Carnivalesque Women

The carnival in Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms is a festive, second burst of life that collapses social barricades to allow a merging of oppositions.[1] This unification of oppositions, such as those involving class and gender, is permitted under the assumption that it is temporary and any power given by implication is illusory, thus preserving the established authority’s confidence and comfort in their social standing. The sense of renewal here, as Natalie Davis suggests, is albeit of pre-existing social structures, “undermined as well as reinforced” by  women who are carnivalesque.[2] Carnivalesque women act outside of the established norm and simultaneously undermine society’s expectations of themselves as well as reinforce them by acting against them, adopting characteristics associated with men. Such is the use of the carnivalesque in literature, to fashion an alien space against which the ordinary narration can be judged and reflected on.

Feminist writing, in its initial form, would have been regarded as carnivalesque, for it merged women and men together through writing, with women writing just like men in what must have been deemed a temporary phase. Feminist writing, however, outgrew this provisional stage and made the alien space created by the carnivalesque their own, as Jacqueline Rose notes, “refus[ing] to submit to the aesthetic norms of integration and wholeness against which it is diagnosed and judged”.[3] Comparable to masquerades found among carnival scenes, feminists wear femininity to identify themselves to patriarchal society,[4] but this does not imply they hide themselves: the title acts as a magnifier, an emblem to mark their territory. Feminists wear their otherness as it works best for them, in order to fit into society as according to their own idiosyncratic truths and desires.

[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 8.

[2] Natalie Zemon Davis, “Women on Top” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), pp. 124-151 (131).

[3] Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991), p.27-8.

[4] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 133-4.


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