytho' of Beowulf seems to bear no hint of adultery, one might say almost the reverse: she is too touchy, not too free with her favors," the implication here being of course that perhaps Thryth should be a little more willing to "give it up," as it were, to her "sexually harassing" suitors. However, as Clover (1993, 371) states "'woman' is a normative category, but not a binding one. If a woman is normally blauðr, she is not inevitably so, and when she is hvatr, she is thought unusual, but not unnatural."

§28.  Interestingly, the intriguingly fierceness of women like Thryth often finds its expression in literature in very cinematic terms. Writing of the violence in Beowulf, Thormann (1997, 66) states that: "The intense focus on each gesture of reciprocal action stretches narrative time in a kind of slow motion effect, in which the discrete bodily details, the references to blood and hair, for example, exaggerate physical immediacy." This is a description worthy of the similar kinds of aesthetic cinematic effects postmodern filmmakers use when filming scenes of blood violence, those rendered by slow motion, stop camera, and montage editing (Jordan 2004).

§29.  When the refusal and challenge of the gaze is applied to violent women in cinema these active, female characters break the "fourth wall of cinema" in that they refuse to be passive, and yet they also paradoxically reinforce this wall, drawing attention to its function as a line of demarcation between the spectator and the image, or "reality" and the imaginary. As such, this paradox represents a dynamic of desire never realized, a dynamic which is in keeping with Lacan's theory of desire wherein desire lies not with the "object that would seem to satisfy it, but with the object that seems to cause it" (Lacan 1998, 278-279).

§30.  I wish to make a kind of futuristic leap to connect the fuller argument of this article, one which also concerns itself with the relation of postmodern filmic representations of women, specifically, violent women, to those of our more originary narratives. While the characters of Thryth in Beowulf, The Bride (Uma Thurman) as well as several other active female characters in Kill Bill, are representations of women separated by over a thousand years, in their refusal and challenge of the gaze, they represent very similar gender constructs.

§31.  In turning now from Thryth and literary criticism to film theory and Kill Bill, it is first necessary to give further background on the theory of the gaze in cinema. John Berger (1972, 47) notes a visual dynamic present between genders—men look at women while women submit to the look. This dynamic extends to relations of power where "men act and women appear." His theory of the "male gaze" was further developed by Laura Mulvey (1975) who appropriated Lacan's theory of the mirror stage. Mulvey's film theory article explains how in Classical Hollywood cinema the camera's subjectivity represents a controlling and objectifying male gaze where women are always the passive objects of that gaze. Since its appearance, Mulvey's theory of the controlling masculine gaze has been widely applied across many disciplines, including interpretations of literature as well as film. Slavoj Zizek (1992, 47), who later interprets Lacan, exposes the "essentialness" of Mulvey's view when he points out the arbitrary designation of a male/female split in language.

§32.  However, according to Todd McGowan (2003), Mulvey's theory represents only half of the Lacanian dynamic of the gaze. McGowan explains that the desiring of the objet petit a is an aspect of Lacanian theory that has previously been left out of the main discourse of feminist film theory. A more accurate reading of Lacan's theory of the mirror stage helps demonstrate how the theory of the gaze is not limited to just a subjective, male controlling gaze (spectator and/or camera subjectivity) that objectifies the (passive) screen object, but that it is a gaze that also, in its desiring of the object (screen image), becomes drawn into the object itself (identification), wherein the object (image) then "sees" the subject (spectator); thus within the process of gazing is implicit the idea of being gazed at in return. This return of the gaze is an idea that has previously appeared in art criticism in relation to the work of Hans Holbein, The Ambassadors (1533) where the "object stares back," as well as da Vinci's Mona Lisa (1503-06), who breaks with social convention when, instead of averting her gaze, she gazes directly at her viewer. Studlar (1992) later develops the idea of the spectator's masochistic desire, while Clover (1993) theorizes the male spectator's ability to identify with the "final girl" in the horror film. In Men, Women and Chain Saws, Clover describes how in the horror film the female protagonist, after being relentlessly pursued and terrorized by a male torturer, takes control of the narrative herself, first seeking and then ultimately accomplishing revenge. These theories all give a more fluid dynamic of the gaze.

