Course Syllabus: Queer Young Adult Literature

Hello readers! So, I’m finally teaching one of my dream courses, and it’s one that I’ve been anxious to teach for quite some time! Click here to access the syllabus that I’ve designed for an intermediate seminar that I’m currently teaching at Bowdoin College. The seminar is entitled Queer Young Adult Literature, 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 literary texts communicate ideas that are supposed to be unspeakable, especially to a younger audience? In this course, we will explore contemporary young adult literature that represents the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer adolescents. We will not only scrutinize the complex relationship that exists between narrative, sexuality, gender, and audience, but we will also determine how certain genres and narrative modes enable or limit representations of queerness. Drawing from temporal and affective approaches to queer studies, we will examine the genre’s attempt to encapsulate an enduring change in terms of how queer adolescence is (or can be) represented, perceived, and experienced.

This course is my opportunity to teach and discuss ideas that I’ve developed while writing my dissertation, especially when it comes to the analysis of youth literature with queer content using the critical lenses of queer, affect, and narrative theories. Although this course has various goals and objectives, there are three main things that I want students to explore throughout the course:

  1. The way in which young adult novels make use of non-conventional narrative forms and structures in their explorations of queer content, and the formalistic/structural strategies implemented by queer youth narratives.
  2. The ways in which queer young adult literature complicates or reaffirms ideas regarding queer childhood and queer adolescence.
  3. The affective and political potential of the young adult genre, and the ways in which youth literature uses emotion to help its readership develop historical awareness and resilience towards violence and queerphobia.

In all honesty, this was one of the most difficult courses that I’ve ever designed, particularly since I had to limit the amount of novels that students and I would read and discuss throughout the semester. There were various criteria that I considered when making the final text selection. First and foremost, I wanted the course novels to reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, etc.). Secondly, I wanted to include novels that represent the intersection between gender, sexuality and race, and that are written by authors of color–an issue, especially since youth literature with queer content is notorious for sidelining the experiences of queer characters of color (this has been changing, but ever so slowly). Last but not least, I wanted to include novels that implemented innovations of structure, form, and narrative mode, which wasn’t difficult to find given the propensity for queer narratives to implement nonlinear narratives and postmodern aesthetic techniques.

When you look at the course schedule that is located in the final two pages of the syllabus, you’ll notice that each of the course novels is paired with an important piece of theory or criticism focused on affective, temporal, and age studies approaches to queer theory. It is my hope that these difficult, theoretical texts will provide students with the means to conduct both reparative and paranoid readings of the young adult novels that I’ve selected. Furthermore, I hope that these difficult texts will help illuminate the intricacies and complexities of the young adult genre–a genre that is oftentimes viewed as simplistic and not worthy of critical attention.

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback! If you were to design a course on queer young adult literature, what novels would you include? What readings would you pair with your selected novels? What issues or topics would you focus on? If you have designed or taught a course on queer young adult literature, I would love for you to share your syllabus in the comments section below.

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

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.

The Role of Gender and Literature in Alison Bechdel’s [Fun Home]

Front cover of Alison's Bechdel's Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Front cover of Alison’s Bechdel’s Fun Home (2007 paperback version)

Originally published in 2006, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that led Alison Bechdel to commercial and critical success. Reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s MausFun Home explores the relationship between Alison and her closeted father, Bruce Bechdel, to shed light on themes such as gender, the coming-out process, and the complicated dynamics of family life. The exploration of these themes are facilitated through discussions of death, life, and literature–triggered by Alison’s efforts to illustrate an accurate portrait of her complicated connection with her father, particularly after he commits suicide.

Alison and her father share many traits: they are both queer (even though the father remains closeted and married to his wife throughout the entire duration of the memoir), they both have a love for reading and for art, and they both wish that they were born the opposite sex. Despite these similarities, they never seem to forge a strong and intense bond due to their reserved personalities and their divergence in terms of gendered affiliations. Whereas Bruce tends to express traits that can typically be approached as feminine, Alison admits that she has been “a connoisseur of masculinity” (95) since she was a child. Thus, even though their share many similarities, their divergence in terms of their gender alignment creates significant tension between the two characters.

Not only does Alison approach herself and her father as “inversions” of each other, but she also makes note of how she struggles to emphasize her masculinity while her father struggles to prevent her from expressing it. She approaches her father’s attempts to feminize her as an almost pathetic effort embody femininity (vicariously) through his daughter, which leads to what Alison calls “a war of cross purposes” that is “doomed to perpetual escalation” (98). Thus, differences of gender are not invoked to uphold the division between men and women, but rather, to illustrate the differences and tensions that exist between Alison and her father.

Figure 1. Page 95.

Figure 1. Page 95. Many of the images in Fun Home stress the dichotomous view of Bruce as a feminine presence and Alison as a masculine presence. In the image above, notice how Bruce engages in an activity that is stereotypically approached  as feminine. The wall unit splits this panel into two sections, thus highlighting Alison’s placement in front of the television showing a Western movie. Keep in mind that this memoir is not necessarily upholding gender binaries–a man with feminine characteristics and a girl with masculine characteristics, in due course, challenges the binary in the first place.

