Saturday, August 30, 2008

Two kinds of cross-dressing in young adult fiction

As I've mentioned before, teaching A Room of One's Own forced me to face up to the overwhelming prevalence of the girl-in-drag-has-adventures meme. It is everywhere, from Shakespearean comedies to Mulan.

Several YA books that I've mentioned on this blog wholeheartedly embrace the idea that a girl should embrace her Inner Dude by making it her Outer Duds. In Boston Jane you're practically clubbed over the head with it. In Philadelphia, Jane wears corsets and is exaggeratedly feminine; out west, she loses the corset and Finds Herself (TM). In The Shakespeare Stealer, a girl is shown, without a trace of irony, making it in the Globe Theater by cross-dressing (in order to cross-dress yet again on the stage). And don't even get me into Alanna.

I find this device deeply irritating when it's used in order to mock women for being oppressed. This is the case in Boston Jane, and to some extent in Mulan as well (although Mulan actually does some interesting things with the performance of gender). Such narratives are merely another spin of the patriarchy wheel: "girls are stupid and useless, and if you want to avoid being stupid and useless you have to become an exception to your gender."

So I was interested to read Mary Hoffman's City of Stars, about a fifteen-year-old girl named Georgia O'Grady, who travels in her sleep to Talia, the Renaissance Italy of a parallel dimension. She's a loner at school and is bullied in particular by her older stepbrother Russell. Russell's taunts are truly vile, and insistently sexual. This fifteen-year-old girl loves horses, practically the quintessential little-girl obsession, but Russell spins it as a cheap Freudian substitute for frustrated sexuality, constantly accusing Georgia of both out-of-control desire and sexual failure (he actually calls a fifteen-year-old a "spinster"), simultaneously female and insufficiently feminine. Especially given that he's her older step-brother, the fixation on Georgia's body and on her sexuality is extraordinarily creepy.

So: she puts on drag.

Not drag in the sense of "drag queen," but drag in the sense of a sexual masquerade: she effaces the social markers of her femininity. With her short hair and baggy clothes that hide the shape of her body, Georgia announces that she withdraws from the femininity game. She knows she cannot win it and she doesn't intend to play.

But unlike in the spunky-girl narrative, merely wearing trousers does not solve Georgia's problems. She doesn't suddenly come into dudely awesomeness, complete with spitballs and weaponry. Instead, she travels to to another world, where she becomes embroiled in a complicated political situation marked by magic. There she dresses as a boy, since the demands of femininity are even stronger in this world, and there is no hope of avowing femininity with such short hair. Nonetheless, all of the friends that Georgia makes there know her to be a girl in boys' clothing (and haircut), not a boy or even an honorary boy.

Georgia eventually saves the day in a public event under the name "Giorgio Gredi," and the ability to pose as a boy certainly helps her in the "city of stars." But the real difference in this alternate world is not that she acts boyish -- she acts the same as she does at home -- but that she has a chance to interact with people who are not vile sexists. Putting on drag at home is a defense; putting on drag in Talia is mostly fallout from the situation at home. Georgia has her adventures in boys' clothing, but those adventures allow her to re-embrace femininity from a place of safety rather than anoint her an honorary XY.

I'm partly struck by the way the masquerade in City of Stars echoes the masquerade in Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. Like Georgia, the protagonist of Howl's Moving Castle, Sophie, starts out under a sexual threat, though it's much more euphemized here than in City of Stars. Sophie, the eldest of three daughters in a fairy-tale universe is constrained by what's expected of women and of eldest daughters.
"What made me think I wanted life to be interesting?" she asked as she ran. I'd be far too scared. It comes of being the eldest of three."

When she reached Market Square, it was worse, if possible. Most of the inns were in the Square. Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of waring on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too.
Ho-hum, it's just another day in patriarchy-land, with the usual catcalls from drunken men.

Sophie is suddenly freed from the sexual threats of her world by being magically disguised not as a man but as an elderly woman. In her pseudo-old age, she is no longer expected to be a sexual victim; instead she is free to be catankerous, eccentric, and bossy, something her apparent old age lets her get away with. As an elderly woman, Sophie's even mistaken for a witch, a category seen as repulsive yet powerful.

