Pluto

Patrick McCabe’s [Breakfast on Pluto]

Front cover of Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto (1998)

Front cover of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998)

Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto is an unusual “coming-of-age” story (I’m using this term very loosely) focused on the growth and development of Patrick “Pussy” Braden, the illegitimate child of a priest and his teenage housekeeper. Due to his illegitimate birth, Patrick’s mother places her child in a Rinso box and abandons him in front of a foster home. Patrick grows up under the loose guidance of “Whiskers,” a foster mother with a penchant for drinking and chain smoking. From an early age, Patrick is characterized by his affinity for the dramatic, and he is also shown to develop a taste for dressing in women’s clothing and for actively sharing the fact that he is literally the son of a preacher-man. Pussy Braden is the narrator of her own story, and the novel itself is approached as a text that her psychiatrist, Dr. Terence, orders her to write to cope with the instabilities and heartbreaks of her life. Given the fact that the novel is a narrative fabricated by Patrick, one must remain skeptical in terms of the content that she shares. Not only is Pussy Braden a very scattered and disorganized writer, but there are also times when she deliberately writes about imaginary events or characters. 

As an adult, Patrick “Pussy” Braden embodies behaviors, attitudes, and practices that definitely cast her off as a marginal character. First and foremost, it is difficult to categorize her in terms of gender and sexuality. Pussy Braden fluctuates between representing herself as a man and representing herself as a women, she engages in sexual activity with members of both sexes, and other characters are ambiguous in terms of how they approach her–some characters even refer to her as a he and a she within the same sentence. Although the safest label to apply to Pussy Braden would be queer due to her open and unabashed embrace of non-normativity, the novel ultimately suggests that she thinks of herself as female. She often recognizes the difficulties that she has in terms of finding a man, and constantly faces heartbreak when she confronts the impossibility for her to bear children of her own. To further complicate Pussy Braden’s marginal identity, she works as a prostitute, and towards the novel’s conclusion, she is accused of planting a bomb that killed a British soldier that she was flirting with–the fact that she dresses as a woman leads the British forces to deduce that she is in disguise.

Breakfast on Pluto is a very queer novel in that it explores the difficulties of living in a life between borders or binaries. Pussy Braden, for instance, is born in the small Irish town of Tyreelin but later moves to London during the 1970s; however, she soon comes to notice that she does not fit in either place. The period in which the novel takes place is particularly important because it is a time where the tension between Ireland and London was at its peak. The unexpected changes within the global economy affected all societal sectors in London: shops and factories closed, the unemployment rate doubled, and the Irish Republican Army was engaging in an active and sustained bombing campaign focused on weakening the British Army’s earnestness to remain within Ireland. Thus, Pussy Braden is not only caught in the midst of a war between two countries, but she is also caught in a limbo-like state between two genders. Her illegitimate birth also places her within the outskirts of normativity and social acceptance.

Breakfast on Pluto is not your average novel of development. Although we do trace Patrick’s birth and experiences over a significant span of time, Pussy Braden is ultimately unable to find a place of belonging throughout her journey. The novel thus becomes a statement on Pussy’s inability to fit in a society that offers no comforts for alternative or hybrid modes of existence that deviate from the cultural dominant. The narrative is focused on Pussy’s resistance towards cultural norms, and a value of individualistic desires over the wants and demands of society. This is evidenced early in the novel, when a thirteen-year old Patrick writes essays in school describing his father’s affair with his mother. Although his teacher, Peepers Egan, tries to convince him to stop engaging in antisocial behavior and to try to “fit in,” Patrick adamantly replies “Oh, no. I haven’t the slightest intention of stopping it, Peeps, or trying to fit in either!” (11).

Although I thought the political strands discussed within the narrative were interesting, I thought that Pussy Braden’s gender and sex-related struggles were particularly illuminating in terms of illustrating her non-normative position within society, and the heartbreak usually associated with being caught in the borderlines between two worlds. She usually dreams about how different her life would be if she were born a biological female, but she recognizes how a “vagina all of [her] own” (36) is indeed an impossibility.