Bruce’s reserved and temperamental nature is attributed to the fact that he’s had to keep his sexuality a secret due to his upbringing in a society where homosexuality is considered a disgrace. It is suggested in the memoir that Bruce’s repressed nature, his wife’s request for a divorce, and the fact that Alison is able to live an open life as a lesbian (whereas he was not) are the events that prompt him to commit suicide by running in front of a truck. This suicide is the event that prompts Alison to explore her father’s life through memoir, while in turn coming to a more enlightened understanding of the influence that she and her father had on each other. This exploration, however, does not take place in a linear or organized fashion. Fun Home is as a pastiche or decoupage of many elements presented in a non-chronological fashion. The comic panels are supplemented by snippets of other literary texts, photographs, letters, and even newspaper clippings. Furthermore, the narrative itself is supplemented with Bechdel’s interpretations of the events that she lived, in addition to theoretical interventions from areas such as gender and psychoanalysis.

I am deeply interested in the role of literature and literary texts in Fun Home, not only because they add more depth and nuance to the memoir, but also because literature (particularly novels) is a crucial element that must be kept in mind when interpreting and understanding the central developments in the graphic memoir. For instance, literature is the catalyst that helps Alison to discover that she’s a lesbian–leading her to describe her lesbianism as “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (74). At the age of thirteen, she first encounters the word “lesbian” in a dictionary. She later reads a book focused on offering biographies of queer figures, which leads her on an obsessive mission to read and consume as many queer texts as she possibly can, such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice and Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. 

The very act of accessing and reading this literature is depicted as a deeply political and almost revolutionary act, for it entails developing the courage to buy these books in spite of their overtly queer titles, or to borrow them from public libraries, “heedless of the risks” (75). These books inspire her to attend a gay union meeting at her university, and to come out to her parents in a letter. Whereas her father seems quite accepting of her sexuality, claiming that “everyone should experiment” (77), her mother responds with mild disapproval, approaching her lesbianism as “a threat” (77) to her work and her family.

Figure 2.

Literature is associated with almost every single significant event that takes place in the novel. Alison’s first relationship blossoms when she meets a poet named Joan. Every time they are shown in bed together, they are surrounded by novels and other books. The images depict them reading even when being intimate with one another, and they critique and analyze books even when sprawled naked on their beds (see pages 80-81). The importance of books is her life is unsurprising when taking into account that her father was an English teacher at their local high school, and he spent a lot of time recommending and discussing books with Alison.

Even though Bruce engages in sexual acts with other men, and even boys, the memoir highlights novels and literature as the outlet of escapism that Bruce used to express his sexual frustrations, and even his subconscious sexual desires. His favorite books, such as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Joyce’s Ulysses, touch upon matters and themes that are central to Bruce’s characterization. The Great Gatsby, for instance, highlights the pains of yearning for someone or something we cannot possess, whereas Ulysses depicts how characters can cross each other’s paths without affecting one another in a significant way (reflecting Alison’s complex relationship with her father). Given how closely Bruce’s books are tied to his suppression, his secrecy, and his hidden desires, it is no wonder that his wife gets rid of most of his book collection after he dies.

It is literature that allows Bruce and Alison to achieve a degree of closeness that they’ve never felt before. It turns out that Alison ends up taking English with her father in twelfth grade, and she realizes that she really likes the books that her father wanted her to read, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. She becomes deeply invested in discussing these books with her father within the classroom–and her interest leads her to develop “a sensation of intimacy” (199) that she has never felt before with her father. When Alison leaves to college, she grows even closer to Bruce, calling him every once in a while to discuss the books that she reads for her English class. Their connection reaches a peak when Bruce lends his daughter a copy of Earthly Paradise by Colette (an autobiography with lesbian themes) even though she has not revealed her lesbianism to him. The book sparks a conversation between the two, leading Bruce to open and honestly discuss his sexual orientation with Alison for the first time.

Figure 1. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Figure 3. Page 221. Alison and her father have their first frank discussion regarding his sexuality. Although their relationship is cold and distant, this marks one of the moments in which they begin to grow closer to each other.

Literature becomes the agent that allows Alison to forge a connection with her father. Although she admits that her intellectual connection and her intimacy with her father is seen as unusual to other people, she still seems to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate it. Alison does, however, lament that they “were close. But not close enough” (225). However, despite the fact that they were not as close or as intimate as she wanted them to be, she cherishes the fact that “he was there to catch [her] when [she] leapt” (232).

I can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this memoir. It is complex, rich, funny, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful. I’m sure that this book is going to contribute significantly to my academic work, and I can’t wait to re-read this memoir in the near future.

You can purchase a copy of Bechdel’s memoir by clicking here.

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print (Paperback edition).

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.

FrozenBanner

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.

