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Course Syllabus: Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Hello readers! As promised, here is the syllabus for a seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled (Im)Possible Lives: Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and it is currently offered under Bowdoin’s English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program. The course description is as follows:

How do wizards, monsters, cyborgs, and dystopias shed light on precarious issues such as sexism, homophobia, racism, poverty, and illness? This seminar examines representations of identity and difference in young adult speculative fiction—texts created for younger audiences that include elements from genres such as fantasy, horror, science fiction, and magical realism. Students not only analyze the approaches that writers implement to construct hypothetical settings and characters, but also examine how speculative young adult novels depict different possibilities for existing and mattering in the world.

There are many goals that I have for this course. For the most part, I want students to realize the ways in which the content and structure of contemporary YA speculative fiction is symptomatic of many of the political, environmental, and sociopolitical crises that we face today in American society. In literature, film, and media, many have been exploring the issue of who matters, or who doesn’t matter. Particularly in social media discourse, we have seen a rise in attitudes such as homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, elitism, and so on and so on. We are also developing greater awareness of the violence experienced by people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and immigrants. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to ignore violence (and violent discourse), and recent events have been pushing many of us to question the value and future of human life. Through these acts of hate and violence, however, many of us are recognizing the need for community, highlighting the importance of self-care, and developing a desire for safer, more collective ways of being and knowing.

I think that YA speculative fiction offers readers a unique opportunity to think through the aforementioned precarious issues, and I believe works in this genre will push my students and I to ask difficult questions and explore complex issues. Teaching this seminar is not going to be easy. It will involve difficult and tedious emotional and intellectual labor. But I think that my students and I will grow both as people and thinkers by the time the semester is through.

Part of what I find valuable about works categorized as YA speculative fiction is that they are often crafted with a Utopian bent, and they often envision alternatives to the suffocating and violent conditions of the present. Books in this genre are often exercises in positive affect, and they push readers to imagine, desire, and work for better ways of living in the world. Students and I will explore both the perks and the pitfalls of the ethical frameworks discussed in a selection of YA speculative novels that overtly include themes of gender, sexuality, race, and class. It is my hope that through this seminar, my students will not only learn more about themselves and their place in society, but they will also recognize the value and importance of narratives that deviate from normative paradigms. Furthermore, I hope that students will be able to recognize and discuss current and emerging trends in the genre of YA speculative fiction, especially the genre’s increasing penchant for non-traditional narrative forms and genre-blending.

Just in case you missed the link above, you can access my course syllabus by clicking here. I hope you enjoy it!

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Conceal, Don’t Feel: A Queer Reading of Disney’s [Frozen]

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know.

– Queen Elsa, “Let It Go” – Disney’s Frozen

Last night I saw Frozen, Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale entitled The Snow Queen. After seeing the film, my friend Katie pointed out that this movie is perhaps signaling another Disney renaissance, a period characterized not only by the adaptation of well-known tales, but also by an increased public interest in Disney films. I couldn’t agree more with Katie’s assessment–Frozen contained a sense of depth and heart that many recent Disney films lack. Something that I immediately thought about when leaving the movie theater was that Frozen is perhaps the queerest animated film ever produced by Disney–queer being a theoretical practice centered on the deconstruction of binaristic thinking (i.e. visualizing gray areas in between the black and the white), a rethinking of what constitutes and upholds normativity (especially in terms of identity), and even more so, and the disruption of unnecessary regulations that prevent people from achieving a livable life. I’m not the only one who approaches this film as queer. Fellow blogger beautifulCHAOS, for instance, has written a delightful and insightful post on Frozen as a gay allegory (click here or here for other blogs that discuss this interpretation). I intend to further add to this conversation by distilling the film through the lens of queer theory.

Queen Elsa is approached by some viewers as a queer or gay character, not only because she doesn’t engage in a romantic relationship in the film, but also because she is forced by her parents to suppress and hide the powers that she is born with.  Although the movie implies that her parents desperately try to conceal Elsa’s powers because of the danger that they impose to herself and to others, this does not justify the degree to which they prevent Elsa from having any human contact whatsoever. Furthermore, the fact that Elsa’s parents view suppression and isolation as solutions further emphasizes notions of the infamous queer closet–rather than assisting Elsa in learning how to hone her powers, they teach her how to “conceal, not feel.” I think it’s also worthy to point out that Elsa’s treatment is also eerily reminiscent of practices that take place during the process of gay conversion therapy, in which subjects are conditioned through meditative and repetitive processes to suppress certain urges and desires that occur naturally.

What do you think about reading Elsa as a queer/gay character? Do you consider this claim to be solid or weak? What happens if we approach queer, in this instance, as "non-normative," stripping away the sexual connotations of the word?

What do you think about reading Elsa as a queer/gay character? Do you consider this claim to be solid or weak? What happens if we approach queer, in this instance, as “non-normative,” stripping away the sexual connotations of the word?

Although at first, a queer reading of Frozen seems slightly far-fetched, there are many events within the film that can be read as such with a little theoretical help. For instance, Judith Halberstam, in her book entitled The Queer Art of Failurefocuses significant attention on CGI animation movies to illustrate how they exemplify topics such as revolution and transformation that deviate from normative expectations of identity and linearity. Halberstam goes as far as to argue that revolutionary CGI animation movies (which she refers to as Pixarvolt films) depict a world where the “little guys” are able to overcome obstacles, and where they are able to revolt against the “business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother” (47).

Halberstam’s claims help to shed light on a queer interpretation of Frozen, especially when it comes to the role that failure plays in envisioning alternative modes of living and existing in the world. Although the fact that Elsa is forced to suppress her powers can partly be attributed to the danger that her powers pose on others, it is uncanny that the main enforcers of Elsa’s suppression are her parents–authority figures that try their best to uphold an image of normalcy by shutting Elsa away from the outside world. It is here that the film’s greatest binary manifests: the castle represents the “safe,” domestic, and feminine sphere, whereas the outside world is treacherous, threatening, and masculine. While locked within the confines of the domestic, Elsa is not only prevented from establishing meaningful relationships with other people, but she is also forced to regulate her powers even though she recognizes that this regulation is futile. After Elsa’s parents die, Elsa is expected to take over the crown. Although she tries to conceal her powers during her coronation ceremony–Anna’s provocation leads her to create ice in front of all the guests at the ceremony, inadvertently leading her to “come out” in front of the entire kingdom.

In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam points out how failure is a crucial process when it comes to the existence and survival of queer individuals, mostly because failure pushes people to explore alternatives when it comes to identifying ways to exist in the world. Elsa’s so-called failure to suppress her powers may have been a catalyst for many negative events; however, this failure influences her to escape the confines of the castle to let her non-normative identity thrive. Halberstam argues that breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes a way of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. Thus, although Elsa’s escape from the castle and her creation of an ice-queendom up in the mountains can be approached as a renunciation of her expectations as a ruler and as an upholder of the domestic sphere, it also becomes an opportunity for Elsa to realize not only who she is, but just how much she is capable of doing and creating.

After Elsa discovers and unleashes her “queer” identity, she is able to collapse the binaries that have regulated and haunted her life. Notice that once she returns to Arendelle after embracing her powers, she declares that the gates of the castle shall stay open to the entire community, thus obliterating the divide that was being upheld between the domesticity of the castle and the queerness of the outside world. Even the castle itself begins to refute binaristic thinking at the end of the film as Elsa decorates the premises with ice-fountains, ice-sculptures, and ice-covered structures. Rather than presenting a world that is either hot or cold, the castle becomes a structure in which the frozen and the non-frozen coexist–ultimately eradicating the difference between the two.

