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!

Judith Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Magazine Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

Male Back

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

Halberstam James Bond

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

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

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

Golden Eye M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

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

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.

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

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

Front cover of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

Front cover of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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


Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

Justin ugly betty kiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

Hand of a child opening a cupboard door

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s [Epistemology of the Closet] – A Staple of Queer Theory

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet

Front Cover of Eve Kokofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is often approached as one of the most groundbreaking discussions within the study of queer theory. Combining philosophical, legal, literary, and historical approaches towards queerness and human sexuality, Sedgwick’s text is focused on the destruction of the dichotomous divides used to discuss and categorize expressions and epistemologies (states of being) pertaining to sexual identity. She goes as far as to posit that a complete and encompassing understanding of Western culture must incorporate a critical analysis of the establishment and advent of the homo/heterosexual definition (1), and posits that issues pertaining to homosexuality and the closet (such as the divides between privacy and exposure, nature and culture, man and child) are central to most of contemporary Western thought. The aim of this post is to distill some of the more challenging and noteworthy claims made by Sedgwick in her discussion.

Sedgwick’s text was overall challenging due to the elusive and difficult nature of her prose and sentence structure. After reading some passages several times, however, I was offered great insights into the positioning of homosexuality within current strands of thought and philosophy. Here discussion opens up with a differentiation between minoritizing views towards homosexuality (in which homosexuality is of importance to a minority of people with specific attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs) and universalizing views (in which homosexuality and queerness are central in some way to all human beings). She also delves into a discussion of the origins of the term homosexual based mostly on Foucault’s pivotal discussion titled The History of Sexuality (Volume I). Surprisingly, not only was the term homosexual coined before the term heterosexual, but the prominence of the term ultimately led people to identify themselves not only according to their gender, but also their sexual orientation (thus illustrating the convergence of language with sexual identity). The homosexual, in this Foucauldian view, thus became a distinct species. The aim of Sedgwick’s discussion, however, is not to offer an explanation for the establishment of sexual categories, but rather, an exploration of their “predictably varied and acute implications and consequences” (9).

Later on in her book, Sedgwick mentions its purpose, which actually was one of the most difficult passages for me to understand and break-down. Epistemology of the Closet intends to:

demonstrate that categories presented in a culture as symmetrical binary oppositions—heterosexual/homosexual, in this case—actually subsist in a more unsettled and dynamic tacit relation according to which, first, term B is not symmetrical with but subordinated to term A; but, second, the ontologically valorized term A actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous submission and exclusion of term B; hence, third, the question of priority between the supposed central and the supposed marginal category of each dyad is irresolvably unstable, an instability caused by the fact that term B is constituted as at once internal and external to term A.” (10)

As can be seen in the passage above, this purpose is indeed loaded and slightly difficult, but I will try to deconstruct this passage in hopes of providing some illumination as to Epistemology of the Closet‘s purpose. In essence, Sedgwick is arguing that the binary opposition between homosexuality and heterosexuality is futile due to the instability of this divide in the first place:

1) Homosexuality and heterosexuality are not symmetrical or equal terms, and they are not equal halves of a whole. Rather, homosexuality is a secondary or inferior class of term when juxtaposed to heterosexuality. This part is quite obvious and understandable, for homosexuality (as a term or concept) does not possess the power, “prestige,” authority, or valence  that is loaded within heterosexuality (it is ontologically valorized).

2) The meaning attributed to heterosexuality depends on the not only taking valorization away from homosexuality, but also on the exclusion of homosexuality as part of the heterosexual. Keeping in mind that the term heterosexual was coined after the word homosexual, it comes as no wonder that the heterosexual is thus defined as he/she who does not embrace the traits or behaviors of the homosexual (i.e. I am heterosexual because I am not homosexual).

3) When it comes to the issue of whether heterosexuality came before homosexuality, or vice-versa, is a “dilemma” with no solution that is in turn very unstable, precisely because homosexuality is part of heterosexuality while at the same time being excluded from it. In this sense, homosexuality is similar to Kristeva’s notion of the abject in that you recognize that it is part of the whole while at the same time being excluded from it.

Sedgwick posits that the category of the homosexual, despite its status as a subordinate classification, has  in part refused to wither away because individuals who identify themselves as homosexual view the term as one of empowerment and unification. However, the prominence and permanence of the term is attributed to way more than its use as a gay-affirmative term: “Far beyond any cognitively or politically enabling effects on the people whom it claims to describe, moreover, the nominative category of ‘the homosexual’ has robustly failed to disintegrate under the pressure of the decade after decade, battery after battery of deconstructive exposure—evidently not in the first place because of its meaningfulness to those whom it defines but because of its indispensableness to those who define themselves against it” (83). Thus, the term homosexual thrives not because of its positive attributes, but rather, because it allows a so-called status quo to delineate attitudes and behaviors that it rejects.