On the Decentralization of Truth and Memory in Achy Obejas’ [Memory Mambo]

Front cover of Achy Obejas' Memory Mambo (1996)

Front cover of Achy Obejas’ Memory Mambo (1996)

Achy Obejas’ Lambda Award-winning novel, Memory Mambo, is a text that simmers and lingers within the mind long after it is read. I initially decided to read this novel because it centers on the life of a Cuban-American lesbian who administrates a laundry service in the Midwest, however, it is a much more complex and rich read when compared to your average LGBTQ novel. True to its name, I would say that this text is ultimately an exploration of the strengths and fallacies of memory, especially when it comes to understanding and interpreting of truth. Even more so, Memory Mambo, at least in my view, is a novel that is first and foremost about decentralization–or in other words, the redistribution of power and control away from a central unit or “command” center. In the case of this novel, decentralization is focused mostly on the self, and it illustrates how the self is unable to account for the totality of memory and the totality of experience.

Similar to Sandra Cisnero’s 1984 novel entitled The House on Mango StreetJuani, the novel’s protagonist, is not only characterized through her own experiences and trials, but she is also characterized through elaborate stories concerning her relatives and her extended family. The novel is difficult to summarize due to its fragmented and chaotic focus. It begins with Juani questioning the nature of memory as she looks back at her childhood in Cuba. As a child, Juani and her parents escaped to the United States on a boat in an effort to leave behind the social and political climate of the island. The narrative segues into an exploration of Juani’s close family members, such as her mother, her father, her siblings, and her cousins. The first chapter focusing exclusively on her father is very revealing in terms of the novel’s aims and themes. He is described as a fabricator of stories. For instance, he claims to be the inventor of duct tape, and he also accuses the CIA of stealing his invention. The father tells this story to every person he encounters, and every time, the father bends the truth to suit his moods and to appease his audiences’ tastes. The father’s tendency to fabricate and alter stories reifies the novel’s aim of highlighting the flexible and malleable nature of truth, in addition to illustrating how truth and memory are dependent on others besides the self.

Although the novel has multiple story arcs, there are two in particular that stand out:

  • The tumultuous relationship between Juani’s cousin, Caridad, and Caridad’s husband, Jimmy. Jimmy is a chauvinistic, sadistic man who abuses Caridad emotionally and physically–doing things such as beating her, preventing her from going out, and going as far as to buy Caridad a washing machine even when her family owns the local laundry-mat. Juani and Jimmy loathe each other, mostly because Jimmy perceives Juani to be the same way he is. Jimmy perceives Juani’s lesbianism to be a threat, and he is constantly trying to sexually harass her, claiming that she is nothing but a victim of penis envy. One of the novel’s highest poinst of tension occurs when Jimmy covers up a violent incident that Juani is involved in, in order to make Juani feel as if she is indebted to him. Because of this “debt,” Jimmy tries to persuade Juani to cover for him after he is caught sexually molesting Rosa, the baby of Juani’s cousin, Pauli.
  • The “main” arc of the novel would be Juani’s unstable relationship with Gina, a Puerto Rican socialist and activist with strong political convictions and views. Gina is approached as a hypocrite by other characters because although she claims to be a feminist and an activist, she is deeply closeted and refuses to show any signs that she’s going to come out: “Gina wasn’t out, didn’t have any plans to come out, and wasn’t in a hurry to even consider it. For Gina, what we had was wonderful, but passing; thrilling, but temporary; an adventure, but only for memory’s sake” (121). Juani finds herself in a position in which she significantly has to change who she is in order to please Gina–she changes everything from her taste in music to her taste in clothing in order to appeal to Gina’s environmentalist and feminist sensibilities. Gina’s closeted sexuality in addition to her radically different political ideologies, lead to the escalation of tension between her and Juani. This tension explodes with a brutally violent fight between the two women, which leads to broken noses and bitten breasts. Their fight is the incident that Jimmy helps to conceal in order to assure that Juani’s family doesn’t get upset with her.

This novel, as can be seen above, is very violent and charged, but the deep and almost philosophical musings that take place in the narrative certainly compensate for the presence of many shocking and disturbing scenes. Seeing as the novel centers immensely on the notions of memory and truth, I was often captivated and intrigued by the difficulties that Juani had when it came to understanding and accepting events and realities in her life. The first chapter of the novel eloquently opens with a questioning of memory as a distinct, individualistic, and unified phenomenon–leading Juani to question whether her memories are constructions based on the stories told by other people. Because of this, the divides between fact and fiction, and lived reality and narrated reality, collapse from the get go. Even more so, Juani seems to approach memory as an entity that is shared amongst many people–memory, in this case, is approached as a decentralized phenomenon:

Sometimes I’m sure that I couldn’t have heard the stories about the memories anymore than lived through them–that both of the experiences are false for me–and yet the memory itself will be so fresh, so fantastic and detailed, that I’ll think maybe my family and I are just too close to each other. Sometimes I wonder if we’re not together too much, day in and day out, working and eating side by side, sleeping in the same rooms, fusing dreams. Sometimes I wonder if we know where we each end and the others begin. (9)

