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Queer Resistance in Rita Mae Brown’s [Rubyfruit Jungle]

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle

Front cover of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle

If you want to get a sense of the views and attitudes that permeated lesbian life soon after the gay rights movement, this is the book you are searching for. Originally published in 1973, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle is approached by many readers as the quintessential lesbian coming-out and coming-of-age novel. It centers on the growth and development of Molly Bolt, a headstrong and precocious girl who is aware of her queerness from an early age, and who strives to embrace a life of unconventionality in a society geared towards heteronormativity and sameness. Growing up with her somewhat cruel and vindictive adoptive mother, Carrie–Molly learns to lose her fear towards authority and power as she struggles to make a name for herself in a world designed and driven by masculinity and chauvinism. Driven by her hunger for fame and recognition, Molly works hard at school and eventually earns a full scholarship to the University of Florida. Her scholarship is nullified after she is caught having an affair with her wealthy female roommate, so Molly hitchhikes to New York and finds a low-paying job as a waitress. Living in poverty and struggling to finish her degree in film at New York University, the narrative focuses on Molly’s exploration of her sexuality in a more open and free city–while realizing that social mobility and power are not easy to obtain when one belongs to multiple disenfranchised communities/subcultures.

As mentioned above, this novel was groundbreaking due to the fact that it introduced issues of lesbianism and queer culture to mainstream society during the 1970s. The problem when reading this novel today is that its age definitely shows. Although it is perhaps obvious that a lot has changed in terms of the proliferation and acceptance of LGBTQ cultures in American society, this novel creates a snapshot of a time in which patriarchy reigned supreme and in which queer voices were still struggling to be heard (issues that still linger today). The novel was also written and published during the peak of second-wave feminism the radical feminism, in which concepts such as women’s reproductive rights, patriarchy, and motherhood were being actively deliberated and contested. Thus, I can see why the novel’s protagonist may be seen as too radical and extreme to some readers. Rubyfruit Jungle questions, and to some extent, attacks notions such as marriage, motherhood, monogamy, and gender binaries–even at the expense of some of the lesbian characters within the text.

A particular passage that made me very uncomfortable takes place when Molly goes to a lesbian bar during her first night in New York, where a butch lesbian tries to woo her. Molly states the following after rejecting the advances of the butch lesbian:

What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like an imitation of a man? Hell, if I want a man, I’ll get  the real thing not one of these chippies. I mean […] the whole point of being gay is because you love women. You don’t like men that look like women, do you? (130)

Now, Molly’s anger and disdain for butch lesbians stems from the fact that she deems that they uphold the very gender binaries that she tries to resist–in which one person in a relationship is designated as the “masculine” figure, whereas the other is designated as the “female” figure. In her questioning of butch lesbianism, she seems to be inquiring why certain people feel the need to rely on heterosexual models of courtship and sexuality rather than following a queer route. While her views may be approached as a desire to deviate from binaristic thinking, one must also admit that her views are insensitive, and they do not do justice to the multitudinous and diverse nature of gender expression. Thus, rather than viewing butch figures as people who thwart or parody gender binaries, she views them as people who embrace the binary altogether.

A similar occurrence happens near the end of the novel, when Molly’s mother, Carrie, discusses her father’s infidelity, and how she was unable to bear children because her husband had a case of syphilis. After opening up to her daughter wholeheartedly for the first time in the novel, and after expressing her inability to understand why her husband cheated on her, Molly thinks and says the following about the news and her mother’s misery:

Thirty-one years ago and [my mother’s] life froze that year. She enameled the sharp edge of misery into a pearl of passion. Her life revolved around that emotional peak since the day she discovered it and now she was waiting for me to share it. “I’m sorry, Mom, but, well, it doesn’t make sense to me to stay with only one person either.” (210)

This moment can definitely be approached as an instance of radical queer resistance. If Molly would’ve sympathized with her mother’s woes, it probably would’ve led to a greater connection and bond between the two. However, seeing as monogamy is antithetical to Molly’s being, she tells her mother exactly how she feels to be true to herself–which prompts her mother to speak “with less conviction and emotion since [Molly] wasn’t supporting her” (211). Molly’s quest for embodying non-normativity ultimately prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain and sorrow as legitimate, mostly because the mother’s pain is ignited and fueled by forces and influences that Molly deems repressive and restrictive. What manifests in this exchange is a blockage of recognition: Carrie’s age and traditional views prevent her from accepting Molly’s lesbianism, and Molly’s rejection of normativity prevents her from recognizing her mother’s pain. This blockage epitomizes the feeling of stagnancy, failure, and immobility that haunts the entire novel.

