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Monday, April 4th, 2016 01:23 am
So I was reading stonecarapace's excellent Breaking Through fic, which features female Valjean and Javert meeting in Montreuil-sur-mer, and it got me thinking: how would their character arcs differ if they were born women? Valjean would retain her immense (almost supernatural) strength as in the brick, which would give her some advantages in her sexist society, but she would be sent to a women's prison, not a bagne for breaking the law. And would Javert even be able to join the police force? It's doubtful historically, but if we're going to suspend disbelief for this thought experiment, I can see her going from a guard in a women's prison to an officer under the patronage of M. Chabouillet. She would likely be sent on undercover missions in which a policeman would be too conspicuous, such as spying in a nunnery, an all-girl's school, or restricted parts of a brothel. So there'd be a reason for a man like M. Chabouillet to keep her around on the force.

Anyway, I think I can tell a very interesting feminist story with genderswapped Valjean and Javert. It would contrast Valjean's feminist values of nurturing and compassion with Javert's patriarchal values as the father's daughter, supporting the patriarchy against other women.

Javert came from the same lowly background as in the brick, and rather than serving at Toulon, she was a guard in a women's prison or mental institution, where women were often sent if they defied their husband. M. Chabouillet took notice of her and supported her entry into the police, realizing a female officer can infiltrate parts of the underworld where a man cannot go. The price, of course, is that Javert has to reject her femininity (think Lady Oscar from Rose of Versailles). She must be extra zealous in maintaining her authority, knowing one misstep will send her out on the streets, and endure additional scorn from both criminals and her fellow officers due to her sex. Poor woman! If I wanted to make this dark, I could have her tacitly support her superiors in abusing other women and then rationalize it the way Javert rationalizes prisoner abuse in the brick: she overlooks it in the name of authority.

Valjean's story I'm a little hazy on. I'll keep the part where Valjean never had a romantic relationship. Due to her homely appearance and intimidating strength, her father couldn't marry her off. She could simply steal bread to feed her sister's child, but I think it would be more interesting to have her defy an abusive man. Perhaps her sister's husband is a wife-beater, and she stands up to him. Or she defends a poor woman on the street. Either way, with her strength, she injures the man severely and is sent to prison. After being given her yellow ticket, she realizes her only choices are menial drudgery, prostitution, or at best another abusive marriage like her sister. Valjean rejects all those choices and creates a new identity for herself as a man, M. Madeleine.

I'm still debating how the Fantine story would proceed differently with these two. Javert would be even more scornful since she knows she could have gone down this path like her mother, but she was one of the "better women" who made something of herself by serving a powerful man like M. Chabouillet. Meanwhile, Valjean is more sympathetic, understanding from personal experience how difficult life must be for a woman to sell herself, and doing all she can to help Fantine get back Cosette. (In an AU, they should both go beat up Bamatabois and Tholomyes).

In the Fauchelevent scene, Javert grows suspicious of Valjean not just because of her display of strength, but because something in Valjean's masculine appearance slips. Perhaps while lifting the cart, the binder on her breasts slips? Or Valjean rips her coat, revealing a glimpse of her wide hips and narrow waist.

Then we get to the Punish me M. le maire scene. Javert suspects Valjean of being a woman, sends off her report to Paris, and gets a response from M. Chabouillet that tells her to quit being foolish - they found the real Jeane Valjean in Arras. The punishment scene would be even more emotionally wrought because Javert knows that if she is dismissed from the police force, her options are much more limited as a woman, and she may well face the fate of her prostitute mother. However, in her twisted world logic, she believes this is a just outcome, since she wronged a male authority figure, and a father's daughter does not do that.

The Champmathieu trial will proceed as in the musical, except it will be more of a shock when Valjean strips to reveal she is a woman! The court will be thrown into complete disarray. This is a very symbolic "Who Am I?" moment for Valjean because she rejects the male privilege she garnered as M. Madeleine in order to save a poor, downtrodden woman. She realizes she must be true to herself, turning away from masculinity despite all its power in order to embrace the feminine, knowing the consequences it entails.