What I find fascinating about this passage is that memory, rather than being approached as a hard drive or a disk, seems to be depicted in a fashion that is more reminiscent of an internet network, in which memory is shared, interconnected, fragmented, and alterable. In Memory Mambo, it is clearly shown that most of the novel’s major tensions and issues surface when truth, like memory, is approached as an individualistic and solitary force, when in reality, most of these problems could be solved if only the truth were shared and decentralized in a similar fashion to memory. This notion is exemplified with Juani’s discussion of her lesbian cousin, Titi, who has tried to escape Cuba, unsuccessfully, several times. Although Titi does have affairs with other women, these affairs must remain private within the insular confines of Cuba. Juani believes that Titi’s desire to escape Cuba is fueled by her longing to express truth beyond the confines of the private. As Juani asserts, all of Titi’s lovers are unable to satisfy her need “to be loved in daylight–to walk down the street arm in arm with her lover without the pretense of a mere friendship, to be utterly and ordinarily in love” (76).

Titi’s issues mirror Juani’s own issues when it comes to her sexuality. Juani admits that she creates a divide between her family life and her sexuality, deliberately maintaining borders and distance in order to assure that her family isn’t disrupted or disturbed by Juani’s non-normativity. Juani walks the balancing line between complete honesty and secrecy–tethering truth to the unstable power of language. What I mean by this is that although Juani’s family knows about her lesbianism, they do not speak about it because it would reify certain details of Juani’s life that would tarnish the family’s so-called normalcy. Juani’s father, in particular, never seeks the truth from his daughter, and he even goes as far as to help Juani conceal the truth about her sexuality when other family members are probing her. His motivations for doing so are quite selfish and heartbreaking: “His motivation isn’t to spare me discomfort but to save himself. Because he’s afraid I won’t lie, it’s vital to him that I not be provoked into the truth. In my family, this is always the most important thing” (80).

It is when Juani is provoked into truth that she realizes how fragmented and decentralized memory truly is. This moment of truth takes place when Gina asks Juani whether she would have left Cuba if she were old enough to make a choice. This question leads Juani to take a close look at her childhood, but this attempt at introspection is thwarted by her inability to recall any real or factual memories during her time at Cuba:

And I realized that I’d left Cuba too young to remember anything but snatches of color an scattered words, like the cutout letters in a ransom note. And what little I could put together had since been forged and painted over by the fervor, malice and nostalgia of others. What did I really know? And who did I believe? Who could I believe? (133)

In due course, Memory Mambo approaches truth and memory as anything but stable and individualistic phenomena. The end of the novel becomes even more suggestive as Juani deliberately tries to deny or recognize the truth of witnessing Rosa being molested by Jimmy. However, her attempt to avoid remembering this instance is ruined when she discovers that her other cousins know the truth about the incident, leaving Juani in a position in which she is unable to lie or conceal the truth. This final incident goes on to exemplify how truth and memory are decentralized agents, and how they exist in networks that cannot be suppressed or contained.

This novel is definitely worth a read. I can’t even begin to list the wide range of emotions that I felt when reading this book, and my mind is currently on overdrive trying to process everything that it is discussed within its pages. The prose is simple to read, but the structure and ideas present in this work are anything but simple.

As always, feel free to add to this conversation in the comments section below!

Work Cited

Obejas, Achy. Memory Mambo. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1996. Print.

For the source of this post’s cover image (neurons), click here.

Gender and Non-Normativity in Jeanette Winterson’s [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit]

Front cover of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Front cover of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (henceforth OANOF) is a 1985 Bildungsroman (novel of development) centered on the life of Jeanette, a girl who is adopted and raised by a woman who happens to be a fundamentalist Christian. Jeanette’s mother believes in literal translations of the Bible, and she freely uses religious rhetoric to accommodate her black and white fashion of viewing the world. As Jeanette, the narrator, mentions early on in the novel, her mother “had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies” (3). Although Jeanette happens to feel greatly connected to her church and her church’s teachings, this fidelity towards the supposed perfection of the church becomes challenged as she realizes that she is sexually and romantically drawn towards women. OANOF focuses most of its attention on the tensions and frictions that spark when Jeanette’s sexual life clashes with her religious life, and on the drastic measures that her church takes to drive the “demon” of “unnatural passions” away from her.

Although Jeanette’s development and moral growth is most certainly the focus of this novel, a lot of the content is focused on her strange relationship with her mother, and even more so, on the mother’s blind and ritualistic devotion to her church. The mother desperately tries to shield Jeanette from evils, especially those associated with gender and sexuality. For instance, when Jeanette develops a friendship with an ostensibly lesbian couple that runs a paper shop, the mother soon forbids Jeanette from going to that store because there was a rumor that “they dealt in unnatural passions” (7). Seeing as the mother doesn’t speak to her daughter about matters of gender, sexuality, and the body, Jeanette naively believes that “unnatural passions” are referring to the fact that the couple puts chemicals in their sweets.

