I suppose I am as much a sucker for the pageant of the Middle Ages as much as anyone. I see the knights in armor, swords flashing and banners ripping in the air, the women with their long tresses and longer trains, the colors and sounds and magic so readily accepted, a far cry from the modern world, where we instead have men in business suits, women in power suits, and the sounds of engines and the smell of car exhaust. Belief in magic has been replaced with the cool skepticism of the Enlightenment, and our faith is now in technology. Ironically, there is very little difference at its heart—modern men are nothing but alchemists, trying to make gold out of microchips. And yet, I’m also a feminist, and every so often need to step back from my fascination, break the glamour of its magic, and critically examine exactly what it is I’m seeing.
So exactly what are we exposing ourselves to? What are we, as women and/or feminists (one would hope) are we to make of the representations of gender not only in the great works of medieval literature—namely Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur—but also in two modern films that deal with Arthurian themes—John Booreman’s Excalibur (a very Hollywood/New Age version of Malory’s book), and George Romero’s Knightriders (which is in some ways more faithful to Malory’s style though it is set in the modern age)? What ways do they represent gender, and the expression of it?
Well, to begin with, what you are determines how much exposure you get. In other words, take a film like Excalibur. The men are usually large, hairy, and covered in excessive armor, and are generally either in combat or on a quest or both. Moreover, talk is of little use to these men—they believe in action. When there is talk, it leads to arguments and division—for instance, when Gawain challenges Guenevere’s virtue and calls for a trial. Uther says that talking is for lovers—and as for the havoc that wreaks, lovers are what dooms Arthur from conception to death. The only male figure that does take to talking as the key is Merlin—and according to Uther, Merlin isn’t even human.
On the other hand, the women in the film are often either naked or very scantily clad. The first is Ygrain, Arthur’s mother. When we first see her, she is dancing like Salome, and unwittingly seduces Uther. The next time we see her is naked on the floor being screwed by a fully armored Uther. Outside of birthing Arthur, she has no role after this. Then we have Morgana, who is the castrating bitch covered in armor and trying to destroy King Arthur in retaliation for her father’s death. She is either in armor, scantily clad, or nude and seducing an unwitting Arthur. Moreover, she is the female with the most speaking lines and airtime, which is symbolic of her power. And finally, there is Guenevere. Though we don’t see her running around like a Playmate, we do see her naked and lying with Lancelot in the woods. It’s interesting to note that the only male we ever really naked is Lancelot, and it’s through him that the kingdom disintegrates. There is a definite bias against love and lovers, against sexuality, in this film—it is sex which killed Gorlois, sex which imprisoned Merlin, sex which creates Mordred and which Morgana wields as a weapon, and sex between Lancelot and Guenevere. I could get very Freudian here and start to talk about “le petite morte” and a sort of fear of sexuality, but I think that might be a bit much—tempting, but for a much longer paper.
In George A. Romero's Knightriders, we again see that the men are generally in combat. To not be in combat or at least the support crew means that the character is generally effeminate, like the gay announcer or the clown in whiteface, or unearthly and specially endowed like Merlin, who is a sort of holistic physician. Moreover, in this film the men have the most spoken lines. Nudity isn’t so much of an issue, though. We see both genders nude in the film, with no real stigma attatched to it, except in the case of Morgan being photographed as a pinup, usually the role of a woman but here the role of a man—he becomes feminized, a thing to look at, and it shows part of his decline by becoming this feminized object.
Moreover, women are generally not given much of a role; those that do have a significant role are the temptress figure in the reporter who lures Morgan away from the group, and the vague character of Julie, who, as Elaine, tries to join the group but ultimately fails and returns to the Waste Land of modern America, just as Elaine returns to living with her father the Fisher King. The other women either forsake their femininity in order to have a prominent role (e.g. Rocky the lesbian knight; the mechanic), or are left embracing it and obscurity (that is, Lynette barely even speaks, and when she does, it’s something fretful; over all, she is just a role that must be filled, a queen-consort).
Of course, these filmmakers aren’t pulling these ideas out of thin air—they come directly from the great pieces of medieval literature. In Le Morte Darthur, the men are the center of the story. They are always at battle or on a quest—there are no musicians or artists or priests of note; it is a tale of warriors. The only prominent non-warrior male figure is Merlin, and he disappears rather early into the book. Moreover, lovers cannot achieve the Holy Grail, the high quest of the book, only pure virgins like Galahad and Perceval. (Of course, it’s interesting to note that the original Grail quest had a quite different view of sexuality—the original quester, Perceval, was a ladies man not unlike Gawain, who also achieves the Grail in early versions of the quest.) Men are proved men by their prowess in battle, and generally by that alone. Until the coming of the Grail quest, the best knight is judged by their ability to defeat others in battle, and this honor goes to Lancelot; later, with the introduction of the Grail, we get the idea that he must be spiritually and sexually pure as well as physically powerful.
Women are nowhere near as prominent, though their roles are a little more varied than in the films. Aside from the baby factories of Ygrain and Elaine, we do have the figures of Morgause, the mother of Mordred and perpetrator of incest; Morgan Le Fey, her sister, a powerful sorceress with an ambiguous role toward Arthur’s court—sometimes plotting against him, sometimes a valuable member of the court; and the Lady of the Lake, of which there are many who magically support the court. Though they do not play as prominent role as men, they still play a better role than those in the film. But, of course it is through interaction with these females that Arthur’s kingdom falls apart.
The achieving of masculinity is often found in the rejection of that which is seen as feminine. Love, language, creativity is often rejected for the sword. Sexual conquest is prominent as a way of asserting masculinity, but with disastrous results—an interesting comment, but one with too many obvious Christian overtones. Otherwise, it’s found in chivalrous quests that often deal with saving the damsel in distress while achieving some goal. Women are there as the goal or the means to the end, but never as a heroine in her own right.
So why do we still buy into it? Why do I still buy into it, though I know it’s wrong? It all goes back to that idea of “pastoralism”—that things were better in this green, mythic past, when men were men, women were women, and you knew where you were going in life. It’s the idea of this Edenic time, this golden age when things were right. It holds a lot of appeal to the modern person—we see this long ago time of magic and valor and virtue, a time where you knew right and wrong. It doesn’t matter if that’s what it was really like—it’s what we want it to be. And in that dim, gray future, they’ll be dreaming of us as much as we dream of Arthur’s kingdom, flawed as it is.