Male Delivery: Reproduction, Effeminacy, and Pregnant Men in Early Modern Spain.
Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006. xviii + 210 pp. + 14 b/w pls. index. illus. bibl. append. $29.95. ISBN: 0-8265-1516-9.
This book is entertaining, provocative, even titillating--but, ultimately, far too grounded in the concerns of its own historical moment. Based on scant evidence, it would have made (in fact, did make) a very sound article, but it should probably never have been expanded into book form. As the appendices are honest enough to demonstrate, the evidence for an early modern preoccupation with the issue, as it were, of male pregnancy is limited to two extant sources: an unpublished comical interlude, and a broadside collection of four ballads. As my Doktorvater used to remind me, "two cases do not a pattern make." An excessive reliance on the currently fashionable jargon of gender politics further reinforces the impression that this study is a real stretch. Terms like FTMs (female-to-male transsexuals), the aesthetics of camp, and the seemingly ever-present metrosexual were simply not a part of the early modern vocabulary. To try this hard to find anachronistic parallels with our own culture risks failing to approach early modern culture on its own terms. We all inevitably bring some of our own biases to our work, but what is missing here is any sense of proportion in relation to the totality of Spanish Golden Age literary production. There is simply not enough evidence to support the generalizations this author wants to make about early modern sex, reproduction, gender definition, and family life.
This having been said, the two textual, plus various artistic, examples of male pregnancy Velasco does bring forth are fascinating. One involves an eighteenth-century manuscript of a comic interlude titled El parto de Juan Rana (ca. 1660) by a minor playwright named Lanini y Sagredo (he does not appear in either the Oxford Dictionary of Spanish Literature or the Diccionario del Siglo de Oro). What the non-Hispanist reader needs to know here is that Juan Rana (literally John Frog) was a well-known bisexual actor whose talent for acting saved him from persecution by the Inquisition. He was investigated on charges of sodomy but was allowed to go on performing because he made the queen laugh. Based on archival evidence discovered to date, we must conclude that his case was unique. Until further documents emerge, it is useless to speculate whether there might have been similar exceptions on the basis of royal prerogative.
At any rate, this recognized bisexual actor later became the subject of a comical interlude. This might be seen as a particularly exciting example of what the New Historicists have called the "textuality of history"--that is, the ability of literary texts to influence the course of historical events. Obviously his lifestyle was notorious enough for the audience to understand the joke and laugh at the ultimate feminization of the male body onstage. The lines spoken in this scene do reveal a certain flexibility regarding gender definitions, as well as a definite anxiety about parenting and procreation.
The other literary text appended by this author to reinforce the case for an early modern preoccupation with male pregnancy is a small collection of four broadside ballads published in Barcelona in 1606. Given Henry Ettinghausen's facsimile edition of similar relaciones de sucesos, it is hard to take this source very seriously. The author does not claim that anyone necessarily believed the accounts therein--these documents were purposefully designed to shock the (skeptical) reader, much like today's National Enquirer--but nonetheless insists on the seriousness of the desires and frustrations she believes them to mask. This business of psychoanalyzing early modern people can lead us down a slippery slope.
The additional early modern evidence amassed by Velasco consists of fourteen paintings and other illustrations. The most famous of these, Ribera's portrait of a bearded lady breastfeeding an infant, standing beside another man, is decidedly problematic. What are we to do when confronted with these cultural artifacts? This is actually the most convincing part of her study: for in this case as in so many others, a picture is truly worth a thousand words. We have no plausible alternative explanation for the situation depicted in this painting, and the one Velasco suggests is probably on target. Unfortunately the placement of this illustration next to a modern photograph of a pregnant drag queen does little to convince one that there were many more early modern examples of this type. The juxtaposition of these images may be thought-provoking, but it also adds to the impression that the evidence for this trend is a little thin.
What I liked most about this book was the author's judicious and erudite use of such varied sources as confessional manuals, early modern gynecology textbooks, and legal statutes. One of the greatest contributions of cultural studies has been to expand the spectrum of possible texts for scholars to analyze. This part of the study, while still not providing much further evidence for the fantasy of male pregnancy, is nevertheless rock-solid in its analysis of early modern casuistry with regard to sexual morality. Perhaps a greater emphasis on religion here--with all the convenient moral loopholes afforded by the Jesuit tradition of casuistry--might have better served the author's purpose than her evident obsession with the politics of gender.
Texas A & M University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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