The ladies were already at war in the 17th century

That’s why I want to be a man

in all my thoughts

and, if possible the change,

I bartered for my sex.

The one who speaks with this certainty is Genoveva, the leading lady in The inherited dishonor wins the acquired honora comedy written by the playwright Manuel Fermín de Laviano and premiered in Madrid in 1787, 235 years ago.

His words are very modern from our current perspective. Surely they remind us of the issues of gender, sex and identity that today arouse so much social, political and cultural interest.

But nothing further: in the eyes of the public of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fact that a woman exclaimed this on stage was something relatively common. But on one condition: she had to be a warrior woman. Or, using another qualifier, butch or mannish.

Myth yes, theater character no

The warrior woman is one of the most frequent and interesting topics of modern Spanish theater. Compared to other countries like England (until the 1660s), there were women actresses in Spain. And during the Golden Age there was no shortage of wild women and warrior ladies on the scene. La Serrana de la Vera –a woman from Extremaduran mythology, extremely beautiful, with the appearance of a hunter and with superhuman strength– is the most characteristic example, but not the only one. The woman dressed as a man broke with all gender schemes.

Portrait of La Calderona, one of the most famous actresses in Spain of the Golden Age.
Sparganum / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

But there the “advantages” ended. The Spanish moralists expressed the same negative opinion as the Europeans and considered that the life of actors and actresses was “sinful”. The theater was worrying because behaviors and attitudes that could be “dishonest” were represented on stage. If the display of women with the qualities of men excited the spirits of the spectators, it also set bad examples for the female spectators.

In short, it was “immoral and harmful” entertainment for the people. The woman mannish she was staged as impetuous, impious, rude and bloodthirsty. In fact, it was banned several times during the 17th century in the theaters of various cities in Spain. But it did not disappear entirely.

So why did it last on the scene? Because its manifestation was only allowed as “rarity”, something exceptional. It could not be shown as a valid example of behavior. Warrior ladies were eventually returned to “normalcy” through marriage or were put to death for their transgressions.

Neoclassicism rejects baroque warrior women

But the situation was changing throughout the eighteenth century. The warrior woman had become an obsolete topic, perceived as something out of fashion. The scenic codes of the Baroque had to be transformed, and not precisely because of the influence of moralists. Simply, the tastes of the public were no longer the same.

However, in every movement of cultural transformation there is a brief period of sudden traditionalist reaction to preserve the forms and values ​​that are going to change radically. And the same thing happened in the Spanish theater at the end of the 18th century.

Along with the proposals for neoclassical reform –based on regularity, credibility and decorum– spectacular works with heroic themes were performed, and with greater success. In them, many baroque clichés materialized again, but now more exaggerated in tone and execution.

This is how the bullying gallants, the exalted tyrants, the duels of honor to death and, of course, the warrior women returned to the scene.

file 20221117 13 fk4mz9.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Portrait of Maria Rosa de Galvez.

However, it continued to be a topic that emerged mainly from the hand (and thought) of male playwrights. Only in very specific cases (María Laborda, María Rosa de Gálvez) do we find examples of warrior women created by playwrights. The writers place their masculine vision in these characters: the lady is admirable because looks like a man and acts like himnot because of her own qualities as a woman, which are not shown.

The public takes the opposite of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was not in favor of women warriors either. First, because they were reminiscent of the baroque theater, which they censored for considering it “disorganized” and “vulgar”. And second, because it questioned the “natural order” that should govern society. The woman enjoyed greater autonomy and decision-making power in the illustrated model, but always within her role as wife and mother.

Thus, the warrior woman was rejected because it went against “the common character” of the female sex. If the bravado of the gallant hero was unbearable for neoclassical critics, even more so in the case of the female heroines. Her thirst for violence was unseemly, inimitable, and implausible. The good and proper woman He didn’t behave that way by nature..

But the public ignored this controversy.

It is very difficult to unravel what the ideas of the people of the time would be. We cannot reconstruct a history of the dramatic taste of spectators and spectators beyond indirect testimonies, which are often collected or signed by the most fiery critics against popular theater.

But we do know the number of new texts with the presence of warrior women that were released at the end of the 18th century. And if they are frequently written and represented, it is because the public enjoys them. The theater is, above all, a business. The playwrights had to guarantee the potential success of the pieces they wrote, and for this they used all kinds of resources that had a powerful popular acceptance.

And the warrior woman guaranteed a sense of wonder. In it, social norms are not valid. She’s fascinating to go against nature. And since he expresses positive values ​​and fights for them, the public “tolerates” this transgression –traditional in Spanish stages, on the other hand–.

The “women warriors” of the 21st century

These warrior ladies are undoubtedly the ancestors of the heroines of current fiction. But if two centuries ago the spectators applauded the warrior women who boasted of being braver and stronger than men, now a certain sector of the public rejects them for being “implausible” or “incoherent”. What they derogatorily designate as “Mary Sue”.

file 20221117 25 qn425f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Rey, the protagonist of the latest trilogy of Star Wars has been defined as a ‘Mary Sue’, a female character who ‘goes overboard’ doing everything right.

A clear line thus connects the enlightened of the seven hundred with the critics of current social networks. What was then a traditionalist reaction today is a sign of social progression. And the enthusiasm of the eighteenth-century public for this topic today has led to a rejection by some viewers who consider themselves trained critics.

Without a doubt, we have made progress in overcoming sexist clichés. But perhaps, to overcome certain current prejudices, we have to readopt the vision of the eighteenth-century public, which ironically turns out to be more modern than the current one…

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