“You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man”: Courtly Values Revived in Modern Film

Article by Raymond Cormier


The title, “You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man”, is an unforgettable quotation from As Good As It Gets, the Jack Nicholson–Helen Hunt masterpiece (with Greg Kinnear). It occurs at about the midpoint in the 1997 film and Carol (played by Hunt) responds to Melvin (Nicholson) that it’s the best compliment she’s ever had in her life. As Roger Ebert quips: “It becomes clear that Melvin has been destined by the filmmakers to become a better man: First he accepts dogs, then children, then women, and finally even his gay neighbor.” Nevertheless, Melvin does change his ways and, under the influence of love, completely redirects his behavior.

I explore courtly love values in several contemporary movies, for example, Casablanca (1942), Roxanne (1987), Pretty Woman (1990), Beauty and the Beast (Disney 1991), Hercules (Disney 1997) Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Tangled (2010). The hero or heroine saved through love and/or self-sacrifice constitute a guiding thread of the article; another focus is the “major personality shift” of the hero/heroine under the influence of love; and a third theme is the “quest and rescue” of the beloved. My diverse sources (comparanda) reach back to Marie de France’s courtly lai, Lanval as well as to the ineffable motifs of troubadour love service and the joy and largess/generosity emblematic of St. Francis of Assisi.

In his recent monograph, The Making of Romantic Love, William Reddy observes that the eleventh-century Gregorian Reform brought with it condemnations by the Church—seeking to eliminate “polluting” sexual desire among Christians—and thus proposed severe new constraints on marriage and sexual behavior. It is argued further that in response, European secular poets and romancers—like the troubadours—devised a furtive way around the whole matter, namely, by inaugurating what is called today romantic love. This dualistic new creation, which opposes love and desire and was forged in the context of honor and secrecy, is found by Reddy to have a far-reaching influence (361), though not universal, yet uniquely Western and principally cultural in origin (i.e., not biological or neurological).1

With regard to romantic love, Reddy’s three case studies (medieval Europe, South Asia and Heian Japan) examine court codes in particular, and for the Europeans, he deduces that spiritualized love incorporated selfless devotion (370) as well as radical dissent (352) from the Church’s “cosmic order.”2 Adherents to the new values embraced, it would seem, individual conscience over blind obedience to the Church. Relative to our topic (in a work devoted in fact to women troubadours) one finds these words ‘of new values:’

“In exchange for their prostration, the troubadours expected to be ennobled, enriched, or simply made ‘better’: ‘Each day I am a better man and purer / for I serve the noblest lady in the world […]’”.3

Some of the films considered here belong to the “romantic comedy” genre, analysis of which is exemplified by the 2003 study by Deleyto, “Between Friends.” For such works, a tripartite categorization is proposed4: “nervous romance (tension filled),” “new romance (featuring independent women),” and “deceptive narratives” (fashionable and highlighting “constructions of a representation” in spite of soundtracks with old love songs).

Deleyto finds that friendship, in many films, is more important than love (171), and that the greater presence of female friendship signals the malleability of the genre (176). Deleyto writes (168): “[… an] unexpected new tendency has arisen within [the genre] over the last fifteen years or so in a growing number of contemporary romantic comedies, heterosexual love appears to be challenged, and occasionally replaced, by friendship.”

In this article, however, I intend to explore not friendship, not film weddings and not specifically the romantic comedy film in any significant way. Rather, I examine what may be named courtly values—as part of the courtly legacy from the Middle Ages—in over a dozen modern movies, from Casablanca (1942) to Tangled (2010). “Hero/heroine saved through love and/or self-sacrifice” will be one guiding thread of the analysis. Another focus is the “major personality shift” of the hero under the influence of love (as seen to a degree in As Good As It Gets, even more so in Pretty Woman). A third theme is the “quest and rescue” of the beloved (this can even be from a loveless marriage, as found in Excalibur). Films were selected among a number of successful productions, because they illustrate the prevalence of the themes in question.5 Limitations of space will prevent examination of other films that may suggest to some readers further links to courtliness, to the courtly legacy or to any number of medieval costume dramas.6

My hypothesis should be stated clearly: courtly values were palpable—neither a medieval fantasy nor a Romantic invention. This conjecture still needs to be put to scientific testing, which I will leave to other scholars to prove or refute. A more systematic survey, for which there is no space here, would likely reveal a significant imprint of the same themes on a wide range of contemporary films.

Such values and courtly love (the usual term is fin’amors, “true, fine, refined love”) survive to an extent today, a viewpoint not shared by all scholars.7 In his monograph Ennobling Love, Stephen Jaeger, while not using the fraught terms “courtly love” or “courtly legacy,” does assert that medieval “spiritualized” or “charismatic” love did not die out as such (5-6), though in his conclusion (212) he observes that “the paradigm of ideal love”, once established in medieval, early modern and modern narratives, is then destroyed “by revealing its false and destructive side.”

The term itself was invented in the late nineteenth century as a way of characterizing relationships found principally in French romances and poetry popular in the twelfth and thirteenth century, which were produced in and for, and which have been seen to emblemize court settings.8 Such love (for me, obviously, much more than a stylized game of flirtation), in the poetic context, is true, joyful and intense; it harmonizes with the commonweal and with divine intentions. Love brings, as we shall see, abundant feelings of liberation, of transformation and self-actualization. Jane Burns concedes the significance of courtly love when she concludes (48):

[…] despite its heteronormative veneer and its tendency to displace and occlude women as subjects, courtly love, when taken as the full range of amorous scenarios staged between elite heterosexual couples in a court setting, offers models for love relations that disrupt the binary and exclusive categories of male and female and masculine and feminine used typically to structure the Western romantic love story.

While the influence of powerful troubadour motifs is undeniable, let us cite here one brief northern French text as a kind of shorthand, for emphasis. It is a brief narrative or lai that illustrates certain courtly values.

Lanval, Marie de France’s eponymous hero, is a sad, forlorn Arthurian knight, abandoned, lonely, and helpless. An otherworldly sequence brings to him a wealthy and supremely stunning noblewoman (a fairy princess) with whom he becomes “well lodged.” His liberation from the bonds of solitary abandonment lead to liberality (he now gives freely to all comers), the medieval ideal of generosity, “the queen of virtues.”9 Kindness and love rescue him, as they do several male characters in modern film.10 Northern French poets emphasized too the “chivalry topos,” that is, that love motivates the knight in love and he becomes a better person through his adventures, thus meriting his beloved all the more. Noble love ennobles; in this better world too (for Auerbach), the apolitical “feudal ethos” encompasses “self-realization” (116-117). Clearly, we cannot accede to the damning proclamation of D. W. Robertson:

The study of courtly love, if it belongs anywhere, should be conducted only as the subject is an aspect of nineteenth and twentieth century cultural history. The subject has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, and its use as a governing concept can only be an impediment to our understanding of medieval texts. (18)

Courtly thinking existed in the Middle Ages and is manifested in the modern era.11 Each of the films we analyze here will of course not yield up every feature of the courtly mode, but still I sense that there is enough medieval residue and resonance in each to justify the argument, that, as some might put it succinctly, “courtly themes continue to generate artistic creation.” Along these lines, one wonders if the strong continuity of the Troubadour ethos—in particular that longing for a “far-away love”—is what underlies the resonances and residues. Love stories, requited or not, remain viable even in today’s hip-hop world.