It's an interesting twist on girl-in-drag-has-adventures; although elderly women are not free from the threat of sexual violence, that threat is more socially acknowledged as inappropriate, unlike the harassment of young women, which is "perfectly normal." Sophie escapes into a marginalized category, and its similarity to Georgia's escape into androgyny is revealing.

In books like Boston Jane, a particular model of masculinity itself is powerful, desirable, and laudable, and is therefore the thing to be emulated. The way to kick ass is to approximate masculinity.

The sexual masquerades of City of Stars and Howl's Moving Castle, in contrast, are not attempts to emulate masculinity but to seek the kind of exemption from the threat of sexual violence that masculinity (anxiously) entails. These sexual masquerades are recognized as unsustainable but crucial stopgaps that allow the young female protagonists the respite from sexual threat that is necessary to develop selfhood. Undercover as a boy or as an elderly woman, these protagonists get a chance to build up reserves of experience and strength.

Of course I have mixed feelings about how femininity manifests at the end of the novels as heterosexuality and empowerfully normative beauty; surely there is more to achieving a secure home environment than a boyfriend and a halter top. After all, in City of Stars, the crucial resolution at home is similar to that in Talia: thanks in part (but not entirely) to Georgia's opportunity to spend some time around people who aren't vile sexists, Georgia's parents wake up and stop her being surrounded by vile sexists. In Howl's Moving Castle, something surprisingly similar occurs: Howl regains his heart and stops his predatory womanizing. So it's a bit disappointing that, in the end, both protagonists get makeovers.

But partly I think these endings recognize the difficulty of these radical positions. The woman who is rejected as beyond the pale of unfemininity is not resisting femininity by choice. She may embrace her position as a position of resistance, but because others have constructed her very body as unassimilable to society, she is abjected (the "radically excluded," as Kristeva famously puts it).

Georgia's drag is a sign of her abjection, of absenting herself from the game of gender by trying to become androgynous (which here means boyish, on which more could be said). Sophie's drag is also imposed, by the Witch of the Waste, and similarly represents Sophie's desire to exempt herself from the sexual economy. It is a radical position, yes, but also a painful one and a dangerous one. This drag is not the stuff of Butlerian parody but rather of self defense, and existing as a marginal figure (of ambiguous gender, of old age) carries with it its own problems.

The two protagonists therefore undertake the dangerous performance of femininity by drawing on a period of differently but equally dangerous resistance through sexual masquerade. Masquerade supplies not only a period of subject-formation in which the protagonists are allowed a sense of personal integrity (to wit: the notion that they own their bodies) but also the means of removing vile sexists from the vicinity.

Though I'm ambivalent about these endings -- I find them too easy -- I can see a certain logic to them. These protagonists have made femininity safe for themselves. That it takes magic and/or trips to an alternate universe in order to accomplish it registers the precariousness of that safety.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I went to Emeryville.

Some frightful things were happening with my ancient but trusty laptop, so I schlepped down to Emeryville today to get it checked out.

Not to worry: it was just a problem with the battery. I am posting using the ancient but trusty laptop itself, at this very moment.

Far more terrifying were the myriad ads and signage around the Bay Street shopping center, where the Apple store is located. One ad that I saw made me turn around in horror, walk in the opposite direction, and promptly repress the memory. I truly do not remember what it was, merely that it was horrible.

I saw a large ad in a Victoria's Secret window advertising some article of clothing or other that was supposed to make you an "irresistible object of desire." My brain almost exploded at that crystalline instantiation of how sexualized femininity is marketed. Irresistible, yet an object. Indeed, irresistible because an object: "Ladies, the best way for you to be powerful is to be powerless. Just keep still and nobody will be able to resist the demands that you are not making." It's like they're parodying themselves.

Additionally, most days the "Inappropriate Co-optation of a Virginia Woolf Quotation" award goes to a mediocre book shop down the street from me, whose proprietors seem to be going about under the impression that Mrs. Dalloway is about flowers instead of being about trying not to kill yourself.

But today we have a different winner. Who posted "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well" on the wall, out of context?

Why, the Pottery Barn, of course.

I mean, doesn't the Pottery Barn totally remind you of women's unequal access to education in the 1920s?