On Difference and the Nature/Nurture Debate

After her discussion of the futility of the binary divide between homosexuality and heterosexuality, Sedgwick delves into a nuanced treatment of the three points that I explained above, focusing on the subordination of homosexuality within a heteronormative context, and on the development of axioms that help the reader to understand the importance of difference when it comes to the discussion of human sexuality. The subordination of homosexuality is quite obvious and easy to grasp, especially when Sedgwick discusses biases that have existed in the legal treatment of homosexuality within contemporary society, especially after the appearance and spread of AIDS. For instance, she alludes to the use of gay panic defenses within courts as a way of justifying violence done to members of the gay community, and how “The widespread acceptance of this defense really seems to show to the contrary, that hatred of homosexuals is even more public, more typical, hence harder to find any leverage against than hatred of other disadvantaged groups” (19).

Sedgwick posits a handful of axioms that are necessary not only to fully comprehend the epistemology of the closet and the nuances of sexuality, but also to deconstruct the binaries that enforce ideological views of the world. The first axiom, which at first may seem to be the most obvious, is that people are different from each other. I believe this is something that most people would agree with, but it’s also a very difficult concept to come to grips with. We have plenty of identity markers used to classify, categorize, and understand the people around us, but even then, we only have a very limited understanding of the person as a whole. Sedgwick posits that the most universal markers of identification that exist today are those of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, among others, but even then, this information only enables us to understand people in very broad ways, preventing a more nuanced or true differentiation from taking place. Sedgwick argues that people, especially those who have suffered oppression or subordination, have had to develop systematic ways of classifying and knowing people in order to determine “the possibilities, dangers, and stimulations of their human social landscape” (23). Learning more about the types of people that exist in the world is not only necessary to avoid stereotyping, but Sedgwick ultimately argues that knowledge about the different people in the world is crucial for survival:

I take the precious, devalued arts of gossip, immemorially associated in European thought with servants, with effeminate and gay men, with all women, to have to do not even so much with the transmission of necessary news as with the refinement of necessary skills for making, testing, and using unrationalized and provisional hypotheses about what kinds of people there are to be found in one’s world. (23)

In axiom 4, Sedgwick aims to deviate from the nature/nature debates that hinge on discussions of homosexuality, preferring to discuss homosexuality in terms of universalizing or minoritizing views because it forces us to ask the question: “In whose lives is homo/heterosexual definition an issue of continuing centrality and difficulty?’ rather than either of the questions that seem to have gotten conflated in the constructivist/essentialist debate” (40). Sedgwick seems to imply that there is perhaps the possibility of a eugenic agenda that might surface if a constructivist view on homosexuality is ever determined to be causal. She argues that gay-affirmative work complies with its aims when it steers away from discussions on the origins of sexual orientation and identity, and focuses more on activist and contemporary concerns. By engaging in a debate on the origins of sexual orientation, one risks participating in a tradition that views culture as something that is malleable and nature as a static phenomenon. If homosexuality were to be viewed as a product of culture, there is the risk of viewing it as something that can be altered or suppressed.

On the Nature of the Closet

The closet, as Sedgwick points out, is complicated because although it is presumably used to conceal a facet of one’s identity, this sense of concealment is not always complete or total. The act of coming out the closet is not a one step process because there is always more than one closet in the life of the homosexual. Coming out is a process that must constantly be dealt with when encountering a new person. One may consider themselves to be out, but there is always someone out there who is not aware of one’s sexuality due to its presumably unmarked nature, and there are times when remaining in the closet seems to be a more feasible, and at times safer, option:

every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not. (68)

Especially today, the closet is closely tied to notions of knowledge, concealment, and truth. The term “coming out” has even been applied to notions that deviate from the disclosure of one’s sexual identity, such as to “come out” as a democrat, or to “come out” as an atheist. It can be said that the notion of coming out has been broadened to such a degree that it is no longer central to notions or matters of sexuality, but Sedgwick argues that in true universalizing fashion, this broadening demonstrates how pivotal queer and homosexual matters are for Western thought, and how integral they are to everyday actions and beliefs (72).

I think that the first couple of chapters within Sedgwick’s discussion really provide a solid platform that enables a discussion of homosexuality, the closet, and their pervasive influence in contemporary thought. The book is particularly useful because it demonstrates not only the futility of binaries as proper mechanisms of definition, but also the issues that surface when determining the relationship that exists between language and sexuality. Homosexuality as such was a category that was devised as a pathological classification of individuals who engaged in same-sex behavior, and the emergence of this category pretty much radicalized the way we approach knowledge and people. This is a text that I must revisit soon in order to fully comprehend all of the arguments and notions that Sedgwick presents in her attempt to reconfigure epistemological and ontological approaches to homosexuality and the closet in a postmodern world.

Primary Work

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Print.


My Ultimate Reading Challenge – The Reading List for My PhD Candidacy Examinations


Part of the requirements for the doctoral degree in English at the University of Notre Dame are written and oral exams (which I will take in March of 2014). The exams are a requirement that demonstrate that all doctoral students have in-depth knowledge of a major field, a secondary field, and a literary theory/methodology, in order to assure that we are thoroughly prepared for teaching and dissertation writing. For these exams, we are all required to construct a reading list for three areas of specialization. The list for our major field should contain approximately 75 works, whereas the reading lists for our secondary field and the literary theory/methodology should contain about 50 works each–for a grand total of about 175 works. This means that we have about ten months to read and familiarize ourselves with these works. Yikes!

