“We want wisdom. We want hope. We want to be good. Therefore we sometimes tell ourselves warning stories that deal with the darker side of some of our other wants.”
Margaret Atwood, Interview with The Guardian, 2005
In 1986, the author, literary critic and environmental activist, Margaret Atwood introduced a work of speculative fiction which has had a lasting effect on the public. Although written over 30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale maintains relevancy in a number of ways. The most obvious, of course, is the recent television adaptation by HULU. Before you binge-watch the entirety of season 1, I highly recommend picking up Atwood’s original piece. I have now read the novel twice through and I’m glad to have done so. This story is an important one to tell.
Let’s start with a little overview. This story takes place sometime in America’s future; and although specific dates are not disclosed by Atwood or her characters, the reader can assume the United States has been grappling with a number of issues which stem mostly from environmental decline and social discontent. In attempts to take control of the situation, the country slowly transitions into a totalitarian state. Renamed “The Republic of Gilead,” the state keeps order according to unyielding religious law. The people who were once able to take pride in freedom and individuality, have now been categorized according to functionality. We see a socioeconomic hierarchy forming reminiscent of medieval Europe. Even the Constitution has been suspended.
“The chances [of delivering a healthy baby] are one in four…The air got too full, once, f chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up…sure death to shore birds and unborn babies” (Atwood, 112).
The depreciation of environmental and physical health has led to outbreaks of cancer and syphilis, to name a few health issues. However, the most troublesome problem Gilead faces is their inability to keep up its population. Procreation has become nearly impossible, with case after case of infertility in women. This point brings me to our narrator and the main character, “Offred.” She is a Handmaid: a child bearer. “Handmaid” is a confusing space to occupy in Gilead’s hierarchy. One one hand, the Handmaid is a valued member of society. They are trained and protected. On the other hand, however, this training states Handmaids have but one purpose in society: bear children for women who cannot do so themselves.
Reflecting on the effects of this message, Offred comments, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices” (136). I am struck by the starkness of this particular line. Just like that, Offred is plainly saying “I am an object and I know it.” And at this point in the text, she is not exclaiming or complaining about this fact. She is simply stating something she knows to be true. There are many other times throughout the book when either Offred, her friend Moira, or even one of the Aunts who train the women comments on their condition in this way. I am left speechless by the perceived normalcy of it all.
I didn’t see too much dialogue from male characters, but when I did, I almost wish I hadn’t. Offred’s Commander (the man with whom she has been paired to become pregnant) says the following of women in Gilead: “We have quite a collection… That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position” but will also state that women “can’t add” (237, 186). He sees no contradictions in these two statements at all.
I start to think about the blatant objectification of women and the focus on environmental in this book and am convinced that every woman needs to read this book. As fictional as this novel may be, I stress the word “speculative,” as the genre states. We need to remember these kinds of stories are possible and that we do have the means of writing our own future.
Atwood, Margaret. “’Aliens Have Taken the Place of Angels’.” The Guardian, Guardian
News and Media, 16 June 2005, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/jun/17/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror.margaretatwood.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. O.W. Toad, LTD, 1986.
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In a society of virtually constant media exposure, we must learn to operate under constant vigilance. We are repeatedly encouraged to claim allegiance to certain categories, and in doing so, we monitor our performances and ultimately alter our identities. In other words, we experience how these categories can be limiting in terms of identities relating to gender, sex, sexual orientation and race. These experiences are hardly a recent development, but the notion of identity categories themselves as a troubling construction has only entered discourse within the last 25 years. Judith Butler, a key voice of Queer Theory, claims “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures, or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (Butler, 308). Put more simply, the very formation of a category is designed to include some while excluding others. Furthermore, being included within a category is limiting, because the ability to maintain that identity requires constant monitoring of performance.
One category under this description is that of Woman, which is more broad than media representations tend to suggest. In her book, Queer Theory Gender Theory, Riki Wilchins determines, “Assuming a commonality to any identity, even one as apparently uncomplicated as Woman, can mean assuming a unity that doesn’t exist in reality” (Wilchins, 124). The assumption that all who identify as Woman will perform similarly or work toward the same goals is neither accurate nor beneficial. For example, Wilchins discusses exclusion of individuals who have been refused the title of Woman, such as butches, transsexuals, cross dressers, intersexuals, queer youth, and drag people; claiming that this exclusion establishes new hierarchies of womanhood rather than a “flattening” of them (125). For this and other reason, both Butler and Wilchins notice a flaw in feminist theory. Although the purpose of this movement was designed as a collective attempt for equality among the sexes, the notion of who “counts” as Woman has been placed at the forefront.