I'm unsure what other major scenes matter after this. I can see Gorbeau House being interesting with the rape threat to Valjean, and also with Javert taking down a dangerous gang, something her colleagues doubted she could do as a woman.

The big change would come at the barricades. What would be clever thematically is to have it mirror the Punish me M. le maire scene, except with Javert crossdressed as a man and Valjean as herself. This shows how Javert, who starts out womanly, eventually must hide herself completely beneath the identity of a man, symbolizing her allegiance to the patriarchy, while Valjean goes in the opposite direction: from taking on male privilege as M. Madeleine to becoming a motherly, nurturing figure to Cosette. But I'm not sure how to make this work in the context of the barricades, since the brick has women standing by Les Amis, while the musical has Eponine crossdressing as a man to sneak in. Which is it?

I'm also stuck on Javert's revelation: I originally conceived this as male Valjean showing her that no, criminals aren't all rapists, just like male authority figures can't all be trusted (implying that M. Chabouillet sexually exploited Javert). But I'm not sure what to do here with a female Valjean. In that case, it's an identity crisis, where Javert must realize she's been in the wrong all along by aligning with patriarchal figures, while Valjean lived authentically. Perhaps Javert expects Valjean to kill her because that's the cowardly thing to do? And Javert has always looked down on "those other women" as weak and cowardly? However, Valjean lets her go free, and in so doing, shows her that the feminist value of forgiveness is a source of strength. I still don't know how this would lead to her derailment though.
Monday, April 4th, 2016 09:24 pm (UTC)
Ooh, interesting thoughts! I think Valjean and Javert are among the Les Mis characters it would be hardest to genderswap (the Amis would arguably be easier, Fantine less so). I remember enjoying Stonecarapace's fic when I read it, though I didn't find it all that convincing.

I have an old idea of a genderswapped JVJ fic set in Ireland where Valjean runs from a Magdalene laundry where she's been trapped for years after being perceived as a fallen woman (agreeing to sleep with some douche in order to save her sister's kids? idk) -- she hates everything and especially nuns, but then some kind old Abbess teaches her they are not all like that, and she joins some convent where they have a school for poor kids and eventually becomes Mother Superior there. Unfortunately, Sister Obedience (Javert's nun name) gets sent there and she used to work in the laundry; the Mother Superior's sexiness lax attitude towards sinner is highly suspicious indeed...

It would involve a lot of historical research, though, and also Amis (who would be Irish independence activists), which is why I probably won't write it.
Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 09:17 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Fantine is definitely the hardest -- so much of her storyline is about the oppression of women, not only the prostitution, but also the way society punishes unwed mothers while letting the fathers off the hook. :-/ (There's also the social aspect, of course, since it's poor women who are encouraged to be sexually/romantically available to men and end up risking everything while the men risk nothing, moving on to marry someone "respectable". Ugh, Tholomyès needs to join the Thénardiers in douchebag hell. ><) I think I'd just keep her character female in a genderswap AU, otherwise it would just feel forced.

I'd have to reread the fic to say for certain, but IIRC I couldn't really believe in the premise (but MsM fic generally strains credulity for me to beging with). On the other hand, it could be an AU as you say, perhaps even in a slightly alternate history -- though I think that would need more worldbuilding than what is realistic for a one-shot.

Ha, yeah, it wouldn't take much for Valjean to get sent to the laundry. :-( I'm not sure to what extent she'd be intimidating in strength, though... Canon Valjean has years of treeclimbing/pruning and then hard labour behind him in addition to the natural benefits of being male when it comes to muscle mass, after all, and while female!Valjean would also have to do hard physical work (like poor people in general would have to) she might not end up as crazy strong, at least not when compared to men who'd presumably be doing the same or heavier work. I like that female!Valjean's super strength would be another way to highlight sexism, though -- and now I'm thinking of how in canon it's something that is seen as positive but also connected to his background and as such potentially dangerous for him, like when he confirms Javert's suspicions by lifting the cart. (Javert seems to reluctantly lust over admire the strength, though, even if it's just from a shallow "typical convict brawn" POV.)

