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