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Female resistance to male authority, part one

Human beings seem to possess an innate loathing of subordination to authoritative figures. Even when someone is subjugated by another person through the laws of the nation or the customs of the nation, the person will discover ways to subvert the authority of the person above them. Most of the time, these forms are of passive resistance, since they are much less confrontational for the dominant person. Studying Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji’s Tale and that of Marguerite de Navarre The Heptameron As historical-social documents, evidence of the limitations imposed on women by laws and social expectations and the means they took to overcome those limitations can be discovered.

The first part of this essay will examine the life of women at the court of Heian Japan in the 10th century, and the second part will examine the women of the court of 16th century France. Although divided by custom, religion, and six hundred years of time, there are many similarities between these Eastern and Western women in their attempts to oppose male authority, along with many differences. In 10th-century Japan, the resistance displayed by women was overwhelmingly passive, while in 16th-century France, women exhibited more assertiveness toward dominant male figures.

Female Code of Conduct in the Judicial Life of Japan

Women in medieval Japan had little protection against male domination. The customs of the time expected women to be submissive to men, even to the point of rape. The men were not afraid of being punished for rape, as evidenced by Genji’s attitude:

Quickly and gently, he lowered her onto the verandah and slid the door shut. His surprise pleased him greatly. Trembling, he asked for help. “It won’t do you any good, I’m always allowed my way. Just shut up, if you want, please.” (Shikibu 137-38)

Although the ‘misty moon lady’ is “upset” by Genji’s attack, she is more concerned that Genji doesn’t think she “wants to have good manners” (Shikibu 138). The implication is that women are expected to give their bodies to men who love them as a show of hospitality.

The personality characteristics that women were expected to possess can be discerned through the specific qualities Genji praises in this novel. The ‘face of the lady of the night’ is the first woman mentioned in the novel that Genji is extremely in love with. Genji describes it like this:

She was of an extraordinarily gentle and calm nature. Although there was a certain vagueness about her, and indeed an almost childish quality, it was clear that she knew something about men. He didn’t seem to be from a very good family. What was it about her, he wondered over and over, that drew him so much to her? (Shikibu 41)

What Genji finds so attractive about the lady with night faces is her flexibility and desire to please, her tendency to submit to the “most outrageous demands” (Shikibu 42). These are the characteristics for which the women of the Japanese court were praised.

An extreme example of women being treated like objects can be discovered through Genji’s actions in relation to the child Murasaki. When Genji sees Murasaki for the first time, she is about ten years old. He is struck by his resemblance to Fujitsubo, his father’s consort whom Genji has always desired. Genji decides at that moment that Murasaki must “take the place of the one whom she resembled” (Shikibu 72). Although the girl is already engaged to another man, Genji is determined to take her “home and make her his ideal” (Shikibu 74).

When Genji learns that Murasaki’s father, Prince Hyōbu, will soon be bringing Murasaki home, Genji acts quickly. Not caring about how others would perceive his actions, he kidnaps the girl from her guardians and hides her from her father at his home in Nijō. It is understandable that Murasaki is terribly scared by all of this. Genji tells him:

You must not sulk now and make me unhappy. Would I have done all this for you if I wasn’t a good man? The ladies must do what they are told. (Shikibu 103)

Genji’s ‘lesson’ to Murasaki is that her fear and unhappiness are nothing more than being rude, that women are supposed to do what men tell them and strive to make men happy, and that kidnapping her is not a bad thing, but it shows how much Genji cares for her and is willing to do for her. Genji informs Murasaki that he should think of him as his teacher; in this way Genji begins to instruct Murasaki on the characteristics and achievements that his “ideal” woman would possess.

Through Genji’s character, one can discern personality traits that were undesirable for women. Genji resents the “coldness” in women (Shikibu 36), women who are “impossibly energetic in [their] demands “(Shikibu 48), and those who display” jealous ways “(Shikibu 48). Audacity in matters of sexual intercourse was also considered improper female conduct. It is significant that the only female character who openly displays her sexuality is an” elderly man “Sixty-year-old lady with” dark and muddy “eyelids and” coarse and stringy “hair (Shikibu 124). Because Naishi enjoys sex and is not ashamed to hide it, she is also portrayed as” not very discriminatory “in her partners sexual (Shikibu 124) and “inexhaustibly loving” (Shikibu 126) Genji does not like Naishi’s aggressiveness and impatience (Shikibu 127), but being a Genji, he still finds Naishi suitable for his “night wanderings”.

Female resistance to the Japanese code of conduct

Despite the fact that female submission is a pervasive cultural trait, women in medieval Japan managed to find some ways to resist the total dominance of men. These forms can be characterized as passive resistance, eg, verbal reproaches, feign illness and misunderstandings, distant behavior, and isolation from men. On Genji’s Tale, most of the female resistance is due to Genji’s sexual advances or excesses.