Molly’s lesbianism and her strides against the status quo often leave her in a position of failure and futility. All of the relationships she has with other women end abruptly, she loses all the friendships she develops with other people, she is unable to find a job as a film maker even though she graduates from NYU with highest honors, and she only begins to mend things with her mother after she finds out that Carrie is about to die. Rather than viewing these failures as consequences reified by her queerness, I would argue that these failures are critiques of the standards and restrictions imposed on Molly by her culture and society. The novel may seem (and at times, is) problematic in terms of its depiction of gender, race, and family–and I can see why some of Molly’s thoughts and actions might leave a poor taste in reader’s mouths. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that this novel is symptomatic of attitudes and ideologies that were heavily present during the era in which is was produced. The novel is definitely insensitive according to current knowledge, ideologies, and standards–but at the time, a radical and headstrong approach was needed to begin collapsing the patriarchal forces that have influenced the shaping of our society (these structures still haven’t collapsed in the present; however, feminism is definitely a bigger part of our contemporary political consciousness than it was in the 1970s).

I have mixed feelings with this novel. It is a funny, entertaining, and well-written book that really gave me insight into perceptions of lesbianism, femininity, and masculinity during the rise of second-wave and radical feminism. However, some of the novel’s perspectives are insensitive, dated, and at times irrational. Molly’s courage, outspokenness, drive, and embrace of queerness at all costs is paradoxically what makes her simultaneously attractive and frustrating as a character. I was also taken aback by the exaggeration of Molly’s beauty and her very unrealistic ability to obtain the love and affection of every single man and woman she’s attracted to. Rubyfruit Jungle presents a world in which every person is potentially queer–and apparently, Molly knows the secret to unlocking this potential (what is your secret, Molly?!). However, her ability to entice any and all people she desires helps to propel the novel’s queer and antibinaristic themes and help to emphasize the problem that the novel seeks to challenge: “People have no selves anymore (maybe they never had them in the first place) so their home base is their sex–their genitals, who they fuck” (175). Rubyfruit Jungle, thus, is an account of Molly’s attempt to find a sense of self that goes beyond societal expectations, that goes beyond genitalia, that goes beyond the constrictions of heteronormativity.

As advice to future readers of this book, I would recommend approaching Rubyfruit Jungle as a historical account of lesbianism in the 1970s and as a non-normative manifesto and not as a prime example of contemporary views towards gender, sexuality, and personal development. As I’ve mentioned many times above, the novel does have some problematic aspects–but it also presents us with an opportunity to critically compare and contrast attitudes towards sexuality from the past and the present.

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

Work Cited

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. Plainfield: Daughters, Inc., 1973. Print.

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Space and Masculinity in James Baldwin’s [Giovanni’s Room]

Front cover of James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Front cover of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (2013 Vintage Edition)

Originally published in 1954, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was not only one of the first novels to tackle issues of same-sex desire with heart and honesty, but it was also a text that prompted frank discussions of homosexuality within the public sphere. The narrative focuses on the experiences of David, an American who moves to Paris in a quest for self-discovery after he experiences a near-fatal car accident. After spending a year roaming the streets of Paris with little money and spending most of his time in hotel rooms, he meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender who is attracted to him. Most of the novel is centered on the months that David spends living with Giovanni in his disorganized and disheveled room in the outskirts of Paris, where David comes face-to-face with gender-related crises galvanized by his intense relationship with the Italian bartender. Unable to cope with the inconsistency between his sexual orientation and the expectations of masculinity imposed by himself and others, David abandons Giovanni without notice–only to find out later that Giovanni is going to be executed because he murdered the owner of the bar he worked at.

