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Meghann Kuhlman

ENGL 271: Lit. Analysis


Dr. A. Goldwyn
April 14th, 2014

Kuhlman

The Construction of Gender and Sexuality within The Decameron in the Eyes of Butler and
Kosofsky-Sedgewick
Within feminist and queer literary theory, critical readers look at what components make
up a characters gender and sexuality within a piece of work, whether they are physical features
or certain acts being done. Judith Butler has researched what dictates what readers consider to be
a man or woman within a text in her book, Gender Trouble, while Kosofsky-Sedgewick explores
what it means to be labeled as a specific gender in The Epistemology of the Closet. By looking at
the power dynamics between characters and their actions within a story, readers can see how
gender and biological sex may not always be synonymous. Gender is constructed through
observation and power in patriarchal society that dictates how men and women behave. This can
be see in selected works within Boccaccios The Decameron examines the construction of gender
and sexuality within a society.
According to Kosofsky-Sedgewick, sexuality and gender are very closely linked parts of
the human identity. In her book, The Epistemology of the Closet, she explores what elements
construct ones gender and sexuality. In this piece, the author examines why gender and sexuality
are not so easily assigned. Genderis the far more elaboratedrigidly dichotomized social
production and reproduction of male and female identities and behaviors. (Kosofsky-Sedgewick
27). By simple observation, people come to understand what it means to be a man or woman in
the society in which they live. Sexuality is a relational term; it is created by a persons unique
experiences in observing societal norms and values as displayed by older, influential figures
(Kosofsky-Sedgewick 29). This term should be considered to be a spectrum of desires and
attraction, rather than a rigid set of standards. Together these terms are intertwined through

Meghann Kuhlman
Kuhlman
ENGL 271: Lit. Analysis
Dr. A. Goldwyn
April 14th, 2014
norms and values within a community, which can greatly vary from culture to culture.

In Judith Butlers book, Gender Trouble, sexuality and gender is a power dynamic
between the oppressor and the oppressed. She examines the construction of gender and sexuality
through a feminist theory perspective rather than queer theory, like Kosofsky-Sedgewick does. In
Gender Trouble, Butler argues that gender (and feminist theory) is greatly controlled by political
discourse (7). Gender is learned over a period of time and interpreted through cultural meaning.
Gender can be considered to be decided through a variety of relationships that signify certain
attributes that are considered masculine or feminine. This is a clash between historical and
cultural expectations that intersect over time (Butler 14). Gender is something we become over
time, with masculine being the dominant figure over the feminine.
Using these constructs, many of Bocaccios short stories reflect ideas around sexuality
and gender. In story 2.9, Butlers idea of gender as performance shines brightly through Madame
Ginevra, who is forced to take on the role of a man when her husband orders her to be put to
death by being eaten by wolves. In order to survive, she disguises herself as a man. shefitted
thedoublettohershapeandshorteningit,madeapairoflinenbreechesofhershift;then,having
cutherhairandaltogethertransformedherselfintheguiseofasailor(Boccaccio).Sheis
successfulinfoolinghersuperiorstobelievethatsheisaman,thusprovingButlersideathat
genderisaperformance,whererolescanbelearnedandreproduced,despitephysiological
differences.Withasimplecostumechange,sheprovesherselftobeoneofthemostvalued
servantsofalltimeforhermaster,whichgraduallyleadstoherfindingtheculprittoher
misfortunesandreturningbacktoherhusband.Aslongasshelooksandactsasaman,shecan
fitintothegenderrolethatherculturehasconstructed.Ginevraalsohasmuchtoloseifsheis

Meghann Kuhlman
Kuhlman
3
ENGL 271: Lit. Analysis
Dr. A. Goldwyn
April 14th, 2014
caughtimpersonatingaman;iffoundout,shewouldloseherlife.Thisisapartofqueertheory,
whichdiscusseshidingapartofanidentitythatwouldcauseexclusionfromthemostprivileged
demographicofacultureorsociety.WhileGinevraneverhashersexualityconfronted,shefaces
veryrealdangerifherdeceptionisfoundout.TheseareprevalentissuesdiscussedbyButlerand
KosofskySedgewick,wheregendermainlyrevolveshowconvincinghisorherperformanceis.
Ifheorshepassestheseexpectations,theyaresafefromexclusion.
InthefifthdaysfourthstoryinTheDecameron,sexualityisoneofthemostprominent
themes.CaterinadaValbonaandRicciardoadmitthattheyareinlovewithoneanother.
RicciardoisveryattractedtomanyphysicalaspectsofCaterina.Lookingonceandagain
upontheyoungladyandseeingherveryfairandsprightlyandcommendableofmannersand
fashions,felldesperatelyinlovewithher(Boccaccio).Mostofthetraitsthatcausehislove
forheraremainlyshallow,physicalfeatures.Manyofthesetermsaregendered;theseattributes
canberelatedtofemininityandwomanhood.Heneverstatesthatheisattractedtoher
intelligence,kindness,orsenseofhumor.Helovesherforherphysicalattractiveness,which
societyhastaughthimtovalue.sexuality and also calls sex-the array of acts, expectations,
narratives, pleasures, identity-formations, and knowledges, in both women and men, that tends to
cluster most densely around certain genital sensations but is not adequately defined by them
(Kososfsky-Sedgewick 29). Hadshepossessedthesamepersonalitybutnotmettheseexterior
expectationsthatheandhadlearnedtovalue,theirunionwouldnevertakeplace.Thesearethe
constructsthatRiccicardohaslearnedtoexpectandenjoyaboutwomen.Sexualityisabout
meetingsomeonesexpectationsofattractivefeatures,notphysiologicalbodyparts.Whilewhat
makessomeoneattractiveorunattractivecanvarywithinindividuals,thesetraitscanbepicked

Meghann Kuhlman
ENGL 271: Lit. Analysis
Dr. A. Goldwyn
April 14th, 2014
uponfrominfluentialfigures.

Kuhlman

Sexualityandgenderarenottermsthatcanbeinterchangeableoreasilydefined,
accordingtoJudithButlerandEveKosofskySedgewick.Theirtheoriesbehindthesetwoterms
havebeenshapedbyfeministandqueertheory,exploringthesetermsareshapedbyculture
specificvaluesandnorms.BoccaccioinhiscollectionofstoriescalledTheDecameron,
investigatestheseideasthroughmanydifferentstoriesthatrevolvearoundgenderandsexual
attraction.Thesetwoarticlesprovideevidencethatsexandgenderarenotinterchangeableterms;
bothhavesomesimilarities,butareultimatelyshapedbyonesexperiencesintheirlifetime.