It has been reasoned that the two principal and most admired modes of courtly behavior were generosity and joy. Aristocratic courtly culture held that “the lady” was lord, and the lover’s role was to serve her, to sing about her merits and qualities, and carry out all imaginable actions to remain or become worthy of her, in a word, to deserve her.12 The function of love in this context was as dictated by the De amore of Andreas Capellanus (ca. 1185): “Love easily attained is of little value; difficulty in obtaining it makes it precious” and “Everything a lover does ends in the thought of the beloved.”13 For Auerbach, the synthetic term corteisie embodied values like the “refinement of the laws of combat, courteous social intercourse, service of women” (117).

In what is dubbed the long European twelfth century (1050-1250), French humanism predominated, a phenomenon already analyzed historiographically at length. As Italianist Ronald Witt recently put it (2012: 317): “The term ‘humanism’ aptly describes French culture in the period […].” In this context, interior monologue and dialogue arose from a new awareness of the interior life (the unique individual is now consciously separate from the court), which was further linked to the chivalric adventure/quest whereby audiences yearned for the unusual and the marvelous—now stimulated especially by wondrous stories brought back from the East by returning Crusaders (in particular the First-ca. 1100, and Second-ca. 1150). In discussing this particular type of medieval love, Aldo Scaglione has written (559):

The radical interiorization of the love experience carried with it the impossibility of communicating with the love object (topos of ineffability). Not only did poets profess themselves incapable of communicating to the beloved the depth of their passion, but the very lack of communication was for them both a sign of its depth and a consequence of it, to the point of entailing the complete physical absence of the lady.

Transformation through kindness and love, the frequent quest motif, the rescue of the hero/heroine—such are the narrative innovations associated with these elements (even the ineffable moment can be noted in at least one film, Roxane). Allied terms include honesty and humility—for perfection of the knight depended on his courtly worth, manifested through continuous bravery and feats of arms, humbly accomplished so to enhance and vouchsafe his honor and his nobility. Such aims for flawlessness were mirrored by the lady’s perfection, inspired too by her knight/liege. Of course, adultery occurs as co-incidental in this context, as does a “religion of love,” whereby mutual suffering and adoration are obligatory14. Let us see how all this plays out in the series of films selected for analysis.

The romantic comedy As Good As It Gets, the Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt masterpiece (with Greg Kinnear), has provided the main title of this essay. The iconic line, “You Make Me Want to Be A Better Man,” is spoken by the misanthropic Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), whose obsessive-compulsive behavior and pathological germophobia strangle all of his human interactions. In the penultimate sequence, after he affronts and insults Carol (played by Hunt), his apology, necessary to get back into her good wishes, is a confession that he wants to merit her and deserve her respect (enough so that he can have their relationship return to its prior arrangement). One can say that all his motivations are selfish (arranging to care for Carol’s asthmatic son, putting up with his gay artist neighbor and then the neighbor’s dog), yet he is redeemed in the end, having moderated somewhat his odd manners.15 If not mere empathy, a kind of love is born in Melvin’s heart—even for his gay neighbor, for the dog, even for his neighbor’s African-American agent, and especially for Carol. For in the end, he is “a better man.”

Perhaps no genuinely touching and dreamlike modern film has captioned courtly features as much as Pretty Woman (1990), in which the Richard Gere character (Edward) undergoes a major personality shift, from ruthless business tycoon to generous shipbuilder, as a result of his experience of love for/with (an apparently) blonde streetwalker named Vivian (played by Julia Roberts).16 The wig disguises, as it were, her true personality. Over and above the film’s obvious Cinderella theme, it has been argued in fact, in a reversal of traditional gender roles, that it is she, Vivian, who, as the “Fair Unknown” (Scala 35), is transformed from “veiled” Hollywood Boulevard prostitute into a truly “noble character,” a change attributable to soul-sharing (with Edward—neither “wimp nor wild man”17), catalyzed by the experience of a San Francisco opera performance focused on the heroine Violetta (La Traviatta). Vivian’s real character is revealed too in an early scene when she drives, like a NASCAR expert, Edward’s sports car, then again in the bathtub scene, where she sexually enfolds him in her extra-long legs.

But, after their goodbyes, when Edward unexpectedly returns (in a white stretch limo) to Vivian’s apartment at the very end of the film, he scales the fire escape (in spite of his fear of heights) to “rescue the princess in the tower.” He has undergone a total conversion, from emotionless corporate raider to brave, forgiving and loving human. Tellingly, he asks the now red-haired (and post-feminist) Vivian what happens after the knight rescues the princess, she replies that she saves the hero “right back,” another revelation of a “reversal of gender roles” (Scala 38).18 And, as Genz recently put the question of the “post-feminist woman” (PFW). The PFW wants to “have it all” as she refuses to dichotomize and choose between her public and private, feminist, and feminine identities. She rearticulates and blurs the binary distinctions between feminism and femininity, between professionalism and domesticity, refuting monolithic and homogeneous definitions of postfeminist subjectivity.19 Reddy, in his analysis of this film posits it as a mirror of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s (380-381), whereby prostitution is permissible and sexual desire is destigmatized, but still stands in opposition to love, since both characters, now mutually devoted to each other, give up their life of “mere appetites.”20 Edward is thus a better man, Vivian a better woman.

Going back now to the World War II era, we will glance briefly at the great 1942 classic, Casablanca, in which, again surprisingly and ironically, the bitter and cynical refugee hero Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is transformed not by passionate love, but in this case through a self-effacing compassion. He just wants his beloved Ilsa (the woman between two men story), played famously by Ingrid Bergman) to be happy, for, as he remarks to her—“We’ll always have Paris.” In the final sequence, Rick, his tough-guy veneer now gone, surrenders two objects, one tangible, the other human—i.e., the vital letters of transit for transport out of Morocco, along with his chance for love with Ilsa. In a meeting with her and her husband Lazlo (the Resistance-fighter) at the Casablanca airport, the now-noble Rick swallows his resentment toward her and yields himself to a new emotion, empathy mixed with admiration for both Ilsa’s devotion and Lazlo’s political cause. And he opines: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In a dramatic gesture of magnanimity, Rick turns Ilsa over to the freedom fighter. Generosity and self-sacrifice redeem the hero as it will the other protagonists, even in different ways.

At this point, we will turn to three animated films (one of which is inspired by a live-action archetypal film produced just a few years after Casablanca). I refer to Beauty and the Beast, known today mainly through the 1991 Disney version. The lesser-known account that inspired the modern and magical remake is the Jean Cocteau classic, a contemporary parable based on a seventeenth-century French tale. The flawless Belle—to pay for her father’s transgression and obliged to dwell within the Beast’s castle—finds the beast repulsive, but, eventually, love is the potion that will transform both her and the Beast within; he is saved through Belle’s own generous change of heart as she responds to his kindness and favors. Similarly, Belle’s pity, patience, growing admiration and slowly-receding fear of the Beast, brings her to lower her guard and embrace the creature. Once she does love him (as foretold), the enchantment magically evaporates, the Beast is tamed and everything is joyfully transformed—by their love and new-found respect for each other.21

Redemption of a different sort rescues the mythological hero Hercules from the depths of weakened loss and despair. In this 1997 Disney film, the once-powerful and immortal youth attempts to save the life of Megara, his beloved (to provoke the hero, she was slain by Hercules’ nemesis Hades). His awesome powers had been taken from him by the villain but Hercules miraculously regains his strength through mutual love, and is on his way to become a “true hero”— just as (Samson-like) he lifts a huge column that had fallen on Meg. He is wholly and joyfully restored—by love—as a proper and divine hero, and elevated to Mt. Olympus.

