Noah Guynn: ‘The Real Housewives of Medieval France: Feminism, Domestic Drama, and the History of the Household’


OCT 5, 2020

Session: 15th October
Noah Guynn (University of California, Davis)
‘The Real Housewives of Medieval France: Feminism, Domestic Drama, and the History of the Household’

Literary medievalists aren’t used to thinking much about mass media and the broad range of readings, functions, and commitments it allows. We are often more attuned to the role of “critic-priest,” whose function, for John Fiske, is to curate “great art” while resisting “popular discrimination” and its attachments to “everyday life.” This isn’t to say the Middle Ages lacked mass media forms, however; as genres like sermons, songs, woodcuts, and plays were disseminated across social and class boundaries and often worked to complicate cultural hegemonies. This paper will focus on farce as a mass medium, considering the ways in which it depicts the day-to-day life of common people, addresses them as audiences, and elicits a range of identifications and allegiances. I am especially interested in depictions of the household and the network of relationships it sustains. Drawing on long-durational histories of the Western family, I will argue that the household was a dynamic site of social change, one in which expectations of ideological compliance were often met with enhanced forms of agency, notably for lower-class women. The contradictions of the household are matched by those of farce: on the one hand, the genre uses hackneyed stereotypes and contrived disputes to buttress the patriarchal household in the face of social change; on the other, it serves as a cultural vehicle for imagining and rehearsing resistance to conventional social roles and relationships. In this, it resembles Bravo TV’s Real Housewives franchise, which uses the blatant, sexist lie of its title to refashion conventions of wifely self-denial and self-effacement into innovative forms of female protagonism, celebrity, and media influence.