Although Wilchins’ is a valuable discourse, I am choosing to focus on how categories function within female identities and heterosexual marriages. The idea for this avenue of research struck me as I was reflecting upon my reactions to Daenarys Targaryen of HBO’s A Game of Thrones: Season 1, as well as Beyonce Knowles and her self-titled album, released this past year. The characters in each media text are prevalent in current popular culture and therefore present visible, influential identities that are worth examining. These characters are heterosexual and married female characters who identify as women but still do not assume a commonality under the category of Woman. Because they have contributed to the institution of marriage, queer theory would determine that these women are feeding into an oppressive construction. However, I move to suggest that these women enact performativity in a manner which allows a greater sense of gender fluidity- one that allows an option to choose marriage and individuality as equal categories. In this way, I hope to prove the possibility of destabilizing the conception of categories as power structures which oppresses individual identities.
Gender is an imitation for which there is no original. Judith Butler “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”
Season 1 of HBO’s A Game of Thrones presents an interesting cast of characters for a discussion in queer theory. Because the setting is itself constructed, the show’s production team is able to take more liberty in plot and characterization. Likewise, we are able to speak more objectively about the show’s progression. However, much of what we see within the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is based on Medieval European society. There is a strict class system in place. For this reason, many critique the show for clinging to patriarchal limitations rather than attempting a fantastical world. While I recognize this view as problematic, I also consider the series a type of speculative fiction. Writers must create a world strong enough to believe in it and in order to do so, they must draw from what grants them emotional identification with the reader. The oppressive social structure is virtually necessary in order for the audience to identify with the characters. As a result, they hope for the upheaval of said structure in favor of the oppressed characters they have identified with.
As queer theory states, the oppression we see in A Game of Thrones is due to the instrumentation of identity categories. Gender and sexuality dictate the majority of this oppression by creating a structure which operates through the binaries of male/female, man/woman, and masculine/feminine. Because of this structure, the society functions under heteronormative ideals. Marriages are between men and women and men hold the majority of political power. Women within royal families are married off very early, sometimes before they are sexually mature, in order for their family to maintain or expand control of the realm. It is also common for men in the royal family to have female prostitutes. In these instances, we can determine that in this society, the identity of Woman is performed in relation to the identity of Man.
Despite this structure, a few characters manage to work both within and outside of their gendered expectations. Lord of Winterfell, Eddard Stark is both authoritative as a hand to the king and affectionate as a father of six children. One of his children, Arya Stark, is a young girl who is fiercely independent. Although often mistaken for a boy due to her grungy appearance and interest in sword-fighting, she is insistent in her identification as girl. Arya’s gender performance is a perfect example subversion, as she “allows for the possibility of subverting the gender and individual is in by embracing the failure, by failing publicly and purposefully and thus revealing gender’s constructedness (Wilchins, 136). Arya recognizes her failure to always perform as girl, but does not apologize for that failure. In fact, she is quite insistent in her aversion to femininity and thus proves that gender has no original copy.
Eddard and Arya are valuable in queer theory discourse, but the character most useful for the current discussion of gender performance and performativity is Daenarys Targaryen. Her marriage to Khal Drogo, leader of the Dothraki tribe follows the constructed performative described above. Viserys, her brother, trades Daenarys’ hand for an army of 40,000 Dothraki in order for him to take back the family kingdom. When we are first introduced to Daenarys, she appears to be submissive. But through the course of season 1, she begins to develop a stronger sense of agency.
Rebecca Jones argues that Daenarys Targaryen is an example of feminine strength in the face of her oppressive environment. She states that Daenarys “becomes bold, and loses the fear she held for her abusive brother and sees the folly in his dreams of taking back the kingdom, knowing that he could never be an effective leader” and asserts herself with “further effect and strength” each time (Jones 19-20). Although she makes astute observations about the origins of Daenarys’ strength, Jones fails to mention the character’s use of her unborn male child as justification for her authority. Therefore, the character’s empowerment is both empowered through femininity and problematic through masculinity and should be questioned through a queer theory lens.