In Disney’s 2010 Tangled, the heroine Rapunzel undergoes a major personality shift as a result of her encounter with the hero Eugene. It is in fact he who is responsible for getting her out of the imprisoning tower (using a ruse along with the appeal of the mysterious tiara—it’s hers, it is discovered, and she’s the princess!). In an interesting twist and role-reversal, Eugene tells Rapunzel that she was his new dream and Rapunzel says he was hers. Eugene dies in Rapunzel’s arms. In despair, Rapunzel sings the “Healing Incantation,” and begins to cry. Moved by her love and kindness, the last remnants of a magical flower’s enchantments condense in her tear, which heals Eugene. Later, the two return to the castle to meet her parents and eventually marry, living happily ever after. Rapunzel is redeemed through reciprocal love.

One must expect courtly themes in a medieval film like Excalibur (1981), set presumably in the late fourteenth or fifteenth century, bearing “mythical truth, not historical,” according to its director John Boorman.22 When the charismatic character of Lancelot first appears, he battles with Arthur’s knights, then with Arthur himself. Summoning such superhuman power that the sword Excalibur is cracked in half, Arthur overcomes Lancelot, though the new champion enigmatically but with great nobility bows to the king and offers him fealty. With the twelve-year peace across Britain established, along with the Round Table and its famed fellowship, Arthur proclaims he will marry. The relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere at first encapsulates what Scaglione named (see above) the “impossibility of communicating with the love object (topos of ineffability).”

But then, while escorting the bride Guinevere to the wedding (each, now love struck, having already undergone a coup de foudre), Lancelot is asked by her if he will find a soul mate to love and marry. His reply goes like this: I have found someone. It is you, Guinevere. I will love no other while you live. “I will love you always as queen and wife of my best friend.” Several scenes later, the queen is charged with adultery and Lancelot (now aware of her unhappy marriage) is at once named her champion—to defend her honor.

Such a scenario is familiar to scholars, but surely the millions of non-specialists who have seen the film must relate somehow to this courtly episode. As if enacting a Occitan love lyric, each has been mightily unfaithful: Guinevere in her longing glances, Lancelot in his fixed staring. But finally they must surrender to their passion. Their shameful infidelity, a deep wound, paralleled by Arthur’s own (unwilling) incestuous coupling with his half-sister Morgana, brings on a terre gaste, a horrid, morbid and gross wasting of both Arthur’s body and the land. The courtly and anti-courtly elements here predominate: the lovers’ religion of love easily nullifies any idea of a stylized game of flirtation. No one is improved this time.

In the romantic comedy, Roxanne (1987), brilliantly adapted by Steve Martin from Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, the astronomer heroine (Daryl Hannah) argues with the genuinely courtly hero (C. D. Bates, Martin’s tennis-playing fireman). In the final sequence (to this woman between two men story) the hero reveals himself as the epitome of generosity by interceding for another man and wooing the heroine on his behalf. Bates says in the end that all Roxanne wanted was the perfect man who was both physically beautiful, emotionally mature and verbally adept. Finally, Bates (who loved her from the beginning, but direct communication with her was not possible—once more, the ineffable!) and Roxanne forgive one another as she confesses her love for him, in spite of his extraordinarily characteristic nose: it gives him uniqueness, she thinks, observing that flat-nosed people are boring and featureless. Feelings of compassion, admiration, tenderness and understanding change her point of view. The joyful humor and big-heartedness of the film charm the viewer.

We turn next to a blockbuster, the mysterious 1999 science fiction “cyberpunk-cyber thriller,” The Matrix. Amidst all the computer-generated graphics, amazing action scenes and visual effects, futuristic costumes, the enigmatic significance of The Matrix itself, and the secretive feelings Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) experiences for the hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), the story really embodies a simple and beautiful fairy-tale component. Trinity’s destiny was to fall in love with “the One” (prophesied as a savior-healer and super manipulator of The Matrix). The romantic relationship of the two is not revealed until the very end of the film, but Trinity’s act of kissing Neo powerfully resuscitates him within the sentient world (his interfaced physical body) and within The Matrix as well, where his avatar has been active. It is a phenomenal moment when the obscure meaning of The Matrix, Trinity’s love (from afar!) for Neo and Neo’s resurrection and fate are revealed all at once. Trinity does not have to quest for Neo: his sentient body remained right there with her in the laboratory. One can argue that Neo’s life is saved (literally) through the efforts and love of a beloved: Trinity has loved Neo all along. One can also posit that Neo’s acceptance of his destiny as “the One” is augmented by his awareness of Trinity’s love for him.

At the very opening of the film’s sequel, The Matrix Reloaded, the two have now become lovers, and, in one of the film’s final sequences, Neo has a choice: save mankind from extinction (it would happen through a “system reboot”), resulting in the survival of the destructive machines (but not humanity), or choosing to save Trinity’s life: in a face-to-face battle with an Agent (humanoid robot of The Matrix), she crashes out of a window and a bullet pierces her heart. In his abbreviated and breathtaking quest, Neo catches her in mid-air, but she dies. Loath to allow Trinity’s death, Neo uses his superhuman abilities to remove the bullet and revive her. The balance of the two scenes is perfect: in The Matrix it is Trinity who rescues Neo, while in the sequel Neo the hero saves his beloved through love. These films do not illustrate every aspect of courtliness or court culture, but the revealing moment does transport the viewer to a realm of heightened emotion. As in Hercules, love reigns supreme.23

Our final film is Slumdog Millionaire, billed as a kind of bildungsroman, a straightforward story about Jamal Malik, an eighteen-year old orphan from the slums of Mumbai. But the film has multiple strata, and underlying the story is Jamal’s search for his “far-away love”—a theme made legendary by twelfth-century Occitan poet Jaufre Rudel’s amor de lonh.24 As the film’s narrative revolves around “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” the Indian TV version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? each chapter of Jamal’s increasingly layered story reveals where he learned the responses to the show’s seemingly impossible questions. To witness the unfolding of Jamal’s life journey—surviving as a street urchin/career thief, his many colorful adventures, gang encounters, his job serving tea in a call center—helps to explain several mysteries, like how and why he ended up as a featured contestant, but most especially how he knows the answers. His life story—in reality a quest—includes being orphaned at an early age; growing up with an older brother, who was both his guardian/protector and antagonist (a kind of rival and dark “other”); and having a relationship since childhood with another orphaned child, a girl named Latika.

A parallel plot line deals with the law—in the present-time episodes, the police grill him to determine how Jamal can be doing so well on the show when others who are brighter, more educated and wealthier fail. Is he cheating? Is it purely luck? But the fact is, the complex and interwoven story is simply a tale of love: every action of Jamal is motivated by his search for his lost childhood love, Latika. The resplendent joy manifested in the final sequences—an emblem, we recall, of courtly life (Battais 135)—unlocks all the puzzles and enigmas of the film.25 With great generosity of character, Jamal, enduring and shaking off all sorts of suffering and pain, was searching endlessly for Latika: that is why he found a way to get himself recruited to be a contestant for the game show, for he knew she would be watching and that they would be able to meet together, finally, at a designated locale, and no doubt live “happily ever after” and in joy.26

As we have seen, in these selected films (and in many other contemporary ones) transformation through kindness and love frequently manifests itself as a part of the finale. The quest motif very often subsumes the conversion—not necessarily as dramatic as an Augustinian one—yet nevertheless resulting in the rescue of the hero/heroine, where rescue is a generic term including redemption, resuscitation and/or vindication. Melvin Udall, Edward and Vivian, Lancelot, Neo and even Rick Blaine—all are made over or made better by love. Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Rapunzel and Eugene—these are characters transformed from within; Jamal Malik’s life quest, motivated by a far-away love, ends in a glorious epiphany. An explanatory rationale for the preceeding essay might suggest how faintly aware of these themes our readers might be, but the need remains to inform them of their exact correspondence with courtly love themes. However much it has been transplanted, the courtly legacy sustains. And “the better man” (or woman) survives today.