Not going to lie, Sister Obedience's repressed lesbian lust is a main reason why I like this idea. /o\ I did have some kind of plan as to why and how they'd leave the convent (Valjean would save someone by revealing her identity and then flee as per canon; they all end up in Dublin where the Amis are simultaneously fighting for Irish independence and women's suffrage, complete with glorious female!Enjolras and mouthy-but-pining drinker Girltaire... I need to see if I can find my notes again.)

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 11:27 pm (UTC)
I am definitely up for the female version of the Amis fighting for women's suffrage and singing about pretty boys, lmao forever. Such a cute image!

Miss m will have her own thoughts on this, but I wasn't entirely sure whether in stonecarapace's fic Madame Madeleine had always presented as a woman, or whether she first started off with the crossdressing and then became open? Both posed some difficulty for me, although the writing in that story is so beautiful and the femme!Javert's perspective is so IC and gorgeously wrought that I was totally drawn in regardless.

I hear you on the desire for a woman to be as strong as a man (it comes from your id! But you don't have to be physically strong to be powerful!). On your story, the Valjean crossdressing works for me - as you mention in that century women crossdressed as men to see battle, and you have Eponine at the barricades.

But I am not sure openly female Javert would work in the early 1800s - France didn't see female suffrage until the next century, I fear (some quick research turned up this http://www.iub.edu/~paris10/ParisOSS/D11_Sex_and_Gender/d7_Offen.html).

Still, I really like your ideas for them, and agree that openly female Javert affords more narrative opportunity for gender power play and is less problematic (for me, because that irrepressible servant of the law wouldn't lie to her superiors about this). If you wanted to keep this then I think you could make Third Republic milieu or early 1900s setting without straying to much from the canon period - it seems that at the turn of the century women's rights were at the cusp of change and you could conceivably have M. Gisquet as a progressive commander who was keen to use all law enforcement resources at his disposal regardless of gender.

I am actually also intrigued by your het!JVJ ideas, though that must be equally hard to make (and the man-discovers-disturbingly-sexy-other-man-is-realy-a-woman overtones needs to be handled very carefully). Maybe for another story! I thought you'd go for a female Valjean, male Javert dynamic (where she'd top, and could really squish him physically!).
Thursday, April 7th, 2016 02:05 am (UTC)
I think I am coming around to this Domme idea, because all his superiors would be Dominant women :) ready to use this subservient officer for their whims is HUGELY appealing to me.

Hmm. Possibly for fem!Valjean, Javert is horrified because he doesn't know how to deal with women, he's always seen women as weaklings and/or whores - and she derails him /not/ with forgiveness but with her /strength/: that women can be as strong as men, that women who have sex aren't whores, that a woman could be brave enough to come to the barricades to save the boy her daughter loves, and courageous enough to let Javert go free. Plus, she can actually physically squish him, she pulls him from the river, etc. But yes, very difficult to make without the gross.

Aw, I am totally the black widow spider at work! My weapon is: I look tiny and vulnerable, the dudes lower their guard, and then, BAM.
Wednesday, April 6th, 2016 07:44 am (UTC)
So you disliked it because you dislike Valjean/Javert in Montreuil-sur-mer? Or because you specifically thought that, given the historical context, it was unrealistic to have female Valjean and Javert in their respective positions, even if one were crossdressed?

I didn't dislike it! Just found the worldbuilding too hand-wavey for me to fully believe in it. (The MsM thing is only tangentially relevant in that it might help explain why I might be a harder sell than many other readers.)