After a lot of thought and research, I have decided that my major field will be Contemporary American Literature (1945-Present). My secondary field will be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Literature, and my literary theory/methodology will be Queer Materiality (which fuses readings within the areas of Queer Theory, Queer Cultural Studies, and the Materiality/Sociology of Texts). Professors Susan Cannon Harris (chair), Kinohi Nishikawa, Matt Wilkens, and Barry McCrea have graciously agreed to be part of my examination committee. I am very thankful fo their support and their interest in my project. The lists below were constructed thanks to my committee’s  advice and input, and thanks to extended periods of online and library research. What I have below is a description of each area, along with the reading list that I developed for this list.

Now, in terms of making this a challenge, for every single work that I read, I plan to write a blog post with my thoughts, opinions, and concerns about the work–think of these posts as mini book reviews. If all goes as planned, I should have a total of 176 posts related to my candidacy exams. Each time I write one of these reviews, I will update this post and provide links to the review next to the works’ title. Not only will this help me keep track of what I have read, but it will allow me to share my thoughts an opinions of these texts with the world. Wish me luck!


(Historical Field)

These works are typically approached as Post-World War and postmodern, and the list has a heavy emphasis on works published between the 40s and the 60s. Although my primary interest is in the area of gay fiction, I have decided to make contemporary American literature my primary field seeing as it is a more marketable area within the field of English and literary studies. I would claim that my main area of expertise within this area is the coming-of-age narrative, particularly focusing on issues of gender and sexuality in the coming-of-age process. Seeing as texts that are typically dubbed coming-of-age narratives are usually concerned with readers’ self-identification with characters in the text, many items in this list are works that would be considered “middlebrow.” The items included in all of my sub-lists are works that reflect the aforementioned themes within an American and postmodern context.

I am interested in determining whether gendered or queer issues manifest in coming-of-age texts that are not typically approached as queer—thus, I deliberately avoided the inclusion of queer texts within the novels section of this list, as they are included within my second list on LGBTQ fiction. In addition to the notion of “coming-of-age” and gender, I am also invested in the marketing and sociology of texts within a “globalized” postmodern American context. Thus, in conjunction with coming-of-age texts, I have also included novels that have helped to shape the globalized American literary landscape that we live in today—which is why my young adult fiction section also includes important global novels that have had a major impact on the young adult market.

I.A – Novels

  1. Alice Walker. The Color Purple (1982)
  2. Ana Castillo. So Far From God (1993)
  3. Art Spiegelman. Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (1986)
  4. Bret Easton Ellis. American Psycho (1991)
  5. Cristina Carcia. Dreaming in Cuban (1992)
  6. David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest (1996)
  7. Don Delillo. White Noise (1985)
  8. James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
  9. Jack Kerouac. On the Road (1957)
  10. Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
  11. Joseph Heller. Catch-22 (1961)
  12. Junot Díaz. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
  13. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  14. Matthew Quick. Silver Linings Playbook (2010)
  15. Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
  16. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man (1952)
  17. Sandra Cisneros. The House on Mango Street (1984)
  18. Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar (1963)
  19. Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  20. Toni Morrison. Beloved (1987)
  21. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita (1955)

I.B – Short Stories

  1. Abraham Rodriguez. “Boy Without A Flag” (1992)
  2. Anne Proulx. “Brokeback Mountain” (1997)
  3. James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues” (1957)
  4. John Barth. “Lost in the Funhouse” (1968)
  5. John Updike. Pigeon Feathers (1962)
  6. Norman Mailer. “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1959)
  7. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
  8. Sandra Cisneros. Woman Hollering Creek: The Collection (1991)

I.C – Drama

  1. Amiri Baraka. Dutchman (1964)
  2. Arthur Miller. Death of a Salesman (1949)
  3. Arthur Miller. A View from the Bridge (1955)
  4. August Wilson. The Piano Lesson (1990)
  5. David Henry Hwang. M. Butterfly (1986)
  6. Edward Albee. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962)
  7. Eugene O’Neill. Bound East for Cardiff (1914). Click here for my discussion of this O’Neill play.
  8. Eugene O’Neill. The Hairy Ape (1922)
  9. Eugene O’Neill. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956)
  10. John Guare. Six Degrees of Separation (1990)
  11. Lorraine Hansberry. A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
  12. Tennessee Williams. Camino Real (1953)
  13. Tennessee Williams. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955)
  14. Tony Kushner. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993)
  15. William Friedkin. The Boys in the Band (1970)

I.D – Poetry

  1. Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World (1991)
  2. Allen Ginsberg. Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  3. Elizabeth Bishop. The Complete Poems (1984)
  4. Frank O’Hara. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (1995)
  5. John Ashberry. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1976)
  6. Sylvia Plath. Ariel (1965)

I.E-1 – Young Adult Novels (Supplementary List)

  1. Daniel Keyes. Flowers for Algernon (1958). Click here for my discussion of Keyes’ novel.
  2. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  3. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  4. John Corey Whaley. Where Things Come Back (2011). Click here for my discussion of Whaley’s novel.
  5. John Green. Looking for Alaska (2005)
  6. Judy Blume. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
  7. Judy Blume. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (1971)
  8. Lois Lowry. The Giver (1993)
  9. Madeleine L’Engle. A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
  10. Orson Scott Card. Ender’s Game (1985)
  11. Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War (1974)
  12. Scott Westerfield. Uglies (2005)
  13. S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders (1967)
  14. Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007)
  15. Stephanie Meyer. Twilight (2005)
  16. Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999). Click here for my discussion of Chbosky’s novel.
  17. Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games (2008)

