Gender & Sexuality in Early America

English341, Spring 1998

Professor Laura Arnold


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Dangerous Others & Bodily Corruptions


1. As Margarita Zamora points out in her essay on "Gender and Discovery," the conquistadors were never completely comfortable in the "New World"; however, they became increasingly less at ease with what they had found as colonization continued. Just as the early descriptions of American and Americans had traced the Spaniards' marvel upon the body of the land and its inhabitants, so did they trace their fears upon it as well. For Friday's readings we will be examining two prototypes of bodily dysfunction: the Amazon and the cannibal. Both of these figures were invented for the American experience but were part of a long standing European mythology--one inherited largely from the Greeks and Romans. On one level, insisting upon the presence of these mythological figures was a way of assuring European readers that Columbus had in fact found the Orient, since earlier travelers had insisted they lived there. On another level, though, these figures served to mark that Columbus had reached the edge of humanity. What exactly makes Cannibals and Amazons so dangerous? How do they disrupt the social order?


2. In order to assess what is a dangerous body in the Renaissance, it is worth pointing out what constitutes a good body. The most obvious answer to this question, is a male one, though as one would suspect, even male ascetics were still trying to rid themselves of the pull of the flesh. In reality, the notion of "perfect bodies" was a topic of great dispute in the Renaissance. Some doctors argued, along the lines of Aristotle, that women were imperfect and incomplete versions of men and were characterized "by deprived, passive and material traits, cold and moist dominant humors and a desire for completion by intercourse with the male"--hence, they could never be never perfect. Others, however, felt that both men and women were "equally perfect in their sex." This view was not dominant, though, until 1600, well after the time of Columbus, Cortés and the other early explorers (Maclean 29-33). The almost pathological deviance of the female anatomy (and masculine unease with it) is usefully summarized in Renaissance notions of the female breast, one of the most visible signs of femaleness. In citing a tracts for midwives, feminist scholar Kathryn Schwarz notes

[T]he breast [wa]s beyond prediction or control: "[S]trange things have come forth of the Breasts, and sometimes the menstrual Blood unchanged runs forth this way at certain Seasons, Hippocrates writes that when the Blood comes out of the Nipples, those Women are Mad."[1] Again nursing threatens to produce the image of the bloody child, and the maternal breast, again like the womb, might become a source of horror and even madness. In an extraordinary moment from a New World text, it might even become a weapon; Diego Durán, in The History of the Indies of New Spain, tells this story of one nation's last stand against the conquering Aztecs. "The women, naked, with their private parts revealed and their breasts uncovered, came upon them slapping their bellies, showing their breasts and squirting milk at the Aztecs... The Aztecs dismayed by such crudity, were ordered by King Axayacatl not to harm any of the women but to take them prisoners together with the children." The maternal breast is imagined as a weapon that might be used against men, and the Aztecs, if they are not defeated or deterred, are symptomatically "dismayed." The breast is always something potentially crude, something that must be feared or shunned or contained rather than desired; even as it is used to reify social convention, it signifies the anxieties of excess. Women who refuse to nurse their children, women who nurse children too much or too long, women who are paralyzingly beautiful or paralyzingly ugly, women who have too many breasts or too few or breasts that are too large or too small figure repeatedly in the narratives that attempt to define a normative feminine space (Schwarz 156-57).

For those who believed women were imperfect versions of men, women were always deviant; women who failed to fulfill their biological function (completion by intercourse with the male) were even more suspect. This gives us a sense of the problem of the Amazon: she is, as Louis Montrose puts it, an inversion of the "European norms of political authority, sexual license, marriage and child-rearing practices, and inheritance rules"; however she is also the woman who intentionally defaces her body by removing a breast and denying her need for completion (Schwarz 158). As precursors to the trope of the Woman Warrior, Amazons will continue to be an important figure throughout this course. When is the woman who usurps the male prerogative a threat and when is she acceptable or perhaps even laudable? For more about Amazons and their role in American mythology, you may chose to read Alison Taufer, "The Only Good Amazon...' (Playing With Gender, ed. Brink, Horowitz, and Condert 35-51: PN721 .P55 1991 & folders).


3. Another form of monstrosity which was closely associate with Amazons were cannibals or anthropophogi--eaters of human flesh. Like many of the other odd races that Columbus and other explorers heard of or "met" in the new world these races were one of the types catalogues by the Roman natural historian Pliny. The following are some of the other famous Plinian races who in the Orient and other edges of the known world:

Androgine "man-woman" have genitals of both sexes

Antipodes "opposite-footed" walk upside down

Cynocephali "dog-head" communicate by barking, etc.

Blemmyae men with faces on their chests

(Friedman 10-15)

As you read the selections from Columbus' diary and the article by Peter Hulme, you may want to think about why cannibals were such a popular figure in American discourse. What fears do they embody? What work do they threaten to do to the European body politic?



Friedman, John Block. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Maclean, Ian. The Renaissance notion of woman. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Montrose, Louis, "The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery," Representations 33 (Winter 1991).

Schwarz, Kathryn, "Missing the Breast," The Body in Parts, ed. Hillman & Mazzio. NY: Routledge, 1997: 147-70.