§33.  While the image "looking back" can certainly function as an instance of voyeur vu in cinema, in the case of the Thryth digression, the object of the gaze "Thryth," rather than just merely returning or only internalizing the gaze, recognizes an attempt at the controlling gaze and takes control of it herself, therefore defiantly refusing the male gaze. Through her execution of the retainers who dare gaze at her, Thryth turns the gaze back onto the subjects themselves, thereby breaking the male gaze or the "fourth wall of cinema," as she kills off her own spectators. In her refusal of the male gaze, Thryth fights back: "Modthryth turns the masculine gaze back upon itself, briefly becoming a spectator, an overseer herself" (Overing 1990, 105). Thryth's fighting back represents an eruption into the narrative of the trauma of the Real (Zizek 1992, 39).

§34.  Postmodern cinema offers many examples of women who fight back, as Elaine Showalter (2001, 38) discusses in her article "Sex Goddess," wherein she examines constructs of the feminine in postmodern cinema. She finds them to be an admixture of strong and weak, hard and soft, or as we say for the purpose of this article, havtr/blauðr. Showalter notes that "feminist motifs recur in several of these films, [including] women's athleticism and strength." One can think of many examples: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie's Angels, Sin City as well as horror films where a female protagonist who, while first seeking to defend herself, ultimately seeks revenge. Quentin Tarantino's postmodern sensation, Kill Bill, Volume I, provides a great example for looking at hvatr women in that the film is primarily about strong, athletic women who possess power over men and each other through their wielding of swords, knives, and even a mace.

§35.  The story centers on the protagonist known only as The Bride (Uma Thurman). She seeks revenge on the mysterious Bill, whose image Tarantino keeps out of the camera's gaze, and who, interestingly, also describes himself as being "the most masochistic." In addition to Bill, The Bride also seeks revenge on a number of her potential assassins who are responsible for killing her entire wedding party and her unborn fetus, as well as for putting her in a coma for several years during which she was repeatedly raped by a male nursing home aide. The Bride, in a perversion of the Charlie's Angels motif, had previously been one of Bill's "killer girls." In pursuit of her revenge, she obtains a superior sword made of "Hantori steel" which enables her successfully to kill her potential assassins. That most of her potential assassins are women themselves adds to the film's interest in representing strong women. What the spectator sees then, instead of women as passive objects, are images of active women wielding swords against numerous men and each other in a series of some of the bloodiest battle scenes in the history of cinema. These images of active women, while providing a realization of masochistic desire for the male spectator, have an opposite, more empowering effect on a female viewer, as Showalter (2001, 2) comments, "there is something exhilarating to the female viewer in the mere spectacle of women acting resourceful and fearless." Thus Tarantino deconstructs Classical Hollywood cinema's representation of passive women as well as Mulvey's theory of the woman as the passive object of the male gaze by making his female characters all women who refuse the gaze.

The Bride (Uma Thurman) refuses the gaze in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume I (Miramax 2003)

The Bride (Uma Thurman) refuses the gaze in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume I. (Miramax 2003)

§36.  A perfect example of this refusal of the gaze is shown in a still shot from the film where The Bride, who is holding her Hantori steel sword at a cross angle, is surrounded by several Japanese male would-be assassins. Their own swords are held in the position of erect penises. Tarantino heightens this idea of the refusal of the gaze by having the male assassins wear "Cato-like" black masks, drawing the viewer's attention to their attempt to possess her with their gaze as well as with their "phallic" swords. The Bride kills them all in the next scene. Another still from the film shows O-Ren-Iishi (Lucy Liu) staring directly at the viewer with a large sword blade held right at eye level as she all at once 1) returns the gaze, 2) refuses the gaze, 3) and draws attention to the line of demarcation between herself and the viewer, and furthermore, between the imaginary and the real. That many of the strong female characters in the film are Asian women brings forth not only Tarantino's postmodern pastiche of blending genres and cultures, but suggests interesting comparisons and contrasts in gender constructs between white women of Northern European descent and Asian women.9 In the dialogue below, another female Asian character in the film, the adolescent girl Go Go Yubari, who works for O-Ren-Iishi as one of her protectors, and who proves even more violent than her elders, seems to move beyond just refusing the gaze, to actively seeking out the gaze in order to wreak her revenge on men who display it. In this excerpt from the film, she toys with a Japanese businessman who tries to pick her up in a bar:

Japanese Businessman: Do you like Ferraris?
Go Go Yubari: Ferraris . . . Italian trash. [Japanese businessman giggles]
Go Go Yubari: Do you want to screw me? [Japanese businessman giggles again]
Go Go Yubari: Don't laugh! Do you want to screw me, yes or no?
Japanese Businessman: Yes. [She stabs him in the stomach with a Samurai short sword] Go Go Yubari: How about now, big boy? Do you still wish to penetrate me? Or is it I who has penetrated you? (Tarantino, Quentin. Kill Bill, Volume 1. 1 DVD (111 mins.) USA: Miramax.)