According to Riki Wilchins, “being” a gender is always doing, a continuous approximation of normative ideals that live outside of as and were always already there before we arrived” (Wilchins, 131). In other words, “being” female is not possible, but performing as female creates an impression of gender. Therefore, gender is constructed through patterns of performative actions. An analysis of Daenarys would be most useful if we temporarily remove her from gender restrictions, therefore removing her from norms altogether. This character is exposed to power, and is determined to prove an inherent capacity for enacting power. An oppressive brother attempts to limit this power, but is overruled by Daenarys’ practice of the new position as Khaleesi. Rather than perform as simply feminine, Daenarys performs as number of identities. Some are traditionally feminine, such as mother and wife; while others are traditionally masculine, such as leader of the tribe. The character performs as a loving wife until she becomes one. She performs decisively and with control through sex, which increases her power outside of sex.
Although she seems to attribute some of her power to the “son of the Khal,” this seems to be a performative as well. In response to her brother’s physical abuse, she threatens; “I am Khaleesi of the Dothraki. I am the wife of the great Khal and I carry his son inside me. The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.” In this threat, she lists her performances of identity and begins with the most independent of them. As I interpret this, she is placing great power in these identities and what she brings to them. The belief in her inherent power reiterated by the assertion, “I have never been nothing.” Her commands as Khaleesi become increasingly grounded through the continued performances and her identity is uncovered with each performance.
‘Woman’ is no longer assumed but is always incomplete and unstable, in the process of dissolving and reforming as the political needs emerge…The loss of unity and incompleteness of the category might even promote new meanings, new ways of being, and new political possibilities for women to engage. Riki Wilchins Queer Theory, Gender Theory
Daenarys presents more concrete examples of performativity as the season progresses. She eats a raw heart as a performance in front of the tribe as an initiation of sorts. She is visibly confident here. The most performative action she takes is the announcement her full name as “Daenarys Stormborn of the House of Targaryen, Mother of Dragons.” This announcement, combined with walking into the fire, is a performative of power. She asserts herself as the official leader of the Dothraki by guaranteeing their protection (“I swear to you, those who try to hurt you will die screaming”). What is interesting is that Daenarys is doing gender in a carefully constructed manner until she can be a consistent agent of power as well as gender. In their repetition and results, her performances become performatives as a new type of woman. In the Seven Kingdoms, Daenarys is the first to navigate gender so extensively that she demonstrates the ease at which the category of Woman loses unity.
I’m a Grown Woman, I can do whatever I want. Beyonce Knowles-Carter Beyonce (2013)
I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and femininity and I want to be respected in all my femaleness because I deserve to be. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie We Should All be Feminists
In 2013, Pop/R&B icon, Beyonce Knowles released her 5th solo album. The self-titled record adds to a discourse of gender performance and disruption that has been discussed by queer theorists for decades, but due to her presence in popular culture, the album has certainly expanded the conversation to the average citizen. Her work is relevant to this research because she has created a persona which simultaneously challenges and reinforces gender norms in the name of reaching individual identity. In this way, she works to prove Judith Butler’s assertion that “gender is culturally formed, but [can also be] a domain of agency or freedom” (Butler). It is no secret that Beyonce is an advocate for the strengthening of Womanhood. She has labeled herself a feminist and has released numerous tracks in celebration of women; including “Run the World (Girls),” “Upgrade U,” and “If I Were a Boy.” Through her performativity as a woman in popular culture, her contributions to this discussion of gender are similar, yet not identical to those of Daenarys. Each woman performs and subverts norms, but while the Daenarys is placed in a society which fails to allow women agency without the connection to a male counterpart, Beyonce is allowed much more opportunity. Woman in our society have worked to gain increasing agency through the movements of feminism. However, the identity category is still problematic as a target and source of exclusions. Beyonce’s position as a powerful female character creates is able to contribute valuable discourses of gender performance and disruption of norms.
Through tracks such as “Grown Woman,” “Pretty Hurts” and “Flawless,” her gender performance is both defiant and submissive to norms. “Grown Woman” seems to reclaim womanhood as a powerful identity. Her use of “Woman” rather than “girl,” and the emphasis she places on the word “grown” for this track demonstrates the power language has over identity. When she repeats “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want” there is a second voice that responds “Well, of course” as if queering the construction of gender’s relation to power. She applies performatives that consolidate the impressions of her identity. For example she says “I can be bad if I want/I can do wrong if I want” as an assertion of her power as a human being, as well as a woman. She also says, “they listen to me when I talk, cause I ain’t pretending,” which suggests that her agency is not reliant on her gender or sexuality but rather an expression of her individuality and will for power.