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  • Raw, Laurence. “Imaginative History and Medieval Film.” Adaptation 5, 2 (2012): 262-267.
  • Reddy, William M. (2012) The Making of Romantic Love: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia, and Japan, 900-1200 CE (Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning). Chicago: U Chicago P.
  • Robertson, D. W. (1968) “The Concept of Courtly Love as an Impediment to the Understanding of Medieval Texts.” in The Meaning of Courtly Love, ed. F. X. Newman. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1-18.
  • Roxanne. Dir. Fred Schepisi. Columbia Pictures Industries, IndieProd Company Productions, L.A. Films, 1987. Film.
  • Saturday Night Fever. Dir. John Badham. Producer: Robert Stigwood Organization (RSO). Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 1977. Film.
  • Scaglione, Aldo. “Petrarchan Love and the Pleasures of Frustration.” Journal of the History of Ideas 58 (1997): 557-572.
  • Scala, Elizabeth. “Pretty Women: The Romance of the Fair Unknown, Feminism, and Contemporary Romantic Comedy.” Film & History 29 (1999): 34-45.
  • Schultz, James A. (2006) Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality. Chicago: U Chicago P.
  • Slumdog Millionaire. Dir. Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures, 2008. Film.
  • Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Walt Disney Pictures, 2010. Film.
  • The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership; distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999. Film.
  • The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures; distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003. Film.
  • The Princess Bride. Dir. Rob Reiner. Act III Communications, Buttercup Films Ltd., The Princess Bride Ltd., 1987. Film.
  • The Wild One. Dir. Laslo Benedek. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Film.
  • Walsh, P. G., ed. and trans. (1982) Andreas Capellanus on Love. London: Duckworth.
  • Witt, Ronald G. (2012) The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Medieval Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Zipes, Jack. (2011) The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fair-Tale Films. New York: Routledge.


1 William A. Reddy, The Making of Romantic Love, 14-16; on “desire as sexual appetite,” see 105-107, 220, 351-352; on romantic love and anthropology, 16-21. See as well James Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness…, xvi, xxi, 91-94 (on the courtly paragon)—another recent publication, more specifically on courtly love itself, that posits an eroticization of noble power arising from paradigmatic roles of refinement and social distinction.
Also topically of interest is Galician’s work, Sex, Love and Romance, more negatively-oriented self-help guide than scholarly analysis, deals with “rescue fantasies” (26), courtly love, 28-29, as well as more than a few films, including Coming to America (156), Ever After and Far and Away (169), Legally Blonde (199), Jerry Maguire (206) and What Women Want (138).

2 Reddy’s focus unfortunately occludes the influences on twelfth-century European verse and romance of, among others, antecedent Arabic poetry as well as Marian devotional lyrics.

3 Magda Bogin, The Women Troubadours, p. 56.

4 Celestino Deleyto, “Between Friends,” 169.

5 Selection was nowhere near as systematic as that found in the modern media study by Johnson and Holmes; their “RomCom” films all had implications for adolescents, containing in fact (they concluded) contradictory messages (366) with both desirable and undesirable outcomes to romantic relationships; only four of the forty films studied seemed familiar to me (You’ve Got Mail, Runaway Bride, What Women Want, and Sabrina—all still non-courtly it would seem).

6 This essay is dedicated to a colleague and friend of over forty years, Deborah Nelson-Campbell of Rice University.
Regarding other films I might have selected for study here, or recent scholarship that I might have “engaged” with, lack of space obliges me to disregard a spate of references to medieval legacies in cinema: medieval scholar Kathryn Hume deals mainly with fantasy, not courtly matters; extreme and heavily theoretical works like Bernau and Bildhauer’s Filming the Middle Ages or Pugh and Aronstein’s The Disney Middle Ages (major recipe discovery: traditional gender roles are reinforced in Disney movies, and Tangled is labeled “racist, speciesist…”—204 ). In theme-based studies like A Knight at the Movies, Aberth is oriented more to epic than romance and to films like Camelot, El Cid, Robin Hood, Seventh Seal, The Navigator, or to Joan of Arc films, and he does not mention any potential aspects of courtly values; while comprehensive and definitive Finke and Shichtman’s Cinematic Illuminations focuses on historicism and film conventions and does not deal with courtly subjects, nor does Elliott’s more recent Remaking the Middle Ages while offering innovative semiotic and historiographical analyses. Driver and Ray’s The Medieval Hero glosses over chivalry and knighthood (12-13, 44-45, esp. 73-87) but does not confront courtly issues directly. Laurence Raw reviews several other recent books in this category.

7 See C. Stephen Jaeger, Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility. For D. W. Robertson, the medieval phenomenon never existed: “I have never been convinced that there was any such thing as what is usually called courtly love during the Middle Ages” (1).

8 On fin’amors see Reddy, 164-167; also, Burns, Kelly and Monson provide full details and background on the subject; see Kim for the term “amour courtois.”

9 On this work, Burns writes with urgency (47): “As courtly heroines resist, recast, and manipulate paradigms of femininity, the standard scenarios available for male lovers shift as well. The anomalous and highly courtly fairy heroine in Marie de France’s twelfth-century Lai de Lanval, for example, openly displays the stunning beauty and refined behavior of the classic, commodified courtly lady while riding heroically to defend her seemingly helpless lover in a legal suit. The effect of this woman’s uncharacteristic participation in the legal system at King Arthur’s court is to disrupt it substantially and to defy simultaneously our preconceived notions of gendered options in the courtly world […]. While this heroine plays both parts of lovely lady and heroic knight, her lover Lanval is cast as stunningly ‘beautiful’ but not effeminate. He is a courtly suitor propositioned atypically by the lady’s expression of desire and a lover not required to prove his chivalric mettle in deeds of prowess”—obviously a view of the text quite different from mine.

10 My methodology will not include reference to courtliness or to the pragmatics of politeness/impoliteness (see e.g., Grice, Studies in the Way of Words); nor will I deal with obsessive-compulsive, erotic and neurotic Tristan & Iseut-type passionate love, as demonstrated in the movie 10 (George fanatically pursues Jenny) and/or Fatal Attraction (psychopathic Alex hounds Dan endlessly). As Genz observes (119), “[t]he film’s villain, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), is forcefully prevented from ‘having it all’ as her joint desires to succeed in her career and have a child with her lover are represented as equivalent to madness and ultimately resulting in death. Thus, the backlash reinforces the division between professional and domestic world […], maintaining that women have to opt between a typical existence as a woman and independence.” On the other hand, At First Sight features a generous female (another “gender-bending” role reversal) who attempts to “save” the blind hero (i.e., find a way to bring him sightedness) but complications thwart her success.

11 Contemporary relevance is found as well in the writings of theorist Slavoj Zizek who saw courtly love as masochistic; one reviewer wrote that Zizek “sees courtly love everywhere still. It’s not a medieval phenomenon only, but a contemporary one. The femme fatale is an heiress of the cruel lady of courtly love […].” (Leithart, “Zizek and Courtly Love”—a account of The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality by Zizek.)

12 Battais, 133-135. Cf. G. Duby, ”Le modèle courtois,” in Histoire des femmes en Occident, 261-276. Reddy, 108-109, 219-220, describes what he calls a “longing for association” in the context of romantic love.

