Distorted bodies: gender, sexuality and performativity in twentieth-century Italian fantasy literature
University College Cork
Any examination of fantasy literature’s rich use of symbolic subject matter can reveal both the genre’s highly subversive potential, and its capacity to explore concepts generally perceived as off-limits, examples of which have famously been transgressive sexuality and gender expression. Simultaneously, all fields of gender studies contend that gender and sexuality are largely directed by social prompts proffering hegemonic ideals, including those exemplified through literary representations. This thesis investigates models of gender and sexuality articulated through unreal bodies in fantasy texts in order to explore and bring further insight to this unique relationship, and addresses the current paucity in Italian literary scholarship in this regard. Further, it examines whether the selected representative works spanning the twentieth century reinscribe or subvert patriarchal regulation of gender and sexuality, using fantasy genre theory (Todorov), feminist criticism (Butler), masculinity studies (Connell), queer theory (Sedgwick), ecofeminism (Plumwood) and posthumanism (Wolfe). This study explores a cross-section of twentieth-century Italian fantasy literature, given this period’s rich and active history in both the suppression and the development of gender and sexual rights and equalities. A chapter is dedicated to each of the five representative authors and a selection of their fantasy texts in order to provide an overview of the evolution of these themes in the chronological period covered. Luigi Capuana uses the trope of invisibility in his short stories “L’invisibile” (1901) and “Un vampiro” (1907) to articulate discussions on queerness and female sexuality, upholding a traditionalist attitude, as well as (unsurprisingly for his time) a general view of women and femininity as inferior. In contrast, Aldo Palazzeschi’s Il codice di Perelà (1911) and Stefanino (1969) treat femininity as a positive attribute in male characters. These works also explore sexuality, but with a progressive (though coded) aim, in developing compassion towards dissident sexualities. Italo Calvino’s fantasy trilogy I nostri antenati (1960) yields a fruitful discussion of masculinity, advocating lightness as a beneficial characteristic to be embraced, though the author utilizes other feminine traits to demonize male characters, and his portrayals of women and girls in general are found to be one dimensional – particularly in how they do not search for meaning, or attempt to understand the complexities of existence, as their male counterparts do, but are simply rewards for men. Anna Maria Ortese’s L’Iguana (1965) serves a specific goal of addressing various forms of oppression in society; her use of anthropomorphic characters in this and other works calls for reform in the treatment of groups marginalized due to sex, race and social class, utilizing the trope of the animal to identify modes of othering. Paola Capriolo’s collection of short stories, La grande Eulalia (1988), is heavily populated with central female characters, and problematizes the objectification of women, by contrasting the injurious outcomes of female characters’ submission to the male gaze, and their subsequent domination, with the favourable results that ensue upon resistance to such control. Though the discussions implicit within the bodily representations take issue with misogyny, Capriolo negates her association with feminist objectives, revealing the genre’s potential as a covert means by which to transmute standardized attitudes and prejudices, whether intentionally or not. This research aims to expand recognition of the fantasy genre’s potential influence and reach in how it communicates ideals and perspectives through subtle yet powerful symbolism, and to substantiate scholarly attention to and interest in the genre’s scope in this regard. An increased understanding of the poetics utilized to shape such identities and standards can, at the very least, inform an approach that questions the validity and appropriateness of literary instruction on social behaviours, and its influence in shaping the status quo. This exploration may, however, also raise active awareness of the little-acknowledged contribution effectuated by the modern Italian fantasy genre in the formation, or re-formation, of social norms and regulations on the body, gender and sexuality.
Italian Literature , Gender , Performativity
O'Leary, V. M. 2018. Distorted bodies: gender, sexuality and performativity in twentieth-century Italian fantasy literature. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.