O-Ren-Ishi (Lucy Liu) returns the gaze, refuses the gaze, and gives the spectator a traumatic encounter with the Real in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume I. (Miramax 2003).

O-Ren-Ishi (Lucy Liu) returns the gaze, refuses the gaze, and gives the spectator a traumatic encounter with the Real in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Volume I. (Miramax 2003)

The statement "Do you still wish to penetrate me? Or is it I who has penetrated you?" captures the very essence of the refusal and challenge of the gaze. Thus what the viewer finds in the refusal and challenge of the gaze is contrary to what Lacan describes as:

the process at work in the visual drive: What is the subject trying to see? What he is trying to see, make no mistake, is the object as absence . . . . What he is looking for is not, as one says, the phallus—but precisely its absence. (Lacan 1998, 182)

According to Lacan, as well as many feminist film critics, this absence can be posited as the feminine and/or maternal. In opposition to Lacan, by presenting these examples of the refusal of the gaze, I am, in essence, asserting that while the spectator may expect to find the object as absence at the center of the screen image, where the refusal of the gaze appears the spectator finds instead, embodied within the feminine, the presence of a phallus. This encounter with the phallus as an absent presence thus registers for the spectator as a "traumatic encounter with the Real" :

Grasping the gaze as objective rather than subjective transforms our understanding of the filmic experience. Instead of being an experience of imaginary mastery (as it is for traditional Lacanian film theorists), it becomes—at least potentially—the site of a traumatic encounter with the Real, with the utter failure of the spectator's seemingly safe distance and assumed mastery. The crucial point here is that not only is this failure of mastery possible in the cinema, but it is what spectators desire when they go to the movies. (McGowan 2003, 29)

As Zizek (1992, 47) notes, "there must be, at least on a certain level, a kind of knowledge operating in the real itself ; [. . .] it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance" (29). While de Lauretis and some social constructionists wish to resolve the problematic binary opposition and essentializing nature of the "male gaze," I have shown how that preserving this category as a methodological tool can lead us to interpretations of the image of woman as less "oppressed," and as more empowered. Reading through the male gaze to the so-called, even misidentified "object" (image of woman) beyond, allows us to uncover the presence of her active subjectivity, an act which transforms "male gaze" theory itself. Thus the discovery of the refusal, challenge, and ultimately, the revenge of the gaze, has potentially profound implications for feminist representations of women in both literature and cinema, as well as in literary and film theory, in that its appearance deconstructs traditional representations of women as passive objects or "unbalanced" or "terrible," revealing instead representations of hvatr women. In this view, women appear as active participants in the construction and control of their own spectatorship. As further representations of the refusal and challenge of the gaze are identified within literature and film, continued scholarly analysis will reveal the presence within our history and culture of a rich legacy of hvatr women who, through their refusal to be passive objects, bring forth much-needed examples of strong women who quite often attempt, and more often achieve, heroic control over their own destiny.10


1. My extension of Overing's insight of Thryth's refusal of the gaze to a challenge and, ultimately, a revenge of the gaze has not been previously discussed nor yet applied to other texts.  [Back]

2.While John M. Hill argues that revenge in Beowulf "actually expresses [situationally contingent] political agendas underlying the compositions of the stories enacting that violence," I prefer Clare A. Lees' interpretation of Beowulf as containing a heroic ethic that makes death a necessary and logical outcome of (an also necessary) revenge. As to which characters the poet allows some "heroic" measure in their revenge and which he does not, for example, as in the case of episodes containing violence committed by female characters, such as those of Grendel's mother and Thryth, Hill mentions that "the poet does characterize some instances of revenge feud as simply malignant." See Lees 1994, and Hill, 2000.  [Back]

3. In "Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and Its Vicissitudes," Todd McGowan argues that reading Lacan's theory of the gaze as one of "mastery," as does Laura Mulvey, as well as many early feminist film critics, is a misreading of Lacan, representing only half of Lacan's theory. Instead McGowan reads Lacan's gaze as itself "an instant of the object petit a." See McGowan 2003[Back]

4. Mulvey's "Foucauldization" of Lacan's gaze dynamic conceives, as does Foucault in his discussion of Bentham's panopticon, of the gaze as a one way flow (from subject to object), and therefore elides the possibility of the "subject's" own agency (looking back). For further reference on the panopticonic gaze see Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (Vintage Reprint Edition, 1995). [code reference]  [Back]

