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The Problem with Portraying Joan of Arc as Nonbinary

Joan of Arc leads her troops in battle in an 1843 painting by Hermann Antonn Stilke.

I, Joan, a play that premiered in London’s Globe Theatre on August 11, portrays French heroine Joan of Arc as nonbinary. In what NBC termed a “radical departure from the historic figure’s usual depiction,” Joan of Arc’s womanhood was seized and warped… but why?

A national heroine of France, Joan of Arc was “a peasant girl who, believing that she was acting under divine guidance, led the French army in a momentous victory at Orléans that repulsed an English attempt to conquer France during the Hundred Years’ War,” according to Britannica. “Captured a year afterward, Joan was burned to death by the English and their French collaborators as a heretic. She became the greatest national heroine of her compatriots, and her achievement was a decisive factor in the later awakening of French national consciousness.”

The play

I, Joan is described as a “powerful and joyous new play which tells Joan of Arc’s story anew,” according to Shakespeare’s Globe. “Rebelling against the world’s expectations, questioning the gender binary, Joan finds their power and their belief spreads like fire.”

The content guidance read: “This production contains loud noises and music, strong language and swearing throughout, partial nudity, references to sexual abuse, misgendering, and depictions of war and violence.” 

I’m guessing the content warning for “misgendering” does not reference the playwrights who un-woman Joan in I, Joan, but other characters calling her a woman during the performance. Even though she was one. 

The move by female nonbinary scriptwriter Charlie Josephine, who goes by they/he pronouns, to make Joan of Arc nonbinary was influenced by the contemporary doubling-down on traditional gender roles — all while telling us it’s revolutionary. Yes, we might as well be characters in George Orwell’s 1984. Hear the thought police’s sirens?

What’s the problem?

You might be confused why we would argue that the trending gender discourse inspiring Joan of Arc’s nonbinary portrayal is regressive. So I’ll ask you this: why would anyone assume that an iconically tough, brave young woman from history might not be a woman? Because they don’t think women are tough or brave.

Is it really “questioning the gender binary,” which I assume means subverting sex stereotypes, to un-woman Joan of Arc because she was not submissive? Women are painted as subservient to perpetuate patriarchy; it’s not who we are. There is nothing un-woman about Joan. 

Which women from history are having their gender identity questioned? What did they look like? What did they do? Hint: the petite, soft women wearing ballgowns and corsets aren’t having their womanhood interrogated. Why? Because it’s cooler to naturalize sex stereotypes than biology. 

It’s okay on both sides of politics to see women as being makeup, dresses and heels. That is why Joan of Arc is portrayed as nonbinary in a 2022 play, not Marie Antoinette. 

It’s not the first time…

Butch lesbian Radclyffe Hall is sometimes misunderstood as trans because she did not conform to sex stereotypes. She went by two androgynous names: one of her less dainty middle names (Radclyffe, rather than Marguerite), and John, which was a nickname given to her by an ex-partner, Mabel Batten, because Radclyffe looked like one of her male relatives. 

Radclyffe Hall, circa 1930.

In an article by the University of Texas, it is said that “Publicly and professionally, Radclyffe Hall used the name “Radclyffe” and publicly identified as female.” While female isn’t an identity, because it’s based on sex and not gender identity, the point still stands. She did not identify as a man.

Radclyffe felt othered for her gender non-conformity and lesbianism, which is documented in her groundbreaking book The Well of Loneliness (1928), but that does not mean she didn’t see herself as female. The fact she was a female only interested in other females and wrote about it was why her book was banned, after all. 

While acknowledging that Hall “publicly identified as female,” the article didn’t miss the opportunity to provide a disclaimer that women from history who aren’t the epitome of femininity might, in fact, not identify as women if they lived today. “There were documented examples of people who today we might describe as transgender living their lives unambiguously in contrast to their assigned gender at birth.”

Then there are those who straight-up refer to Radclyffe Hall as “he.” On Queer a Day, Hall is described as: “John Hall (better known by his middle name, “Radclyffe”, which he used as a pen name) earned international fame from The Well of Loneliness and from the resulting obscenity trial that drew testimony from a panoply of British literary and scientific celebrities, making Hall’s novel the best-publicized work on ‘sexual inversion’ of its age despite the judgment banning its publication. Although he penned several other novels none received the exposure of The Well, in part because they did not touch on topics of a lasting controversial nature.” 

It’s not factual: Radclyffe was born ‘Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall’. Her name was not John “Radclyffe” Hall. She also didn’t go by “he.”

It is homophobic: Her references to “invert” in The Well of Loneliness were due to that being a derogatory way 1928 society referenced homosexuals. It referred to the Sexual Inversion theory, popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries, which theorized that a lesbian must have a man’s soul in a woman’s body (and a woman’s soul must be in a gay man’s body). Hall was not legitimizing this wildly homophobic (and still common) take, she was describing the monstrous experience of being subjected to such damaging claims. 

Contemporary “sexual inversion” theory?

You would think we are past Sexual Inversion theories, but it has become more mainstream. Now it’s “progressive” to suggest that Joan of Arc was not a woman because she didn’t have the ~feminine vibe~. There is nothing “queer” about a strong woman.

Radclyffe Hall and Joan of Arc are perceived by some as trans, “inverted,” because they were not pushing out kids, sitting pretty in palaces, or cooking food for husbands in an apron and heels. That’s why. They’re not seen to have a “woman’s soul” — whatever that is.

What’s the difference between a regressive misogynist saying that women belong in the kitchen, popping-out kids, and a “progressive” portraying Joan of Arc as nonbinary because she was doing the opposite of those things? Nothing at all. Same shit, different smell.

When we question the womanhood of females from history who did not subscribe to gendered expectations –-who defied patriarchal orders-– then we define women by stereotypes that benefit men. We pressure women of today to adhere to gender roles by threatening to un-woman, even posthumously, them for not doing so. 

It is offensive to tell women from history that the gender expectations forced on them, that they conformed to in order to survive, was what made them women. Anyone would think women are no longer oppressed; that we are no longer defined by femininity — by the right and left; that “feminine” women from history genuinely loved being confined and controlled — as if many did not have a Joan inside, too.

Portraying Joan of Arc as nonbinary is misogynistic.

The most frustrating element of this debate is that what is considered “manly” or “not woman” is often just neutrality. It’s comfortable clothes. It’s short hair. It’s no makeup. It’s being independent and strong. All of which are compatible with females and womanhood.

What is more misogynistic than defining womanhood by the patriarchally-constructed expectations and stereotypes forced on women? 

What are we teaching little girls when we say that Joan of Arc has been revised as nonbinary because she was not submissive enough to be a woman?

What is more empowering than the fact there are currently 3.9 billion ways to be a woman, with the uniting denominator being that we’re all female, not feminine?

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