I.E-2 – Global Young Adult Novels

  1. Diana Wynne Jones. Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
  2. Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
  3. J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Click here for my discussion of Rowling’s novel.
  4. Mark Haddon. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2004)
  5. Philip Pullman. The Golden Compass (1995)
  6. T.H. White. The Once and Future King (1958)

I.F – Criticism

  1. Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1990)
  2. Joan L. Knickerbocker, Martha A. Bruggeman, James A. Rycik. Literature for Young Adults: Books (and More) for Contemporary Readers (2012)
  3. Mark McGurl. The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2011)
  4. Michael Cart. From Romance to Realism: Fifty Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature (2010)
  5. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (2011)
  6. Richard Gray. A History of American Literature (2011)


(Special Topic Field)

As of now, I envision my dissertation project as an analysis of the intersection between the areas of fiction, queer theory, and middlebrow culture. Part of my focus will be the concept of coming out and concealment, not only in terms of a novel’s content, but also in terms of its marketing and design. Thus, my project will ultimately have a dual focus in that I will pay close attention to matters of queerness and the closet as applied to the coming-of-age narrative and the materiality of the books themselves, delving later on into a discussion of how the digital age has expanded (or perhaps even shattered) the limits of this, as Sedgwick would put it, queer space. In due course, I want to present myself as a scholar who is well versed in the realm of novels that deal directly with LGBTQ concerns, issues, and representations. My hope is that in addition to working with contemporary American novels, I will ultimately be able to teach classes focused exclusively on LGBTQ fiction. With this in mind, although this list will focus heavily on contemporary fiction published after the “gay boom” in the late 90s up to the present day, I also want to develop a historical awareness of the novels and works that paved the way towards a possible market of LGBTQ fiction—especially novels that were published prior to the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

Although in my past work I have focused heavily on issues and concerns pertaining to the male tradition of gay literature, I am seeking to expand my current scope of queer texts by including a healthy sample of texts within lesbian, transgender, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex traditions (even though the gay male tradition is far more prevalent). Keeping in line with my interest in coming-of-age fiction and issues of materiality, a large portion of these LGBTQ texts are classified within the young adult genre—especially when considering that in today’s literary market, young adult fiction is the genre in which queer issues have been able to flourish, due primarily to its middlebrow and so-called didactic nature. Seeing as LGBTQ fiction can, to some extent, be considered a niche market, I have decided to approach this genre from a global Anglophone rather than a purely American perspective in order to determine how queer and coming-out narratives, in addition to the books’ marketing, are influenced by their specific geographical locations.

II. A – LGBTQ Novels and Prose

  1. Achy Obejas. Memory Mambo (1996)
  2. Alan Hollinghusrt. The Line of Beauty (2004)
  3. Alison Bechdel. Fun Home (2006)
  4. Armistead Maupin. Tales of the City (1978)
  5. Barry McCrea. The First Verse (2005)
  6. Bret Easton Ellis. The Rules of Attraction (1987)
  7. Christopher Isherwood. A Single Man (1964)
  8. Colm Tóibín. The Blackwater Lightship (1999)
  9. Djuna Barnes. Nightwood (1936)
  10. Dorothy Allison. Bastard Out of Carolina (1992)
  11. E.M. Forster. Maurice (1971)
  12. Edmund White. A Boy’s Own Story (1982)
  13. Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited (1945)
  14. James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room (1956)
  15. Jamie O’Neill. At Swim, Two Boys (2001)
  16. Jeanette Winterson. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
  17. Jeanette Winterson. Written on the Body (1994)
  18. Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex (2002)
  19. Leslie Feinberg. Stone Butch Blues (2003)
  20. Melvin Dixon. Vanishing Rooms (1991)
  21. Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2000)
  22. Michael Cunningham. A Home at the End of the World (1990)
  23. Michael Cunningham. The Hours (1998). Click here for my discussion of Cunningham’s novel.
  24. Patrick McCabe. Breakfast on Pluto (1998)
  25. Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness (1928)
  26. Rita Mae Brown. Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)
  27. Sarah Waters. Tipping the Velvet (1998)
  28. Scott Heim. Mysterious Skin (2005)

II.B – LGBTQ Young Adult Fiction

  1. Alex Sanchez. Rainbow Boys (2001)
  2. Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)
  3. Brent Hartinger. Geography Club (2003)
  4. Brian Katcher. Almost Perfect (2009)
  5. David Levithan. Boy Meets Boy (2003)
  6. Eddie De Oliveira. Lucky (2004). Click here for my discussion of De Oliveira’s novel.
  7. Ellen Wittlinger. Hard Love (2001)
  8. Ellen Wittlinger. Parrotfish (2011)
  9. J.C. Lillis. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)
  10. J.M. Colail. Wes and Toren (2009)
  11. John Donovan. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) – Click here for my review of Donovan’s novel. 
  12. John Green and David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010)
  13. Julie Anne Peters. Luna (2006)
  14. Justin Torres. We the Animals (2011). Click here for my discussion of Torres’ novel. 
  15. Martin Wilson. What They Always Tell Us (2009). Click here for my discussion of Wilson’s novel.
  16. Nancy Garden. Annie on My Mind (1982)
  17. Nick Burd. The Vast Fields of Ordinary (2009)
  18. Perry Moore. Hero (2007)