The novel creates an intricate portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. David pinpoints the development of his fear of same-sex desire to his first sexual relationship with another boy when he was a teenager in Brooklyn. He describes a tender first sexual experience with his friend Joey–an experience that degrades into a manifestation of fear when he realizes that he made love with another boy:

I was suddenly afraid. It was borne on me:but Joey is a boy.I saw suddenly the power in his thighs, in his arms, and in his loosely curled fists. The power and the promise and the mystery of that body made me suddenly afraid. That body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood. Precisely, I wanted to know that mystery and feel that power and have that promise fulfilled through me. (9)

Masculinity and manhood are integral concepts that shape and form the narrative in Giovanni’s Room. Most of David’s frustrations stem from the fact that he tries to live up to an image of impeccable and flawless masculinity that he cannot possibly uphold. Even when he is in a relationship with Giovanni, the latter senses some distance and some withdrawal on David’s behalf. This thirst for masculinity is due not only to David’s association of manhood with power, but also due to his father’s desire for him to “grow up to be a man” (15). This overwhelming desire to comply with the expectations of masculinity–which include marrying a woman and having kids–lead David to propose to a young woman named Hella, who leaves to Spain on a soul-seeking trip while she considers David’s proposal. This proposal, however, is depicted as an hypocritical farce, mostly because David develops a passionate relationship with a man while Hella spends time in Spain.

David’s engagement to Hella becomes the topic of an intense debate and conversation between him and Giovanni, in which they discuss the nature of women and engage in a very sexist depiction of women as fragile creatures that exist to serve the needs of men. At one point, Giovanni suggests that David would still have a relationship with him even if he were with Hella at the moment. David disagrees with this claim, deeming that it would be disrespectful to Hella to sleep with Giovanni if she were around. Giovanni proceeds to tell David that his decisions shouldn’t be based on what Hella wants, and he accuses David of being too passive and melodramatic. While at first David is taken aback by Giovanni’s comments, he points out that Giovanni’s direct and matter-of-fact nature is perhaps the only way he can cope with David’s aloofness:

Giovanni liked to believe that he was hard-headed and that I was not and that he was teaching me the stony facts of life. It was very important for him to feel this: it was because he knew, unwillingly, at the very bottom of his heart, that I, helplessly, at the very bottom of mine, resisted him with all my strength. (82)

Although David is unable to express his love through words and intense emotion, he does express it through physical actions and through space/place. Given that this novel it entitled Giovanni’s Room, it is perhaps obvious that place and space plays a crucial role in the novel’s symbolism and development. The eponymous room can be approached not only as a symbol of domesticity, but also as a symbol of queerness. David describes the room as a dark and messy space–not only is the room littered with trash, old newspapers, cardboard boxes, and empty bottles, but it is also a dark space. This darkness is attributed to the fact that Giovanni glosses over the room’s window panes with white paint in order to assure his privacy when sharing a bed and being intimate with David. David decides at one point that he has to integrate himself within Giovanni’s room in order to transform it–which can be approached as a subconscious effort to embrace some degree of queerness. This integration leads to the transformation of the room into a domestic space, in which David assumes the role of a “housewife” as he voluntarily cleans and maintains the room:

I invented in myself a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife after Giovanni had gone to work. I threw out paper, the bottles, the fantastic accumulation of trash; I examined the contents of the innumerable boxes and suitcases and disposed of them. But I am not a housewife–men can never be housewives. And the pleasure was never real or deep, though Giovanni smiled his humble, grateful smile and told me in as many ways as he could find how wonderful it was to have me there, how I stood, with my love and my ingenuity, between him and the dark. (88)

Even though the room is a dark, small, and enclosed, it becomes a private space that allows David and Giovanni to live a life that would be impossible outside of the room’s confines. It becomes a space of domesticity and partnership–a space where the unwritten social rules of gender and masculinity are unable to regulate what the two men can or can’t do. This space, as can be seen in the passage above, also enables David to briefly deviate from the expectations of masculinity and manhood–and through the transformation of the room, he develops a sense of pleasure through domestic duties even though he downplays or denies this pleasure.

