Jonathan A. Allan, Cristina Santos, and Adriana Spahr (eds.) 2016. Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)significance of the Hymen. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press.
Virgin Envy: The Cultural (In)significance of the Hymen is a collection of eight essays that seeks to offer a non-linear and queer approach to understanding virginity in literature and popular culture. This volume openly challenges the perceived monopoly of the hymen as the sole signifier of virginity, proposing instead to read it more as “a concept than an archetypal narrative” (4). Throughout the book, the authors effectively ask us to consider what has been left out of traditional heteronormative history. Each essay allows us to discover or further our knowledge of cultural and artistic productions from the medieval era until today. The book however, rests on a single premise and this is to advance a “unique space in which to think about the tensions between the ‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’” (3). Thus, virginity as a concept gets queered; playing with the idea that the state of virginity is not caught in a linear model, the authors urge us to discover the complex linguistic and imaginary networks of virginities meant to interrupt, and subvert, the binary narrative of success/failure that pervades local and global ideologies and sensibilities. This book is therefore important for the field of Girlhood Studies precisely, but not solely, because of its profound and complex investigation into the traditional boundaries of girlhood and boyhood.
The book is divided into four parts. The volume’s opening section, “Too Much Pain for Such Little Reward,” consists of two essays that analyze the representation of virginity in literary texts. In the first chapter, Amy Burge explores the representation of the virginity test in English Orientalist romance literature, among these texts Lynne Graham’s The Arabian Mistress (2001) and Lucy Monroe’s The Sheikh’s Battered Bride (2004) by offering a comparison between two historical moments—the late Middle Ages and the twenty-first century. Burge allows us a glimpse into the prevailing myths, court rulings, or medical practices that show that despite this diversity, and although “virginity tests look for the same thing: signs of virginity rather than virginity itself,” (19) they remain unreliable. By not focusing on just one structure or society, but on many she familiarizes us with similarities in contemporary discourses on virginity testing, ultimately proving that “romance values virginity as part of a system of patriarchal family relations in which the loss of female virginity positions women in submissive roles” (33–34). In the second chapter, “Between Pleasure and Pain: The Textual Politics of the Hymen,” Jodi McAlister uses the concept of the hymen from the Derridean perspective to zero in on its “elusive” (46) quality in the history of its representation in Western literature romances. A key moment in the chapter is the acknowledgement of the popular romance genre as the most common home “for explicit defloration scenes” (54).
The second section of the book, “Blood, Blood, Blood … And More Blood,” focuses on a more commonplace figure in contemporary popular culture—the virginal vampire. In “The Politics of Virginity and Abstinence in the Twilight Saga,” Jonathan A. Allan and Cristina Santos read the saga brilliantly through the lens of its conservative sexual politics in a way that brings to the fore a theme that is often left behind—“the complexity of male virginity” (69). The authors guide us through the “queerness and strangeness of male virginity precisely because it contradicts stereotypes often associated with male sexuality” (78) by exposing instances of Edward’s experiences of erotophobia, hysteria, and sexual abstinence before marriage. In “Lady of Perpetual Virginity: Jessica’s Presence in True Blood,” Janice Zehentbauer and Cristina Santos present a case of how twenty-first-century “America’s obsession with virginity also emerges in many artifacts of popular culture, especially those of the gothic or supernatural genres” (98). In their reading, the authors address the United States’s fetishization of young female sexual purity, and make the case that Jessica Jamby’s perpetual virginity “embodies” this form of cultural fantasy because it is intricately related to the fact that “a facet of the anxiety” lies in “the elusive definition of female virginity” (101).
The focus of the third section, “Men Be Virgins Too: Queering Virginity,” is “specifically on how male virginities have been left out of critical thought about virginity” (8). In Chapter 5, “The Queer Saint: Male Virginity in Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane,” Kevin McGuiness suggests that some of the more disregarded aspects of virginity are often glossed over in favor of heroic untainted models. By redirecting attention to Saint Sebastian’s life and martyrdom, McGuiness insists, instead, that understanding the sym bolic entails looking at the semiotic language of cinematography and how it can explore “the themes of male sexuality, homoeroticism, and religious mystery” by reconsidering the importance of being unsettled by our complex and contradictory histories that encompass the clear distinction between “the sacred and the profane” (139). In “Troping Boyishness, Effeminacy, and Masculine Queer Virginity: Abbellah Taïa and Eyet-Chékib Djaziri,” Gibson Ncube endeavors to contribute to “the growing discussion of the neglected phenomenon of effeminacy” (145) in the works of these two openly gay writers of the Maghreb and sets out to “demystify Arab Muslim masculinity and sexuality” (147) in order to fill in the cavernous gap in research on male virginity, particularly “masculine queer virginity in the Arab Muslim societies of North Africa” (146).
The fourth part of the book, “F*ck: They Entrapped Us in Social Issues and Politics,” consists of two texts that explore “the intersection of virginity and sociocultural concerns” (9) in India and Latin America respectively. Asam Sayed’s “Bollywood Virgins: Diachronic Flirtations with Indian Womanhood,” looks at a sample of Bollywood films from 1960 to 2000 and uncovers “a clash of traditional and modern values” (177) that has yet to be studied because of the lack of critical thought placed on virginity in non-Western cinema. In the eighth and final chapter, “The Policing of Viragos and Other ‘Fuckable’ Bodies: Virginity as Performance in Latin America,” Tracy Crowe Morey and Adriana Spahr begin “with the epistemological (or performed) rather than the ontological (or essentialized) question of virginity” (192). They succeed in shedding light on representations of “unruly women” (199) such as Catalina de Erauso (1592–1650), soldaderas (female soldiers) of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), guerilla women from Argentina, and military women from Chile during the dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s who would not necessarily have been included in Western histories of virginity, mainly because of what Hanne Blank refers to as the racial bias of “Christian symbology” (2008: 11). Ultimately though, the authors show that so called virginal women who remain in the liminal state are more often than not considered deviant and pervasive state control serves to limit their access to the public sphere “with strict supervision and regulation” (Allan et al. 2016: 210).
The challenge, and promise, of queering virginity is that it can reinvent, subvert, and, in so doing, queer heterosexist iconographies that belong to the traditional canon of what is thought of as female virginity. By muddling gender distinctions of who constitutes a virgin, and how one can move beyond virginity, the book also breaks down and temporarily renders moot the question of identity, working instead in a liminal space that activates an open play in signification. This book is essential reading because of its unique lens and the inclusion of diverse voices through which the editors explore meaning-making of a concept—the hymen—that has remained elusive throughout time. Although the book is aimed at interdisciplinary scholars of queer theory, its strategy of reading literary texts along with popular culture gives it considerable appeal to both scholars and non-academics interested in looking differently at critical ways of understanding the boundaries of girlhoods and boyhoods.