LITERARY CRITICISM: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Masculinity and Femininity in Super Sad True Love Story

…masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects
Judith (Jack) Halberstam
Feminine Masculinity

We are learning what seems to be a very simple lesson in academic and popular culture; gender is a construction. But is this conception really so simple? The differentiation between masculine and feminine performances was once clear cut. The frequently opposing categories locked males and females in a social order we found hard to break; however, I think this order is beginning to break down slowly. I am fascinated and perplexed by gender. What does it really mean to be masculine or feminine, and more importantly, why? Furthermore, what happens when we go against them? Will “gender” eventually become an eradicated term?
Because I have become fixated on the construction of gender roles, Judith (Jack) Halberstam has proved crucial to my research. Halberstam is a pre-operational transgendered female-male. Now, many who are unfamiliar with the trans community are hesitant to use pronouns for a lack of offense. What I thought was interesting was, Halberstam doesn’t care about pronouns. When she asked why, she replied:

Well, a few reasons: first, I have not transitioned in any formal sense and there are certainly many differences between my gender and those of transgender men on hormones. Second, the back and forth between he and she sort of captures the form that my gender takes nowadays. Not that I am often an unambiguous “she” but nor am I often an unambiguous he. Third, I think my floating gender pronouns capture well the refusal to resolve my gender ambiguity that has become a kind of identity for me.

Her reply starts to answer my questions; that ambiguity in gender performance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, ambiguity makes sense. If our definitions are socially constructed, then why should we be concerned with constantly labeling a person “he” or “she?”
I started then started to think back to masculinity and femininity. How does one fairly define these terms? An excerpt from Halberstam’s Female Masculinity sparked my interest. She poses “If masculinity is not the social and cultural and indeed political expression of maleness, then what is it?” (Ryan, 935). She moves to suggest that gender be understood as a multiplicity rather than binary. In an interview about her book, Halberstam gave credit to Judith Butler for opening her up to the discourse; “it was obvious that the book was about female masculinity, but it sure wasn’t to other people…So it was into that conversation that I decided to just go ahead, and as is my wont, be quite blunt about what forms of womanhood fell out of this universalizing category that feminism assured to speak for women” (Williams, 362). In other words, there is conflict in the term the very term “woman.” However, Halberstam points out that “given all the work that feminists have done to help us understand the way in which our interpretations of the body are ideological…it makes no sense that we draw the line of womanhood between female embodiment and masculinity” (362). I would go further, supporting that the line of manhood should not be drawn between male embodiment and femininity.
Although Halberstam wrote Female Masculinity in 1998 this “category” seems to haunt women characters to this day. I have previously written how Amy Dunne in the recent novel Gone Girl represents a “good witch/bad witch” binary. Gary Shteyngart paints a similar picture of Eunice Park in Super Sad True Love Story. Although Eunice is not a murderess, she is a woman guided through image and she lets those images interfere with her emotions, which then interfere with her well-being. In a diary entry to Jenny Kang, aka “Grillbitch,” she writes about her relationship with Lenny Abramov, “Honestly, I’m afraid to see our reflection in the mirror but I think the more time I spend with him the more it feels right…We fight a lot. I guess it’s mostly my fault because I don’t appreciate his great personality and I just keep focusing on his looks” (Shteyngart, 114). A similar focus on image is stressed in virtually all of Eunice’s emails, and her comments are either self degrading and/or hypersexualized (another stereotype of femininity). In the midst of a nationwide crisis, she writes, “It’s not like Lenny’s been doing anything bad. He’s got yuan in the bank, so there’s pizza and calzones and my ass is actually getting even fatter” (264). Eunice’s “ass” is a recurring subject in her emails, as well as her dependence on Lenny. She doesn’t have the desire to hold a job until after the government fails, and even then, she takes a job from Lenny’s boss, Joshie, and “falls in love” with him.
Eunice’s self-image contrasts with what Lenny writes in his diaries. He thinks the sun rises and sets on Eunice; “I’m the fortieth -ugliest man in this bar. But, so what? What is someday she lets me kiss each one of her freckles again? She has like a million. But every one means something to me” (94). At this point, Lenny has only met Eunice once, yet he feels compelled to spend the rest of his life with her. Both Lenny and Eunice are unreliable narrators because they are writing as a form of catharsis; but I get the feeling that Eunice is yet another unbalanced female that a man feels like he has to save, thus reinforcing binary stereotypes between men and women.

