An Essay on 7 Centuries of Destroying Feminine Perfection

 

I have found great understanding in the Women’s Letters, Veronica Franco and Isabella Andreini’s encapsulation of the oppression women experience when raised to be independent in nature, while combating societal resistance to their demands of freedom from the constraints of “servitude” and “feminine perfection.”

Veronica Franco may have celebrated her sexual prowess in her poetry, but that did not mean she encouraged other women to follow suit in forcing body and mind into “frightening servitude” of men’s pleasures. Franco, one of the foremost courtesans of her time, did not take the conventional route of attaining feminine beauty, but was considered desirable and honorable in her line of work. Franco made the life of a courtesan appear idealistic; she was highly lauded in her community—even entertaining the king of France for a period—she was “highly paid” and her poetry later became “highly regarded” (Franco). However, Franco writes a letter berating a mother who is trying to train her daughter to become a courtesan. In her letter, she urges the mother to send her daughter to an “at risk” home, instead of subjecting her to a life filled with “danger,” “misery,” and uncertainty (Franco).  She disapproves of the mother “suddenly” decking out her daughter’s “vanity” for random men to pay to enjoy. She had dyed her daughter’s hair “blonde,” styled her ringlets to “fall down” the front of her face, and dressed her in clothing to further expose her “chest” (Franco). The daughter was being trained to relinquish the right over her own beauty and body to the demands of paying men. Franco warns the mother this would not only “kill” her “soul and honor” in one blow, but her daughter’s as well. A courtesan can only find success if she has cultivated skills in “beauty, style, and judgement” (Franco). The only thing a person with “good sense” can do to achieve this, is by “building a foundation” of what already exists “within oneself,” and what they are capable of doing. Yet, Franco argues that even if one finds success as a courtesan, their life “will always end in misery” (Franco). It is a lifestyle that can only “lead to wretchedness,” because you are forced to literally “go against the grain of human feeling,” that feeling being freedom (Franco). By forcing your body and mind into “frightening servitude” at any mans’ will, is to give yourself over as “prey” with the risk of being “stripped, robbed, or killed” within a night (Franco). This is the misery Franco warns the mother against in her letter, the misery of having everything taken in one day, by one man. Your livelihood as a courtesan becomes dependent on “another’s mouth” and “another’s eyes,” every move according to “another’s choices” (Franco). Misery is living for someone else’s satisfaction. Courtesan life demands you give up your identity, your worth, and your freedom without any repayment or stability in hopes of success and a valued esteem. Franco climbed class ranks, entertained elitist men, but still slipped into poverty the second they no longer viewed her desirable. Veronica Franco’s final warning is that once you cast yourself into this life, “removal” will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. At the end of her life, Franco was completely removed from her line of work, but she never managed to escape the authority of men around her. 

In Isabella Andreini’s letter in Women’s Letters, ‘feminine perfection’ is defined by men as a woman’s greatest contribution to the world through her beauty and lifelong servitude. This perfection is found in the link between a woman’s “bodily beauty” and “soul’s beauty,” therefore designating women the perfect sex (Andreini). This belief developed in response to the Italian Renaissance’s social issue of noble families preferring male children over female children, causing a disproportionately high number of girl orphans compared to boys. This is illustrated by the circumstances regarding the recipient of Isabella’s letter; a man who was greatly disappointed when he realized he would not have a male heir. His rejection was so cruel that he treated his newborn girl as if she was not his own flesh and blood, but a newfound burden he would have to bear. Seemingly, the only way to marginally diminish the societal rejection of females which began at birth, was by attaining feminine perfection. Thus, a woman needed to work to be as beautiful and servile as possible to please the men in their life, most notably her father and husband. This ideal of promised perfection was how Isabella tried to convince the nobleman to be joyous over his daughter’s birth. He could look forward to her patience, virtue, and obedient submission. However, these traits were also necessary for women to survive the life society ensnared them in. Patient women had to find ways to content themselves under the will of men and their “unbearable defects” (Andreini). They had to learn how to suppress their desire for freedom, and find satisfaction within the confines of the “sweet prison” they called home (Andreini). Women were also expected to look forward to “continual servitude” under their husbands, the very same men who believed women deserved death before they were even born (Andreini). In fact, women would not dare to “glance” at other men if not “allowed by their husbands” (Andreini). The subjective obedience of women in this period, reinforces the idea of feminine perfection redeeming the existence of a daughter. In her letter, Isabella argues that noble fathers will inevitably end up disappointed by their sons and daughters, but that they could at least “enjoy” the many “marvelous deeds” of their daughters. This achievement of perfection did not even belong to the woman herself, but to the men around her. Everything a woman did to invoke patience, virtue, and servility was to please and meet men’s expectations of feminine perfection.