A queer presence is ultimately what facilitates a more open and cooperative living situation to manifest–a living situation that allows all identities to exist without restrictions or unnecessary regulations. This echoes Judith Butler’s views on what she considers to be the goal of queer theory: rather than simply being a practice for obliterating normativity, it is a practice that should be aimed in opposition to “the unwanted legislation of identity” (7). Thus, queer theory does not aim to show non-normativity as a superior choice, but rather, it aims to show how normativity should not restrict what a person can or can’t be.

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What other characters in Frozen collapse binaristic divides? Nearly every character in this film challenges a dichotomous view or the world, or they deviate immensely from the sterotypical expectations that we have of certain characters. For instance, Olaf the snowman collapses the distinction between the living and the non-living; Prince Hans destroys cultural associations that exist between beauty and goodness; even Kristoff deviates immensely from the expectations that we have of Disney’s male heroes: he is clumsy, smelly, he talks with his reindeer Sven, and he was raised by trolls.

I can go on and on about how this movie invites the viewer to collapse the dichotomous views that are often ingrained within our collective consciousness. Frozen presents a world in which snowmen can exist during the summer, a world that blurs the distinction between living and non-living creatures (snow and rocks become animated characters with personalities), a world where animals are given a voice and where people speak on behalf of the animals, a world in which marriage is not viewed as the highest aspiration that a woman should have, a world in which even gorgeous characters are capable of being evil. If Frozen is pointing us toward a new direction that Disney is steering towards, then I think we will continue to see more brilliant films that are not only entertaining, but that are socially and politically conscientious (without necessarily shoving a message down our throats, as in the case of other animated films like Happy Feet). If Frozen is marking the beginning of a queer future for Disney, then it is a bright future indeed. As Queen Elsa affirms in the song Let It Go: “Let the storm rage on.”

Works Cited and Consulted

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Frozen. Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Perf. Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana. Disney, 2013. Film.

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print.

Indian Cover

Tradition, Change, and Kinship in Sherman Alexie’s [The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian]

Front cover of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Front cover of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)

Few young adult novels manage to tackle deep and complex issues with as much heart and nuance as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (henceforth PTI). Initially, PTI can be approached as an autobiographical coming-of-age (graphic) novel that centers on the growth and development of Arnold Spirit Jr., a fourteen-year-old cartoonist and student who is born and raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation located in the Washington state area. The novel, which is told from Arnold’s first-person perspective, immediately lets the reader know that he is not considered normal from racial, physical, or social standards. He discloses that he was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus (the accumulation of water in the brain), he grew forty-two teeth instead of the thirty-two that most adults have, and the brain damage originated by his condition causes him to have seizures and to have a near-sighted eye and a far-sighted eye. Besides his physical ailments, Arnold reveals that his family is not only very poor, but also that his father is an alcoholic and his mother is a recovering alcoholic. These conditions lead Arnold to prefer a solitary life away from other members of his tribe, usually because they approach him as “a retard” (4) or as different. Arnold spends most of his time reading books, drawing cartoons, and spending time with his hypermasculine and stubborn best friend, Rowdy.

The main tension of the novel is triggered when Arnold decides to transfer to Reardan High, a school populated exclusively by white, middle-to-upper-class students–making Arnold the only non-white student in the school. Arnold’s decision to leave the high school situated in his reservation is not only fueled by the fact that people are brutally violent towards him in the reservation (he literally fears his life when dwelling the reservation, and he is bashed by peers and adults alike), but also by a growing awareness of the stagnancy and immobility promoted by the reservation. Arnold is aware that nobody in his reservation has gone to college, and he is also aware of how social diseases such as alcoholism infect his environment to the extent that it kills people he holds dear, such as his grandmother and his sister. As he points out towards the end of the novel:

I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell out of the rez. It’s a weird thing. Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move into reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. (217)

Leaving the reservation’s high school is seen as a betrayal by most of the Spokane residents. To make matters even more complicated, Arnold soon realizes that as the only Indian in Reardan High, he is seen by others as an outcast.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Image from page 63 of PTI, in which Arnold illustrates himself being verbally abused by his white peers at Reardan High.

Arnold thus develops and grows in cultural borderlands–he isn’t white, and he isn’t Native American. However, Arnold’s choice to leave the reservation isn’t a matter of “arrogance” (217) as he later implies in the novel, but rather, it is a decision driven by the desire for a livable life. The notion of cultural forgetting becomes an important element in the novel, especially when focusing on the reservation as a space of death, alcoholism, and destruction. Arnold recognizes that the reservation does have some beautiful qualities, especially when it comes to the preservation of ancient customs and traditions. However, he comes to understand that this preservation and conservation comes with a price: immobility, death, and stagnancy.

Something I truly love and appreciate about this novel is the fact that it is in no way driven by binaristic forms of thinking. True, there are moments in which binaries are highlighted in PTI, particularly binaries of race, color, culture, and belief–but they are highlighted only to be obliterated at certain points of the narrative. Returning to the notion of mobility versus stagnancy and tradition versus innovation, Arnold doesn’t take a definite stance when it comes to these issues, and at times, he even seems to contradict himself when judging tradition and conservatism as positive or negative. He recognizes that immobility and tradition are sometimes self-sabotaging and at times irrational, but he also takes care to point out instances in which tradition seems to be even more enlightening and liberal when compared to contemporary and more “evolved” forms of thinking. This is particularly seen when Arnold describes his grandmother, who adhered to more traditional ideologies:

Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical, too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female. were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! (155)

It is here that one of the root problems of Arnold’s society is exposed. He points out that with the advent of Christianity in the reservation, people grew to fear eccentricity and lost their ability to be tolerant. With this in mind, the tension of the novel is based not on the battle between tradition and change, but rather on the struggle between appreciating difference and eliminating difference. I think it would be too simplistic and naive to approach Arnold’s departure from his reservation as an act of assimilation or as a manifestation of a white-washing sentiment. I’d rather approach his departure as an effort to strive for difference, as an effort to live, and as an escape from complete assimilation. Furthermore, Arnold’s departure leads him to realize that he does not belong to one tribe, but to many: “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And to the tribe of cartoonists. . .” (217). Thus, rather than trying to adhere to notions of identity as a individualized entity, Arnold comes to understand, through his escape, that the self is pluralistic and multifaceted.

Besides a story of growth, development, and maturation, I would also classify PTI as a very unconventional love story. However, rather than focusing on love in romantic terms, the book focuses on the love that develops through the kinship between two boys. With this, I am specifically referring to the love between Arnold and Rowdy. This love is not romantic or sexual in any sense, but it is perhaps the most intense and problematic love expressed in the novel. Rowdy is one of the many people who views Arnold’s transfer to another school as a betrayal–and it ultimately leads Rowdy to develop an intense animosity towards Arnold and everything that his actions represent. This hatred leads Arnold to constantly reflect on his relationship with Rowdy, and the void that his absence represents in his life. Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy inspires and ignites the novel’s deepest reflections on notions such as gender, masculinity, and culture–and it also pushes Arnold to question unwritten social rules when it comes to boys crying or expressing any type of affection to each other.

Image on page 219 of PTI. The image shows Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold's other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other "cartoonish" drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Image on page 219 of PTI, depicting Rowdy and Arnold jumping into turtle lake when they were in third grade. It is important to note that unlike many of Arnold’s other illustrations, this drawing depicts a realism that differs greatly from the other “cartoonish” drawings that Arnold usually includes in his diary.