This desire to protect Jeanette from evil, in addition to the mother’s penchant for explaining phenomena using religious rhetoric, makes it increasingly difficult for Jeanette to adjust to the outer world. For instance, Jeanette goes deaf for three months in the novel. Rather than taking Jeanette to the hospital, the mother begins to inform everyone that Jeanette is “in a state of rapture” (23), and she prevents people from speaking to her. It is Miss Jewsbury, a closeted lesbian, who brings Jeanette to the hospital to be treated for her condition. Jeanette realizes that her condition is due to biological processes rather than spiritual rapture, and it is in this moment that she begins to question the perfection and infallibility of her church:

Since I was born I had assumed that the world ran on very simple lines, like a larger version of our church. Now I was finding that even the church was sometimes confused. This was a problem. But not one I chose to deal with for many years more. (27)

It is in this moment that Jeanette begins her process of development and maturation: it is the moment in which she realizes that her mother doesn’t have all of the right answers, and neither does the church. Thus, rather than resorting to donning the mother’s ideological perspective of the world, which consists of viewing things as either good or bad, Jeanette must learn to challenge herself to explore areas of contradiction and ambiguity that do not necessarily conform with the notions of right or wrong.

It is  during Jeanette’s time time at the hospital that that the motif of oranges becomes heavily introduced into the narrative, for her mother constantly sends her oranges along with some “get better soon” letters when she doesn’t have the time to visit Jeanette. Throughout the novel, the only fruit that Jeanette’s mother will give to her is the orange, for it is “The only fruit” (29). Little is said as to why oranges are deemed to be the only fruit worthy of consumption. However, the meaning behind the orange is not necessarily based on the fruit itself, but rather, on how the fruit is used. First and foremost, oranges become a way of further characterizing Jeanette’s mother, showing how she perceives the world categorically, and showing how she desires to limit the options that Jeanette can have. Furthermore, since oranges are the only fruit that are validated from the mother’s perspective, all of other fruit go on to lack legitimacy. Much later on in the novel, when Jeanette gets slightly ill, her mother brings her a bowl of oranges, and the following scenario takes place:

I took out the largest and tried to peel it. The skin hung stubborn, and soon I lay panting, angry and defeated. What about grapes or bananas? I did finally pull away the other shell, and, cupping both hands round, tore open the fruit. (113)

In this context, it becomes a little more clear that oranges are representing either gender or heterosexuality. By questioning why she can’t have other fruit, Jeanette puts into question the limitations that are imposed on her in terms of her choices and preferences. Notice that she has trouble accessing the orange’s pulp, which can symbolize the difficulty that Jeanette has towards complying with a simplistic, limited, heteronormative view of the world. It would be much easier for her to eat grapes or bananas, however, we observe that Jeanette’s mother is still coercing her to struggle with oranges.

The entire spectrum of fruit, in this interpretive view, would go on to represent the entire spectrum of gender–the mother’s efforts to impose oranges as the only good fruit go on to represent efforts to approach a single gender or sexual orientation has valid and legitimate. As can be expected, the mother’s views toward fruit also apply towards her views on gender and sexuality: “I remembered the famous incident of the man who’d come to our church with his boyfriend. At least, they were holding hands. ‘Should have been a woman that one,’ my mother had remarked” (127). This leads Jeanette to one of her many philosophical musings, in which she recognizes the fact that her mother is unable to interpret the world without resorting to the use of binaristic thinking. Instead of accepting the fact that these two men are, in due course, simply men, she resorts to approaching one of the men as a woman. But, as Jeanette remarks:

This was clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it. (128)

The desire to steer away from convention and normativity is a staple of this novel. Just as Jeanette desires another fruit besides an orange, she also desires to be romantically involved with someone besides a man. Jeanette’s penchant for non-normativity is even expressed in her artistic inclinations and projects. While Jeanette is in school, she truly strives to win a prize in the school’s various artistic competitions. While at first she loses these competitions because of her adherence to religious doctrine, she notices that she still continues to lose competitions even when she presents projects that are non-religious in their themes. For instance, in an Easter Egg painting competition, Jeanette creates an elaborate diorama that recreates a scene from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des NibelungenHowever, she loses to a a student who covers eggs in cotton in order with the title of “Easter Bunnies” (48). Jeanette realizes that even though her masterpiece was definitely the best project submitted to the competition, she loses simply because she steers away from convention. Rather than creating a habitual Easter-themed project for the competition, she strives to be different and creative, which essentially makes Jeanette a queer character in many other aspects besides her sexuality.