The problem, however, is that even though the room becomes a space of queer possibility, it also serves to keep queerness restricted and contained. Thus, David and Giovanni are able to have a passionate relationship as long as it remains within the dark and messy confines of the room. In due course, David feels suffocated by the room’s queerness, whereas Giovanni desperately struggles to expand the room’s queerness beyond the confines of its walls. This can particularly be seen after Giovanni is fired, and he begins to unsuccessfully tear down the walls of the room to expand the space. David, however, views this domestic and queer space as a farce–leading him to accuse Giovanni of using the term love as a way of enticing David into assuming a passive and feminine role:

“What kind of life can we have in this room?–this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about–isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me. (142)

David’s accusations lack a solid foundation–a notion that becomes even more heartbreaking when the reader realizes that Giovanni truly loves David. Giovanni’s love is not reliant on David’s embodiment of a “housewife” role. David assumes this role because he wanted to, not because Giovanni obliged him to. Since David is unable to assume the role of provider or head of the household within Giovanni’s room, he goes on to view his self-imposed role as a threat to his masculinity and manhood, prompting him to run away from the queer premises. By abandoning the room, David forces Giovanni to live alone within that space–a notion that fills Giovanni with fear and dread, since he despises being alone. Without David, Giovanni’s room becomes nothing but a dark, empty and lonely space–a place where his queerness is doomed to exist in pain and solitude.

Beautifully rich and complex, I highly recommend this novel. Many of the passages in this novel are stunning and gorgeous. There are so many other themes and characters in this novel that are worthy of discussion and exploration–but I will leave that for future work that I’ll conduct on this novel. I’m really glad that I’ve finally had the change to read this cornerstone text within the genre of gay fiction. 

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

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. 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.

Parrotfish_Animal

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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Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

Working Out

“Perfection” has its price… and when it comes to bodily perfection, this price can never be fully paid.

Some of the most awkward and disturbing conversations that I’ve had about the body have taken place during a meal. There is something about sharing food with company that ignites interesting topics of conversation as pertained to our body, nature, and food. I recall one particular instance in which I went over a friend’s house for dinner. She had a couple of guests over who were preparing a make-your-own-taco buffet. We sat down on the table and began circulating the bowls full of shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, flour tortillas, and yellow rice. I placed two tortillas on my plate and began to scoop some shredded chicken on the tortillas when I noticed one of my friend’s guests staring at me with a look of horror on her face.

“Oh my god!” she said. “Are you going to eat ALL OF THAT?!” A confused look spread over my face. I didn’t think I was eating much, but according to my guest, two tacos was beyond extravagant. A feeling of awkwardness spread across the table. I lost my appetite. The two tacos remained on the plate, virtually untouched.

It was no secret that my friend’s guest was known for having body-image issues. Between her unstable diet and her insane workout regimen, it was a miracle that she seemed so lively and healthy. This was not the first time she made a weird or rude comment regarding food. Who could forget the time she called out my friend for eating an entire bowl of cocoa pebbles? Or the time she offered to serve us dessert, and served each one of us a 1×1″ square of brownie with a tablespoon of vanilla ice-cream on top, insisting that we must not exaggerate? But it this taco incident that truly affected me negatively, and it awoke feelings in me that were dormant for a long time.

I’ve always had issues with my body. I’ve  always been overweight (not obese, but I certainly have extra meat on my bones), I have crooked teeth, one of my eyes is slightly bigger than the other, and yes, I have a huge nose. But over the years, I had learned to grow comfortable with my body, and I had learned to accept the fact that I deviate from normal and beautiful expectations of the body. But that taco moment really scarred me in an unprecedented way. I took the comment to be a remark on my weight and my appearance. That night, when I returned home, I stared at myself in front of the mirror. I felt disgust. I felt worthless. The head of my friend’s guest circulated around my mind, mockingly asking me if I was “going to eat ALL OF THAT!”

I don’t even think we can begin to understand just how much culture affects our interpretation and perception of the human body. We live with such an immense pressure to be perfect and desirable. This desire is so intense that it completely overshadows even the most basic of biological needs: food, sex, and even rest. It comes as no surprise that because of these unrealistic cultural expectations, we have pathological phenomena such as bulimia, anorexia, among others.