Arnold’s relationship with Rowdy becomes an element that allows the protagonist to assess the limits of relationships, but even more so, it allows him to reconfigure his conceptions of notions such as kinship and family. Early on, Arnold confesses that Rowdy is the person that he feels closest to, and he questions whether it is acceptable to love some who is not connected to you through blood or DNA: “I think Rowdy might be the most important person in my life. Maybe more important than my family. Can your best friend be more important than your family? I think so” (24). When Arnold tells Rowdy that he is transferring to Reardan High, he is conflicted with the emotions that he feels because he doesn’t deem them to be culturally acceptable, especially when it comes to Rowdy, who tends to be very macho and very violent: “I wanted to tell him that he was my best friend and I loved him like crazy, but boys didn’t say such things to other boys, and nobody said such things to Rowdy” (48-49). As the novel unfolds, Arnold not only grows to understand the gender politics that reign in different cultures, but he also grows more comfortable with recognizing and validating his own feelings even when others fail to acknowledge them. Arnold’s recognition of the unwritten social rules of gender doesn’t stop him from admitting that he loves Rowdy, and more importantly, experience doesn’t stop Arnold from labeling his affection towards Rowdy as love. As he states in the last page of the novel: “I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene” (230).

In sum, Sherman Alexie’s The Asbolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich, heartfelt, and complex novel that I would definitely recommend to my colleagues and peers. I learned a lot about Native American culture from reading it, and it gave me yet another insight into the unique relationships that humans can develop with their cultures and with other people. I loved the clever incorporation of art into the novel (drawn by the talented Ellen Forney), and I appreciated how these drawings added interpretive nuance to the novel, rather than simply illustrating the novel’s events. Much like a graphic novel, the drawings in PTI contribute to its meaning just as much as words do.

You can purchase a copy of Alexie’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. Print (hardcover edition).

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Masculinity in Robert Cormier’s [The Chocolate War]

Front cover of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War

Front cover of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War

It’s 1:53 a.m. and I currently can’t sleep because of this book. I was going to wait and write about it in the morning, but I really need to engage in the cathartic process of writing in order to make sense of all of the thoughts that are fireworking in my head. I was expecting a tale that discusses the triumph of good over evil–a tale of empowerment for individualistic resistance over systematic injustice. I received the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Chocolate War has earned a place in my top-ten list of favorite YA novels, but I will warn you that the book is ultimately very bleak and depressing. If your positive judgment of a book depends on a happy ending, then I suggest that you skip this novel.

The Chocolate War is a book that is told from a subjective third person point-of-view, but this perspective carousels through the thoughts and emotions of particular students at Trinity School: a private, religiously-affiliated high school in the New England area. Although the story centers on the thoughts of various students in the school, it can be said that Jerry Renault is the novel’s protagonist, and he is also the source of the novel’s main tension. Although the Trinity School is technically run by the Brethren that teach and administer the educational system, the thoughts and actions of students are also dictated by a secret school society known as The Vigils, who use scare tactics and intimidation in order to secure their influence.

Students are often given “assignments” by The Vigils, which can be approached as a type of hazing that the secret society uses to assure that it is perceived as a force to be reckoned with. Assignments can include mundane things such as forcing students to get up from their seats every time a teacher mentions the word “environment,” to more serious matters, such as destabilizing all of the desks and chairs in a classroom. During the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser, Jerry Renault is given the assignment to deny selling chocolates for ten days–a problem, seeing as every student besides Renault decides to sell chocolate. The main issue in the novel arises when Jerry continues to resist selling chocolates after the ten day period in an act of defiance towards The Vigils and the school administration. The bulk of the novel focuses on the ostracism that Jerry faces when trying to defy The Vigils, and the measures that they take to assure their power and dominance in Trinity School. By taking a stand, Jerry tries to follow and understand the words of T.S. Eliot by asking himself whether he dares to “disturb the universe,” (see Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“) a quote found on a poster that Jerry has in his locker.

The Chocolate War is a very gendered novel, which is partly unsurprising given the fact that Trinity School focuses on single-sex male education. Various elements within the novel emphasize maleness and the traits that are usually (and stereotypically) associated with it, such as power, dominance, and violence. Sports such as boxing and football are the most popular and revered activities that take place within the school; their practice often demonstrates how physical prowess often trumps intelligence and creativity in this environment. All teachers within the school are religiously affiliated men, and they are addressed as Brother by students. As a matter of fact, there is little to no feminine or maternal presence in the novel. When girls are mentioned by students, they are usually presented as objects of sexual attraction. Even Jerry is known for his lack of a maternal figure, since early in the novel it is established that his mother passed away during the spring before his freshman year (the time period in which the novel takes place). This lack of a feminine presence is in no way a mishap, and it actually serves as a motif to foreground the power struggles and dynamics that are in the heart of The Chocolate War. 

The characters’ efforts to uphold a visage of traditional masculinity is overwhelming. Whenever certain characters, such as Archie (the novel’s twisted and manipulative villain), encounter another figure that is trumping them in terms of authority, they automatically regress into an irrational inner struggle of Patrick Bateman-esque proportions. Take for instance, Archie’s reaction when The Vigils’ president threatens him:

Blood stung Archie’s cheeks and a pulse throbbed dangerously in his temple. No one had ever talked to him that way before, not in front of everyone like this. With an effort he made himself stay loose, kept that smile on his lips like a label on a bottle, hiding his humiliation. (187)

Many other characters in the novel are unable to contain their fits of tears and frustration when encountering the many injustices triggered by the rule of The Vigils. However, the most salient trait that is exemplified through this constructed masculine space would be violence–not only subjective violence, as in fist-fights, bullying, and physiological reactions, but also objective violence as represented through hate speech and through the manipulation and control enforced by the secret society and the school administration (please see Zizek’s Violence for more information on these types of violence). At first, Jerry’s decision to refuse selling chocolates can be considered an act of resistance towards the objective violence that is systematically imposed upon all students at Trinity High. The downward spiral for Jerry, however, occurs when this objective violence flourishes into downright brutal and subjective violence. The moment of this transition is seen quite literally in the novel, when a bully by the name of Janza is blackmailed into harassing Jerry to the point that he reciprocates violence with more violence (rather than resistance). As can be seen in the following exchange between Jerry and Janza:

“Hiding what? Hiding from who?” [Jerry]

“From everybody. From yourself, even. Hiding that deep dark secret.”

“What secret?” Confused now.

“That you’re a fairy. A queer. Living in the closet, hiding away.”

Vomit threatened Jerry’s throat, a nauseous geyser he could barely hold down.

“Hey, you’re blushing,” Janza said. “The fairy’s blushing . . .”

“Listen . . .” Jerry began but not knowing, really, how to begin or where. The worst thing in the world–to be called queer. (211-212)

After this exchange, Jerry retorts by calling Janza a “son of a bitch,” which leads Janza to summon a group of kids that brutally bash Jerry. Note here that what fuels Jerry’s wrath is the fact that he is called queer. Up to that point, he had done a decent job of resisting the taunts and threats of his peers due to his refusal to sell chocolates. What I find interesting in this chapter is that in essence, Jerry can be approached as a queer (or non-normative) character due to the fact that he denies engaging in the activity that will make him normal or orthodox–if he didn’t want to set himself apart, all he had to do was sell chocolates. His resistance, however, can be approached as queer resistance because he wanted to break away from the norm: “Mainly, he didn’t want to fight for the same reason he wasn’t selling the chocolates–he wanted to make his own decisions, do his own thing, like they said” (211).

