The Oppression of the Feminine in ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’
This is the third 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 and feminist masterpiece. Please subscribe for further updates and insights.
In the last post in this series, we looked at gender stereotyping and how gender roles are used to entrap and oppress Joan. In particular, we looked at how the omission of certain historical facts creates a depiction of oppression that is all the more heavy and hubristic.
In this article, we will explore how feminine qualities are oppressed and belittled by the judges throughout the film, both in the drama itself and in symbolic ways. The film can be seen as an archetypal battle between the masculine and the feminine, where in this case, the weaknesses of masculine traits are exposed.
In this article, we are unpinning feminine and masculine traits from gender. Indeed, Joan could have been said to be showing masculine traits throughout her time as a military leader, as she led attacks against enemy forces. But by focusing the film on her trial, we witness only her feminine side juxtaposed with the intensely masculine environment she finds herself in.
One way to frame the difference between feminine and masculine in this film is to consider Joan to be a receiver of wisdom. It is her humility that allows her to access wisdom and her faith that helps her maintain her position. She is open, receptive and embodies gentleness, kindness, acceptance, and patience amongst her feminine traits. Her kindness is so unending that she even assists the executioner in his task when the bindings to the stake come loose.
Meanwhile, the judges and clergy can be considered asserters of knowledge. Their position is firm and unyielding. Their knowledge is constructed by analysis but, as it remains in the theoretical realm of experience, it falls victim to dogma and ideology. When they cannot win on the basis of reason, they resort to threats of violence to try and force their way. Whilst the clergy appear to display kindness and gentleness, they are merely a means to influence and persuade. They fail to embody the feminine effectively, though there are some notable exceptions, which we will come back to.
The judges’ reliance on the more masculine traits of logic and rationale limits their tactics. They over-rely on the use of false dichotomies, repeatedly attempting to entrap Joan in one of two wrong answers. Whereas Joan’s openness and intuition reveal subtler truths to her allowing her to sense these traps repeatedly and answer wisely with humility.
This is best exemplified in the following line of dialogue that occurs when the judges ask Joan, ‘Are you in a state of Grace?’ The closed question is intended to limit Joan to a yes, in which case it is blasphemy, or a no, in which case she undermines her claimed credibility. Joan dodges the trap, answering:
‘If I am, may God so keep me. If I am not, may God bestow his grace upon me.’
These traps appear several times throughout the film, though not always as false dichotomies. There is a sense of dogma about them because each trap bears an implication that there is a single correct answer, as well as an implication therefore of the church’s authority. This perpetuates the feeling of oppressive masculine energy, relying on forceful exertion of control, rationale, and analysis.
Not only do the judges attempt to control Joan in her choice of clothing, (as described in my previous article), but they attempt to rid any threat that feminine energy may override masculine power.
The first and only judge to verbally declare his belief that Joan is a saint displays feminine energy by submitting humbly on his knees before her. But he is then immediately ejected from the proceedings by the other judges. The only other members of the clergy to display feminine qualities are the young monks, who show kindness and concern toward Joan throughout the film. The fact these men are young, somewhat effeminate, and hold no position implies that the masculine is considered wiser and more valuable than the feminine, further intensifying its oppressiveness.
But, as if to make clear that we the viewer need not buy into this hierarchy, the feminine is otherwise always depicted positively. The first significant appearance of another woman is the old woman who gives Joan water as she approaches the scaffold. Perhaps by now, with the ongoing implication that older equals wiser, and with the judges having decided to execute a clearly noble and virtuous woman, the appearance of this older female character signifies that it is clearly women who are wiser after all.
A short while after this, the female is again depicted as selfless life-giver, as we see a baby nursing at a breast. One might consider this child a boy, the masculine now depicted at its most useless, having for all its supposed knowledge, simply managed to destroy something good in the world.
It is only when the judges have failed in their task of saving Joan, when they have been effectively rendered impotent and helpless as men, that their pride and hard exterior slips and we see them standing by helplessly as Joan is put to death, finally expressing empathy and vulnerability in tears.
In closing, I wish to emphasise that this is not a crusade against masculinity, only an attempt to flag its weaknesses and limitations, as depicted in this film. In a world that overly relies on unfeeling logic, materialism, force, and analytical itemization, it is important to point out the shortcomings of these traits and the opportunities that lie in moving into the more feminine energy of humility, kindness, and openness, both for our mental health as individuals, and that of our society.
I would like to give a nod to the work of Iain McGilchrist, who though I have not specifically referenced his observations, I have been aware as I write of the parallels between masculine/feminine traits and the two hemispheres of the brain.
Derek Kirkup is a composer based in Bristol, UK. www.derekkirkup.co.uk. All images in the public domain. This article contains an affiliate link.