Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

You can purchase a copy of Wittlinger’s novel here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

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