The V-Word: Casting Hillary as Duessa

Hans-Burgkmair, "Whore of Babylon"

Hans-Burgkmair, “Whore of Babylon”  (fair face, hideous nether parts)


It’s not every day that you see a reference to Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale—or for that matter, to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene—so imagine my delight when I saw both of them quoted in a December Slate article about Hillary Clinton’s bathroom break during the most recent Democratic debate.

For those of you that don’t know the scandalous details, Hillary took longer to use the bathroom than did male candidates and so was not on stage when the debate resumed. Of course, Donald Trump had to weigh in, calling the entire episode “disgusting.”

Actually, the article goes beyond the bathroom break. Nora Caplan-Bricker argues that “vagina” has become the v-word for Republican politicians:

A quick scan of the historical record suggests that a mind unsullied by the details of female anatomy is a prerequisite for running on the GOP ticket. An Idaho legislator made headlines last winter when he asked in a hearing whether women could swallow tiny cameras to facilitate gynecological exams. “Fascinating. That makes sense,” he said, when the testifying physician explained that, no, ingested objects do not land in the vagina. (The lawmaker still considered himself sufficiently expert in lady-parts to declare abortions too unsafe for telemedicine.) Conservative politicians are also longtime boosters of the absurd idea that women can’t get pregnant from rape. As then-Rep. Todd Akin famously explained it in 2012, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” These displays provide a window into the mythos of the vagina that so haunts Republicans, and men, and maybe humankind in general. Witness the strange synthesis between the fear of a bottomless hole and the fear of a portcullis that could snap shut at any time.

Until recently, there was the active Twitter thread #Vagina2016, on which Clinton-haters summarized the likely Democratic nominee’s message to America as Vote for my vagina! To the participants, the joke needs no further elaboration: Vaginas are not good retail politicians; they are the stuff of nightmare.

Caplan-Bricker then launches into a history of western misogyny, starting with Rome’s Pliny the Elder and culminating in early British literature. Here’s what she has to say about Chaucer and Spenser:

In literature and folklore, the vagina is punished for refusing to be thusly confined. Tales from many cultures include the figure of the vagina dentata, which lures men in before baring its fangs. See, for example, its sinister aspect in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Merchant’s Tale,” where the sexuality of a deceitful young wife named May is compared to “the scorpion” whose “tayl is deeth.”* “Paired with swete and venym, May’s vagina becomes both pleasing and poisonous,” writes the scholar Tory Vandeventer Pearman, ready to both “sting” her husband and “suck” the life out of him. Similarly, in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the dragon antagonist is a beautiful woman from the waist up, a monster below. This creature’s name is Error, which is exactly what being seduced by her entails.

In his prologue and tale, Chaucer’s Merchant laments his awful marriage and tells the story of January, a 60-year-old knight who decides to settle down and marry 20-something May. (Chaucer is why we refer to such unions as “January-May marriages.”) Of course, the marriage is a disaster and May starts a liaison with young X when January goes blind. Here’s the scorpion passage in full with alternating middle and modern English:

O sodeyn hap! O thou Fortune unstable!
O sudden chance! O thou Fortune unstable!
Lyk to the scorpion so deceyvable,
Similar to the scorpion so deceitful,
That flaterest with thyn heed whan thou wolt stynge;
That flatter with thy head when thou wilt sting;
Thy tayl is deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge.
Thy tail is death, through thy poisoning.
O brotil joye! O sweete venym queynte!
O brittle joy! O sweet venom deceitful!
O monstre, that so subtilly kanst peynte
O monster, that so subtly can disguise
Thy yiftes under hewe of stidefastnesse,
Thy gifts under appearance of steadfastness,
That thou deceyvest bothe moore and lesse!
That thou deceivest both high and low (everyone)!

Here, meanwhile, is Spenser describing the nether parts of the otherwise beautiful Duessa:

Her neather parts misshapen, monstruous,
Were hidd in water, that I could not see.
But they did seeme more foule and hideous,
Then womans shape man would beleeve to bee.

To the list, one could also add Milton, who applies Spenser’s description to Satan’s daughter Sin in Paradise Lost. And there was St. Augustine, who described prostitutes as a palace built above a sewer.

One doesn’t need to be a Freudian to see a connection between white middle class male anxieties, increasing gun sales, and increasing attacks on female reproductive rights. President Obama has been seen as an emasculating figure by many of his detractors, and a President Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly exacerbate these anxieties further.

At one point in her career, Clinton baked cookies to reassure Americans that they would not get a feminazi as their First Lady. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Clinton and Obama years, her opponents are not going to be won over by such strategies. I therefore suggest that she instead go full Wife of Bath:

In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument
As frely as my Makere hath it sent.

As Chaucer’s most memorable character understands only too well, sometimes offense is the only good defense. I’m not suggesting that Hillary become a dominatrix, with spurs and a riding whip. But she should push hard and unapologetically for women’s issues.

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