Through Genji’s wife, Aoi, one can understand the extreme of Genji’s sexual behavior. Being busy with his numerous affairs, Genji does not spend much time visiting his wife at his father’s Sanjō mansion, a fact that she does not let him forget when he comes to visit her. Aoi shows a distant demeanor towards Genji to express her disgust at his neglect towards her, as seen in the following conversation between them:

Genji: It would be nice, sometimes I think, if you could be a little more conjugal. I have been very sick and it hurts, but it does not surprise me much that you did not care about my health.

Aoi: Like the pain, perhaps, of waiting for a visitor who doesn’t come?

Genji: You rarely speak to me, and when you do, you say such nasty things. “A visitor who does not come”: that is not an adequate way to describe a husband and, in fact, it is not very polite. I try this approach and I try, hoping to break through, but you seem determined to defend all approaches. Well, one of these years, maybe, if I live long enough. (Shikibu 83, 84)

Genji begins this conversation by trying to protest with his wife for her cold behavior towards him, for not being very happy that he has come to see her. She, in turn, reproaches him for his negligence by comparing him to a “visitor” rather than a husband. Aoi resists Genji in the only way available to her, that of Genji’s verbal reproaches and displays of affection.

Akashi’s shore lady employs another method of passive resistance towards her father and Genji; she pretends to be sick and tries to isolate herself from Genji. When Genji begins to woo her, which her father actively promotes, the lady at first is reluctant to answer Genji’s letter and says “it doesn’t feel right” (Shikibu 296). After being pressured by her father to reply, she pretends not to understand Genji’s poem: “How can you feel sorry for someone you haven’t met?” (Shikibu 297). She reads his letter literally and responds to that effect, not wanting to acknowledge the letter as an attempt at flirting and seduction. After her father arranges for Genji to visit her, unknowingly herself, she flees to “an inner room” and locks the door (Shikibu 303). Although Genji doesn’t make his way through the door, in some way the novel doesn’t mention, he does gain access to the inner room where the lady is hiding. There Genji prevails over her (Shikibu 303). For Genji, this encounter with the lady Akashi is a “contest of wills” in which he would “look pretty silly” if he lost to the lady (Shikibu 303). The female conquest is, then, a matter of honor among the men of the court.

Some women go to extremes to resist male sexual advances, such as when Fujitsubo enters the convent to escape Genji. For Genji, Fujitsubo is the model of “sublime beauty” (Shikibu 26). But, alas, she belongs to her father, the Emperor. Genji doesn’t pay attention to that; With the help of one of his ladies, he manages to access Fujitsubo’s room. Fujitsubo is “determined that there won’t be another meeting” between Genji and her and is “shocked” and “distraught”.[ed]”that Genji has come to her again (Shikibu 86). She tries to make Genji go away, but these efforts” delight[ ]”while causing embarrassment as well (Shikibu 86). However, Genji still gets his way, Fujitsubo gets pregnant, and she passes the child off as the Emperor’s son and Genji’s brother.

After the death of Genji’s father, Genji tries to rekindle the romance with Fujitsubo. He had done his best to avoid Genji and had even “commissioned religious services in the hope of freeing himself from Genji’s attentions” (Shikibu 202). Unfortunately, his elusiveness sparks more interest in Genji. Fujitsubo is unable to convince Genji to leave, and begins to experience “chest pains” and “fainting spells” (Shikibu 203). She begins to feel better later when she thinks Genji is gone, but as soon as he appears before her again, she sinks to the ground in “sheer terror” (Shikibu 204).

Genji tries to gain compassion from Fujitsubo by stating that he would die of love for her (Shikibu 205). Genji feels that Fujitsubo’s behavior is “cruel” (Shikibu 207) and decides to make her “feel sorry for him” (Shikibu 206). So he retires to his home in Nijō, where he refuses to write to her and sulks. But Fujitsubo is not so full of pity as to submit to Genji; instead, she decides to renounce her title of Empress and “become a nun” (Shikibu 206). He realizes that this is the only avenue available to completely escape Genji’s sexual advances.

While court women in Heian Japan did not enjoy much freedom from male authority, they did use all available means to resist complete subjugation. Women in 16th century France fared slightly better than Oriental women. In the six hundred years since the writing of Genji’s Tale to the writing of The Heptameron, women had made little progress in their liberation. Women in France were expected to be subordinate to their fathers and husbands just like Japanese women, but in The Heptameron women are described as more aggressive when protesting against male abuse.


Navarra, Marguerite de. The Heptameron. Trans. PA Chilton. London: Penguin Books, 1984.

Shikibu, Murasaki. Genji’s Tale. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Random House, 1990.

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