13 De amore, ed. Walsh, 1.6.371 (146), 377 (148), 399 (156); 2.8.44 (282).

14 See C. S. Lewis, Allegory of Love. On “love service” to/for the Lady, see Grossel’s essay.

15 Surprisingly, the final scene of Saturday Night Fever in which Tony and Stephanie conclude the story, reveals a similar sentiment: Stephanie—“There were other reasons why I was hanging around you. / Tony—What do you mean? / St—You made me feel better. You gave me admiration, you know? Respect. Support. / T—Stephanie, maybe now, when I’m going to be in town, maybe we could see each other. I don’t mean like that. I know you’re thinking I’m promoting your pussy. I mean like friends. Like you said: we could help each other. / St—You want to be friends? / T—I’d like to be friends with you. / St—Do you think you know how? Do you think you could be friends with a girl? Could you stand that? / T—The truth? I don’t know. I could try. That’s all I can say. / St—OK.” < http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/s/saturday-night-fever-script-transcript.html>. Accessed 12 Oct. 2015.

16 For Deleyto (170), this film curiously reveals a “postmodern aesthetic of ironic vampirization of traditional rituals.”

17 See Peberdy’s article. For Pretty Woman, Reddy, 176-179, 180, sees parallels with the Lancelot romance by Chrétien de Troyes ; for Lancelot and adultery, parallels with Casablanca.

18 Perhaps a stretch, but I see a parallel here with the famous pastorela of innovative Occitan troubadour Marcabru: the rhythm and tone of the dialogue, its frankness (the shepherdess, in the chilly wind, has admirable nipples; the knight wants to see her beneath him to do together the “sweet thing” (per far la cauza dousanna), etc.) remind me of the banter between Edward and Vivian, particularly during the first half of the film.

19 Genz, 98. The term today is the “higher-harder-faster school of female achievement” and, in the oracular proclamation of Ms. Sandberg (CEO of Facebook): “require your partner to do half the work at home, don’t underestimate your own abilities, and don’t cut back on ambition out of fear that you won’t be able to balance work and children.” (Kantor NYT)

20 In this regard, see Jeffers-McDonald on the sub-genre “radical romantic comedy” of the sixties (59-84), that interrogates romance’s ideology itself, a result of the profound social changes of the era; she perceives in such films a conspicuous self-reflexivity, self-consciousness and self-absorption—what one called narcissism back in the day.

21 Fairy-tale specialist Jack Zipes has this to say about the numerous Beauty and the Beast films: they are “self help films [that] basically [offer] variations on the same theme: how to help attractive, seemingly strong women realize that appearances are deceiving and that happiness in wedlock is within their grasp if they understand the goodness of good-hearted men” (239).

22 As for relevance and continuity of appeal, one may note the film’s total domestic gross: $35 million—a testament to its success with audiences.

23 Chaos, death and mayhem reign in yet another film worthy of mention in this context: The Wild One (1953): the motorcycle hooliganism cannot overshadow the eight-minute romantic and quiet interlude (the hero safely escorts the girl away from violence), during which a desperate Kathy (Mary Murphy) expresses to the brooding Johnny (Marlon Brando) her yearning for salvation by “someone” who will rescue her from small-town mediocrity.

24 See, for example, Jaufre Rudel, “Quan lo rius de la fontana…” (amors de terra lonhdana) and “Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may…” (l’amor de lonh) in Poètes et romanciers du Moyen Age, ed. Pauphilet, 780-784.

25 Channeling St. Francis of Assisi, Battais observes (136) that pain delights the courtly lover since it can no doubt lead to ultimate happiness.

26 Michael Novak observes, on the very subject of that “rarefied spiritual passion” in a “higher sphere” known only to romantic lovers:. “Romantic love is a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude, purer, more spiritual, more uplifting than physical “hooking up.” It is not a sated appetite, but in fact quite the opposite. It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire […]. This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles […].” On this, Zizek would say that such impediments elevate the value of the beloved (see note 10).

Republished under Creative Commons licence 4.0


The following is an addition to the lexicon:


(Gynocentrism + Reductionism)
1. noun. The act of simplifying gynocentric phenomena or their root causes to the point of minimizing, obscuring, or distorting them.

a). “Women’s nature makes them completely gynocentric in every facet of life.”
b). “Because gynocentrism is genetic and never influenced by culture, women can never change.”

Gynoreductivist: A person who engages in gynoreductivism.

Synonyms. Gynoreductionist

Querelle du Mariage

While it may seem like a topic of modern MRAs and MGTOW, the burning question of whether men should marry, or more to the point, not marry, is centuries old. That men are rejecting marriage in increasing numbers is well documented, however cynicism about the virtues of marriage is nothing new.

In the premodern period there appeared a movement called the Querelle des Femmes or quarrel about women, which approximates to the current debate between feminists and antifeminists. The centuries-long querelle revolved around discussion of the rights, power and status of women. At its extremes the debate showcased hatred of women on the one hand, and extreme adoration or love of women on the other.

In its broader sense, the querelle encompasses all writing in which the relative merits of the sexes are discussed to ultimately draw gynocentric conclusions. If we consider the longevity of this revolution we can say that today’s feminism is the tail end of a longer advocacy machine for women.

The timeframe of the querelle begins in the twelfth century, and after 800 years of debate finds itself perpetuated in the feminist-driven reiterations of today (though some authors claim, unconvincingly, that the querelle came to an end in the 1700s).

The following excerpt from a paper discussing the querelle, by historian Joan Kelly, is instructive. It was written with a feminist focus, thus leaving out all but the most superficial characterization of the male experience of gender relations. Nevertheless it provides much important history about the longer gender debate and how it underpinned the growth of modern feminism:

We generally think of feminism, and certainly of feminist theory, as taking rise in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most histories of the Anglo-American women’s movement acknowledge feminist “forerunners” in individual figures such as Anne Hutchinson, and in women inspired by the English and French revolutions, but only with the women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls in 1848 do they recognize the beginnings of a continuously developing body of feminist thought. Histories of French feminism claim a longer past.

They tend to identify Christine de Pisan (1364-1430?) as the first to hold modern feminist views and then to survey other early figures who followed her in expressing prowoman ideas up until the time of the French Revolution. New work is now appearing that will give us a fuller sense of the richness, coherence, and continuity of early feminist thought, and I hope this paper contributes to that end. What I hope to demonstrate is that there was a 400-year-old tradition of women thinking about women and sexual politics in European society before the French Revolution.

Feminist theorizing arose in the fifteenth century, in intimate association with and in reaction to the new secular culture of the modern European state. It emerged as the voice of literate women who felt themselves and all women maligned and newly oppressed by that culture, but who were empowered by it at the same time to speak out in their defense. Christine de Pisan was the first such feminist thinker, and the four-century-long debate that she sparked, known as the querelle des femmes, became the vehicle through which most early feminist thinking evolved.

The early feminists did not use the term “feminist,” of course. If they had applied any name to themselves, it would have been something like defenders or advocates of women, but it is fair to call this long line of prowomen writers that runs from Christine de Pisan to Mary Wollstonecraft by the name we use for their nineteenth- and twentieth-century descendants. Latter-day feminism, for all its additional richness, still incorporates the basic positions the feminists of the querelle were the first to take.1

The paper is worth reading in full, but as mentioned above the author leaves out a substantial exploration of the male experience within the querelle. For the record I would also place the beginnings of the Querelle back further, and least to the writing of The Romance Of The Rose and earlier to the treatise The Art of Courtly Love which both discuss the themes of the emergent querelle, and both generated lively social debate on women’s status and gendered issues.

Isaac Newton proposed the law that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction and, by extension, we could say the same law applies to trends within human society. By this reasoning we can assume that a counterforce to the querelle des femmes must have been in full force from the Middle ages through to the modern period. But what form did it take?

As mentioned, the querelle des femmes was part of a more general quarrel between the sexes (querelle des sexes) in which men and women argued in favor of their respective issues. In that context surely men had something more to say for themselves beyond obsessing with the status of women alone; what about their own experiences as men, and where was that experience most detrimentally played out?

