- “The House I Live in is Not My Own”: Women’s Bodies in Juvenal’s Satires
This is an essay about bodies: how they are represented and what that representation reveals about the fears, desires, and attitudes of the society that produced them. 1 Concepts of physiology and corporeality determine identity—both male and female, but especially female—throughout ancient texts. I am interested in discovering how Roman satire defined the relationship between body and “self” for women: how it shaped, controlled, and represented the female self through the gendering of the body. My original intention in writing this essay was to examine the bodies of women as they are represented in the Roman satirists. But I soon realized that I was both confining myself too narrowly and also spreading myself over too wide an area. As I reread the texts, two things became clear: female bodies could only be examined in the context of bodies in general, and Juvenal has a unique way, among all the Roman satirists, of focalizing bodies. 2
In the texts of antiquity, gender and sexuality intersect in complex and difficult ways. 3 The “ontological regime” of gender 4 and its performative [End Page 369] aspects—which are so foregrounded in satire—do not encourage us to look at gender as static, distinct, limited, certain, or innate. Gender categories in ancient texts are not set up in such a way as to constitute a binary taxonomy, but rather they operate on a sliding scale of enormous complexity showing extraordinary fluidity and multiple possibilities for change. There is an inherent contradiction in the way gender is imaged, described, and defined in ancient literature. In many genres of literature, gender comes into being for the reader through the acts characters perform; maleness and femaleness seem naturalized by their discursive regimes. 5 This is especially true in drama, where several factors, particularly the fact that men played women’s roles, constantly called into question absolute gender dimorphism in dress, words, voice, and behavior. 6 Gender, therefore, has to be investigated as a fictive construction that supports various regimes of power (such as heterosexuality) and carries with it certain cultural assumptions that underlie the writer’s fears and attitudes. Any discussion of women’s bodies, in ancient literature in general and in Roman satire in particular, benefits from attention to men’s bodies and from a willingness to see gender not as a fixed category, but as a fictive or performative construction molded and controlled by the discourse in which it is embedded.
On the other hand, these literary texts reflect cultures that operated publicly in a highly dimorphic manner. Each negotiation and subversion of gender roles was based on a felt, observed, and legislated division into oppositions, of which the most important was the opposition between male and female. Established paradigms, myths, texts, and laws existed that gave these oppositions form and life. Under every questioning and reimagining lies this set of well-defined differences between the sexes that made itself felt in so many ways in ancient myth.
Thus dimorphism and the subversion of dimorphism coexist, mutually reinforcing each other. Zeitlin poses the following questions for fifth-century b.c.e. Greek drama: “How did these works elaborate the rules for the oppositions between male and female, both cognitive and social, and [End Page 370] at the same time hold them up to question, even seditious scrutiny? How did the standard divisions between nature and culture, private and public, inside and outside, family and state, prove both useful and also too restrictive as a set of dichotomies?” 7 These questions could equally well be asked of the Roman culture and society of Juvenal, but the cultural and generic contexts are vastly different and so, therefore, will be the way in which we pose the question and the answers we find. In Greek drama, a questioning of the basic cultural oppositions was foregrounded both by the material and by the mechanics of the theater; even if women’s attempts to overturn the dominant order did not ultimately succeed, the possibilities of role inversion and gender blurring were frequently present and the ambiguities were...