Now, I'm gonna disagree with you on the strength issue, because it really pisses me off when people use the "women are physically weaker than men" argument to keep women out of certain roles (such as U.S. combat, as we've seen in recent years).

Yeah, I don't like that either. (As a woman who lifts heavy weights 4x/week and is pretty swole, it would indeed be hypocritical of me to insist that women naturally are or should be weak.) I was rather trying - perhaps not very clearly - to speculate on whether she'd have the opportunity to develop impressive strength the way canon Valjean does, since she doesn't spend two decades hauling around rocks, as you say.

(I'd forgotten about the bull; that is indeed unrealistic. Maybe he is a bull whisperer...)

she had to support her sister's family when her brother-in-law died, I can make an argument that female Valjean had to engage in "male work" around the farm, take on jobs as a laborer, etc, whatever paid the bills. [...] And I don't see how tree pruning is sex-restricted?

Good points, both of them. Again, I wasn't trying to suggest that she *couldn't* do it, just questioning whether she *would*, since pre-Toulon Valjean seems to have led a fairly conventional life by all accounts. Then again, I don't know if tree-pruning was considered a typical male occupation - and even if it were, she might well take it on because of necessity. Being considered unfeminine and therefore suspect would indeed add to her loneliness/sense of alienation. :-/

(I always figured that the pruning was where Valjean got his agility from and then prison turned him super-strong, or at least stronger; canon isn't clear on whether he was unusually strong before the bagne, I don't think. Anyway, female!Valjean spending years pruning trees would definitely be strong and fit.)

I forget the details, but adrenaline is a hell of a drug. So female Valjean could certainly lift the cart if circumstances forced her to tap into that strength.

There's a difference between doing something in the heat of a moment, powered by an adrenaline rush, and doing it after having spent ten minutes going "oh shit, am I going to do this with Javert watching?" though. :-P Anyway, it's a minor point, since it doesn't HAVE to be a cart - the important thing is that she does something impressive, although it might reveal her.

her strength as a woman might intimidate men simply because they don't expect a woman to be that strong!

Now that I agree with. And the main important thing about Valjean's strength isn't that he can specifically do XYZ (though he has to be able to save Fauchelevent and later Marius), but that it's something that makes him stand out - and also it's significant that he *could* hurt people physically, but specifically chooses not to. So my quibble about female Valjean perhaps not exceeding all men in strength is merely a quibble, and certainly not an indication that I think she'd be weak or incapable of doing impressive stuff!

Anyway, I'm super passionate about writing female characters that aren't restricted in their story roles or settings by their sex, because we rarely get that even in modern cinema (and part of the reason I avoid historical drama is because I'm tired of seeing women restricted to the wife, mother, and fucktoy roles).

I agree, but I'm also interested in how gender roles would affect the fates of the characters, exploring how their basic personality is shaped by the constraints of their lives, if you will. So on one hand I find it freeing to read/watch stories where women are NOT hindered by sexism, on the other I'm also interested in stories where sexism is part of what affects the characters' lives... So I guess it all depends? (I don't really know enough about 19th century France to specifically suggest another time period, sorry. :-/)
Wednesday, April 6th, 2016 08:46 am (UTC)
Canon Valjean is both really smart (teaching himself to read and enjoy it + building a business from scratch) and an excellent marksman, so female!Valjean could definitely have those properies as well! And like the strength, it would be something suspect, because she's not a woman ~ staying in her place~.

(It occurred to me that the rape threat in the Gorbeau scene might even not be precluded by Valjean being male - we don't get his POV during that scene, and while Hugo tells us he basically blocked out anything to do with sexuality while in prison, there might still be unsettling thoughts niggling at his mind in that moment. Anyway, a female Valjean would definitely be aware of it.)

Ugh, yeah, the physical advantages are unfair. :-( But I think they are not as profound as a lot of people like to believe - otherwise, why would people put so much effort into discouraging women from lifting? If we were naturally weak, surely some deadlifts won't change that? It's almost like they believe deep down that we aren't separate species or something...