I would like to turn the conversation toward male masculinities…

Judith “Jack” Halberstam questions the comfortable construction of “heroic masculinities” because they depend on the subordinate, marginal masculinities. In Female Masculinities, Halberstam wittily makes an example of James Bond, a male “hero” worshiped by a predominantly male audience. On the surface, Bond seems like a powerful adventure hero, with a smooth demeanor and arsenal of gadgets to defeat a powerful adversary. Meanwhile:

Bond’s boss, M, is a noticeably butch older woman who calls Bond a dinosaur and chastises him for being a misogynist and a sexist. His secretary, Miss Moneypenny, accuses him of sexual harassment… ultimately women seem not to go for his charms-bad suits and a lot of sexual innuendo, which seem as old and as ineffective as his gadgets.

Because of his dependence on M and interactions with other females, Bond becomes a caricature of the hegemonic masculinity we come to expect (stoic, selfless character). Compare James Bond to Gale in The Hunger Games. Both men are hyper-masculine; but Gale is not only a bold war leader. He is a selfless hero, protecting the woman he loves and her family as well as the other families in his community. While these men are very different, they both represent a comfortably well known image of masculinity.
So what kind of man is Lenny Abramov? He opens his very first diary entry by declaring a plan for immortality, a desire that is characteristically male. However, he attributes this desire to the result of meeting Eunice Park giving him a “reason to live.” When he first sees Eunice, Lenny is struck by her appearance, “How I longed to kiss those full lips myself and cradle the slightness of the rest of her,” and then insists on saving her from an unfortunate situation, “She marched, I hopped, unable to cover up the joy of having escaped the party with her by my side. I wanted Eunice to thank me for saving her from the sculptor and his stench of death” (Shteyngart, 19-21). Lenny desires to fit the hyper-masculine profile of “hero” but is viewed as a desperate old man. Eunice writes to her friend, “I met this old, gross gut at a party yesterday and we got really drunk and I sort of let him go down on me” (28). Lenny’s lack of physical attraction overpowers his “heroic” actions at the party. I dare to suggest that if Lenny was a younger, supermodel type and behaved in the same manner, Eunice would have been head over heels and Super Sad True Love Story would be a much shorter novel.
Lenny is constantly reminded of his marginal masculinity through comparisons to other men. He returns to a group of successful friends who are in tune with technology and popular culture, and struggles to connect with them. Because Lenny is unfamiliar with FACing and buys books, he is subordinate to the other men. Although he is a “good providah” he is the most unappealing male in the bar (91). Eunice also emasculates Lenny, writing that he “kisses like a girl, all quiet with his eyes closed,” giving the impression that he is weak and oversensitive. During the Rupture, Lenny looks to others for direction; “…all I could think about was Eunice not loving me, losing her respect for me, Noah the decisive leader in a time when she was supposed to need me” (246). In this moment, Lenny remembers again that he is not the picture of masculinity that he wishes to be, while Noah is a leader in time of crisis. Lenny’s boss, Joshie, is technically older than Lenny, but has Benjamin Buttoned himself through Post-Human treatments. Joshie has financial stability and youth, which is what attracts Eunice to him. Furthermore, he stands up for himself, “Eunice, we have to talk. I know you love me, but sometimes you really don’t treat me well,” and his assertiveness wins out (302). Lenny (marginal masculinity) loses Eunice to Joshie (hegemonic masculinity) for good.
What am I placing so much focus on masculine hegemony? I feel that as we focus on feminism and the definition of “femininity” we need not forget about stereotypes we place on men. Although I can honestly say I dislike each character in Super Sad True Love Story I cannot dismiss the issues Shteyngart brings forth with Lenny marginal masculinity. Shteyngart writes Lenny into failure by losing Eunice, his job and his residency on the Upper West Side. I will say, however, that Joshie’s demise due to Kapasian Tremors was an important statement; that even the most powerful men are powerless before mortality. I’m not sure if my initial questions have been answered, but they are certainly something to think about.

Sources:
Halberstam, Judith. “Feminine Masculinity.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 935-56. Print.
Halberstam, Jack. “On Pronouns.” Web log post. Jack Halberstam: Gaga Feminism and Queer Failure. WordPress, 3 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.
Williams, Jeffrey. “The Drag of Masculinity: An Interview with Judith “Jack” Halberstam.”Symploke 19.1-2 (2011): 361-80. Academic One File. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

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