Despite his penchant for non-normativity, being called a queer was too offensive and disruptive given the masculine attitudes that permeate his surroundings. Thus, Jerry’s hatred towards Janza for calling him queer even pushes him to engage in the boxing match at the end, a boxing match that leads to his demise. The final chapters of the novel end with Jerry proclaiming his regret towards being non-normative, he proceeds to think about how one must ultimately comply with the will of “superior powers” and authority figures if one desires to have a livable life. He thinks about the new “knowledge” he has obtained as he lies bloodied and broken in the arms of his friend, Goober:

He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say. (p. 259)

The ending may be bleak and downright depressing, but I don’t necessarily think that the novel is designed to perpetuate a dislike of rebellion, nor do I think that it presents all resistance movements as futile. I think that Jerry’s loss of faith in himself and in his ability to disturb the universe rests not on his failure, but on the fact that he was left alone in his pursuit of non-normativity. What I found deeply disturbing is that nobody takes a stand for Jerry during the boxing match that leads to his demise, not even his close friend, Goober, who just sits and watches Jerry be beaten to a pulp with the rest of the students from Trinity High. Without a doubt, Jerry is presented as a scapegoat figure, meant to absorb all of the negativity, the tensions, and the evils of his community that are perpetuated through masculinity and through corrupt power.

The novel is ambiguous in terms of its stance on disturbing the universe. On one hand, we can accept Jerry’s defeat as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, we can accept it as a challenge to ourselves–a challenge that pushes us to question the extent to which we can or should disturb the universe ourselves.

Do yourself a favor, and read the book! And as always, please feel free to add to this conversation or to challenge anything discussed in this post!

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

Work Cited

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1974. Print.

Judith Butler

Towards a Livable Mode of Existence: Judith Butler’s [Undoing Gender]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Undoing Gender (2004)

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender (2004)

Reading Butler is truly a worthwhile exercise for the mind interested in gender, queer theory, and human life in general. Undoing Gender is essentially a revision of Butler’s groundbreaking book entitled Gender Trouble, which was originally published in 1990. In Undoing Gender, Butler not only adds more nuance to the concept of gender performativity, but she also puts into question the very parameters that we use to devise the concept of the human. This is by far the most accessible book of Butler that I’ve read as of now. The more you read Butler, the more things begin to click and make sense–and although she still makes use of her trademark (dense and elusive) prose, most of her claims are poignant, accessible, and most importantly, insightful.

What makes life bearable for me? What makes life bearable for others? What makes us human? What are the elements that constitute a human ontology? These are some of the questions that Butler brings forth throughout the introduction to Undoing Gender. Butler highlights the fact that the parameters that have been used to approach, recognize, and categorize humans have always been in flux, and even more so, these parameters are not natural or essential, but rather , socially constructed. The greatest issue with the criteria used to define the human is that they are many times restrictive and paradoxical; the criteria that is used to grant the status of a human to one individual may deprive another individual from achieving this status:

On the level of discourse, certain lives are not considered lives at all, they cannot be humanized; they fit no dominant frame for the human, and their dehumanization occurs first, at this level. This level then gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization which is already at work in the culture. (25)

This leads Butler to allude to her concept of the “unreal” life, which denotes individuals that have been denied access to a legitimate human existence through the power of discourse. For instance, notions such as skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, birth, and social class have been some of the concepts used to classify some as human while at the same time preventing others from being approached as such. If one is unable to be framed within the discursive and normative markers of identity that are used to approach and categorize humans, one is not only queered and otherized, but ultimately, one runs the risk of facing violence or of living an unbearable life because one does not count with the constituents of normative privilege. Because of this, Butler calls for a more open and permeable definition of humanity that allows room for change, in order to allow livability and freedom to thrive:

The necessity of keeping our notion of the human open to a future articulation is essential to the project of international human rights discourse and politics. We see this time and again when the very notion of the human is presupposed; the human is defined in advance, in terms that are distinctively, western, very often American, and, therefore, partial and parochial. (36-37)

Butler’s call for a plastic and flexible definition of the human is due first and foremost to the inability of current definitions to account for all of the legitimate modes of being and existence that are currently found within our society. This project of expanding the parameters of human definition also comply with the overall aim of this book, which is to illustrate the effects of undoing “restrictively normative conceptions of sexual and gendered life” (1). It is Butler’s belief that through the eradication of normative restrictions, one not only changes his or her perspective of the self, but ultimately, this shift of perspective will pave the way for other selves to flourish in a more livable and accommodating world.

In Undoing Gender, Butler delves with more nuance into the implications of gender performativity, which approaches gender as a constant and reiterative doing through discourse. In Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to drag performances as a way of illustrating the claims she makes towards performativity, but the issue with this example is that gender performativity can be confused with actual performance. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that gender performativity is always referring to a discursive act, and the role that language plays in the construction of identities. Although Butler asserts that gender performativity may be unconscious to some degree, she does not approach it as an individualistic or automatic process. Instead, Butler posits that Gender performativity is an “improvisation” that takes into account others beyond the self. In other words, one’s gender performativity is not merely an individual struggle, but rather, it is a negotiation between one’s inner desires, the desires of others, and the “desires” of a particular cultural and political setting.  Thus, the formation of the self is dependent on the relationship between the self and norms:

the “I” that I am finds itself at once constituted by norms and dependent on them but also endeavors to live in ways that maintain a critical and transformative relation to them. This is not easy, because the “I” becomes, to a certain extent unknowable, threatened with unavailability, with becoming undone altogether, when it no longer incorporates the norm in such a way that makes this “I” fully recognizable. (3).

What this means is that even though one needs recognition to live, one may very well feel restricted by the very parameters that are used for this recognition. In order to illustrate this notion, Butler brings up the example of intersex children in order to concretize the continuum of human morphology, and how the norms that regulate the body do not approach these subjects as human. When a child is born intersex, doctors and parents sometimes make the decision of choosing the child’s sex without giving the child the opportunity to explore venues of being within the world. Intersex children evidence the futility of the male/female binary that is imposed upon humans, and it illustrates the spectrum of bodies that legitimately exist in the world. However, because the intersex child is unable to fit within the parameters of the normative male/female binary, intersexedness is approached by the status quo as a pathology.

Interestingly, Buler points out that the very discursive concepts that pathologize gender and sexual identity allow for its recognition. She alludes to the instance of transgender individuals who are able to make legitimate insurance claims that allow them to receive sexual assignment surgery–which in turn allows them to obtain a livable life. However, one must question why these markers of identity are necessary, and even more so, one must consider whether upholding a normative and binary gender system is enough to account for all of the lives that exist. Butler mentions how intersexuality and transexuality raise important concerns for queer theory, especially when focusing on the fact that queer theory, in essence, is supposed to be opposed to all forms of normativity and binaristic thinking. When an intersexual or transexual individual chooses to live as a particular sex, it can be said that they are buying into the normative regulation of binaristic sexuality. As Butler points out:

If queer theory is understood, by definition, to oppose all identity claims, including stable sex assignment, then the tension seems strong indeed. But I would suggest that more important than any presupposition about the plasticity of identity or indeed its retrograde status is queer theory’s claim to be opposed to the unwanted legislation of identity. (7)

I found Butler’s approach towards queer theory to be very useful and insightful. When it comes down to it, when we approach all forms of stability and “normativity” as negative, we resort to using the very types of binaristic thinking that queer theory seeks to dismantle. Thus, Butler emphasizes that more than anything, queer theory seeks to challenge the unwanted prescription and regulation of the body and identity. She argues that in due course, stability is an element that is absolutely necessary in order for a livable life to manifest. If the condition of individual is unlivable within the boundaries of a particular culture or society, then it is completely understandable  for that individual to seek out remedies that will allow that individual to live comfortably and freely. According to Butler, projects dealing with identity politics, such as queer theory, are ultimately focused on “distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself” (8).