Growing up Vietnamese entailed endless cultural and gender norms, that I could not truly analyze until the start of adulthood, many of them reflecting what Adnreini and Franco faced. Being a Vietnamese girl accompanies centuries of cultural sexism that, no matter how hard I fight against, I still face daily. I recall countless days of having to cook with my mom and aunts in the kitchen, because it was considered proper, instead of getting to play video games with my brother and cousins. I recall frustrations over unfairness, but not truly knowing how to express this feeling—it wasn’t until years later, that I discovered the term ‘sexism’. This discovery was both a relief and ultimately crushing—relieving because I could finally put into words all the anger and confusion I felt growing up. However, it crushed me that this was something so overwhelmingly common that it was all but expected. Sexism so painfully normalized to where I felt ungrateful complaining, because in all other aspects of my life, I had no reason to feel unhappy.  I had a wonderful family, parents who sacrificed everything for me to have a life in America, and a nice home in a suburban neighborhood. I fought internal battles with the concept of being ungrateful, unable to shake off the burning desire to just stop being what was expected of me for the sake of it. I think many women, both past and present, can relate and connect to the guilt and challenges faced in dismantling the idea of feminine perfection. The daughter Andreini refers to in her letter will be raised by a noble, wealthy family. She will never have to endure the same hardships as the lower classes, but her home will feel like a prison, with the price of the key being societal rejection. 

I understood Andreini’s sentiment about women giving up their lives in servitude for the family, as I would do the same for my siblings. But, more than anything, I understood not wanting to give up myself. I had given up so much of myself to be a big sister, the oldest daughter, and the guinea pig of the family. I was the family’s first born and first generation raised in America, and was expected to serve my family in every way I could. My family’s language barrier caused me to be frightened of being selfish, and I did not yet know how prioritizing myself could be healthy, and even healing for me. I remember being around the age of seven, and yelling in the car that I hated being a girl, and wanted to be a boy when I was older because it meant I would be able to do more things. From childhood, I challenged gender roles, and from young adulthood, I understood the toxicity of rampant sexism and misogyny. When Andreini wrote about how “obedient” and “devoted” daughters were expected to be, I cringed with disgust as I was sent into childhood flashbacks of watching some of my great aunts be scolded by their husbands—wives who probably felt trapped in a “prison they called home” (Andreini). 

The first way I honored my independent nature was moving three hours away from home for college. Initially, I felt incredibly awful, like I was abandoning my family. I would be a phone call away, but I could not shake the guilt of leaving, and the shame of excitement I felt. Yet, their absence felt sort of like a relief from my lifetime’s worth of expectations and “servitude” as the oldest daughter (Franco).  For the first time in my life, I only had to consider myself when deciding how I chose to spend my time. Right after my first year away, I rode the waves of independence and went to New York without my family, then Portland, then Seattle, and most recently Italy. Unlike, Andreini and Franco, I was able to experience the freedoms of independence they yearned for. I was intoxicated by self-discovery and developing a true sense of self, something Andreini and Franco would have been punished for. I met those who were like-minded, and those who I am more than willing to never have to speak to again. I discovered how largely my heart cares for strangers, and how that later translated to finding my own political ideology. I learned to embrace and celebrate my cultural differences, instead of diminishing them to fit in with the masses. It was an unfamiliar, but exhilarating feeling that swept me off my feet and has left me flying since. I have embraced adventure to its fullest since stepping into adulthood. I have resolved never again to “belong to another than” myself (Franco). 

I think everyone has their wings broken at least once, but what determines your future is whether or not you allow them to heal, and mine were dead set on dismantling feminine perfection. I felt broken for a time after gaining my freedom from familiar servitude. I had self-doubts living so far from home, and struggled with not conforming to the ideologies of classmates and even friends, for the sake of avoiding animosity. Women are treated kinder and with admiration if their mouths are closed and sharing sweet smiles instead of speaking in disfavor of men. There were countless days where I could not seem to figure out where I stood, in terms of beliefs, and days where I realized how small-minded the adults I thought were brilliant were. I felt like my worldview and the truths I thought I knew, were slowly being chipped away at as I grew up. Similar to how the young daughters in the renaissance truly believed they were meant to serve until they realized it was all a trap, set before they were even born. However, unlike the renaissance women, my bones healed to be stronger than before—I did not remain trapped in a gilded domestic prison, nor slammed into poverty by the very hands who lifted me up in the first place. I have stood alone in the open air, and observed everything my mind was capable of absorbing. I have gained knowledge of the world around me, and am enchanted to continue doing so every day, thanks to myself and the centuries of women, like those in the letters, who have faced the same oppression and held the same grievances. Gaining confidence in your thinking and self-identity is the most powerful weapon, both considered massive societal disruptions and unacceptable to Andreini and Franco’s livelihoods. 

Ironically, I think I achieved feminine perfection and servitude without understanding exactly what I was doing. I followed every rule and expectation instilled, however begrudgingly, but still found it difficult to shake the guilt of moving out for college. Evaluating my life through the lense of these women has forever increased my gratitude and respect for the women who have fought the injustices of gender roles, sexism, and impudent misogyny. 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Andreini, Isabella. “Chapter 4. Mothers and Children.” A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters 

Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650, by Lisa Kaborycha, Oxford Univ. Press, 2016, pp. 149–152.

 

Franco, Veronica. “24. Veronica Franco Reproves a Woman Who Wants to Train Her Daughter

as a Courtesan.” A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650, by Lisa Kaborycha, Oxford University Press, 2016.