Marriage, in a word, is one place where men’s concerns most critically clustered – at least in terms of their literary activism.

During the pre-modern period men’s issues resembled the concerns of today’s MGTOW and Men’s Human Rights Activists (MHRAs), which revolve around discrimination against males in the relational sphere – both public and private.

I recently chanced upon another article which outlined the deeper history under the heading the querelle du mariage or quarrel about marriage. Being a chicken and egg scenario we cannot easily determine whether the querelle du mariage or the querelle des femmes came first, however it is clear that the two traditions served as vehicles for male, and female advocacy respectively.

The following book excerpt provides more detail about this tradition:

The early manifestations of the quarrel often focus on marriage, one of the pressing problems of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period: An uxor sit ducenda (Should One Take a Wife) was a question much discussed by Italian men, and in Germany it could appear as Ob einem manne sey zu nemen ein eelichs weyb oder nit (Should a Man Take a Wife or Not? – Albrecht von Eyb, 1472). In answer to this question male misogamy (hatred of marriage) is expressed as misogyny (hatred of women) and philogyny (love of women) as philogamy (love of marriage).

Christine de Pizan’s praise of women was directed against the misogamists and misogynists of her time, the anonymous text Les quinze joies de mariage (The Fifteen Joys of Marriage) deplored the loss of male liberty in marriage, and a century later Erasmus of Rotterdam presented the misogamist virgin in his Virgo misogamos (The Misogamist Virgin – 1523), who desperately wants to enter a convent but inspired by love she thinks better of it at the last moment. Philogynous texts questioned why women were punished more strictly for adultery than men or why a husband had to be brought (by a dowry); misogamists and misogynists, eg. In England, answered the question by stating that women tend to squeeze money out of their husbands.

In Germany this aspect of the querelle has been largely ignored (interest has focused on voices which argued in favor of women’s intelligence and reason), although the querelle du mariage played an important role here: the wide-ranging marriage debate during the Reformation, in particular in its sensational and scandalous early phases – public betrothals of monks and nuns, closures of monasteries and convents, an epidemic of marriages in Germany to which even French reformers travelled who wished to marry – must be read as an integral part of the European querelle des sexes and the same goes for the marriage debates of the Counter-Reformation. Martin Luther’s Von chelichen Leben (The Estate of Married Life – 1522) speaks quite in the manner of a querelle text by turning against the traditional misogamist attitude:

“What we would speak most of is the fact that the estate of marriage has universally fallen into such awful disrepute. There are many pagan books which treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage […]. So they [young men listening to the advice of a Roman official] concluded that woman is a necessary evil, and that no household can be without such an evil. […] For this reason young men should be on their guard when they read pagan books and hear the common complaints about marriage, lest they inhale poison . For the estate of marriage does not sell well with the devil, because it is God’s good will and work. This is why the devil has contrived to have so much shouted and written in the world against the institution of marriage […]. The world says of marriage, ‘Brief is the joy, lasting the bitterness.”2

I have long wondered where and in what form male activism existed in response to traditional European gynocentrism, but was not clear on what forms it took. From the above description, and from the many anti-marriage texts abounding through old Europe, it’s clear that a historical form of men’s rights advocacy concerned itself with both gynocentrism and the dangers of entrapment within marriage.

Gynocentrism is coming under sustained pressure within the internet age, seeing it increasingly criticized even as it remains powerful as a cultural force. Will the current pushback against cultural gynocentricity see it weaken further? That’s anyone’s guess, but if nothing else we can take pride in the fact that our resistance to it extends back far longer than the laughable Wikipedia article on Men’s Rights would have us believe.

The Wikipedia entry would have us believe that men’s rights advocacy started in the 1970s as a feminist initiative which then deformed itself into an antifeminist backlash. Clearly this is a monumental con driven feminist editors of the Wikipedia entry, one which denies blatant evidence extending back to Ernest B. Bax and before. With the longer history on men’s activism outlined above, I hope you will join with others in calling bullshit on feminist denials of men’s history and lived experiences.


[1] Joan Kelly, Early Feminist Theory and the “Querelle des Femmes”, 1400-1789
[2] Gisela Bock and Margarete Zimmerman, The European Querelle des Femmes, in Medieval Forms of Argument: Disputation and Debate (p.134).

Marc Rudov: Similarities between sexes far outweighs differences


Marc Rudov

A few years ago Marc Rudov was a powerful voice for men and advocate of more sane relationships, before he shifted away from the topic and into other spheres of interest – mainly to his career in marketing. Rudov was not a fan of the ‘men and women are different’ narrative, and he appeared to take seriously the finding that from the total number of human genes, men and women share 99% of them, leaving a mere 1% difference.

Feminists and men’s rights activists, not to mention most MGTOW and PUAs, tend to focus exclusively on that 1% of genetic difference.  With such help from the manosphere, feminists appear to have won the upper hand precisely due to that championing of difference – regardless of whether the differences ultimately be considered biological, sociological or both in origin. The reason male and female ‘difference’ has helped feminists so much is because it garners chivalry – and conversely ‘sameness’ gains no such chivalry.

Chivalry lays at the root of every success feminists have achieved.

Today, gender warriors on both sides tend to be totalizing in their emphasis on difference because that’s the myth they live by and gain power from, making them somewhat anxious at departing from that existential anchor.

However the human psyche is wildly open to variable expression, much more so than most animals it seems, which is one of the reasons Marc Rudov found himself at odds with the manosphere. It would be interesting to ask him if it was the deal breaker that saw him turn his back on the movement. Whatever the case, Rudov held firmly to the view men and women are basically the same – at least in potential – as we read in the following quote:

[Rudov] “I’ve recently published a book about women and know them well. My true education in all things feminine began almost 12 years ago, when I became reimmersed in the single world after my divorce. During this post-marriage odyssey with the “opposite” sex, I learned that women are not so opposite and are, in fact, much like men. To me, this is no longer a debate; it is fact. Now, we hear almost daily from anthropologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed psychotherapists, so-called life coaches, movies, books, magazines, TV, radio, parents, friends, lovers, and standup comics that men and women are wired differently and hopelessly incompatible. We are coached to accept, embrace, and gingerly navigate these differences. Nonsense, I say. If you believe this propaganda, you are part of the problem.”

“If you’re honest with yourself, you cannot find many real differences between men and women. The differences you’ve always thought about are socialized differences based on myths. If women were as different and mythical as the so-called experts would have you believe, they’d never be able to run major corporations, cities, states, and nations. When we stop behaving according to our socialized programming, our stereotypical roles, we are surprisingly similar. This behavioral shift is the solution for making our romances more harmonious and successful.”

His words here are very much at odds with the usual emphasis in the manosphere, but it nevertheless didn’t stop him being one of the most powerful voices ever to speak on gendered issues in spite of – or perhaps because of – his view of men and women as made of precisely the same stuff.  Whether he was right or wrong, his perspective had a considerable influence on the current debate.


Further reading:
Feminism, sex-differences and chivalry

M. Scott Peck: The Myth of Romantic Love

The following excerpt is from M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Travelled.



The Myth of Romantic Love

To serve as effectively as it does to trap us into marriage, the experience of falling in love probably must have as one of its characteristics the illusion that the experience will last forever.  This illusion is fostered in our culture by the commonly held myth of romantic love, which has its origins in our favorite childhood fairy tales, wherein the prince and princess, once united, live happily forever after.

The myth of romantic love tells us, in effect, that for every young man in the world there is a young woman who was “meant for him,” and vice versa. Moreover, the myth implies that there is only one man meant for a woman and only one woman for a man and this has been predetermined “in the stars.” When we meet the person for whom we are intended, recognition comes through the fact that we fall in love. We have met the person for whom all the heavens intended us, and since the match is perfect, we will then be able to satisfy all of each other’s needs forever and ever, and therefore live happily forever after in perfect union and harmony.