II.C – LGBTQ History and Criticism

  1. Christopher Bram. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012)
  2. Claude J. Summers. Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (2002)
  3. Kenneth B. Kidd and Michelle Ann Abate. Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature (2011)
  4. Michael Cart and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content, 1969-2004. (2006)


(Theoretical/Methodological Field) 

Seeing as my dissertation project will focus on issues such as coming out, concealment, confession, circulation, and distribution, immersion in the realms of queer theory and the sociology/materiality of texts will be crucial to my study. The fusion between queer theory and the materiality/sociology of texts is one that has been vastly underexplored within studies of gay fiction, and in my estimation, this is due primarily to the fact that the aims of these studies, at first, seem radically different. Queer theory problematizes the male/female binaries while in turn addressing other dichotomies within the domains of sexuality and pluralistic identities. Queer theory approaches identity, as Jonathan Kemp points out in “Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future,” as a porous, unfixed, and intersectional entity that takes into consideration multiple cultural facets, including but not limited to race, gender, religion, and nationality, among others. Crucial within this approach are goals such as the disruption of binary approaches, the notions of reproductive futurism, and ideas concerning affect and the body. Furthermore, a strand of queer studies also has an obvious activist and emancipatory mission.

I think these issues would mesh in an interesting and productive fashion with the materiality and sociology of texts, which focuses mostly on how the textual, paratextual, political, and cultural elements of literary productions work in conjunction to circulate texts within the social sphere—particularly when it comes to the role of the closet and “concealment.” I think queer theory, particularly when it comes to notions such as the closet, futurity, and affect, will provide a rich and innovate spin on the materiality/sociology of texts, a spin that will ultimately prove to be quite fruitful when it comes to the analysis of the socio-cultural dimensions of LGBTQ texts, which in and of themselves actively align themselves against the status quo.

III.A – Queer Theory

  1. David Ross Fryer. Thinking Queerly: Race, Sex, Gender, and the Ethics of Identity (2011)
  2. E.L. McCallum. Queer Times, Queer Becomings (2011)
  3. Elizabeth Freeman. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010)
  4. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Epistemology of the Closet (1990). Click here for my discussion of Sedgwick’s book.
  5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (2003)
  6. Ian Barnard. Queer Race: Cultural Interventions into the Racial Politics of Queer Theory (2004)
  7. John D’Emilio. “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1983)
  8. Jose Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009)
  9. Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)
  10. Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004)
  11. Judith Butler. Undoing Gender (2004)
  12. Judith Halberstam. Female Masculinity (1998) and The Queer Art of Failure (2011)
  13. Lee Edelman. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004)
  14. Leo Bersani. Is the Rectum a Grave?: and Other Essays (2009)
  15. Lynne Huffer. Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (2009)
  16. Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal (1999)
  17. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume I (1976)
  18. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume II (1984)
  19. Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley. The History of Sexuality – Volume III (1984)
  20. Roderick Ferguson. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2004)
  21. Sarah Ahmed. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) and The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Click here for my discussion of Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

III.B – Queer Materiality and Queer Cultural Studies

  1. David Savran. A Queer Sort of Materialism (2003)
  2. Elisa Glick. Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol (2009)
  3. Guy Davidson. Queer Commodities (2012)
  4. Heather K. Love. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007)
  5. Jaime Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America (2013)
  6. Kathryn Bond Stockton. The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (2009)
  7. Kevin Floyd. The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism (2009)
  8. Michael Moon. A Small Boy and Others: Imitation and Initiation in American Culture from Henry James to Andy Warhol (1998)
  9. Michael Trask. Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought (2003)
  10. Michael Warner. Publics and Counterpublics (2005)
  11. Samuel R. Delany. Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (2000)
  12. Scott Herring. Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (2010)
  13. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (2004)
  14. Susan Stryker. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (2001)

III.C – Materiality and the Sociology of Texts

  1. Andrew Piper. Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (2012)
  2. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (1983)
  3. D.F. McKenzie. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1999)
  4. Gérard Genette. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (2001)
  5. Janice A. Radway. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984)
  6. Jim Collins. Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture (2010). Click here for my discussion of Collins’ book.
  7. Jürgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1991)
  8. Kathryn Sutherland and Marilyn Deegan. Text Editing, Print and the Digital World (2008)
  9. Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody. Judging a Book by its Cover (2007)
  10. Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production (1993)
  11. Raymond Williams. The Long Revolution (1961) and The Sociology of Culture (1982)
  12. Ted Striphas. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (2011)

– – –

Image above courtesy of Surachai / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Heternormative Tragedies? The Queerness of Eugene O’Neill’s “Bound East for Cardiff” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm”