However, there are sections of the track that hint to sexualization of the body for male attention. While this may seem troubling, submissive pattern in Beyonce’s work, she seems to enact this sexuality from a place of power. In a post from Bitch Magazine, an online feminist magazine, Vanessa Willoughby applauds Beyonce’s work as a feminist in popular culture. Comparing her to Josephine Baker, the first international African American dancer, Willoughby suggests the negative commentary surrounding Beyonce’s sexual performance is hardly a new concept. She observes, “The public often refuse to believe that someone who declared that her body is “bootylicious” can be worthy or recognized as a feminist,” (Willoughby) but also that her agency is what sets her apart. This article also brings to the forefront issues of intersectionality. Because Beyonce has used her race and sexuality in her career, it has been said that her image is a modern, self-inflicted version of Sarah Baartman, also referred to as the “Hottentot Venus.” Baartman was brought to the Western world as chattel, as a piece of property meant for public exhibition, like the main attraction at a freak show. English men and women marveled at her “unusual anatomy,” robbing Baartman of her rightful humanity, reducing her to her anatomy.
Willoughby’s argument is in favor of Beyonce’s promotion of her sexuality, because she “has something that Baartman never had.” As demonstrated by her conscious decisions to dress provocatively but also claim that her body is “too bootylicious” for another person to handle, she enacts agency. Queer theory argues that in this use of this male-directed objectification as a unifying basis for womanhood “renders Woman once again dependent on and derivative of Man. Even worse, it means that women are not defined by what they have accomplished but rather by the sheer fact of their subjugation at the hands of men” (Wilchins, 127). However, I am moved to question which is a worse fate. A woman’s sexuality is either oppressive or empowering based on her instrumentation of said sexuality. Willoughby concludes that an erasure of female sexuality perpetuates fear of the female body; therefore, Beyonce’s sexual performance is empowering rather than oppressive.
Beyonce seems to be aware of the constructions which accompany the female body. The lyrics of “Pretty Hurts” unravel societal expectations of the ideal Woman:
Mama said, “You’re a pretty girl. What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter Brush your hair, fix your teeth. What you wear is all that matters” Just another stage, pageant the pain away. This time I’m gonna take the crown Without falling down, down, down. Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst Perfection is a disease of a nation, pretty hurts pretty hurts Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst. We try to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see. It’s the soul that needs the surgery.
In the first verse, Beyonce demonstrates how the concept of gender is constructed. In placing the conversation of gender within the context of a mother-daughter relationship, we can determine the expectations for the daughter come from performatives of the female gender. Wilchins states, “When I dress and act in a gendered way, when I pull on a dress and high heels an act in a recognizably feminine manner- when I do Woman- I am not simply referencing a gender role but constituting myself as one. I am creating the social state of being a woman” (Wilchins, 133). Because she is a pretty girl, the daughter is told she must perform in a way that accentuates this physicality for a successful transition into Womanhood. Beyonce critiques the perceived necessity of these performatives in the following stanza: “Just another stage, pageant the pain away” (Knowles-Carter). She observes the actions described by the mother as socially constructed performances that can be uncomfortable for certain identities to carry out.
Through the deconstruction of these constructed performances, Beyonce illustrates the problems associated with “properly gendered” experiences. She says “Perfection is the disease of a nation,” thus calling attention to the fact that “proper” gendered identifications are detrimental to the inner personhood. Queer theory states that the essence of natural males and females is a binary opposite that only allows for one to “distinguish feeling like a real man to the exact degree that one does not feel like a real woman, and vice versa (Wilchins, 130). In her critique of this binary she calls for a more broad set of opportunities within the identity of Woman. In her own gender performance, for example, she dresses as feminine but is also outspoken.
A further examination of Beyonce’s work with gender can be continued through an analysis of “**Flawless.” The construction of male and female performance are exposed through Beyonces own lyrics as the following excerpt from a TEDtalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to them, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support.But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors, but for jobs or accomplishments for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: a person that believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
The title of Adichie’s presentation is We Should All be Feminists. In this excerpt, gender is exposed as a tool of gender construction which is limiting in the categories of both female and male. Adichie acknowledges how young girls (and women) are encouraged to aspire to the category of marriage, while suppressing the urge to identify with other categories which relate to individual power. Likewise, she suggests that we teach boys to be sexual and powerful in an oppressive rather than empowering sense.
