Dandies, tomboys and femme-fatales: Destabilizing heteronormativity in Late Ottoman Empire

By Ezgi Saritas
Submitted to Session P5000 (Textual Configurations of Gender and the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
Scholarly literature characterizes nineteenth century Ottoman sexuality and eroticism with the silencing of previous sexual discourses and heteronormative configurations of love and erotic desire. While making this claim, scholars of Ottoman sexuality take for granted what heteronormativity means and seem to assume that the emerging heteronormative discourses were coherent and stable. This paper will ask the question how “hetero-” were the most popular narratives of late Ottoman love and eroticism by focusing on a number of early Ottoman novels and stories on the love between the dandy and hyper-sexualized femme -fatale and the love between the tomboy/female cross-dresser and masculine young man. In the narratives of degenerate love between the effeminate dandy and the hyper-feminine femme-fatale, the dandy was not characterized by his lack of interest in women. On the contrary, he has an excess desire for women. Idealized masculine man's love for the tomboy/female cross-dresser strengthened his masculinity. Both the dandy and the ideal masculine man are reminiscent of the effeminate woman-lover (zen-dost) and masculine boy-lover (mahbûb-perest) of classical Ottoman literature whose gender identities were shaped in relation to their objects of desire. Thomas Laqueur (1990) says, in pre-Englightenment texts based on Galenic medicine and one-sex model, men could easily be softened when they associate with women too extensively and girls could easily turn into boys. In one-sex model the focus is on gender, rather than the biological sex as in two-sex model. In nineteenth century, two sex model was increasingly adopted through translation of medical texts, advice literature and popular novels to Ottoman Turkish. Dror Ze'evi (2006) claims that with this process, there emerged a discrepancy between the local narratives based on one-sex model and the translated medical texts, which resulted in the silencing of existing sexual scripts. Instead of assuming that co-existence of the seemingly discordant discourses automatically means silence, the paper focuses on the narratives that emerge from these discrepancies and examine the ways this discordance becomes productive by looking at the aforementioned figures in popular late Ottoman prose. Neither the love between the dandy and femme-fatale, nor its counterpart, the love between tomboy and her lover could be read as expressions of hetero-erotic desire felt for the other gender, or expressions of homosexual desire for the same sex. Produced by the discrepancies of seemingly discordant discourses, these narratives reveal the queer space opened by the inconsistencies of heteronormativity.