Pussy’s biological struggles are linked with her desire to bear children despite her impossibility to do so, and she goes as far as to state the following: “if I did somehow manage to get a vagina, one think I was certain of, and I didn’t care even who it was with, was that I wanted at least ten of a family” (40). This desire to have many children is fueled mostly by the fact that Pussy Braden wants, first and foremost, to be loved–yet she finds it difficult to find love due to the temporary relationships she forms through the act of prostitution. This desire to raise children is rooted on the fact that she believes that even when she is ill and dying, they would travel far and wide to see her one last time before she passes away–and she takes this as a sign of true love. Despite Pussy’s selfish nature, her views toward love are very open and surprisingly unselfish. Although she wants children so she can love them and so that they can love her, she also knows that this love will continue to thrive even when she is no longer alive: “Everyone would my children love for they themselves knew love and shared it” (41). She also believes that when other people see the love she has for her children, no one would question whether or not they are hers because of her lack of a vagina:

There would be no one. And as my eyelids slowly closed and the tears pressed their way into the world, I’d clasp each hand and say goodbye, to each one adieu bid, safe in the knowledge that baby one and baby two, right up to baby ten, had all their lives been given it, and to the very end received it, that wonderful thing called love. (41)

On one hand, it can be said that children will enable Pussy to embrace a sense of motherhood and femininity that her biology prevents her from possessing. On the other hand, it becomes blatantly obvious that love is a power that Pussy craves to possess. Love becomes the thing that Pussy has always wanted, and it becomes the thing that is constantly denied to her. Her parents abandon her, thus preventing parental love to manifest; Pussy’s foster mother doesn’t show emotion or affections towards her, and she raises Pussy in atrocious living conditions; Pussy is unable to bear her own children to love; even when she grows attached to a man in her life, they somehow manage to die (her politician boyfriend, for instance, is brutally murdered; the soldier she flirts with at a bar explodes due to an IRA bombing; even Dr. Terence abandons her in the middle of her treatment).

Her thirst for love leads to potentially awkward and uncomfortable situations. For instance, Pussy dates a man she calls Bertie, who lives with his landlady, Louise. Louise lost her son due to a tragic bus accident, and her husband consequently abandons her. Pussy comforts Louise, and during this comforting, Louise kisses Pussy–and thus commences a very complicated relationship and love triangle between Pussy, Louise, and Bertie.

Pussy and Louise’s relationship is a strange mixture of maternal and sexual love. Louise asks Pussy to dress in her dead son’s jacket and short trousers. She also asks Pussy to address her as “Mammy,” and Pussy usually ends up sitting on Louise’s lap to suck on her nipple in order to simulate the act of breastfeeding. Although this first made Pussy uncomfortable, she eventually grows accustomed to her strange relationship with Louise: “After a while, I started to really like it, just sitting there on her knee and being engulfed by all this powdery warm flesh. I never wanted to get up in fact” (91). As can be expected, Bertie catches Pussy sucking on Louise’s nipple one day, and thus, both relationships are instantly dismantled. Not only does this uneasy and strange relationship add more fuel to Pussy’s limbo-like status within the world, but it also exemplifies the extent to which she desires to love and be loved.

One of the most heartbreaking instances in the novel is when Pussy is behind a creamery, searching for evidence to determine whether or not a woman named Martina slept with a man named Tommy McNamee. Pussy begins to imagine a lifetime of heartbreak for Martina if she sleeps with Tommy, mostly because she believes that “all he cared about was pleasuring himself and walking away then to boast about it” (105). She goes as far as to imagine Martina getting pregnant from her one-night stand with Tommy. Despite Pussy’s pleas, Martina sleeps with Tommy behind a creamery. Pussy goes behind the creamery hoping to find no semen, to thus rest assured that Tommy used a condom during sex. Much to Pussy’s dismay, she finds some semen spilled over a dockleaf, which causes her to have a breakdown:

I think it was because it seemed so ridiculous that such a minuscule amount of liquid could cause so much heartache. But which it did, as I’d always known, and consequently belonged in a world thousands of miles from the one I’d written of and dreamed for Terrence. Oh which he spoke so highly, saying that never before had he read anything like it. (107)