Expanding on the notion of gender performativity as a relationship of power that extends beyond the self, Butler emphasizes the fact that the body also deviates from the individualism that is typically assigned to it. Although we may approach our bodies, as Susan Bordo would put it, as sites of struggles, we must admit that this struggle is not one of the self versus the self, and that the public dimension is very much implicated within conceptions of the body:  “constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine” (21). Despite this notion of the body belonging both to the self and the public, Butler asserts that it would be erroneous to assume that legal definitions of personhood and humanity are sufficient to account for the totality of one’s being: 

Although this language might well establish our legitimacy within a legal framework ensconced in liberal versions of human ontology, it fails to do justice to passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, and implicate us in lives that are not are [sic] own, sometimes fatally, irreversibly. (20)

Time Magazine Cover

Does gay marriage necessarily entail the death of queerness? Is gay marriage a form of assimilation? Can resistance towards gay marriage be seen as a form of regulation that queer theory seeks to disrupt?

Butler’s ideal of livability is particularly useful for approaching other issues and phenomena that seem to be at odds with the overall aims and goals of queer theory. What immediately comes to mind at this point is the issue of gay marriage. While today, there seems to be an increasing acceptance of gay marriage as a legitimate way of living within the United States, some may view this acceptance as a compliance with normativity. However, if one were to enforce a resistance to gay marriage as a form of protest, doesn’t this enforce the attitudes of legislation and regulation of identity that queer theory strives to obliterate? What if two queer individuals want to get married, or perceive marriage as an act that will enable a more livable and free life? As Butler posts, “marriage and same-sex domestic partnerships should certainly be available as options, but to install either as a model for sexual legitimacy is precisely to constrain the sociality of the body in acceptable ways” (26). In other words, gay marriage should definitely be an option of living within contemporary society; however, the advent of gay marriage should not enforce this type of union as the only legitimate or acceptable form or union amongst individuals with queer communities.

Furthermore, Butler believes that when an unreal life is introduced into the norm, this does not necessarily imply that assimilation is taking place. Rather than buying into the myth of complete integration within the system, Butler believes that incorporation of the unreal within the domain of reality leads to ” something other than a simple assimilation into prevailing norms,” and that ultimately, the “norms themselves can become rattled, display their instability, and become open to resignification. (28)

I will conclude this post with one of the most resounding passages that I identified within Undoing Gender. Butler, in due course, seems to be keen on the notion of fantasy, and the ability of fantasy to provide a utopian potentiality that can very well become a reality. As Butler eloquently puts it:

The critical promise of fantasy, when and where it exists, is to challenge the contingent limits of what will and will not be called reality. Fantasy is what allows us to imagine ourselves and others otherwise; it establishes the possible in excess of the real; it points elsewhere, and when it is embodied, it brings the elsewhere home. (29)

It is fantasy that ultimately allows one to carve our possibilities of being within the world. It is an envisioning outside of the parameters of reality that unreal subjects are able to work  for and towards a more livable mode of existence. This passage also evidences the emancipatory potential of fiction–one can only begin to imagine the possibilities that can be achieved when embodying and reifying the “otherwise” beyond the scope of reality–an otherwise that fiction is more than willing to provide.

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Male Back

Masculinity Without Men? Judith Halberstam’s [Female Masculinity]

Halberstam James Bond

Is the James Bond from the GoldenEye era truly an accurate representation of masculinity?

When we invoke the iconic image of James Bond, masculinity is usually one of the first notions that comes to mind. My friend and colleague, Dan Murphy, insightfully points out that even when James Bond utters his casual introductory catchphrase, “Bond, James Bond,” these simple words resonate within our thoughts because they express “an appealing version of masculine self-assertion and control. In the midst of uncertainty, through various episodes of geopolitical crisis and international intrigue, this character can sit at a bar with complete self-assurance, look in our eyes, and tell us who he is” (Check out Dan’s blog, Of Spaces and Things. He offers a very compelling view of matters in everyday life).

Even though this masculine image of James Bond resonates within the cultural milieu, Judith Halberstam, in her groundbreaking book entitled Female Masculinity, asks us to reconsider the masculinity of the iteration of Bond played by Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye. Halberstam goes as far as to approach Bond (of the GoldenEye era) as a subject that exudes “prosthetic masculinity” (3), mostly because his construction as a masculine figure relies on a supply of gadgets, a suit, and a ‘half smile” (4) to convey masculinity. Without these objects, James Bond has little to support his perception as a masculine figure–thus leading Halberstam to argue that female characters, such Bond’s boss M, convey a credible female masculinity that “exposes the workings of dominant heterosexual masculinity” (4). 

Golden Eye M

Halberstam approaches M as “a noticeably butch older woman who calls Bond a dinosaur and chastises him for being a misogynist and a sexist” (3).

Halberstam’s invocation of the GoldenEye-era James Bond serves two very distinct and important purposes: first and foremost, when juxtaposing Bond’s masculinity with M’s female masculinity, it illustrates how representations of dominant masculinities are reliant on minority masculinities. Secondly, this juxtaposition is queer in that it creates a disjuncture between masculinity and a male figure, thus highlighting the constructed nature of masculinity in the first place. Halberstam does not approach M’s masculinity as an imitation of an authentic masculinity, but rather, she approaches it as a fabrication that is no different from the one that men embody. Based primarily at highlighting the constructed nature of masculinity, Female Masculinity offers readers an opportunity to observe the deconstructive effects of scrutinizing masculinity in cases where it manifests outside of the hegemonic parameters of the white, middle-class male. In other words, Halberstam posits that masculinity

becomes legible as masculinity where and when it leaves the white male middle-class body. Arguments about excessive masculinity tend to focus on black bodies (male and female), latino/a bodies, or working class bodies; these stereotypical constructions of variable masculinity mark the process by which masculinity becomes dominant in the sphere of white middle-class maleness. (2)

In Female Masculinity, Halberstam scrutinizes how the construct of masculinity manifests in subjects who are not found within a privileged hierarchical position in order to “explore a queer subject position that can successfully challenge hegemonic models of gender conformity” (9). Halberstam deems that through the exploration of masculinity in non-white non-male bodies, one could ultimate destabilize the power and control that the male and masculine subject exerts over how gender is approached and policed within contemporary societies.

What ideologies and hegemonic structures are upheld when restrooms are structured according to a gendered binary? What fears or insecurities uphold this divide? How is this divide complicated by the fact that not everyone fits neatly within the categories of male or female?

What ideologies and hegemonic structures are upheld when restrooms are structured according to a gendered binary? What fears or insecurities uphold this divide? How is this divide complicated by the fact that not everyone fits neatly within the categories of male or female?

Despite the fact that there has been great advances in terms of deviating from essentialist views of gender, Halberstam questions why that which is not male is viewed as female, and why that which is not female is viewed as male. There seems to be a refusal to think of sex and gender in ways that refute binaristic thinking. In order to illustrate this problem, Halberstam discusses the infamous bathroom problem that pervades within contemporary cultures. I think bathrooms are particularly interesting because, as Halberstam points out, they are physical spaces that are constructed with the purpose of upholding the view of femininity as a source of cultural purity that must be protected and upheld at all costs:

Sex-segregated bathrooms continue to be necessary to protect women from male predations but also produce and extend a rather outdated notion of a public-private split between male and female society. The bathroom is a domestic space beyond the home that comes to represent domestic order, or a parody of it, out in the world. The women’s bathroom accordingly becomes a sanctuary of enhanced femininity, a “little girl’s room” to which one retreats to powder one’s nose or fix one’s hair. (24)

The view of the restroom as a space of femininity becomes an important area of scrutiny for Halberstam, for it is deemed to be a domestic space that not only confines femininity, but that ultimately produces it. Whereas the men’s restroom is viewed as a more practical or utilitarian space, women’s restrooms are spaces that serve for functions well beyond the elimination of waste from the body. The women’s restroom becomes the space where women adjust their makeup, make sure they look attractive and presentable, and it even becomes a social space where women discuss developments that have occurred throughout a meal or while engaged in conversation with a larger group.

