Yvonne and the Squirrel, or: the difference between critical humour and wanton sexism

Hello my dears. I’m here with you today to talk about something that I honestly struggle to find the words for because I can’t believe this needs to be said at all: that critical humor and wanton sexism are not the same thing.

Yesterday I went to see absolutely the worst opera in existence and perhaps the most truly appalling piece of art in existence: Yvonne la princesse de Bourgogne. This opera, a French take (libretto by Luc Bondy & Marie-Louise Bischofberger—which is horrifying and you will soon understand why) on a Polish work of the same title by Witold Gombrowicz (1938), is marketed by the Opéra de Paris (which is currently running its production) as a “tragic comedy in 4 acts” [I will be translating from the French for all quotes]. The official site describes it as “sordid and funny, of an unheard of cruelty but also irresistibly seductive”; an opera which “reveals to the spectator all of the blackness of the human soul” and which conserves all of the “black humour and cynicism” of the original Polish.

Mmm-kay…

Some further reading on Forum Opéra which offers a critique of the piece (from 2009, so great, this has been on stage for over 10 years at the very least), informs us that actually this piece was outlawed (rightly so, in my opinion) for “a long time” due to its “impertinence and the acidity of its tone” (mmmmm that’s not why I would outlaw it, but ok). Here it is described as a “reversed fairy-tale where the prince charming meets a detestable young woman and obstinately falls in love with her”. Here too the opera is called a comedy.

Res Musica calls it “highly anticipated” in another article from 2009, one of the reasons being that it is the “first lyrical work [of Philippe Boesmans (who is responsible for the music)] on a comical subject”. Apparently another of the most notable aspects of this opera according to this critique is it’s “absurdity” (a factor that Forum Opera also noted but with less emphasis) which “overpowers the original cynicism” of the Polish work.

You’re all probably wondering what this opera is even about, at this point. Well, according to the various French critiques and publicity pages, it’s about a disinterested prince who meets an ugly girl (Yvonne) and falls in love with her, whereby she is thrown into the world of the royal court (of Bourgogne). Inevitably, she reveals the deepest fears and darkest flaws of everyone by her mere presence, and because they are overwhelmingly afraid of this they cannot stand her and ultimately kill her.

That seems like a nice piece of tragic absurdity, with a potentially empowered woman at the centre, right?

Literally fucking no.

This opera was the most sexist thing I’ve ever seen–and I’m a queer feminist scholar of medieval spiritual (Catholic) literature. It was physically painful to watch. Yvonne speaks maybe 3 words in the entire 2 hour performance (“un cercle” being 2 of them); she possesses ostensibly no personality of her own creation–she does not even MOVE by herself, she is quite literally tossed about the stage like a rag doll by various male characters. Yvonne is the object of male gaze & male desire par excellence, as her only narrative value is as a “mirror” to the male subjects of the court (and the queen, in a way, but this is also a deeply sexist interpretation made by a male character so we really should give it very little credence, though note it’s sexism), but a mirror only insofar as she is literally no one in her own right.

The actual plot is: wannabe Hamlet can’t with women who have sex appeal (because that means they have sexuality, heaven forbid) so he gets with a mute woman he describes as a “bloated, floppy beast” and proceeds to humiliate her along with the entire rest of the court after making her his fiancee without her consent (’cause she’s literally a mute rag doll). When he decides that she loves him after she rejects another random ass man (Act II–the only time she’s even mildly assertive, but after this she descends into an even greater state of passivity than before, so that’s… awesome…) who had decided that they were in love (which, again, she never confirms or consents to), the prince can’t with her anymore (cause heaven forbid she have feelings, but… they’re feelings he decided she had for him, she did not tell him at all–not oncethat she loved him)–especially after his friend makes a “joke” that her gaze is full of libidinous desires for the prince, that she’s a sexual creature. The rest of the court can’t with her either. The king especially hates her because she reminds him of the queen’s “sins” which he thinks she exposes in her poems (which are all about how she desires “caresses” and “tender touches” over being a queen–yet more misogyny and repression of women’s (supposed) sexual desires). This leads to a straight up rape scene–that I’m gonna get into more in detail below. Meanwhile the prince gets horny, cheats on Yvonne who is just lying on the floor face-down, and decides he needs to kill her to “solve his problems” (even though they’re not officially engaged yet?). He can’t murder her (which he attempts to do immediately following the rape scene by means of stabbing Yvonne with a knife — can we read his inability to penetrate her as symbolic of his impotence? I say yes), but his father has also premeditated murder and manages to kill Yvonne during the engagement ceremony by having her choke on a bone from a giant fish (more rapey undertones? I think so). She dies face down in the fish’s cooked carcass.

Yeah. This is some real sick shit.

Yvonne is a human doll and it’s disgusting.

The only “absurd” factor of the entire opera was the fact that absolutely nothing nothing nothing held the plot together aside from the wanton sexism and extreme misogyny that ran throughout the entire piece.

Prepare yourselves for some rape scene talk.

So in a lovely moment where a woman’s voice actually manages to speak above the male drivel that is this shitty libretto, the queen actually sings one of her poems. It’s a tender and tragic cry for attention and affection–I wouldn’t even call it necessarily licentious, though there were some sexual undertones, but even if I am misinterpreting the level of libidinous energy in the poem I refuse that it lessens the tragedy of the queen’s situation or that it render the queen worthy of “punishment” in any form. What agonises the queen about this poem, and the reason she sings it, is because the king told her that Yvonne reminds him of the “sins” (*cough* desire *cough cough*) in these poems (that she doesn’t know he’s read, by the way). So those are some lovely monstrous images to link to female sexual desire (hmm I wonder where I’ve heard of something like that before? *Melusine, Le Bel Inconnu, Ragnelle, etc, etc, etc*). He apparently hasn’t actually read her poems, but plans to eavesdrop on her reciting the poem. In anger at her…. inherent sensuality and sexuality? personhood? … the king then comes out of hiding, grabs the queen, and rapes her in front of his chamberlain (and also Yvonne who is slowly falling down the stairs followed by the prince who will presently attempt to murder her).