While it is valuable to question these constructions as specific to the male and female gender, such a questioning may not be enough. Through the use of this quotation of a feminist speaker, Beyonce constructs a narrative of sexuality which is troubling to gender fluidity. Rather than creating a sense of gender equality, she enacts a plan for “separate but equal” binary for gender performance. This is apparent in the wording of Adichie’s definition of feminism. She uses the word “sexes” rather than “genders” even though she is referencing issues with gender performances and performatives.
This definition is not specific to Adichie. Wilchins suggests that feminist theory “has actually helped obscure the notion of gender transgression and the political aspirations of those who transcend gender norms by articulating its politics as if the whole world were divided neatly, naturally into Boys and Girls” (Wilchins, 126). This argument against feminism seems valid enough, especially when we consider the language available to us when talking about gender. We refer to each other with binary pronouns and labels. Perhaps the message would be better received if Adichie’s ideas were rephrased as such: “Why do we repeatedly value the performance of one gender over another? Why is are some performances only acceptable under certain gender categories?” The inequalities within gender categories are still expressed, but this language allows for the examination of said inequality in a more inclusive manner.
From what I have observed through research of both feminism and queer theory, it is the language we use surrounding gender that tends to be more troubling than the categorizations of identity themselves. While feminism was initiated to work toward gender equality, the pitting of women against men strengthened the binaries between them rather than bridging a gap. For example, Wilchins says “just as feminists complain that patriarchy tries to reduce all women to a single narrow stereotype, so reducing patriarchy to a single narrow stereotype proves feminists can engage in the same tactic” (Wilchins, 127). Queer theory is often in search appropriate language assertions, sometimes employing the term “transgendered” or “queer” to refer to individuals who transcend gender normatives. As Riki Wilchins states, even an identity as seemingly “uncomplicated” as Woman has the ability to be altered through language’s ability to reconstruct (or deconstruct) the rules. Therefore, language is the tool for which new performatives are completed.
If the category of Woman can be destabilized through queer theory, then why not marriage? Both identities are constructed, and have been proven to be limiting within heternormative boundaries. This research has demonstrated how extensively queer theorists have worked to destabilize Woman as a more inclusive gender. However, the majority of theorists do not feel the same way about marriage. In Chapter 3 of The Trouble With Normal, Michael Warner questions the goal to achieve gay marriage as a progression for the community, due to problems he observes within the very institution. Conventional marriage is the original design and therefore, the normal identity for which other identities strive to achieve.
According to Warner, the attempts of the LGBTQA community to reach this ideal identity category is oppressive rather than liberating, because said “ideal” category is a reinforcement of heteronormativity. He states, “Since the desire to marry is an aspect of the normativity of marriage, it cannot be said to validate the norm, any more than the desire to buy a Coke validates capitalism” (Warner, 109). Like the Coca Cola polar bears, is the advertisement for this social construction so irresistible that choice is virtually removed from individual? Why are we driven to participate in marriage, even though we are knowledgeable of its construction and oppressive history?
Despite the patterns of oppressions observed in marriages such as limited independence, marriage presents certain benefits for those who subscribe. In A Game of Thrones, Daenarys is promised a nice home, servants and the protection of an army through her marriage to Khal Drogo. A married couple in America currently married benefits in terms of taxes, estate planning, government and employee benefits and medical funding. A married couple also has a greater chance of being granted adoption rights and insurance discounts. Warner states, “The strategic question facing the lawyers is this: should we try to extend benefits and recognition even further beyond conventional marriage, uncoupling them from marital status and making them available to individuals, households and intimate relations? Or should we claim for ourselves the status of marriage and thereby restrict entitlements and recognition of it” (Warner, 108). This is a valid question. The language in this conversation is not the identities of each married person, but of other societal constructions that have virtually nothing to do with those identities.
In What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?, Lauren Berlant questions categorizations in terms of adherence to gender norms, claim that such adherence “has animated a rethinking of both the perverse and the normal; the romantic couple, sex for money, reproduction, the genres of life narrative.” (Berlant, 345-6). While Daenarys and Beyonce both claim the identity of heterosexual marriage, they also breaking out of the expectations of those roles.