This notion of the women’s restroom as a feminized place becomes quite problematic when taking into account that this space is usually quite hostile toward women who do not comply with the physical expectations of “hardcore” femininity. Although virtually any person can use a men’s restroom without barely raising an eyebrow, this is not the case with women’s restrooms. Halberstam, who describes herself as butch, describes how she is often mocked when using a women’s restroom, and how some women have gone as far as to call security when they see her present within this feminized space.

Other women take a cruel approach to the presence of female masculinity within the women’s restroom, often putting into question the subject’s gender–knowing very well that the masculine females are still women. If they suspected that the subject were a “man,” they would panic or run out of the restroom rather than mock the subject. This illustrates how masculinity is only recognized as power when it is present within a heterosexual male body, and how masculinity is subordinated when present within a queer or female body. Furthermore, is demonstrates how the obstinacy of the male/female binary upholds its power through its impossibility to be altered or changed: “Precisely because virtually nobody fits the definitions of male and female, the categories gain power and currency from their impossibility. In other words, the very flexibility and elasticity of the terms “man” and ‘woman’ ensures their longetivity” (27).

Part of what intrigues me the most about Halberstam’s Female Masculinity is its overall structure and approach. Rather than focusing her analysis exclusively on the analysis of literary texts, Halberstam also includes analyses of photography, film, ethnographic studies, interviews, and self-testimonials in order to discuss how the notion of female masculinity challenges the construction of masculinity as a hegemonic force. Halberstam thus devises a queer methodology, which she approaches as

a scavenger methodology that uses different methods to collect and produce information on subjects who have been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior. The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic compulsion toward disciplinary coherence.” (13)

I found this method to be quite convincing, especially when it comes to demonstrating how there are different types of masculinity in both men and women, and how a recognition of these masculinities should take place instead of the use of “catch-all” categories (110) such as lesbianism, homosexuality, or inversion. I though that her analysis of John Radclyffe Hall was particularly useful in terms of demonstrating how a multiplicity of female masculinities existed when when the catch-all term of the “invert” predominated in the early nineteenth century (there were women who thought of themselves as men and presented themselves as men, just as there were woman who thought of themselves as men but presented themselves as women).

Another instance that was particularly illuminating was Halberstam’s approach to masculinity and performance, in which she blurs the lines that exist between performing and being through an analysis of performers at a drag king contest. Halberstam, rather than lumping all of the performers together under the label of drag king, goes on to create distinct “taxonomies” in order to approach how masculinity is embodied or channeled by different subjects. These categories are:

  • Butch Realness – A biological female who can easily pass as male. It focuses a lot on the notion of realness, and it is placed “on the boundary between transgender and butch identification (248).
  • Femme Pretender – A performative masculinity with added camp and exaggeration that deliberately avoids a naturalistic male look.
  • Male Mimicry – An attempt to reproduce male masculinity, “sometimes with an ironic twist” (250). They usually embody stereotypical masculine behaviors and attitudes. They can many times pass, but they do not necessarily convey the maleness of butch realness.
  • Fag Drag – When women fetishize gay male culture by appropriating gay men’s parodies of masculinity, often donning leather clothing and handlebar mustaches.
  • Denaturalized Masculinity – A masculinity that is more theatrical than butch realness, but that explores alternative masculinities to those embodied by male mimicry.

Although I find it difficult to see some differences between the “taxonomies” that Halberstam develops for drag king performances, I do recognize that this taxonimization allows one to see masculinity not only as a construct, but as a spectrum. I also appreciate Halberstam’s attempts to destabilize the divides not only between masculinity and femininity, but also the divide between performing and being.

Work Cited

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. Print.

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga's male alter ego. Calderone represents the common place of gender performativity within contemporary society.

A Queer Overview of Judith Butler’s [Gender Trouble]

Front cover of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble

Rich, complex, difficult, and groundbreaking are just a few of the words that are usually associated with Judith Butler’s works. Despite the fact that her texts are often described as “tedious” and “overwrought,” reading Butler is well worth the effort, and I’m often amazed at the way she is able to wrestle with difficult ideas. Furthermore, I’m delighted by how she is able to add layers of complexity to the already complex domain of (gendered) identity politics. Gender Trouble, originally published in 1990, is not only considered to be one of the seminal texts of queer theory, but it brought into light many aspects of gender that we take for granted today (particularly the notion of gender performativity).

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga's male alter ego. Calderone represents the common place of gender performativity within contemporary society.

Picture of Jo Calderone, Lady Gaga’s male alter ego. Calderone can be approached as an example of the ubiquitous and overt manifestation of gender performativity within popular culture.

Can a person “possess” a gender? Can a person “be” a gender? Or, can a person “act out” a gender? Even though many people may not be familiar with the concept of gender performativity, it is a phenomenon that is pervasive and somewhat obvious within contemporary society. The picture above shows pop sensation Lady Gaga assuming the role of her male alter ego, Jo Calderone, in Gaga’s attempt to blur the lines that are dichotomously imposed in society’s approaches towards gender and sex. Maleness and masculinity, in this case, are being performed through Lady Gaga’s actions and choices, rather than being a trait that pre-exists within the individual. Gender and sex, from Butler’s perspective, can be approached in a similar fashion to makeup in the sense of being a construction rather than an essential part of one’s being. However, keeping this metaphor of makeup in mind, it is important to realize that our surroundings and environment control (to some extent) the cosmetic options that are available to us. Gender is not ontological, but rather, it comes to existence through actions: “gender proves to be performative — that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the dead” (25, emphasis mine).

Early on in Gender Trouble, Butler alludes to the notion of drag performances in order to illustrate how they disrupt the “very distinctions between the natural and the artificial, depth and surface, inner and outer through which discourse about genders almost always operates” (x). Since drag entails the performance of a gender that is supposedly opposite to one’s “true” gender, it pushes one to question the extent to which certain traits that are considered masculine or feminine are true, essential, and indivisible from the self. Rather than viewing drag as an imitation, Butler approaches it as an action that defines the parameters, boundaries, and practices that create the notion of gender in the first place. An important concept to keep in mind when approaching Butler’s notions of gender is the word style, which not only includes obvious factors such as clothing, but also includes other details such as composure, constitution, presentation, and above all, discourse. Butler thus defines gender as “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (33).