I was not prepared for this scene whatsoever. And while I’m not usually one for “trigger warnings”, I think its inclusion ought to have been explicited. Part of what made it so utterly disgusting and insupportable for me was the fact that the queen’s rape was meant to be comedy–and everyone in the audience actually laughed. More than the rape scene itself, it’s intended (and actual) reception in the context of a deeply misogynistic plot–which utterly debases women for having “sex appeal” yet treats them infallibly as objects of male desire–as comedic sickened me to my very core. I know I’m not a modernist (in fact I’m very vehemently anti-modern in my literary repertoire), but I don’t think that there is any argument that anyone could make that would incline me to believe that such overt sexism could be considered “tragic comedy”. If that is what we call “tragic comedy” in the modern (and, by extension, contemporary) consciousness, then what is truly the tragic and … comedic? ironic is more appropriate… element there is the fact that the modern/contemporary man prides himself so much on being “superior” to those “backwards” “Dark Ages” (by which the uncultured swine of course means the middle ages) which were oh so misogynistic, when in actual fact it is the modern consciousness that is so inherently misogynistic and sexist that it calls female objectification (to the most literal extent) and violation as a response to female suffering “comedy”.

I am, sadly, rather accustomed to extreme displays of misogyny, being a medievalist; after all, I encounter it on the daily in my studies. Yet even so, nothing I have ever read from the middle ages has brought me to such shocked silence and discomfort the way this opera did (I’m usually a fuming feminist mess, which isn’t a terrible place to be, in retrospect). So I started to think, to reflect on what the absolute worst display of rape and misogyny has been so far in my medieval readings. There is, as always, the infamous: “I suffer not a woman to speak, but to be in silence” from “Saint” fucking Paul. But beyond a frankly disgusting maxim, an actual rape narrative that I found most appalling from the middle ages is the French fabliau: L’esqueriel (The Squirrel). The TLDR: A young girl asks her mother about sexual vocabulary. The mother is like ABSTINENCE and refuses to tell her daughter anything. A young man decides to take advantage of the girl’s ignorance, asking her if she wants to pet his squirrel, which is shy and resides in his pants (we all see where this is going). She, innocent little muffin, says yes, and puts her hands down his pants to stroke his “squirrel”. Then she asks if it likes nuts. He says yes. She despairs that she had eaten all of her nuts earlier. He tells her not to worry, for there’s a way for the squirrel to reach her stomach: “Par vostre con” (through your cunt). And of course the innocent is like hell yea I wanna feed the squirrel, this is great! And proceeds to “cheer him on” while the squirrel feeds with lots of “bumping” until it “throws up” (you see what’s happening here). Not a lovely story. Straight up rape (no I will not argue about “potential” consent, the girl had no idea what she was doing and was totally taken advantage of). And this too was a rape scene intended to be comedic.

The thing is, The Squirrel is not half as disturbing (could even be considered amusing) for 2 reasons: 1/ you know what you’re getting into when you read a fabliau, and if you don’t it’s just because you didn’t do reconnaissance before embarking on the lovely adventure that is the fabliaux (and that’s really on you ’cause the information is out there, unlike with Yvonne); 2/ this fabliau is arguably meant to make a conscious commentary on the necessity to educate young women in order to avoid such a situation. Neither of those are true in the case of Yvonne.

What I’m saying is: “tragic comedy” and “dark humour” DO NOT MEAN RAPE SCENE. Fabliau… well, you can bet there’s likely to be some sort of crass sexual content that may very well include rape, and as the whole poem is meant to be comedic… you know what kind of vibe you’re in for. And a mute “animal” of a girl who gets thrown around like a doll, has men assume her personality, and is only relevant to the story because of her extreme passivity is the ultimate symbol of female oppression. An innocent who desires knowledge and is denied it by a female superior and thus falls into a terrible situation is, yeah, a different form of female oppression, but not nearly to the same lengths. The innocent still possesses agency and humanity; she is never reduced to an object. Her intelligence is curbed, but supposedly for her protection (which comes, of course, from a place of sexism, but one thing at a time!). My point is, the sexism in the medieval poem does not efface the female voice or personality completely from the work; rather, it offers a (crass and disturbing) commentary on the misogyny of the age–food for thought, room for improvement even! The sexism in Yvonne comes across like an inherent aspect of the opera’s cultural ethos, an irrefutable and unconscious foundation of the opera’s cultural background without which no other part of the opera could possibly have come into being. While misogyny was something conscious and discussed openly (and at length, I assure you) in the middle ages and was a (more or less) undisputed factor of medieval culture (which nonetheless was constantly subverted and undermined by a number of amazing medieval women), misogyny has propagated and permeated into the deepest subconscious of our culture to the point where the modern and contemporary man does not even question the most wanton displays of sexism, but rather counts them as the peak of cynical art and laughs at them–so much so that a woman co-wrote this opera (I’m genuinely horrified by this, like… I have no words).

That, then, is the most deeply disturbing revelation that Yvonne has to offer, the only possible takeaway that is frankly one that I cannot believe is still open for discussion. How can we ever hope to overcome sexism when it is something so inherent in our psyches, in our collective consciousness, that we laugh at the epitome of female suffering and call the height of female objectification and silencing “personhood” and agency?

-HANNAH VICTORIA

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