I hear you on the escapism, but Les Mis is so much about how societal injustice affects people that personally I want stories to engage with that on some level - the wish fulfillment, to me, is when people overcome the injustice enough to have their happily ever after. :-P Fem!Tony, on the other hand, would totally work, especially since inventing cybernetic enhancements is what Tony does anyway.
Wednesday, April 6th, 2016 08:05 pm (UTC)
I can't remember anything from the brick about Valjean being abused particularly because of his strength, but I'm not going to bet my life on it... And now I want a fic about the Gorbeau robbery from his POV, augh. Not necessarily about rape threats, it's just such an awesome scene (and IMO underused in fic).

Also, while Valjean's strength may protect him from other prisoners, I'm sure he knows that any of the guards could force themselves on him, and he couldn't do anything.

*nods* That's the premise of this fic by Carmarthen, actually -- there's no actual rape, just Valjean's fear of it and his awareness that he'd be effectively defenceless if it were to happen. It is a very good story.

What exactly were Hugo's words on Valjean's sexuality while in prison?

In the copy I have here, it says that "In prison he had been sullen, gloomy, chaste, ignorant, and ferocious" (in the chapter following his and Cosette's first night at the Gorbeau house after they arrive in Paris). I'd have to look up the original to say for sure, but I took it to mean that while he might be (and probably was) aware that rape happened, he just kind of blocked it out as just a general part of the awfulness.

I don't know how fem!Valvert can live happily ever after in their day and age

I believe that if canon Valvert can do it, female Valvert can do it! They just need to... not die. :-(
Thursday, April 7th, 2016 12:07 am (UTC)
Firestorm, I am here to second the rec for Carmarthen's No Weapon But Hate. Seriously good story about Valjean's bagne experiences, the dissociation he feels as set out in canon), his experience of the violation of others and his fear of rape.

I am also interested in both of your Gorbeau House ideas. I'm speedreading through the Brick again for the thing I am slowly writing, and for some reason I glossed over the rapey aspects, possibly because they're lost on Valjean. But obviously women are much more aware of the fear of sexual violation (and it totally sucks that we do, Firestorm - but we women have weapons other than our hate, my dear). I would love to see this dealt with from the fem!valjean POV, even if she is Wonder Woman strong and wouldn,t have the same fears as a less strong woman would.

It also makes sense that she'd open up to fem!javert sexually, post-Seine? Firestorm, you could make it lovely and consent-filled and it would not be gross at all. And of course, fem!JVJ flee to the UK and start new lives in pre-WW1, post-Victorian London, catching the start of the suffragette movement (an era and milieu I'm more familiar with. At least the statutes are in English!).

Firestorm, you must write this! Or write prostitutionfic with me, idk ;)
Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 12:41 pm (UTC)
randomly butting in on the genderswap discussion

I know very little about 19C Ireland, but I would definitely be up for this! You'd get to make interesting gender roles and discussion about sin and women sinning via sex and redemption, and Javert can be derailed and redeemed by the Mother Superior's sexiness. I think there are lots of non-gendered parallels that can be drawn between Javert's strict adherence to man's laws and God's laws, and Sister Obedience would be All About God.

Also setting it in this feminine milieu, you avoid the problem of having female characters either take on men's roles in patriarchal pre-suffrage 1800s or deal with crossdressing? Which might have been your issue with the otherwise awesome fic referenced above, idk
Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 09:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think the appeal for me was to keep the core of the characters the way I see them without feeling like I had to conform to their outward canonical roles, if that makes sense? Valjean being a convict and then a mayor isn't what's important in this respect; what's important is that he ran from a dehumanising institution and ended up in a position of power over his erstwhile jailer. So the laundry/convent was an attempt to obtain that, and perhaps also highlight their differing attitudes to religion, as you say -- Javert adhering to the letter and Valjean to the spirit, as it were.