As I mentioned previously, Jeanette’s queerness certainly causes her a lot of pain and heartache, which is perhaps epitomized when she is publicly accused for being a lesbian while in church. The church members deem that Jeanette and her girlfriend, Melanie, have engaged in homosexual activity because they are possessed by demons. This accusation sparks a lot of commotion in the church, and thus, one of the most confusing and convoluted sections of this novel takes place. After the accusation, Jeanette escapes the church and goes to Miss Jewbury’s home. Miss Jewbury does her best to comfort Jeanette, and out of the blue, the two have sex: “We made love and I hated it and hated it, but would not stop” (106). When Jeanette returns home after her encounter with Jewbury, the tension of the novel escalates to an unprecedented degree as members of her church congregation perform an intense exorcism on her. The members stay from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. “praying over [her], laying hands on [her], urging [her] to repent [her] sins before the Lord” (107). The exorcism ultimately culminates with Jeanette being locked up in a room for 36 hours without food, and she only claims to be repentant in order to get access to food.

The resolution and “conclusion” of the novel focus on Jeanette becoming closely involved with the church as she also begins a relationship with a new church member named Katy. Contrary to the beliefs of her congregation, Jeanette firmly believes that her spiritual and sexual life are able to coexist. She is soon caught in a compromising situation with Katy, and her mother proceeds to kick her out of their home. This so-called failure pushes Jeanette to move to a city and start a new life–while unfortunately being deprived of her family and her history. She eventually returns to her old home to visit her mother, who seems to express a degree of ambivalence towards Jeanette–they do talk, but they never discuss Jeanette’s love life. The conclusion, however, shows a surprising revelation: Jeanette’s mother starts its first mission with black people–and she serves them pineapple because “she thought that’s what they ate” (172). Because of this, Jeanette’s mother ends up eating many dishes with pineapple in it, while claiming, philosophically, that “oranges are not the only fruit” (172). Thus, while the novel certainly ends in a sad note, indicating that many people still believe that Jeanette is possessed, the mother’s acceptance of other fruit leads the reader to believe that perhaps the mother is not viewing the world in the conceptually simplistic fashion that she used to. Just like white and black communities are starting to coexist in the mother’s church, the mother’s black and white conceptual distinctions start to blur.

On a personal note, this novel is fabulous. It is touching, shocking, and even funny at times. This novel is definitely a cornerstone of LGBTQ lit, even though the author does not necessarily consider OANOF to be a lesbian novel.  While I do recognize the universality of the themes present in the novel, I can particularly see how LGBTQ readers would appreciate and love this masterpiece.

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

Thoughts? Comments? Opinions? Please feel free to engage in this conversation using the comments section below!

Work Cited

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London: Pandora, 1989. Print (paperback edition).

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.

On Asexuality and Kinship: Ellen Wittlinger’s [Hard Love]

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love

Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love is at its core a novel about love, but it is quite different from other young adult novels on the subject that were written in the late 1990s. The narrative is centered on John Galardi (known by some as Gio), a junior in a high school who is still haunted by the ghosts of his parents’ divorce. On one hand, his father abandoned John and his mother because they did not comply with his self-image as an elitist literary publisher and playboy; on the other hand, because of John’s resemblance to his father, his mother has avoided physical contact with her son for over six years (no hugs, no physical proximity, nada). Because of this, John not only has difficulties expressing his emotions, but he also prevents other people from reaching out to him in order to avoid being hurt. He he poingnantly expresses this notion in a letter to his mother:

So I took all of the sadness of the divorce, and all the love I’d once had for both of you [his parents], and all the fear I had of being alone, and turned it into a stone wall to hide behind. To protect myself. I’m so protected now, dear mother, sometimes I feel like I’m barely alive. I am immune to emotion. And I hate you for it. (139)

John’s thoughts and feelings are shared with others anonymously through a zine he writes and publishes titled Bananafishwhich he writes after being inspired by a series of zines he read at a record store. He is particularly drawn to a zine titled Escape Velocitywritten by someone named Marisol, who is a self-proclaimed “Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love” (9). Drawn to the rawness and honesty of Escape Velocity, John devises a way to meet Marisol at the record store the day she delivers her publication for distribution. Tethered by their emptiness, confusion, and lack of experience, John and Marisol become quick friends–and seeing as Marisol is the first person that John was able to connect to, he falls in love with her. The main tension within this novel arises through this love–John truly believes that their connection transcends labels of sexuality and sexual orientation, whereas Marisol is certain that she’s a lesbian and she can never envision herself dating a man. The narrative then explores whether their friendship can survive the incongruity that exists in terms of their love for each other.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger's Hard Love. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist's perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel's zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are combined in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

Excerpt from page 93 of Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, illustrating one of the many zines that John reads throughout the narrative. The novel is mostly told through the protagonist’s perspective, and this perspective is enhanced with the novel’s zine-like structure. Text is written in different fonts, images and text are juxtaposed in unique ways, and the pages sometimes give the impression that they are collages of letters, newspaper clips, and clip art.

