Gender Oppression in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’
This is the second article in an ongoing exploration of ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (Dir. Carl Th. Dreyer, 1928), as I prepare to compose a new score for this incredible silent classic. Please subscribe for further updates and insights.
In my first article in this series, I shared my belief that ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, with its omission of certain historical information, speaks broadly to the deeper dynamics of injustice and oppression, creating opportunities for modern interpretation and maintaining timeless relevance.
One of the key points of conflict in the film is the matter of Joan’s clothing. Throughout the film, Joan is dressed in men’s military fatigues, as was the case throughout her military leadership and subsequent trial. These thick, layered and secure clothes protected her from sexual assault, which she often felt at risk of, in particular during her captivity.
On several occasions during her trial, the judges chastise her choice of clothing, labelling it an abomination and ultimately weaponising it against her as she is forced to choose between her preferred clothes and receiving the holy sacrament.
What is interesting in Dreyer’s depiction, however, is that any reference to the threat of sexual assault has been completely omitted. Though the guards are seen mocking and bullying Joan, no attempt is made to remove her clothing or any threat of sexual violence implied. Joan says only; ‘When I have accomplished God’s will for me I shall again wear women’s clothes’, asserting her personal conviction without providing a rational justification.
Also omitted is the single biblical reference that forbids women to wear men’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5) and so any opportunity to remotely sympathise with the judges’ ideological position is also absent.
And so, within this somewhat simplified conflict, the dynamics we witness are of the judges repeatedly attempting to change Joan to their preference and we feel Joan’s frustration at being so oppressed in her choices. This so viscerally conveys the feeling of pressure to socially conform to a simplistic group value system; any belief that we should behave in certain uniform ways.
The condescending, hubristic expressions of the judges further hammer home a feeling that they are unsympathetic to any reasoning that Joan may have for dressing as she does. Often they are shot from below, so the feeling persists that they are looking down on Joan.
In omitting a practical reasoning for Joan’s refusal to wear a dress, the hubris of the judges feels more exposed. No justification is presented because no justification should be required. The conflict is oversimplified and consequently plainly exposes the male preference oppressing the woman’s right to choose without justification. Perhaps had Joan’s defence have been included the film would have already conceded something — that it is reasonable to ask others to justify a matter of personal preference that affects no one else.
In a line of dialogue that is present in the script but ultimately not captioned in the film, when Joan is accused of preferring to wear men’s clothes over going to mass, Joan responds; ‘I cannot do anything else … it is not in my power!’ Though not present in the final film, this line seems to confirm the feeling of ’this is who I am; I cannot change it’, the feeling of being between a rock and a hard place as one faces the futility of living inauthentically versus the forces of oppression. Joan further affirms her position as she faces the threat of execution stating: ‘I have never done anyone any harm’.
When finally Joan submits to wearing a dress, (more a feminine robe), it is because she has accepted her death, dying in the most horrible of manners — burned at the stake. Her body will be destroyed before her eyes until she is reduced to ashes and no semblance of human gender remains. Her posture is heavy, defeated, seeming to confirm this state of submission.
Only then does she allow the judges to dress her as their preference, because now it is meaningless anyway, as if to say that when we oppress another, we kill them. The fullness of their being that is rich and authentic dies, leaving only a shallow shell of a human, barely existing.
Denied the opportunity to express herself as she feels is right, appearance is no longer meaningful. Despairingly she looks down because there is little left to show to others if one’s authentic being is not recognised.
So is it that our consciousness must be grounded in layers of material reality for our authentic expression to shine through? Does Joan’s being shine through when she is dressed as she pleases and stop shining when that freedom is revoked? How far into the material realm must we express ourselves in order to feel authentic?
Joan’s seemingly endless humility seems to suggest she has little concern with how she is perceived but feels deeply entwined with living authentically. She wishes only to follow through on her intense convictions, living by action and expression in alignment with the will of God, just as the non-religious person may feel the perpetual tug of one’s own convictions.
Or is it that rather than having any concern of dress and expression Joan’s sense of self was grounded in her body all along? That when her body faces destruction so too does any perception and meaning of gender identity and so she submits to the now meaningless game of gender? What remains of our identity when there is nothing physical to identify with? Facing the reality of death, of decay, what identity, if any, might we attach to consciousness? That space of conscious awareness within us that precedes thought and witnesses our lives unfolding?
Or perhaps, finally, in the face of death, it is not that Joan has stopped playing the game of gender, but instead reaffirmed her involvement with it. In the moments before she begins her long walk to the scaffold, Joan affirms to one of the judges that ultimately the great victory is her martyrdom, after earlier stating that when God’s will for her is complete she will return to wearing women’s dress.
Perhaps, though she may be appeasing the male preference enforced upon her, she is also in the face of death reclaiming her identity as a woman. She is honouring the body she is in that will soon die, by the only means available to her: finding power in a gender role. In anticipation of her death, perhaps she is attaching all that remains of her identity to the physical, so that her soul may be free when her body burns.
Did Dreyer omit Joan’s desire to defend herself from sexual assault in order to raise such questions as these in 1928? Or was it that society of the 1920s was ready to view a graphic depiction of immolation, but not willing to confront the reality of sexual assault of women? Was a male director’s own prejudice and preferences on display in his unwillingness to even name sexual assault? Was the omission unconscious or a deliberate effort to avoid some supposedly undesirable effect on the narrative presentation?
In the next article, we will explore how the broader expression of the feminine is shown to be oppressed throughout the film, the psychological games that are played and the hypocrisies and shadows that emerge as a result.
Derek Kirkup is a composer based in Bristol, UK. www.derekkirkup.co.uk. All images in the public domain.