5. For Jacques Lacan, as well as Slavoj Zizek, who later interprets Lacan, the Real exists not in the realm of the Imaginary but rather represents, in part, a desire never satisfied. However, the Real also becomes interjected into the realm of the symbolic itself, and can also be described as that arbitrary space which connects the signified to the signifier (symbolic). The Real is often even more obscurely posed by Lacan, as a more "realer" reality that exists outside the symbolic and the realm of the Imaginary, or as the objet petit a that represents an "originary rupture." The subject therefore posits this rupture in its object as objet petit a; or as a desire for an originary "lost" object that can never be regained, thus representing at times desire itself as the impossible object; at other times he suggests that the Real represents a kind of existential yet "divine universe," ultimately unknowable, and unthinkable by the subject. For the purpose of this article, the Real is interpreted in terms of Todd McGowan's insight, which he extends from Gaylyn Studlar's theory of masochism as the primary object of the spectator, as a kind of "traumatic" encounter (for the subject) with "an utter failure of the spectator's seemingly safe distance and assumed mastery" with a kind of 'real(er)' reality that, for the most part, underlies the symbolic as well as represents the arbitrary space between the signifier and the signified. This is not to be confused with the Freudian unconscious, which Lacan specifically states is a symbolic language itself. See Lacan 1998, ch., 6, 7, 8, 9, and pp. 67-119, 279; Zizek 1992, pp. 29, 39, 43, 47; and McGowan 2003, 27-47.  [Back]

6. According to Jacques-Alain Miller's translation of Lacan, the "imaginary" is defined as "the world, the register, the dimension of images, conscious or unconscious, perceived or imagined. In this respect, the 'imaginary' is not simply the opposite of the 'real': the image certainly belongs to reality." The symbolic refers to the "signifiers" in the structuralist Sassurean sense, "in themselves without meaning, which acquire their meaning on in their mutual relations, and forming a closed order [. . .]. Henceforth it is the symbolic, not the imaginary, that is seen to be the determining order of the subject, and its effects are radical: the subject, in Lacan's sense, is himself an effect of the symbolic." See Lacan 1998. The correlation I am making here between "signifier" and "signified" with "symbolic" and "imaginary" is that of the relation of the "law of the father" with a(n) "(im)perception of 'reality'."  [Back]

7. Carol Clover's (1993) "Regardless of Sex," demonstrates that there existed different gender paradigms than what are generally popularly accepted in modern day culture. However, I am arguing for similarities between these gender paradigms Clover describes in early cultures with those found in contemporary postmodern culture, particularly in regard to filmic representation, and am posing further the presence of multiple transhistorical possibilities for similar kinds of representations (and self-representations) of women who, in fact, "refuse" the sexually possessing male gaze—representations that have previously been missed and/or misread, i.e., interpreted from traditional readings that effectively elided, erased, or demonized "strong" women.  [Back]

8. Transhistorical possible readings for the refusal of the gaze are numerous and varied; for example, Christine de Pizan's early medieval heroic retellings of women of myth and history; the hilarious instance of the "nether eye" in Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale, which can be read as Allisoun's "challenge" or "looking back"; Angellica Bianca's control of her own image as commodity in Aphra Behn's, The Rover, as the painting she makes of herself returns, refuses, challenges, and ultimately, one can argue, revenges the male gaze (she in fact frustrates the gaze to the point of the men insisting upon its erasure); see also Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, with the protagonist's refusal of the day laborers' sexually possessing male gaze, as they attempt to turn her to prostitution when she and her daughters are poverty-stricken; and the French myth of Melusine, the serpent goddess who forbids her husband to view her when bathing, and who makes a stunning, even cinematic, reappearance in A. S. Byatt's twentieth-century novel, Possession.  [Back]

9. It is quite interesting to note at this juncture that recent archaeological excavations by Jeannine Davis-Kimball have revealed a genetic link between the blonde Amazons of Greek "myths" and the women of Western Mongolia, therefore suggesting a previously unknown historical connection between these groups. Instead of postmodern cinema's tendency (as in Tarantino) to represent Caucasian women as frequently adopting Asian martial arts, historically, the reverse appears to be true. Kimball-Davis demonstrates that the Amazons of Greek "myth," were of Northern European descent, and carried their warrior culture with them into Southern Russia and Western Mongolia, where they passed on this warrior culture to successive generations of Asian/European descendants. Remainders of their culture can still be found today in nomadic societies. See the fascinating PBS documentary: Secrets of the Dead: Amazon Warrior Women. 9 September 2005.  [Back]

10. My many special thanks to Marijane Osborn for her very helpful comments on this article.  [Back]

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