As can be seen in the image above, Hard Love is structurally interesting because it is presented as a collage-like collection of letters, narrative, images, newspaper clippings, poems, autobiographical pieces, and general musings that attempt to replicate the feel of an actual zine. All of these mediums work together to give us a snapshot of John’s mind. The fragmented feel of the novel does an exemplary job of concretely depicting John’s anger, confusion, and truth while at the same time leaving enough room for the protagonist to be ambiguous and difficult to understand.  John’s characterization was very intriguing to me, not only because of the novel’s structure, but also because of his gender identity and sexuality. For instance, early on in the novel, John expresses his inability to find women attractive, and he often expresses his disdain towards his friend Brian because of the latter’s overly enthusiastic attraction to women that he has never spoken with. As a matter of fact, for a while I was convinced that John was asexual, which would’ve been amazing given that as of yet,  I’ve not encountered an explicitly asexual character in a young adult novel. I got this sense in passages such as the following:

I can’t stand it anymore, the constant talk about girls and sex. I just don’t feel like thinking about that stuff. Waybe it’s weird, but I’m not interested in it. I mean, it worries me a little sometimes, because I guess guys my age are supposed to be like Brian, lusting after pouty lips and big boobs. But to me, the mystery of female body parts is one I’d just as soon not solve. Not that I’m interested in boys either–I’m just not interested in the whole idea of locked lips or proclamations of love. (19)

John’s sexual ambiguity and his inability to discern his sexual inclinations becomes a prominent issue in the early chapters of Hard Love, and there are instances in which John is unable to deduce whether he can potentially be attracted to any sex at all. At one point, John admits to Marisol that he possible could be gay, but he hasn’t taken a moment to contemplate this possibility. My initial reading of John as potentially asexual was further evidenced by Marisol’s attempt to fix up John with her gay friend, Birdie. This fix up fails, however, because Birdie thinks John is heterosexual based on his behavior and attitudes. Let me turn my attention to the following exchange between Birdie and John after the latter is accused of not being gay:

“What do you mean? I’m not  even sure myself if I’m gay or not. I mean, I’ve been thinking maybe I am.”

You have? Are you attracted to men?” Birdie asked.

“Well, no. But I’m not attracted to women either.”

“Oh, well, that’s just dysfunctional, not gay,” Birdie announced confidently. I was lost for a comeback. (52-53)

Marisol then asks whether John was disappointed to find out that he is not gay, to which he responds “It’s just Birdie’s opinion” (53). Now, there are obvious issues of asexual representation in the exchange between Birdie and John, because asexuaity is viewed as a dysfunction rather than an alternative way of being. It is possible to perceive a tension between John’s attempt to define his sexuality while at the same time having it defined by others. John’s non-normative sexual behavior and attitudes certainly make him queer to some extent, but this queerness is somewhat subdued when John “discovers” his heterosexuality through his attraction to Marisol. Although he confesses his love to Marisol, she does not reciprocate his feelings. She admits she loves him, but only “as much as [she] can” (223). Although he is attracted to Marisol, who is a woman, John suggests that his love is not a matter of genitalia and sex, but rather, who is capable of seeing one for who they truly are:

To tell the truth it couldn’t matter less

who wears the pants or the dress, but only

who becomes visible to whom.

You saw me truly, and I saw all you let me;

I’m not lying now, and I hope I never will. (205)

What makes this novel unique is that it is a love story that focuses on a protagonist who views love as a matter of connection rather than of sex or sexual orientation–although this in turn is problematic, mostly because at times it seems like John hopes that his love for Marisol could provoke her to overcome her lesbianism. This does not happen, and thus, this novel is anything but a young adult version of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. The novel also attempts to reconfigure the reader’s perceptions of friendship and family, ultimately presenting alternative ways of kinship that are not necessarily sexual or heteronormative in nature. Although it seems that John is in due course heterosexual and not asexual, there is an ambiguity and openness about him that is both refreshing, intriguing, and queer. Now, my question is: when will we have a great young adult novel with an asexual protagonist? Does anyone know about one?

You can purchase a copy of Hard Love here.

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Hard Love. Simon Pulse, 2001. Print. (Paperback edition)

An Overview of Judith Halberstam’s [The Queer Art of Failure]

Front cover of Judith Halberstam's The Queer Art of Failure

Front cover of Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure

I usually steer away from aesthetic judgments when writing about theory books, but in this case, let me start by saying that Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure was an absolute joy to read. What else can one expect from a theory book that opens up with a quote from the Nickelodeon cartoon series, SpongeBob SquarePants? Not only is her book witty and deeply intelligent, but it constantly made me smile, and at times, laugh out loud. Given the fact that this book is centered on failure (and other elements discussed within the anti-social movement in queer theory), I find its use of humor and its use of clear prose absolutely refreshing and delightful.

Moving on to a discussion of the actual text, The Queer Art of Failure centers its attention on products of “low” theory and popular culture (particularly CGI animation movies) in order to devise alternatives from binary formulations and heteronormative traps such as futurity and linearity. Halberstam uses artifacts of popular and low culture to aid her discussion because she deems that they are “far more likely to reveal key terms and conditions of the dominant than an earnest and ‘knowing’ text” (60). Halberstam’s main premise is that success is a heternormative enterprise and invention, and that in capitalist societies, success “equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation” (2).