Both Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (1914)[1] and Henrik Ibsen’s Rosemersholm (1886) can be considered tragic, not only because they display characters that are unable to fit within the context of their social norms, but also because both plays portray the mortal downfall of its main characters. Nonetheless, the complexities of these “failures” increase in voltage when we interpret them through a gendered lens. Both plays are typically approached as radical from a gendered perspective because their tragic elements[2] invite interpreters to scrutinize the extent to which the characters’ so-called failures are symptomatic of cultural and social ills. However, when queering the interpretation of the plays, it becomes evident that both O’Neill and Ibsen tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially when concerning futurity (or the lack thereof). Even though both plays exhibit qualities that make them productive from a queer perspective, I argue that the plays fluctuate between the boundaries between queer and heteronormative collapse. In other words, while the tragic (gendered) elements of these plays can be approached as a harsh commentary against the laws and restrictions imposed by heteronormativity, they can also be approached as texts that foster an ideological justification and privileging of heteronormativity.

O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff focuses primarily on the very close relationship that exists between Yank and Driscoll, two sailors of the British tramp steamer known as the Glencairn. Throughout the Glencairn’s voyage from New York to Cardiff, the reader becomes aware of the fact that Yank is dying. One soon encounters the two sailors in a moment of solitude; they begin to reflect on the loneliness and misery ingrained within the life of a sailor, and they begin to contemplate how differently their lives would be if they had chosen a different path. During their discussion, Yank exclaims that he is “goin’ to die, that’s what, and the sooner the better!,” (O’Neill) to which his companion, Driscoll, wildly replies: “No, and be damned to you, you’re not. I’ll not let you.” (O’Neill). Throughout their conversation, the level of intensity in their relationship begins to increase, to the point in which their affiliation can be interpreted as amorous or co-dependent rather than simply sociable or friendly—they not only depend on each other, but it is clear that one does not want to live without the other.

The intensity of their relationship could be attributed to the fact that they spent years sailing together; nonetheless, there is a particular confession that Yank makes that further increments the possibility of queer desire between the two sailors. As Yank discusses how the life of a sailor is acceptable for a young man, he begins to lament the fact that this adventurous life has prevented him from achieving any degree of normalcy, which in his view includes heteronormative touchstones such as marriage, children, and a stable home. As illustrated below, Yank then shares his secret desire to move to a distant country in order to begin a farming endeavor with Driscoll:

YANK: Sea-fain’ is all right when you’re young and don’t care, but we ain’t chickens no more, and somehow, I dunno, this last year has seemed rotten, and I’ve had a hunch I’d quit—with you of course—and we’d save our coin, and go to Canada or Argentine or some place and git a farm, just a small one, just enough to live on. I never told yuh this ‘cause I thought you’d laugh at me.

DRISCOLL: (enthusiastically) Laught at you, is ut? When I’m havin’ the same thoughts myself, toime afther toime. It’s a grand idea and we’ll be doin’ ut sure if you’ll stop your crazy notions—about—about bein’ so sick. (O’Neill)

At this point of the conversation, both Yank and Driscoll admit to have contemplated the possibility of delving into entrepreneurial endeavors together in a distant country, but there is also an implicit desire to construct a domestic space in which the two men could live together. This space would entail both a shared location, a shared economy (in that they both save and invest money), and the production of just enough resources to get them by. Throughout this confession, it is apparent that their desire to move to a distant country not only indicates a longing to remove themselves from a known social and cultural location, but also a desire to achieve a life that is not possible for them at the present moment. This longing for domesticity and stability is so “crazy” and foreign, that they only envision it occurring within a displaced or imagined location.

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of "Bound East For Cardiff" that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Matthew Trevannion and Carsten Hayes in the production of “Bound East For Cardiff” that took place at the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian (2012)

Although the reader is uncertain whether or not Yank and Driscoll have ever acted on their queer desire, it would be questionable to suggest that this desire is not present in the first place. As Yank grows nearer to dying, he paradoxically begins to talk of women and heteronormative endeavors while upholding the aura of queerness imbued within their exchange. Yank not only endows Driscoll with a part of his salary, but he also gives Driscoll his watch—his most prized possession. The emotional link between Yank and Driscoll is further highlighted when Yank eventually dies, as the reader encounters Yank expressing both a heartbreaking degree of sorrow intertwined with a degree of hesitation:

DRISCOLL: (pale with horror) Yank! Yank! Say a word to me for the love av hiven! (He shrinks away from the bunk, making the sign of a cross. Then comes back and puts a trembling hand on Yank’s chest and bends closely over the body.)

COCKY: (from the alleyway) Oh, Driscoll! Can you leave Yank for arf a mo’ and give me a ‘and?

DRISCOLL: (with a great sob) Yank! (He sinks down on his knees beside the bunk, his head on his hands. His lips move in some half-remembered prayer.) (O’Neill)

Driscoll’s despair is not only saturated with sorrow and extreme bereavement, but it is also physical. Driscoll grows pale and yells, and he eventually places his hand on Yank’s chest while bending closely to his body—which illustrates a degree of physical and emotional intimacy between the two sailors. Interestingly, when Cocky, another shipmate, calls Driscoll from the alleyway, Driscoll immediately removes his hands and himself away from Yank’s body and focuses his attention on delivering a prayer. Regardless of his intention of doing this, it can be suggested that Driscoll did not want to be seen by Cocky in such a vulnerable and intimate position with Yank.