The passage above is significant for two reasons: first and foremost, it illustrates the fragility of Pussy’s perspective towards love, and how she laments the fact that small actions can have major consequences over the lives of people. After all, semen was the cause of Pussy’s existence, which can only be characterized as an existence repleted with sorry, angst, and heartache. Secondly, it demonstrates how Pussy is aware that her own writing, and even her hopes and expectations, deviate immensely from the reality that she is living. In due course, the novel makes it absolutely clear that the social conditions that Pussy finds herself in ultimately prevent her from having an easy or a livable life. One could only hope that the society we live in today is at least somewhat more evolved, open, and safe–that it is a society in which Patrick Pussy Bradens do not have to feel ashamed, alone, or unloved.

Work Cited

McCabe, Patrick. Breakfast on Pluto. London: Picador, 1998. Print.

Judith Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Magazine Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

Male Back

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

Halberstam James Bond

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

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

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

Golden Eye M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

Parrotfish_Animal

Ellen Wittlinger’s [Parrotfish]: A Transgender Coming-Out Novel

Front cover of Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish

Front cover of the paperback version of Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish

What made a person male or female, anyway? The way they looked? The way they acted? The way they thought? Their hormones? Their genitals? What if some of those attributes pointed in one direction and some in the other?

– Ellen Wittlinger, Parrotfish (p. 131)

Although Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first young adult text to tackle the issue of transgenderism, Ellen Wittlinger’s Parrotfish offers us a very direct and personal perspective of what it means to born in the wrong body. Unlike Luna (read my analysis of this novel by clicking here), Wittlinger’s novel is  told from the first-person perspective of the character undergoing a transition from one gender to another, and it is also centered on a female-to-male (FTM) rather than a male-to-female transition. Although the novel lacks a certain degree of credibility due to its almost cartoonish and one-dimensional portrayal of certain secondary characters, it is ultimately a text full of heart, and it complies with its goal of giving the reader insight into what it means for trans youth to come-out within contemporary society. Although the coming-out genre may be deemed tiring and overwrought by some readers, Wittlinger’s novel demonstrates how the genre needs to explore alternate coming-out narratives that are not focused solely on white gay/lesbian upper/middle class characters. I loved Luna‘s initial attempt to do this, but ability to establish a strong rapport with the trans character was limited, due to the fact that the trans character’s story was distilled through her sister’s perspective.

Parrotfish begins at the moment when Angela Katz-McNair–the novel’s protagonist–decides to become Grady. Grady chooses this name not only because of its gender neutrality, but also because it contains the word gray within it: “you know, not black, not white. Somewhere in the middle” (6). He initially comes out as a lesbian because he deemed it to be a closer and easier step toward revealing his queer self within his community. He decides to unleash Grady soon after by declaring himself a boy to his family and friends, and by performing masculinity rather than suppressing it: he cuts his own hair very short, he begins to bind his breasts with a bandage, and he begins to wear traditional male attire. The main tension with the novel is Grady’s fear of losing touch with his past self. By assuming his true gender identity, he fears that he would have to sever his relationship with his past entirely. This is an interesting contrast to Peters’ Luna, for running away from the past is not presented as an option for Grady. He wants to embody his true gender, but in doing so, he does not want to lose a connection to everything that has shaped him.

In my opinion, the most interesting parts of this novel were those that explored not only the emotional difficulties of transitioning from a female to a male gender, but also the physical difficulties of said transition. Peter’s Luna, for instance, focuses more on the emotional torment that its transgender character faces. Luna does express physical torment, especially during the scene in which the trans character, as a child, tries to cut off his penis (as shown through the protagonist’s flashback); these physical accounts, however, are rare. Given that Wittlinger’s novel is told through the perspective of the FTM transgender protagonist, I was expecting a more nuanced understanding of the physical pains of transitioning–and the novel delivers in this aspect. For instance, Grady constantly remarks on how painful it is to breathe and to engage in physical activity when his breasts are bound with tight bandages (even though he is fortunate enough to have small breasts). Grady also expresses the difficulty of determining what bathroom to use in his high school, ultimately avoiding the decision because his understanding gym teacher allows him to use her private bathroom and shower. A particularly insightful scene in the novel in terms of the physical pains of transitioning takes place when Grady explains how he feels towards menstruation while experiencing it:

now I was a boy who had just started his period and was probably bleeding all over his jockey shorts. Yeah, that was normal. Even my own body betrayed me on a regular basis. What was I supposed to do now? Crap. I could feel the cramps advancing. The gym and Ms. Unger’s bathroom were half a mile away from my locker. By the time I ran down there I’d be a mess. (59-60)