Should it come to pass, however, that we do not satisfy or meet all of each other’s needs and friction arises and we fall out of love, then it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or “true” love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after or get divorced.

While I generally find that great myths are great precisely because they represent and embody great universal truths (and will explore several such myths later in this book), the myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie. Perhaps it is a necessary lie in that it ensures the survival of the species by its encouragement and seeming validation of the falling-in-love experience that traps us into marriage. But as a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters.

Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth. Mrs. A. subjugates herself absurdly to her husband out of a feeling of guilt. “I didn’t really love my husband when we married,” she says. “I pretended I did. I guess I tricked him into it, ‘so I have no right to complain about him, and I owe it to him to do whatever he wants.”

Mr. B. laments: “I regret I didn’t marry Miss C. I think we could have had a good marriage. But I didn’t feel head over heels in love with her, so I assumed she couldn’t be the right person for me.”

Mrs. D., married for two years, becomes severely depressed without apparent cause, and enters therapy stating: “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’ve got everything I need, including a perfect marriage.” Only months later can she accept the fact that she has fallen out of love with her husband but that this does not mean that she made a horrible mistake.

Mr. E., also married two years, begins to suffer intense headaches in the evenings and can’t believe they are psychosomatic. “My home life is fine. I love my wife as much as the day I married her. She’s everything I ever wanted,” he says. But his headaches don’t leave him until a year later, when he is able to admit, “She bugs the hell out of me the way she is always wanting, wanting, wanting things without regard to my salary,” and then is able to confront her with her extravagance.

Mr. and Mrs. F. acknowledge to each other that they have fallen out of love and then proceed to make each other miserable by mutual rampant infidelity as they each search for the one “true love,” not realizing that their very acknowledgment could mark the beginning of the work of their marriage in-stead of its end.

Even when couples have acknowledged that the honeymoon is over, that they are no longer romantically in love with each other and are able still to be committed to their relationship, they still cling to the myth and attempt to conform their lives to it. “Even though we have fallen out of love, if we act by sheer will power as if we still were in love, then maybe romantic love will return to our lives,” their thinking goes.

These couples prize togetherness. When they enter couples group therapy (which is the setting in which my wife and I and our close colleagues conduct most serious marriage counseling), they sit together, speak for each other, defend each other’s faults and seek to present to the rest of the group a united front, believing this unity to be a sign of the relative health of their marriage and a prerequisite for its improvement. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, we must tell most couples that they are too much married, too closely coupled, and that they need to establish some psychological distance from each other before they can even begin to work constructively on their problems.

Sometimes it is actually necessary to physically separate them, directing them to sit apart from each other in the group circle. It is always necessary to ask them to refrain from speaking for each other or defending each other against the group. Over and over again we must say, “Let Mary speak for herself, John,” and “John can defend himself, Mary, he’s strong enough.” Ultimately, if they stay in therapy, all couples learn that a true acceptance of their own and each other’s individuality and separateness is the only foundation upon which a mature marriage can be based and real love can grow.

Man in medieval Baghdad foolishly behaved as a courtly lover

By Douglas Galbi

singing slave girl

A young man pretending to be an aristocrat arrived at a banquet in eleventh-century Baghdad. A slave girl  — beautiful, highly cultured, and wealthy — was singing there. She enthralled him.

In fashionable devotion to the singing slave girl, the young man refrained from eating even though he was dying of hunger. He became inebriated from drinking sweet date wine. Then the love-struck young man saw roses. He grabbed them and ate them. The slave girl whispered behind her tambourine to her master:

By God, I beg of you, call for something for this young man to eat, or else his shit will become honeyed rose jam!

The singing slave girl cared for the foolish young man.

The young man was dressed in only a brocade robe. The night was cold. He began to shiver, and his teeth chatter. He said to the slave girl, “I want to embrace you.” She said to him, “You poor thing, you need to embrace an outer garment more than to embrace me, if you had any sense!” She had worldly good sense. He was a foolish courtly lover. He left deeply wounded by her sensible words.

As foolish courtly lovers do, the young man then wooed the slave girl with letters. He wrote to her of “his love and his follies, his insomnia at night, his tossing and turning in bed as if he were lying on a hot frying pain, and his inability to eat and drink.” The shrewd narrator of the story added that the young man wrote “of such like vacuous drivel, which has no use or benefit” to men in love. The singing slave girl naturally rejected the vacuous drivel of the courtly lover.

Badly educated, the courtly lover turned to literary imagination and poetry. He wrote to the slave girl:

Since you have forbidden me to visit you, or to ask you to visit me, then order, by God, your specter to visit me at night, and quench the heat of my heart.

Guide me to your specter so that
I may claim a rendezvous with it.

Another poem:

If your abstinence is a come-on,
show your specter the way to me.

The young man sought to travel to meet the slave girl’s spirit, or to have it come to him. In worldly love, a spirit is a poor substitute for a flesh-and-blood woman.

With compassion and boldness, the singing slave girl taught the foolish man actually how to achieve his aim. She sent a message to him:

Woe upon you, you poor thing, I’ll do something for you that is better for you than my specter visiting you at night. Put two gold coins in a purse and I’ll come to you and that will be that.

In courting sophisticated slave girls in medieval Baghdad, poetry was much less useful than gold coins.

As the above story indicates, the eleventh-century Islamic world had both the intellectual capability and freedom to criticize the men-debasing ideology of courtly love. In western Europe, benighted scholars have ignorantly celebrated courtly love for about a millennium. Study of medieval Islamic literature might help to spur a true renaissance and enlightenment.


The above story is from the Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim {The Imitation Abū al-Qāsim}, a work written in Arabic and attributed to al-Azdī. The work and its author are closely associated with Baghdad. It was probably originally written between 1008 and 1020. The work has survived in a unique codex manuscript now held in the British Library as MS. ADD 19, 913. That manuscript, which isn’t the author’s autograph, includes a marginal note dated 1347. St. Germain (2006) pp. 10-14.

St. Germain provides an English translation of Ḥikāyat Abī al-Qāsim, along with extensive notes. For the story above, see id. pp. 287-8. The quotes above are from id., with some insubstantial changes for clarity.

The singing slave girl was Zād Mihr, a historically attested woman. The man in love with her isn’t named. He is described as “a young man who pretended to be an aristocrat of Baghdad.” The young man’s letters to Zād Mihr include symptoms of lovesickness recognized from antiquity.

[image] Portrait of young Egyptian singing slave girl. Painting by
Émile Vernet-Lecomte, 1869. Slightly cropped. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


St. Germain, Mary S. 2006. Al-Azdī’s Ḥikāyat Abī al Qāsim al-Baghdādī: placing an anomalous text within the literary developments of its time. Ph.D Thesis. University of Washington.

Article published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

The Gynocentrism of Jordan Peterson

Most by now will have heard the name Jordan Peterson, who has become quite the internet sensation as he tackles the excesses of postmodern philosophy and it’s negative impact on society. His fight against the deconstruction of traditional cultural forms, along with the existential vertigo and nihilism that inevitably follow it are commendable. However there’s a question mark over what Peterson deems to replace that postmodernism with, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Peterson works largely, though not exclusively, with Jungian terminology – especially with what Jungians term the ‘archetypal patters’ of human behaviour. Carl Jung was among the first to document universal patterns of behavior among humans which he called archetypal patterns, which he later gave discreet titles such as the child archetype, father archetype, mother archetype, and so on. Jung identified literally hundreds of such archetypes and discovered that classical mythologies also tended to record these archetypal themes in story form.