True, it is important to note that O’Neill might have not intentionally intended for this exchange between Yank and Driscoll to be perceived as queer, yet perhaps it is inevitable for us to approach this give-and-take as such due to our modern sensibilities as readers. How does this queering of Bound East for Cardiff inform the way the play approaches its tragic element through the death of Yank? At first, it might be tempting to approach this play as a critique ofthe gendered norms that exist during the reception of the playtext. Indeed, it may be possible to interpret this play as a comment of Yank’s and Driscoll’s inability to create their own domestic space within their current social and cultural conditions, simply because that notion would seem bizarre or crazy to other spectators. With this in mind, the tragedy can possibly be approached as a queer tragedy, in which the lamentation is focused on the characters’ inability to comply with their sexual, amorous, and domestic desires because they do not comply with the demands of a heteronormative culture.

However, what happens when we interpret the notion of queerness in O’Neill’s play through the lens of futurity and reproductive futurism? These notions are explored by Lee Edelman’s as he discusses queerness in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. According to Edelman, queerness can generally be described as an attribute assigned to ideas or people who do not perpetuate the idea, or fight for, futurity: the possibility and the continuity of heteronormative designs as ideologically facilitated by the notion of the Child. In other words, queerness is a label assigned to all that goes against the notion of reproductive futurism, which can be described as concepts that “impose an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable […] the possibility of queer resistance  to this organizing principle of communal relations” (Edelman 2). This is precisely why the queer is viewed as a threat: it challenges the notion of the Child and of reproductive futurity because the queer is not typically associated with notions such as reproduction or the bearing of children, but rather, on so-called egotistic and self-centered gratifications. As Edelman points out, if “there is no baby and, in consequence, no future, then the blame must fall on the fatal lure of sterile, narcissistic enjoyments understood as inherently destructive of meaning and therefore as responsible for the undoing of social organization, collective reality, and inevitably, life itself” (13).

Lee Edelman's "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive"

Lee Edelman’s “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive”

When one applies Edelman’s views to O’Neill’s play, the notion of its queerness being approached as emancipatory becomes seriously challenged. Going back to Yank’s and Driscoll’s conversation in which they discuss the prospect of moving to Canada or Argentina, Driscoll posits that the there is a possibility for them to pursue their domestic desires if Yank’s condition ameliorates. Nonetheless, Yank’s death completely obliterates this possibility—not that their domestic desires were much of a possibility in the first place seeing as it was presumably uncommon for two men to move in together and start a small farm during the early 1900s. The act of moving to a different country to begin a small self-sustaining farm in which these two men would ostensibly spend the rest of their lives indeed goes against the notions of reproductive futurity. Even though a farming endeavor is indeed productive and a marker of futurity, note that they are only interested in producing “just enough to live on” (O’Neill), thus enabling its classification as queer. By delving into this domestic endeavor, the men would hinder their chances of finding a potential female mate, and the relationship would also not produce any children or offspring. Thus, Yank’s death not only prevents this queer future from occurring, but it also assures that the values of heteronormativity are privileged and upheld. The reader of the playtext can only begin to imagine what would happen if Yank survived his illness. Would they move to Canada or Argentina to start their own farm? Would they remain living the life of a wandering sailor, which in and of itself is a lifestyle that is queer in that sailors have no future? Can the lack of futurity and the privileging of heteronormativity still be approached as an emancipatory critique in O’Neill’s play?

Similar questions arise when trying to queer Ibsen’s Rosemersholm, which presents various instances in which the lack of futurity challenges the emancipatory gendered readings one may have of the play, especially when focusing on the work’s tragic elements. Although Rosmersholm has typically been regarded as an attack on the aristocracy or the ruling class, especially in terms of their imposition of ideals such as morality, ethics, and Christianity, it also has much to say in terms of gender dynamics, queerness, and futurity. The play itself opens one year after the tragic suicide of John Rosmer’s wife Beata, who killed herself by jumping into a mill-race. Beata was always considered “unstable” and insane by her husband and by those who surrounded her, to the point where many attributed her suicide to mental illness. Later on in the play, it is pointed out that Beata’s mental instability began to surface when she discovered that she was barren. As Rebecca, Beata’s friend and Rosmer’s current companion points out: “she seemed to go quite distracted when she learnt that she would never be able to have a child. That was when her madness first showed itself” (Ibsen 55).

Although it is later revealed that Rebecca encouraged Beata’s suicide as a way of assuring that John Rosmer would be hers, it is interesting to note that the seeds of Beata’s so-called insanity were due to her inability to procreate. Part of Beata’s depression, or lack of sanity, were due primarily to her inability to bear children and to assure the continuation of the Rosmer bloodline within the household. This notion of continuing the bloodline, and of assuring Rosmer’s happiness, is the reason why it was so easy for Rebecca to convince Beata to end her life. Beata’s suicide and her mental illness can be classified as symptomatic of queer tension due to the fact that they were triggered by her inability to assure reproductive futurity, and due to her fixation on Rebecca herself. As Rebecca states later on during the play, “You know she had taken it into her head that she, a childless wife, had no right to be here. And so she persuaded herself that her duty to you was to give place to another” (Ibsen 70). Thus, Beata’s suicidal act can definitely be viewed as a product of heteronormative anxiety, in which she removes herself from the equation in order to ensure that the cultural values of the “nuclear” family were upheld, assuming that after her death, Rebecca would marry Rosmer and bear children.