I should never leave my house without my camera.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Inappropriate literary reference of the day

Maureen Dowd:

Hillary’s orchestrating a play within the play in Denver. Just as Hamlet used the device to show that his stepfather murdered his father, Hillary will try to show the Democrats they chose the wrong savior.

Um, what?

Is that kind of like "To Roll Or Not To Roll" sugar cookies?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Michèle Le Doeuff, The Sex of Knowing

I recently read Michèle Le Doeuff's The Sex of Knowing (in translation). At its heart is a critique of difference feminism based on a historical observation: that women have been excluded from structures of knowledge, not because women have a different and undervalued way of knowing, but because they are women. The special kinds of knowing that have been attributed to women are not stable across history. The pattern that we see across them, Le Doeuff argues, is that these modes of knowing are devalued. Then they are attributed to women. She writes:
We are the little sisters who get the broken toys, the worn-out ideas, and the signs that are being discarded. However, the gift is snatched back when what appeared to be an ordinary stone is revealed as a diamond in the rough or something that could pass for one. The practice of attributing these negative values to women is constant in form, even if the precise content varies ad libitum. Women can be taxed with anything at all, in a way that is both arbitrary and not accidental, provided that at some point in history it has had a negative value. This phenomenon did not escape the attention of Gabrielle Suchon, who notes in 1693: “When desires are seen as marks of need and poverty, they will be attributed by the score to women and girls, since people are always ready to turn unpleasant things over to them.” She has discerned a kind of law, to which we may add a corollary underscoring the historic fluctuation of these gifts. In the seventeenth century, desire was in disrepute, and so women were said to have it in excess; today, it has been revalued by psychoanalysis, which even sees it as a sign of mental health. Since then, it has become a male characteristic, even in the writings of female psychoanalysts. (17)

The answer to women's systematic exclusion from institutions, Le Doeuff argues, is not to try to revalue failed intellectual modes. The answer is to insist once and for all that women can and do know things -- not intuit, not feel, but know, reason, and understand. (I may have more to say on this soon.)

Her point is well argued, although I don't think she gives difference feminism its due. Le Doeuff is at pains to distinguish between the modes of knowledge that have been called "masculine," which she argues are no such thing, and the ideologies that have kept the sciences largely populated by and entirely attributed to men.

One of her key arguments revolves around a critique of Evelyn Fox Keller's classic essay "Gender and Science," which reads Bacon's Advancement of Learning as envisioning a masculine subject pursuing violent knowledge of a feminine object. Le Doeuff happens to be a Bacon scholar, and she observes that Keller fails to read the original Latin. It is the translations on which Keller relies, Le Doeuff argues, that superimpose a masculinist ideology on Baconian science, which is itself neutral (149-50).

It's an effective take-down of the particulars of Keller's argument, but not a response to the broader point of "Gender and Science," which takes Bacon's wording as a metonym for a pervasive assumption in the sciences that by no means depends on Bacon.

Le Doeuff wants to say that science doesn't really fashion itself as masculinist per se; it just gets read that way all too often (and she readily points to other instances of Bacon being a raging sexist). But this ignores a problem of cultural dissemination. If science is couched in a masculinist ideology heartily espoused by its central theorists, even if it need not be masculinist, it effectively is.

In any case, Le Doeuff also elides the fact that, in the main, she and Keller almost entirely agree. As deserving of critique as some of the worst essentialist excesses of difference feminism are, Keller isn't guilty of them. Keller isn't out to prove that women by definition can't do science. Keller is a scientist herself. She's arguing that science has been theorized more or less formally as a masculinist pursuit. Thus:
A circular process of mutual reinforcement is established in which what is called scientific receives extra validation from the cultural preference for what is called masculine, and, conversely, what is called feminine -- be it a branch of knowledge, a way of thinking, or woman herself -- becomes further devalued by its exclusion from the special social and intellectual value placed on science and the model science provides for all intellectual endeavors. (Keller 202)
In fact, in this essay, Keller's a bit more willing to separate "real" science from the ideologies that surround it than I'm comfortable with (a problem she revisits in "Gender and Science: An Update").

