Joan: A New Coin Reinvents France’s Saint Joan of Arc as a Non-Binary Icon

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A new play in London has reimagined France‘s Saint Joan of Arc as a non-binary icon, who rejects female identity as she struggles to find a place in the world of men.

“I, Joan” hadn’t even been performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in August when Time Out magazine called it “the most controversial play of the year.”

The first images, showing Joan with bandaged breasts, were enough to ignite social networks.

Hardly a month goes by in Britain without a battle over gender identity and the play has given all sides in the debate new ammunition.

The play about France’s patron saint, the “maid of Orleans” who repelled the English during the Hundred Years’ War in the 15th century, was written by Charlie Josephine, with Joan played by Isobel Thom.

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Josephine and Thom were both born female but identify as non-binary.

The staging of the play at the iconic theater on the south bank of the Thames is decidedly contemporary, with no period costume.

The wife of the king’s eldest son or dauphin, the future king Charles VII, is played by a black woman. Modern choreography defines the fight scenes.

But Joan’s story is still told – from her encounter with the Dauphin and her battles to her trial and death at the stake in 1431.

The question of gender is recurrent.

“Be born a girl and you’re not a girl. Lord, why did you put me in this body?” Short-haired Joan asks at one point, dressed in men’s clothing.

Joan rejects the dresses people expect of her.

“I’m not a woman. I don’t fit that word,” they say. A friend of hers suggests, “Maybe your word hasn’t been invented yet?”

His allies then suggest that he use the pronoun “they”, to huge cheers from the audience. Opponents in the room call her “she”.

At Jeanne’s trial for heresy, a sentence is repeated by the judges: “Do you think it is good to take a man’s dress? Even if it is illegal?”

“What are you so afraid of?” Joan responds with a laugh.

“I am not a woman. I am a warrior.”

Controversial
Feminists like Heather Binning, founder of the UK-wide Women’s Rights Network, are against this portrayal.

“She went through what she went through because she was a woman. You can’t change that,” she said.

“This pressure group is hijacking all of our inspirational women from history. This ideology is insulting to women.

“There are a lot of women we don’t know because history was written by men for men.”

But Josephine and Thom defended the play.

“I forgot I was blaspheming a saint,” Josephine wrote in The Guardian.

“No one is taking the historic Joan away from you,” Thom insisted on Twitter. “No one takes your Joan away from you, no matter what Joan means to you…

“This show is art: it’s exploration, it’s imagination.”

Shakespeare’s Globe took the same approach, comparing the interpretation of “I Joan” to the famous English playwright’s approach.

“Shakespeare didn’t write historically accurate plays. He took characters from the past to ask questions about the world around him,” he said.

“Our writers today are no different. History has provided countless wonderful examples of Joan portrayed as a woman.

“This production simply offers the possibility of another point of view. That’s the role of theatre: to simply ask the question ‘imagine if?'”

The spirit of the times

Re-examining Joan’s life through a contemporary lens also takes root in her native France.

“It’s the spirit of the times,” said Valérie Toureille, a university professor specializing in the Hundred Years’ War and author of a 2020 book on Jeanne.

“It does not shock me. There are women who have decided to take a different path from men and women. This is the case of Joan of Arc,” she added.

Asked about Joan wearing men’s clothing, she said: “It was to protect against rape and it’s much easier to ride as a man than to look like an Amazon.”

Nonetheless, for Toureille, Jeanne’s men’s clothing was the key issue in the heresy trial.

“It is material evidence that supports the religious argument. For churchmen, Joan in these clothes went beyond her status as a woman.”

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