Menstruation highlights the tension that exists between Grady’s mind and his body. It also becomes an experience of active struggle for Grady, for although he is trying to be a boy, menstruation coerces his masculinity to clash vis-a-vis the femininity he is trying to suppress. For instance, when Grady is suffering from menstrual cramps, he refuses to acknowledge to them to his mother because it “seemed like an argument against what I’d been trying to prove to her” (61). Thus, even when embodying his true gender, Grady realizes that performativity is still necessary when it comes to expressing truth.

Going back to the fact that this novel is a bit unrealistic, I want to focus on Grady’s fear of not losing his entire past by embodying a different gender (prepare for major spoilers). Towards the end of the novel, most of the tensions that Grady had with other characters vanish entirely. He mends his relationship with his best friend, Eve, after she helps him avoid a cruel prank that other students were planning against him. His family, most of which showed apprehension towards his transition, rapidly become entirely accepting of him. Even the novel’s bully, the nefarious queen bee Danya, faces suspension from Grady’s high school and is ultimately humiliated by other students at the winter dance. The message is clear: to thine own self be true, and not only will everyone accept you, but your bullies will face karmic consequences for their insidious actions.

Not only does Grady’s past relationships stay intact, but his life improves in almost every aspect imaginable. This outcome may be approached my some as misguided, because it undermines the difficulties and the non-teleological struggles of being transgender. Unlike the LGB side of the spectrum, trans youths not only have to come out, but their coming-out entails performative and physical changes that inevitably invoke a contrast between the before and the after. Although I absolutely adore the positive and optimistic message that the novel presents, I can’t help but wonder if the novel is too optimistic and naive when it comes to the issues that transgender teens face. Not all transgender teens are going to be lucky enough to be accepted by every single member of their immediate family. Not all transgender teens will find love and support as easily as Grady does. Peters’ Luna, on the other hand, shows both sides of the spectrum in terms of the consequences of coming out as transgender to one’s family: some quietly accept, some have no issue with it whatsoever, and others react with outrage and at times violence.

I reiterate that I completely understand Wittlinger’s utopian depiction of a transgender future–but I question whether the novel should’ve been more realistic when considering the outcomes of this distinctive coming-out process. I’m especially anxious to know how transgender readers feel about the general approach and conclusions that this novel presents. Regardless of its shortcomings, Parrotfish is well worth a read, and it provides some excellent food for thought. I particularly recommend the novel to readers who are not really aware of the nuances of gender, especially when it comes to matters such as performativity and gender construction. Those who are aware of these nuances might find the novel a bit too obvious and didactic, despite its warm, humorous, and fast-paced nature.

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

Work Cited

Wittlinger, Ellen. Parrotfish. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print (Hardcover edition).

Buttefly Luna

On Transgenderism and Transition: The Case of Julie Anne Peters’ Luna

Front cover of Julie Anne Peters's Luna (2004)

Front cover of Julie Anne Peters’s Luna (2004)