There's another, non-essentialist, pragmatic argument for the idea that female knowledge could improve science, perhaps best articulated by example. Martha McClintock's 1971 paper establishing that when women live together, their menstrual cycles synchronize. This was groundbreaking in that it demonstrated a connection between a biological function and social interaction. But also? This is something that I and every other girl who went to summer camp knew long before we'd ever heard of Martha McClintock. (Of course, historical contingencies were involved in my own experience.) It's a phenomenon that men in science hadn't thought to investigate, because everyone knows that if you even whisper the word "tampon!" near a man, he may shrivel up and die, or at the very least lose his manhood. Le Doeuff does an excellent job of pointing out the ways in which the "object" of science may in fact know something about herself, despite claims to the contrary, in her extensive second chapter.

I found Le Doeuff overly dismissive of difference feminism, and of literary studies, but one of the real pleasures of the book is her sarcasm. There's a strong way in which The Sex of Knowing retreads the ground of A Room of One's Own, examining more systematically the phenomenon Virginia Woolf wryly points out in 1928/9:
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? [...] Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was more surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex -- woman, that is to say -- also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.(27)
Le Doeuff wants to find out why women and knowledge have been defined as mutually exclusive; Woolf seeks the answer to the same question about women and writing. Like Woolf, she skewers bald instances of male vanity, like Joseph de Maistre's pronouncement (1808) that
Women have never created a masterpiece in any field. They did not create the Iliad, or the Aeneid, or Phaedra, or Athaliah, or the Pantheon, or the Venus of Medici [etc., etc.]. They invented neither algebra, nor the telescope, nor the heat pump, [etc.]..."(qtd. in Le Doeuff 170)
"De Maistre," Le Doeuff points out,
did not invent the telescope himself, nor did he write the Iliad; but, when he affirms that the 'masterpiece' is always a masculine product, he can imagine for an instant that algebra is almost his own creation. Generally, the exclusion of female creators from the mythic representation of inventiveness allows any man to take himself for an Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci, without having to manipulate an equation or handle a paintbrush, and even without the slightest interest in painting or physics. (173)
Like Woolf, Le Doeuff is brilliantly sarcastic. Stories of Le Doeuff's own career occasionally pop up, like the time she was nearly laughed out of the room for suggesting that Mary Wollstonecraft be included in an encyclopedia of eighteenth century English philosophers (because the rights of women, don't you know, aren't important like the rights of "man"). Nobody is spared the snark, and especially not sexist philosophers. For instance, she mentions Jacques Lacan merely in passing as someone "whose fine remark 'woman is not' or 'there is no such entity as woman' is sometimes used to dismiss you when you want to create a program in women's studies" (33).

Although I have significant reservations, I found this an enlightening and interesting book. The problematic of gender and knowledge casts light on unexpected questions, as, for example, the controversy a few years ago over head scarves in the French schools. Le Doeuff points out that the controversy over whether to throw girls out of school over a slip of fabric reveals the fragility of those girls' right to be educated -- the ease with which their right may be denied. Examples like these bring home the urgency of reasserting women's capacity for and right to knowledge qua knowledge. Martha McClintock recalls,
[At] Harvard, [...] because I was a woman, I was barred from the stacks at the Widener Library. I remember a moment when the chairman of the psychology department took his first-year students to lunch at the faculty club. I had to sit at a card table in the vestibule because I wasn't allowed into the dining room.
Le Doeuff's book reminds us that even though, as McClintock says, "[t]hings have changed," there are still beadles all too ready to chase our female students off the grass.

* * * * *

Keller, Evelyn Fox. "Gender and Science." In Sandra Harding and Merill B. Hintikka, eds. Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Boston: Kluwer-D. Reidel, 1983. First published in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 1:3 (1978).

---. "Gender and Science: An Update." In Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender, and Science. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Le Doeuff, Michèle. The Sex of Knowing, trans. Kathryn Hamer and Lorraine Code. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Annotated and Introd. Susan Gubar. 1929; New York: Harcourt, 2005.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Do not be fooled by the gadgets

I can't help noticing how much buzz is about regarding the recent Batman film. But I'm puzzled that no one yet seems to have pointed out the obvious. Allow me to quote the Rolling Stone review:
The trouble is that Batman, a.k.a. playboy Bruce Wayne, has had it up to here with being the white knight.
So he becomes, I suppose, the dark knight. In short, Batman: The Dark Knight is an almost comically timely instance of what Bruce Holsinger described in the recent CI as "the 9/11 pre-modern."

Just saying.