Failure (and other events/practices related to failure, such as forgetfulness and stupidity), rather than being approached as the inability to comply with a social norm or standard, is viewed by Halberstam as a way of unveiling creative and more cooperative ways of existing in the world. Her queer critique of success as a capitalistic venture stems from the fact that people who live in capitalist systems can only achieve success through the failure of others. To make matters more complex, many tend to view failure as the product of one’s own doing rather than a result of the system itself–and they are expected to remain optimistic despite of the inability to comply with an expected norm. Thus, the book explores alternative ontological and epistemological routes in life that are pessimistic, but this pessimism doesn’t necessarily entail an existential aporia: “It is a book about failing well, failing often, and learning, in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better” (24).

Halberstam shifts her focus to a discussion of animation, particularly CGI animation movies, in order to illustrate how they exemplify topics (such as revolution and transformation) and structures that deviate from linearity. She argues that these films, either deliberately or unintentionally “recognize that alternative forms of embodiment and desire are central to the struggle against corporate domination” (29) by envisioning the queer as a collective rather than a singularity. One of the films she makes reference to is Chicken Run (2000), in which the queer community of female chickens escape their impending doom (becoming the meaty product of chicken-pot pies) by collectively joining forces to build and power a plane to escape the farm. Rather than complying with domesticity, rather than subduing to the demands of the male rooster, and rather then accepting their culinary fate, they transcend their “natural” flightless fate by working as a group to escape (embracing their failure to comply with the norms of the farm). Halberstam mentions other movies, such as Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Over the Hedge, that promote collectivity over individuality as an alternative mode of existing in the world or as a way of achieving utopia.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The "queer" chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Screen capture from Chicken Run (2000). The “queer” chickens work together to build this flying machine.

Halberstam makes an interesting claim: she posits that revolutionary movies are aware of the fact that children are not invested in adult enterprises (in other words, children are queer in that they deviate from heteronormative expectations): “children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have religious morality, they are not afraid of death or failure, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents, and they are not masters of their own domain” (47). Thus, cartoons become conventional and fail to be revolutionary when there is an overemphasis on the nuclear family or a “normative investment in coupled romance” (47). Thus, 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 shifts her attention to a discussion of forgetfulness and stupidity, arguing that similar to failure, they “work hand in hand to open up new and different ways of being in relation to time, truth, being, living, and dying” (55). After all,  forgetfulness can be approached as a failure to remember, and stupidity can be approached as a failure to be wise. In her efforts to forge the relationship between stupidity, forgetting, and other forms of being, she alludes to films such as Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) and Finding Nemo (2003) as examples of narratives that approach forgetting as an act that “arrests the developmental and progressive narratives of heteronormativity” (60). In Dude, Where’s My Car, for instance, the main characters are known for their relaxed approach that allows them to be receptive to others while at the same time being permeable and manipulable. This relaxed approach can especially be seen in the scene where the characters engage in a queer encounter in an effort to “compete” with Fabio (the infamous male model), The characters’ nonchalance (which might be perceived as stupidity) after the kiss, is deemed to be emancipatory because it is in essence a kiss between to straight men, yet it does not cause them to flinch in disgust or react negatively in any way. The kiss is a non-issue, and although it can be approached as an inauthentic representation,  it can also be approached as a way of resisting “the earnestness of so many gay and lesbian texts” (67).

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where's My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

Kiss between Chester and Jesse in Dude, Where’s My Car (2000). Can this kiss be approached as emancipatory?

One of the more interesting discussions in Halberstam’s book centered around a discussion of forgetting, stupidity, and family within the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Halberstam mentions how the intent to break away the power of generation from the process of history is a queer project, precisely because “queer loves seek to uncouple change from the supposedly organic and immutable forms of family and inheritance” (70). Breaking away from family and forgetting family lineage becomes away of starting fresh even though it entails a failure from engaging in the heteronormative enterprise of the nuclear family. It is here that Halberstam begins to approach linearity and normative temporality, which favor longevity over the temporary, thus prioritizing family over other possible relationships that can be forged.

Can Dori's short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Can Dori’s short-term memory loss be approached as a forgetting that facilitates a reconfiguration of kinship and being?

Her examination of Finding Nemo thusly attempts to demonstrate what happens to queer characters when they forget their families and find alternative ways of relating and bonding with others. This is mostly exemplified by the character of Dori, who suffers from short-term memory loss. Since she can’t recall her relationship or her family due to the fact that she is constantly forgetting, she is forced to (happily) bond with other creatures in a fashion that avoids normative temporality. This, in addition to the fact that she can’t forge a romantic relationship with Marlin (Nemo’s father) due to her condition makes her a very queer character. Halberstam also notes that within Finding Nemo, the mother figure is absent from the narrative, leading to an erasure of the past that facilitates the visualization of new possibilities of being. Thus, forgetting provides a new way to remember, a way to move on from the failure of recollection, and even more so, a way of disconnecting the self from the linear and normative expectations of time, culture, and family.

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

Work Cited

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

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.