Locating narratives of transgender persons (particularly teens) is no easy task, especially when considering that fictional works (excluding film and television) with central transgender protagonists didn’t really surface until the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the first fictional attempts to portray issues transgenderism is Bill’s New Frock, a children’s book written in 1989 by Anne Fine. Bill’s New Frock tells the story of a boy named Billy, who wakes up one morning to find out that he is now a girl–and must confront the difficulties of being a girl while consciously feeling like a boy. Though the amount of novels with central transgender characters has remained relatively low when taking the entire scope of LGBTQ literature into consideration, the visibility of transgenderism has increased dramatically in the twenty-first century, especially with the publication of the Pulitzer Award-winning book Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Within the scope of transgender fiction, Julie Anne Peters’s Luna is arguably one of the first young adult novels to thoroughly capture the trials and tribulations faced by teenagers with Gender Identity Disorder (GID), as distilled through the perspective of a family member. The novel is narrated and centered mostly on Regan O’Neill, a “genetic girl” or “g-girl” who desperately tries to understand and protect her brother, Liam, as he begins his transition into Luna, his [1] true female self. When first reading the book, I was curious as to why Peters decided to tackle the “reality” of transgender teens through the lens of a straight, female protagonist rather than through the lens of Luna herself. According to an interview conducted by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Peters asserts that:

I’m not trans. I never will be. My authenticity bias couldn’t be compromised. To be authentic and honest, the narrator, the main character, would need to act in the role of observer. I decided to create a sister for Luna, Regan. Regan would be Luna’s confidante throughout life and in that way she could see, and relate to the reader, the childhood manifestations of being born transgender.

I thought that this choice to tell Luna’s story through the perspective of her sister was effective, because it allows the reader to not only understand the frustration and pain that Liam goes through in order to assure that Luna can exist, but also how this frustration and pain can affect a person who isn’t transgender.

In terms of Luna‘s narrative structure, the plot is told through Regan’s real-time experiences, and also through a series of flashbacks that are triggered as she witnesses Liam’s struggle to unleash Luna. These flashbacks (indicated in the narrative via the use of italics) ultimately serve the purpose of pinpointing moments in the past in which Regan notices Liam’s dissatisfaction with his sex at an early age, and how he was coerced to perform masculinity even when he felt this was hypocritical and downright contradictory to his being. These flashbacks are crucial towards delivering the novel’s message of acceptance by highlighting the physical and emotional toil of being born into a body that one does not fit into.

There was one particular flashback that was striking to me, due to the immense physiological reaction that Liam develops when he compares his own naked body to that of his sister and a friend. When a young Liam encounters his younger sister and his friend Kate waddling stark naked in a kiddie pool, he removes his swimming trunks and stares at himself. He then begs his sister and his friend, Katie, to “Take it off” (226) repeatedly, thrashing back and forth as he tries to yank off his penis. His friend Katie, after giggling, assists him in pulling his penis, much to the horror of their parents. Liam’s mom pulls him away from the pool and punishes him. When the mother later enters the home to answer a ringing phone, the following exchange happens:

“What have you done? Oh my God. Put that knife down.” She [the mother] appears behind the screen, clutching Liam in her arms. “Connie, I need to run Liam over to the emergency clinic.”

Mrs. Camacho rushes across the yard. “What happened?”

“He cut his . . . his leg. Will you watch Regan?”

“Of course. You want me to call Jack [Liam’s father]?”

“No,” Mom replies quickly. “No, I can handle it. He doesn’t need to know.” Mom says something else, but all I see is the blood running down her leg. (227)

The passage above is quite violent, and it definitely stand out as one of the most memorable scenes within the novel. Despite its heartbreaking and violent nature, this scene does an effective job of portraying an anti-essentialist view of gender, in which biology does not always correlate with sexuality or identity. Regan, as a narrator, goes at lengths in order to demonstrate that at some level, her entire family is aware that Liam is different, and that he has always deviated from the normative expectations of masculinity. Regan’s father actually confronts Regan about Liam, asking her if she happens to know whether or not Liam is gay. Regan answers, truthfully, that Liam is not gay, but she thinks about how he does like men because he truly is a girl. It is important to note that in Luna, Peters makes a split between sexual orientation and gender identity, ultimately arguing that attraction to a particular gender and one’s own sex are not enough to account for the complexity of the (sexual) self.