These pathological phenomena are usually seen as purely negative and evil cultural manifestations. However, some reading that I have been doing during the past weeks is pushing me to question the extent to which diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are purely evil. I think we rarely seek liberation and emancipation in cultural expressions that seem subversive, violent, and even dangerous. Furthermore, I think that a dichotomous view of the word always limits our capacity to deal with notions such as morality: we either view things as entirely good or entirely bad, refusing to see the gray area that exists in between. However, I think that we’re all very well aware of the fact that the gray area tends to possess the most powerful explanatory power when it comes to grappling with difficult or controversial topics.

Does anorexia have a “positive side”? Can anorexia, despite its danger, be viewed as emancipatory? Can issues of the body be viewed as a type of protest? Feminist scholars such Susie Orbach, and Susan Bordo in her discussion of the body and the reproduction of femininity in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body discuss the plausibility of  this notion. As pointed out by Bordo in her discussion:

A number of feminist writers, […] have interpreted anorexia as a species of unconscious feminist protest. The anorectic is engaged in a “hunger strike,” as Orbach calls it, stressing that this is a political discourse, in which the action of food refusal and dramatic transformation of body size “expresses with [the] body what [the anorectic] is unable to tell us with words”–her indictment of a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body. (463)

Keep in mind that Bordo and Orbach are in no way justifying anorexia , and they are certainly not pushing people to view this pathological manifestation as a solution. Anorexia is unfortunate and very dangerous. However, they do suggest that people who do suffer from this pathology certainly convey an interesting bodily rhetoric, in which their condition is not only symptomatic of cultural pressures and expectations, but it is also illustrates everything that is downright wrong within contemporary culture. Sure, people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are not conscious of this protest, but their body serves as a walking indication that something is very wrong when it comes to the aspirations that culture pushes us to strive for.

The expectations of perfection when it comes to the body are so pervasive that they have transcended beyond the realm of the feminine. It is well known that anorexia, and body issues, are not exclusive when it comes to gender. Men, myself included, are also expected to achieve a degree of physical and bodily perfection, else we suffer from feeling worthless and ugly under the guise of contemporary culture. You are expected to have well-defined muscles, but you can’t have too much muscle because that’s too excessive. You can’t be too thin. You can’t be fat. You have to have short hair, a six-pack, a slender waist, a stoic stance. Yes, men these days have just as many expectations as women do when it comes to their bodies.

Jackson Whittemore, a character from MTV's Teen Wolf, in a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Jackson Whittemore (played by Colton Haynes), a character from MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is a screenshot taken a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. Notice that this show is aimed primarily at a young adult audience (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Popular shows watched by young audiences, such as MTV’s smash show Teen Wolf, definitely perpetuate this notion of physical perfection, especially when it comes to their depiction and glorification of the male body. Now, I’m not saying this is a purely terrible thing. After all, “eye-candy,” a well-sculpted body, is indeed awe-inspiring and impressive (and it sure makes us feel wonderful in many ways), but what message is being sent when all of the men and women present within the show are beautiful, physically fit, and well-groomed? It sets unrealistic expectations. I, for one, will never look like Colton Haynes when I step out of the shower. I’ve accepted that fact.

When we are surrounded by frail bodies that are wasting away, walking skeletons that seem to be only a few steps away from death itself… there is definitely a scream for help being shouted at the face of culture itself. Sure, anorexia can be approached as a form of protest, but it’s a protest that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s disturbing, as Bordo points out, that “The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested” (464). The “protest” doesn’t fight against the pathology, but rather, it perpetuates it. The so-called solution that culture has rendered, the so-called protest, only feeds the cultural monster of the body in Western culture. And this sense of pathology, as I pointed out above, now goes beyond the production of femininity. It is a problem that is now blind to gender.

But now that we are aware of the problems and paradoxes of body and its relationship to Western culture, how do we even begin to solve them? We need to reconsider not only our theories and approaches towards gender and the body, but also the practices that we engage in as a response to these issues.

References:

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 460 – 466.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net