Although performativity is the concept in Gender Trouble that tends to resonate among scholars of queer theory, performativity is simply a heuristic Butler uses to achieve her main goal. Tantalizingly, she questions whether the intent to have a feminist politics based on a common identity that binds all women is practical and useful, especially when considering that it is difficult, and arguably impossible, to find a common factor that all women share (unless, of course, we resort to biological notions of gender essentialism). This notion holds particularly true when intersecting gender with other domains of identity, including race, socio-economic status, culture, among others. As Butler eloquently puts it:

If one “is” a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered “person” transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. (3)

Feminist politics generally approach the concept of “women” and gender in universal terms, thriving on the assumption that there is a cross-cultural and cross-geographical quality or factor that ties a large group of people together. Butler rightfully points out that this feminist construction, even when designed with an emancipatory ideal in mind, can still be interpreted as damaging because it is not only designed to include and exclude certain individuals, but it fails to recognize and respect idiosyncratic differences. In simple terms, by establishing a factor as universal, one runs the risk of excluding all those who don’t fit within this particular model. This is why Butler suggests that “Without the compulsory expectation that feminists actions must be instituted from some stable, unified, and agreed upon identity, those actions might well get a quicker starts and seem more congenial to a number of ‘women’ for whom the meaning of the category is permanently moot” (15). Note that even with my use of the term women, there is an underlying assumption that I am able to label an entire community of individuals  based on an unstable, and perhaps ephemeral, trait–this is precisely something that Butler tries to challenge, but I ultimately question whether or not this is entirely possible or useful. After all, isn’t the notion of unity and community building crucial to a pragmatic rather than an academic approach to feminism? This is something I have to contemplate a bit more.

Butler ultimately connects the notion of performativity to feminist politics by questioning the “phantasmic” construction of the “we” that is nearly always invoked in matters of feminism. Despite the capability of “we” to connect people, it achieves this connection through exclusion while simultaneously denying the complexity of the issues at hand. When it comes to identity politics, many tend to assume that the identity exists prior to a political response. However, Butler asserts that “there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed” (142). We are what we do. There is no such thing as a “self” that exists before one is immersed into a culture, and there is no such thing as a self being corrupted or metamorphosed by its surroundings (how can something be corrupted if it doesn’t exist a priori?). “There is only a taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ‘taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” (145).

Work Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Lolita

Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

Front cover of Steven Bruhm's and Natasha Hurley's Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

Front cover of Steven Bruhm’s and Natasha Hurley’s Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

What is a queer child? What happens when a child moves away from accepted conventions of sexuality and adult heteronormativity? What are the repercussions of protecting children from the inevitable discovery of sexuality? How do storytellers control, regulate, or contest the notion of childhood sexuality? Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children is a collection of thought-provoking essays regarding the juxtaposition of children’s studies, sexuality, and queer theory compiled by Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley that attempt to answer the questions above.

Curiouser approaches the notion of childhood queerness in both its sexual and traditional sense, using the term to depict any deviation from normality. Thus, the essays in this collection not only study children who don’t conform to the (non) sexual roles that are assigned to them, but also children who are “defined by and outside of what is ‘normal'” (x). Bruhm and Hurley make insightful claims not only about the presence of gay children, but also about the presence of gay and lesbian figures in children’s lives. In terms of the latter, they point out that it is deemed acceptable for children to know of gay individuals as long as they uphold and secure “the fantasy of a preferred future” (xiii). But in order for this future to be upheld, a dichotomy must be imposed between the state of childhood and the “threat” of sexuality.

Many of the ideas posited in the introduction of Curiouser were intriguing, but at times I caught myself wondering if the issue of childhood sexuality could be discussed and debated without encountering some backlash or apprehension from an audience. For instance, at one point in their introduction, Bruhm and Hurley point out that “remembered childhood experiences can be traumatic or pleasant; the problem that interests us most here is how to make sense of a child’s pleasure without pathologizing it or reducing it to ‘trauma'” (xxix). On one hand, I agree that it would be questionable to assert that children don’t feel pleasure, and it also would be questionable to deny that children possess some degree of sexuality. But, does this recognition entail that something is wrong with the child? How is this notion of childhood pleasure problematized when taking pedophilia into account? Although there indeed may be a case where a child feels pleasure through a sexual encounter with an adult, does this mean that this action is correct from a moral stance, especially when taking into consideration that the adult is typically more powerful than the child (in terms of experience, body size, and influence)?

Although the questions above aren’t entirely answered (or at times contradicted), the essays in this book collection attempt to demonstrate that children live beyond the fictions of childhood and innocence that we construct for them. This is particularly evidenced by the very existence of the queer child, who by definition goes against established norms and parameters of childhood. The essays are divided into two major sections: one focusing exclusively on the issues of childhood sexuality and the erotic child, driven primarily through the ideas of James R. Kincaid, Richard D. Mohr, among others; the other half focuses on the sexual connotation of queer as it pertains to the study of children and childhood. Among these essays, we find Kincaid’s “Producing Erotic Children,” which perpetuates the idea of the construction of the child, arguing that “erotic children are manufactured–in the sense that we produce them in our cultural factories, the ones that make meanings for us. They tell us what ‘the child’ is, and also that ‘the erotic’ is. I argue that for the last two hundred years or so, they have confused us, have failed to distinguish the two categories, have allowed them dangerously to overlap” (10). These notions become even more complex as we realize that the child, according to Kincaid, is defined “according to what they do not have” (10). From this perspective, the issue with childhood and eroticism is that we impose a divide within two categories that are not well-defined and that are very subjective, putting into question the accuracy and validity of this dichotomy in the first place.

True to the aims of queer theory, the essays in Curiouser expose constructed binaries imposed on society, and deconstructs them by highlighting their inability to be held or sustained in society. These binaries include but are not limited to childhood/eroticism, childhood/adulthood, innocence/experience, pleasure/trauma, among others. The book also does an excellent job of exposing the unwritten rules that are at play when analyzing the concept of childhood in juxtaposition to gender and sexuality, as seen in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s discussion of the war on effeminate boys, where she (somewhat facetiously) questions why the bulk of the discourse on queer children is aimed at steering the child away from homosexuality rather than steering them towards it. Other essays, such as Richard D. Mohr’s “The Pedophilia of Everyday Life” go as far as to present childhood as a concept that “cannot do the moral work society has created it to do” (29). Mohr’s line of inquiry was intriguing because he approaches childhood as a “security blanket” (29) designed to provide a balance for a society characterized by depression, violence, and bleakness. Yet, we come to realize, especially with the advent of the queer child, that even children are capable of possessing the very traits that we are protecting them from. Even more so, as adults, we enforce children to embody traits and characteristics that we ourselves are incapable of upholding.

Work Cited

Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley (Eds.). Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Print.

Piggy bank

Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures

Front cover of Guy Davidson's Queer Commodities

Front cover of Guy Davidson’s Queer Commodities

The process of commodification is commonly viewed as antithetical to the notion of queer. While many people within LGBT communities or subcultures have widely embraced the increasing presence and assimilation of gay culture into mainstream culture (which includes an increasing representation of gay and lesbian characters/issues in the media, the nationalization of LGBT rights, among others), some have resisted this embrace due to the implications of commodification (which resonate immensely with the assimilationist strand of queer activism). Does an embrace of consumerism and modification entail a betrayal of a political queer agenda, which thrives not only on the challenging of the status quo, but also on the explicit efforts to avoid normalization or categorizations? 

By focusing his attention on the relationship between LGBT sexualities, liberatory politics, and consumer culture in five contemporary American novels, Davidson’s Queer Temporalities attempts to demonstrate the inadequacy of celebrating or condemning this relationship. This inadequacy leads Davidson to argue that commodification not only has a necessary but varying effects for gay and lesbian subcultures, but he also focuses on how these subcultures can “resist or transform some of capitalism’s more oppressive or pernicious dimensions” (2) through commodities.

Davidson begins his discussion of the relationship between LGBT subcultures and commodifictation by focusing first on the Stonewall Riots, acknowledging how the event led to the development of gay and lesbian urban culture; however, he questions the efficacy of marking this event as the political origin of the gay liberation movement. Drawing from activist John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Davidson posits that the reason gay and lesbian lives were able to exist, and the reason why LGBT politics were developed in the first place, is due primarily to the existence of capitalism. The deviation from a family-based household economy to our current model of free-labor, essentially paved the way to a system outside of the normative heterosexual family that was possible.