As with most texts that discuss transgenderism, it seems that a split between the body and the mind is a prominent (and perhaps necessary) motif. This separation between the body and the mind is noticeable early on in Luna, when Regan notes that Liam usually drives in his convertible car with the top down, even during the winter: “As if he couldn’t feel the cold; as if his body wasn’t connected to his brain” (18). The novel also seems to depict a separation between Liam/Luna that is interesting in terms of performance and binaristic thinking. On one hand, Luna can be approached as a constructed persona. After all, Liam and Regan are aware that in order to Luna to reveal herself, Liam must change his clothing, put on a wig, and overall go through a transformation process that takes over an hour. Nonetheless, Luna simply approaches this process, despite the layering and construction, as an embodiment of the self, whereas she views Liam as the performance:

“Liam.” He let out a short laugh. “Who’s that? A caricature I’ve created. A puppet, a mime, a cartoon character. I’m this male macho version of a son that Dad has in his head.” (20)

Luna believes in the ability to shape the self rather than suffering from the woes of biological determinism, unlike Regan, who initially believes that “You can’t change your destiny” (60). What Regan learns throughout the course of the novel is not only how gender is in no way deterministic or tied to destiny, but also how binaristic thinking leads to limitations and judgments that do more harm than good. She initially is unable to understand Luna’s attempts to collapse her two selves by choosing truth (Luna) over performance (Liam); Regan is also unable to understand why Luna decides to run away to Seattle in order to begin her new life. Ultimately, Regan understands that these are necessary steps that Luna must take to be happy in life.

What caught my attention in terms of Luna’s escape to another state is that–alluding to ideas posited by Judith Halberstam–we encounter a moment in which an individual must escape the influence of the heteronormative family in order to discover alternative ways of being that aren’t tied to normative notions of success or development. This is made definitely apparent when we consider the fact that Liam is a depicted as a genius: he designs computer code, he aces all of his classes, and he is paid to find bugs and programming flaws for a video game company. Luna makes it clear that by leaving to Seattle, she won’t finish high school, and she will be giving up college and the scholarships that were given to her. Although this might be considered a failure according to normative standards, Luna views it as a success because it is her only chance to  can stop performing and start being:

“This isn’t good-bye. It’s hello. I think of it as a new beginning because that’s what it is for me. A rebirth. I’m starting my life over. The next time we meet, you won’t even know me.” (247)

All in all, this was an insightful and enjoyable read, and you can definitely tell that Peters went through a lot of research and reflection before crafting this novel. I definitely recommend this text as a segue into transgenderism as represented in fiction.

You can purchase a copy of Luna by clicking here.

– – –

[1] The protagonist of Luna refers to her sibling Liam/Luna using variable names and pronouns. Although she refers to Liam/Luna as both her sister and brother, there are times she refers to him as her brother even though she dons female attire. In an effort to replicate the use of pronouns in the novel, I will refer to Liam/Luna as both a he and a she.

Work Cited

Peters, Julie Anne. Luna. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. Print (Paperback edition).

Levithan Two Boys Kissing

Queer Times: An Analysis of David Levithan’s [Two Boys Kissing]

Front cover of David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing

Front cover of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013)

In the notes and acknowledgments section written at the end of Two Boys Kissing, author David Levithan states that “This isn’t a book I could have written ten years ago” (199). Levithan is absolutely right. Back in 2003, when I was still a sophomore in high school, I could never fathom the possibility of finding a book that so openly and proudly embraces gay themes. Could you imagine walking through a bookstore in 2003 and identifying a single book written for a young reader with two boys kissing on the cover? Absolutely not. Levithan rightfully acknowledges that his book is symptomatic of the major events, challenges, and changes that the LGBT community has been facing for decades. However, Two Boys Kissing is much more than a focal point of gay and lesbian history. As I was approaching the end of this novel, I could sense that this book will trigger (or already has triggered) a major paradigm shift in the realm of gay (young adult) fiction. This is the book that we’ve been waiting for; this is the book that will change the game.