A queer reading of the play, however, not only happens within a literal level in terms of reproductive futurity, but it also manifests in a metaphorical level when analyzing the case of John Rosmer and his evolving politics. Rosmer has made the decision to become a freethinker, a person who values reason and empiricism over tradition, which has led him to offer support to a government with a revolutionary agenda. This change of heart and perspective has not only led Rosmer to give up his faith in ruling classes in favor for a more democratic government, but it has also led him to give up his faith in religion as well. This change of political views causes Kroll, Rosmer’s brother-in-law, to react harshly towards the loss of the traditions of Rosmersholm. As Kroll states during a discussion he has with Rosmer:

[Y]ou have a duty towards the traditions of your family, Rosmer! Remember that! From time immemorial Rosmersholm has been a stronghold of discipline and order, of respect and esteem for all that the best people in our community have upheld and sanctioned. The whole neighbourhood has taken its tone from Rosmersholm. If the report gets about that you yourself have broken with what I may call the Rosmer family tradition, it will evoke an irreparable state of unrest. (Ibsen 37)

Interestingly, Rosmer’s new political views imply the lack of futurity for the Rosmersholm traditions. His choice, according to Kroll, is viewed as selfish and self-interested, focused on what Rosmer deems to be good rather than focusing on the continuation of the system in which Rosmer was raised in.

Ibsen’s play concludes with both Rebecca and John Rosmer jumping into the mill-race, echoing Beata’s act of suicide as a form of alleviating the tensions present in their lives. Rebecca, on one hand, was unable to deal with the guilt of leading Beata to her doom. John Rosmer, on the other hand, thanks in part to Kroll’s influence, feels as if he’s unable to trust Rebecca, but it is clear that he still loves her. Even though Rosmer originally asks Rebecca for her hand in marriage, Rebecca’s guilt does not allow her to transgress the “insurmountable barrier between [Rosmer] and a full, complete emancipation” (Ibsen 68), thus leading both characters to desire a union that is not socially acceptable. It is through their joint suicide that they are able to create a space in which their union would be socially adequate: death, a space where futurity is not necessary for two to be one.

When one queers Rosmersholm’s approaches towards futurity, it is apparent that Beata’s death, John Rosmer’s change of politics, and Rosmer’s and Rebecca’s joint suicide are either products of the lack of (reproductive) futurity, or are in due course the root of this lack. As in the case of O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff, one encounters a dilemma in terms of the radical possibilities of the playtext, and the overall nature of the tragic elements that are manifest in the play. The three suicides in Rosmersholm can definitely be attributed to heteronormative anxieties: whereas Beata was unable to reproduce and bear children in order to assure futurity, Rebecca and John Rosmer were unable to ignore their mutual feelings but had no intention to comply with them due to the gender norms of their time. All of these characters embrace queerness in that they deviate from heteronormativity, and they also deviate from futurity. But can Rosmersholm be viewed as a queer tragedy? If one interprets Ibsen’s play as a critique of these norms, it absolutely can. On the other hand, the fact that these characters comply with these heteronormative anxieties by responding to the death drive may be viewed as rhetorically restrictive rather than emancipatory. While both plays can be viewed as social critiques, it is also possible for these plays to be viewed as handbooks that illustrate the consequences of deviating from futurity, reproductive or otherwise. Thus, do these plays represent a collapse of the queer, or a collapse of the heteronormative?

These plays cannot be labeled as a queer failure, nor are can they be entirely approached as heteronormative failures. Both Bound East for Cardiff and Rosmersholm refuse to be entirely situated in either side of the so-called binary, often resting on the interpretation of the reader in order to be classified as either one or the other. In due course, it is the futility of this binary, and the fact that these plays cannot neatly be placed as either a heteronormative tragedy or a queer tragedy, which makes them “queer” in the first place. What is clear, however, is that to some extent, both plays tap into heteronormative anxieties, especially as applied to futurity, in order to illustrate how and why some characters are unable to fit within pre-designed socio-cultural molds, and why this ultimately leads to their removal from the social equation. Whether this heteronormative anxiety is used to challenge the perceptions of the audience or comply with them is up to debate, but it is interesting to see how a work can comply with both ends of a rhetorical spectrum.

Works Cited

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.

Ibsen, Henrik. Rosmersholm: A Play in Four Acts. Trans. R. Farquharson Sharp. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, 2001. Web.

O’Neill, Eugene. Bound East for Cardiff. EOneill.com. Web.

[1] I used the e-book version of O’Neill’s text, which is why no page numbers accompany the quotations of this work in this review essay.

[2] In this discussion, by tragic elements, I am referring not to the genre of tragedy, but rather to the sentimental and emotional aspects of tragedy as a descriptor (unfortunate, lamentable, catastrophic, and/or heartbreaking).