According to this perspective, capitalism is the entity that not only propels LGBT politics and identity, but it is ultimately the phenomenon that created this identity domain in the first place. Davidson then goes on to suggest that attacks against the commodification of the LGBT community, despite their sophistication, are driven by “an unachievable desire for a gay and lesbian community that is politically radical and unified in purpose” (7). Because of the impossibility of community given the socio-cultural and political diversity within LGBT individuals, Davidson draws from predominant lines of thought in (Marxist) cultural studies in order to approach queer subjects as a subculture rather than a community. I think that this move is very clever and appropriate, especially when considering that the notion of community goes against the “world-making project” (14) of queer culture, because it is unable to sustain various factors such as the existence of more members than can possibly be identified, a formation of identity based on experience rather than birth, and an identity that is not necessarily tied to space or geography.

Davidson thus uses the term subculture because it still denotes a body of people who identify themselves as part of a group based on things they have in common. However, this body of people is still considered deviant according to the expectations and practices of a larger group of individuals. Within the use of the term subculture, Davidson is particular interested in the use of spectacular style, (which alludes to visible markers of identity, in addition to combinations of dress, dance, slang, music, attitudes, among others), and how this concept is/was crucial to pre- and post-liberation queer subcultures.

In due course, Davidson highlights that commodification has multi-faceted and unpredictable effects in queer subcultures: it can provide a venue for assimilation by sacrificing the “politics” of queerness, it can provide the possibility of resisting and altering the status quo, it can offer the possibility of futurity, or it can be used to refute futurity altogether. Nevertheless, despite of how commodity is embraced, rejected, ignored, or attacked within the queer realm, one must admit that commodity is the center of the past, present, and potential future of queer subculture.

Work Cited

Davidson, Guy. Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Davidson’s book here.

Justin ugly betty kiss

An Overview of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s [The Queer Child]

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Front cover of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

Why is there such a hesitancy to label a child as queer? Is it possible that all children are queer (at least in some sense of the word)? How does a child grow, when said growth is being heavily monitored, delayed, and controlled? These are just some of the many questions that Stockton explores in her insightful book titled The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. In this book, Stockton posits that the desire to create a distance between childhood and adulthood has intensified the queerness of the child, due mostly to the wedge that has been placed between the two categorizations. As she points out, “The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back” (5). Because of the constructed nature of childhood, the notion of a “gay child” becomes problematic, especially when taking into account that children are supposed to be viewed as innocent and non-sexual. Thus, the notion of a “gay child” not only implies that children have agency and sexuality, but it also challenges the view of sexual orientation as a phenomenon that emerges later on in life.

Part of what Stockton intends to argue in her book is that there are ways of growing (or developing) that deviate from cultural expectations and norms: “There are ways of growing that are not growing up” (11). In addition, the term “growing up” is finite, in that there is an expectation for the growing process to achieve a state of completion once a certain height is achieved, or once the process of physical growth comes to a halt. Stockton thus adopts the notion of growing sideways as a way of thinking of growth not only as an on-going process, but also a growth that is not restricted to age. Sideways growth entails that “the width of a person’s experience of ideas, their motives or their motions, may pertain to any age, bringing ‘adults’ and ‘children’ into lateral contact of surprising sorts” (11). With this in mind, sideways growth intends to minimize (and to some extent, eradicate) the distinction that is made between the “child” and the “adult” by exemplifying the queerness of children as a socio-cultural construct.

In order to broaden her discussion on the queerness of children, Stockton develops some archetypes, or versions, of the queer child which focus on varying expressions of childhood and queerness. These archetypes, or central versions, present children that embrace traits and characteristics that are antithetical to the idea of childhood, whether it be through sex, aggression, violence, closets, secrets, etc. These versions focus not only on the sexual connotations of queer, but to some extent, Stockton makes the case for reverting to the traditional definition of queer (i.e. strange). This, to me, was slightly problematic, mostly because I think that the term queer should be tied in one way or another to the issue of sexuality or gender identity–less we run the danger of turning queer theory into the study of difference (which becomes redundant at some point). The versions of the queer child that Stockton devises are the following:

  • The Ghostly Gay Child: A child with a definite and unmistakable same-sex preference. This version usually participates in some degree of self-occulting (hence where the term ghostly arises) due to the child’s inability to “grow up” according to the standards imposed by heteronormativity. The ghostly gay child also manifests when parents, peers, or guardians disregard or refuse to recognize the child’s sexual orientation–thus adding an ethereal or otherworldly presence to the child’s sexuality. When the ghostly gay child’s growth is stunted, he or she must find an outlet where growth can take place. Perhaps the best example I could come up with of the ghostly gay child was the character of Justin Suarez in the 2006-10 series Ugly Betty. Although Justin exhibits characteristics that are closely tied to gayness (such as a penchant for fashion and musical theater), and although Justin’s family suspects he is gay, the series does not disclose the character’s sexuality until the concluding episodes of the series (where coincidentally, Justin is no longer a “child”). Therefore, the ghosting process occurs on the micro (family) level, as it does on a macro level (the audience).
  • The Grown Homosexual: This category is used to denote a “retrospective” queerness, in which the adult homosexual is “fastened… to the figure of the child” (22) in a form of arrested development. In other words, this version of the queer child is in essence a queer individual who is unable to become an adult; someone who remains as a child “in part by failing to have their own” (22).
  • The Child Queered by Freud: Unlike the previous two categories, which discuss children that will never be straight, this category pertains to the “not-yet-straight-child who is, nonetheless, a sexual child with aggressive wishes” (27). This child is not queer in terms of sexual orientation, but rather, exhibits behaviors or attitudes that transgress the expectations of innocence and purity that are expected in most children (think of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son).
  • The Child Queered by Innocence or Queered by Color/Money: As mentioned above, children’s innocence queers them, precisely because it distances children from the experiences that will turn them into adults: “They all share estrangement from what they approach: the adulthood against which they must be defined” (31). This expectation explains why children “as an idea” (31) are visualized as white and middle class. A childhood necessitates protection and shelter. Those individuals who are born into inferior conditions need a degree of experience in order to foster independence and to assure survival–they are not allowed to be weak or innocent. Thus, it is unsurprising that the media imbues “innocence” into these queer children by endowing them with an abuse “from which they need protection and to which they don’t consent” (33).

Stockton’s text proceeds to “braid” the different iterations of the queer child in order to ultimately demonstrate that the century of the child is in reality the century of the fictions of the queer child growing sideways (37). In order to support this claim, Stockton focuses on four “realizations” in terms of the queer child and its relationship to society:

  • Those who fetishize “delay” for the child must believe in sideways growth – when trying to determine the appropriate amount of length to delay childhood, it can be argued that children must find a way to grow (sideways) in spite of this imposed delay to eventual reach the adulthood that is being kept from them.
  • Evidently, we are scared of the child we would protect.
  • In the century of the child, the child is feared to disappear (just as the gay child appears to be emerging).
  • Children are vulnerable (and dangerous) as much by means of money as by means of sex – Children are made strange by money because they do not bring income into the family, thus enforcing the view of children as a non-productive commodity. Interestingly, money and consumerism has also allowed children to develop in unprecedented ways, whether it be through comic books that foster the child’s fantasies and imaginations, or playrooms, which are spaces where children share time with each other without adult intervention.

Work Cited

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press, 2009. Print