The heart of this novel’s plot is a narrative focused on two teenage boys named Craig and Harry, who are attempting to break the record for the world’s longest kiss in order to challenge heteronormative attitudes and ideologies present in their lives. But in addition to this central narrative, Levithan weaves the stories of other queer youths that are somehow connected to this record-breaking kiss: Neil and Peter,  who are in a relationship that would’ve been deemed impossible a couple of years ago; Avery, a pink-haired FTM transgender teen, and Ryan, a blue-haired boy Avery meets at an LGBT prom; Tariq Johnson, a teen who was gay-bashed–an event that inspires Craig and Harry to give a shot at breaking a world record; and Cooper Riggs, a gay teen who “could be outside his room, surrounded by people, and it would still feel like nowhere” (5). All of these narratives weave a complex web that attempts to illustrate the state of gay youth today, focusing not only on the progress that has been made throughout the decades, but also the issues that still need to be challenged in order for a progressive politics to take place.

There are two things that I find absolutely ground-breaking in terms of this novel: first and foremost, the novel is an overt attack on the lack of futurity that supposedly haunts queer lives. Rather than viewing queerness as limiting and as a domain of identity that embraces the “death drive” (think Lee Edelman), Levithan constructs a narrative that tries to disrupt these limits by constructing the future as a space that lacks precise definition but that is full of possibility. As the narrators of the novel eloquently put it:

What a powerful word, future. Of all the abstractions we can articulate to ourselves, of all the concepts we have that other animals do not, how extraordinary the ability to consider a time that’s never been experienced. And how tragic not to consider it. It galls us, we with such a limited future, to see someone brush it aside as meaningless, when it has an endless capacity for meaning, and an endless number of meanings that can be found within it. (155)

The second thing that I find groundbreaking comes into perspective when focusing on the passage above. Who are the narrators of this novel? Who are these subjects with such a limited future? The novel is narrated by the collective voice (i.e. Greek chorus) that consists of “your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, […]. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation” (3). Indeed, the novel is narrated by a generation of gay men who succumbed to AIDS during the advent and rise of disease. What we have then is a web of the present, weaved by the voices of the past, in order to enable a future. It can be argued that Levithan’s novel queers time to the extent that the boundaries of the past and present are no longer valid, turning the present into a state that can be perceived, scrutinized, and observed by voices from the past.

The attempt to bridge the past to the present creates a lot of tension within the novel, not only because the narrators seem to inhabit a space where time has no control, but also because these voices are unable to alter or change anything happening in the present. The voices are given the gift of knowledge, but they are unable to do anything with this knowledge other than observe, or give advice to the reader rather than to the characters of the novel itself (this is done several times when the narrators break the fourth wall to address the audience). Despite this tension, I think that the novel is novel in terms of altering the typical discourse of gay fiction. This discourse is altered by working towards a futuristic and emancipatory queer politics, while still keeping hold of the past–a past that triggered the need for a queer politics in the first place. Many gay works that perpetuate a sense of futurity do so by sacrificing the pain and torment found in the past. Levithan’s novel, on the other hand, embraces and highlights the pains and joys of the past-but also depicts this embrace as one that is willing to loosen its hold on queer subjects so they can continue moving forward. The past, in this case, becomes a launchpad to futurity rather than the binds that prevent any forward movement.

I think this novel greatly addresses questions pushed forth by Heather Love in her book Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer HistoryIn her book, Love constantly asks the reader to assess whether or not it is possible to have an awareness of the past without being consumed by it. Furthermore, Love ultimately wonders if it is possible to look back while still moving forward, or in other words, whether it is possible to work toward an emancipatory future without forgetting the past that necessitated this work in the first place. I don’t know if Levithan is familiar with Love’s work, but his novel seems to be a response, and perhaps, a solution towards the temporal issues found in queer lives. If he is not familiar with Love’s work, I think that Two Boys Kissing is the product of the same cultural demands that drove the creation of Love’s book in 2004.

Given that the genre of gay literature is usually saturated with perspectives that are driven by temporal extremes (i.e. the past and the future), it is frankly amazing to encounter an author that has been able to channel both the past and the present in order to envision a queer future. Thank you, David Levithan, for writing this book. Although you are right to establish that this book is a product of many past and current events, you are ultimately the agent that channeled a progressive queer history that still pays its homage to the past (and for young readers, nonetheless). I am more than certain that Two Boys Kissing will shift the paradigm of young adult and LGBT literature. The novel has already been nominated for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and I’m sure that this is only the first of many nominations and accolades to come.

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

Works Cited and Consulted

Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print