Jung believed that all people perceive the world through archetypal filters of one kind or another, and are often unconscious of the fact they are perceiving the world through a limited archetypal lens.

With that brief description of archetypes I come back to the question of what Jordan Peterson wants to replace postmodernism with. Does he want to replace it with what was there before it, a wide variety of archetypal forms? The answer to that appears to be no, he has a much more simplistic prescription to fill the void: that men become heroes and women become mothers.

After all the good of cautioning against the excesses of postmodernism, Peterson would unwind it by advocating an equally excessive cult of motherhood as the necessary alternative. He is caught by the spell of what Jungians refer to as the Great Mother Archetype, and doesn’t realize he’s caught.

The overwhelming amount of emphasis and air time he gives to discussing good mothers, bad mothers, the Great Mother, Oedipal mother, devouring mother, nurturing mother and on and on far exceeds the airtime he gives to other themes. Mentioning career women occasionally (often in the negative) doesn’t make the emphasis and less obsessive.

In the early pioneering days of Freud and Jung there was a huge fad of interest in parental figures, especially the mother. Theory has since moved on from mothers and the mother archetype, but Peterson is still trapped there compliments of his fascination with Jungian literature. This is the Achilles heel of Peterson’s pitch for improved gender relations and it deserves unpacking.

The first thing we need to know about the Mother Archetype is that it is linked to her archetypal son – The Hero.2 In myths and stories around the world we read of Mamma’s hero-son moving through the world slaying dragons, a theme Peterson specializes in discussing.

The possession of Peterson’s mind by the theme of the Great Mother and her son The Hero compels him to ask young men to lift heavy weights, and ask young women to be mothers – great mothers. Anyone with a strong understanding of archetypal psychology will see immediate problems in this proposal.

Here’s an excerpt from post-Jungian James Hillman which I think captures the issue well:

James Hillman on the Great Mother Archetype medium wide

With his monotheism of the Mother, Peterson is single-minded about the possible life options for young men and women. According to Jung the archetypal possibilities for a human life are multiple and varied, therefore living out the Mother and Hero archetypes alone – Peterson’s preferred template – reduces that variety to singular options.

Asking all young men to be worldly heroes, to lift heavy weights to compliment the maternal principle, and asking young women to be mothers – great mothers – when they may not be suited to motherhood at all, limits the possibilities dramatically and may fly in the face of a person’s calling to be something else entirely.

In order to get past this mother-monotheism we need to lift the Madonna Church skirt to allow all the many archetypal forms – the congregation – to walk out and stand independently on their own two feet. By relativizing the Mother Archetype, by removing that word “Great” that appears before it, we allow it to be just one archetype among many, no more or less important than the rest.

Many men want to be heroes, and women mothers. However there’s a problem resulting from what is left out of that picture. The omission of other archetypal styles and perspectives likely leads people away from things they might be better suited to. For example some men are not called to be worldly heroes and don’t want to be – they might be spontaneous Peter Pan’s, introverts, gay men, Zeta males, bachelors…. or alternatively women might not be first and foremost identified with their wombs and kitchens – they might have a strong desire to be childless and perhaps to pursue some other life calling; to study, to have a career, help the homeless, or whatever.

It’s insufficient to argue that “mothering has its basis in biology” and thus the Mother Archetype is the most important archetype to push. All archetypes have their basis in biology, that’s Jungianism 101 and therein lies the problem: Peterson talks only about mothering as biologically based but does not grant the same for the other archetypal patterns women might enact.

The mother Goddess Demeter is not the only Goddess…. there are others like Artemis (a freewheeling virgin huntress); Athena (a virgin Goddess focused on civic responsibility – Athens was named after her); Aphrodite the Goddess of beauty, sexual pleasure and love; Hestia the virgin Goddess of the hearth; or Hera the Goddess of social power and status just to mention a few.

Many of these archetypal figures were not primarily mothers, but nonetheless the biological impulses that give rise to their patternings are equally as valid as those underpinning mothering.

To underline the point more starkly we can say that even the destructive spectacle of feminism that Peterson rightly rails against is a biologically-based archetypal pattern.

To summarize, the great danger in Peterson’s advice is that it narrows the possibilities too much, and too forcefully in favor of Mother and her Hero son.2 Moreover, many men have become tired of the onerous demands placed on them by traditional gender roles, and who can blame them? Traditional gender roles were sometimes workable when held in balance, with careful reciprocity guiding the arrangement. However in modern society the contractual emphasis on reciprocity has gone by the wayside in favor of extracting all you can from the other person and from the relationship. That makes traditional relationships dangerous places of potential exploitation.

Wanting to return to better models of the past doesn’t guarantee we’ll get them, as so many find out. What we get instead are onerous expectations and demands with little payoff – or worse asset loss, parental alienation, false accusations and public shaming, not to mention the psychological sequelae that comes with it.

For men, all mother-serving heroics serve to further an already lopsided gynocentric culture, one asking men to put themselves into the service of marriage and womankind in an environment that is unlikely to provide much if any reciprocal payoff — for women long ago cast off their roles of mother and dutiful wife, and men are now seeing fit to do the same.

Men’s Rights Activists have long known that postmodernism, feminism, and marxist SJW’s are bankrupt. That’s what we fight. Likewise we know that traditional gynocentrism is bankrupt. This article attempts to show that Peterson too understands the bankruptcy of postmodernism, feminism, and marxist SJW culture, which he describes articulately and with passion….. but then proceeds to fumble for a working model to replace it. For him the replacement is a return to traditional stereotypes of mothers, marriage and women-serving heroes. Traditional gynocentrism. The problem today is that neither women nor men are willing to define themselves solely by relation to the opposite sex, which they view as an exercise in exploitation and control…. so Peterson’s solution simply doesn’t work for many people of today.

MRAs have elaborated one solution in the Zeta / MGTOW life orientation that doesn’t view male identity primarily on the basis of how it benefits the opposite sex. And as part of that adjustment many men who want relationships with women – the red pill kind – are beginning to approach them as relationships between peers (Marc Rudov), as intimate friendships, or as forms of non-gynocentric traditionalism…. or they may frame them as something else entirely. What they are doing is weaving a middle path between Scylla and Charybdis, and refusing to swap one poison for another.


Videos by Jordan Peterson.
Analysis of Sleeping Beauty
Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world?
The Oedipal Mother in a South Park Episode
The Positive Mother Gives Birth to the Hero
The Failed Hero Story vs The Successful (Freud vs Jung)
The overprotective mother or ‘how not to raise a child’


[1] Hillman, J. Abandoning the Child, in Mythic Figures, Vol 6. Uniform Edition


[2] There are a number of variations on the hero theme, as detailed by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell wasn’t a Jungian, and he was suspicious of many Jungian dogmas.

When referring to the hero archetype in the article above I’m referring exclusively to the classical Jungian understanding of that term, and Peterson’s reliance on same. The hero archetype in Jung’s writings is intimately bound up with the mother archetype (being a hero for mother / or fighting against the dragon mother, etc), as contrasted with Campbell’s focus which held that a hero’s journey need not imply mother. Jung’s mother-tied definition of the hero – Mother’s Hero – is laid out in his Symbols of Transformation.

One poster on the Peterson facebook page recently wrote, “The hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell begins by ‘Separation,’ the departure from the status quo. To me this personally I associate this to stepping out of and leaving the gynocentric view of the status quo.” That is a true stepping off into the unknown, a more gutsy hero’s journey, as compared with stepping out into the world as mother’s hero to do her bidding. As Campbell characterized it, the true hero journey entails leaving the mother-world behind and seeking atonement with the father.