The reliance on their marriage title translates differently than critiques of heterosexual marriage, which claim limit a woman’s identity. Adichie observers in her TEDtalk, “The language of marriage is often a language of ownership rather than a language of partnership.” (Adichie). In A Game of Thrones, this statement is proven to describe the relationship between Daenarys and Drogo at first. However, Daeynaris’ performative actions allow her to gain agency that is not tied to her husband. In this instance, she demonstrates that it is our performance within categories, rather than the categories themselves that have the ability to grant us power.
Daenarys does gain power from her marriage, but she maintains her power through her own choices to perform specific identities. She is not consumed by the ties to her husband, but increasingly free in thought and action. Beyonce on the other hand, was already a powerful and outspoken woman before her marriage to Jay Z. In the song “Upgrade U” (2005) she declares that in a relationship, has the ability to improve her significant other. The singer has met controversy as of late due to the title of latest tour, the “Mrs. Carter World Tour.” She chose to hyphenate her name through marriage as Beyonce Knowles-Carter, but dropped her maiden name for the tour. In using her husband’s last name, he has been accused of being consumed by his identity, which she address in “**Flawless” by asserting, “I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife” (Knowles-Carter). This could be argued as a loss of her identity, but it could also be a marketing choice. Beyonce’s outspoken personality, unique gender performance and influence as a vocal artist is what makes her powerful. Her marriage is an aspect of her identity that is important to her as an individual person and was a choice rather than a necessity.
Through their simultaneous reinforcement and disruption of gender norms, Daenarys and Beyonce have contributed valuable discourse in performativity. By using multiple gender performatives, Daenarys is able to create an identity for herself. By examining the power of performativity, Beyonce is able translate what she discovers to an impressionable audience. Because each woman is aware (or becomes aware) of how identity is constructed, they make conscious choices for the gain power as individuals rather than as women. In doing so, they create a construction of marriage that is a liberating addition to their identities.
Adichie, Chimamanda N. “We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDxEuston.” YouTube. YouTube, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 May 2014.
Berlant, Lauren. “Guest Column: What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?”PMLA 110.3 (1995): 343-49. JSTOR. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Jones, Rebecca. “A Game of Genders, Comparing Depictions of Empowered Women Between a Game of Thrones Novel and Television Series.” Journal of Student Research 1.3 (2012): 14-21. University of Wisconsin River-Falls. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
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Polachek, Rey Reel, Noah “40” Shebib, Ryan Tedder, Timbaland, Justin
Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, 2013. CD.
Martin, George R.R., David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Bryan Cogman. A Game of Thrones.
HBO. 17 Apr. 2011. Television.
Warner, Michael. “Beyond Gay Marriage.” The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. New York: Free, 1999. 81-145. Print.
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Willoughby, Vanessa. “Applauding the Bootylicious Feminism of Beyonce and Josephine Baker.” Bitch Magazine 10 Mar. 2014: n. pag. Web. .
Upon reading the memoirs Black Boy, by Richard Wright and Talk Thai, by Ira Sukrungruang, I became interested in their methods of documenting childhood experiences. An initial comparison of Wright and Sukrungruang reveals a rather poetic aspect to their descriptions of their younger selves, allowing their histories to read more as novels than memoirs. I believe there are connections between the use of this language and child development, which leads me to compare the authors’ language choices to Piaget’s stages of cognitive development as well as a few other researched patterns of childhood development. Through a closer reading of the language choices, I have determined that each memoir has a specific narrative which relates to that language. While Talk Thai is primarily a “coming of age” story, I am able to draw from most of the memoir. Examples from Black Boy will be taken from the Part One.
Before delving into each comparison, I will briefly explain the stages of development from which I will be referencing. According to
the International Centre for Educators’ Learning Styles. Piaget’s Four Stages of Childhood development are: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete-operational, and formal-operational. The reader does not meet Wright or Sukrungruang until they reach the pre-operational stage, so I will begin with an explanation of this second stage. From the ages of about 2-7, children learn to think symbolically about their world. They are also very egocentric, in the sense that only their point of view is comprehensible to them. In other words, they are not consciously disregarding what others say. While their creativity is expanding, they are also struggling to think beyond concrete terms. For example, the concept of “cause and effect” is still unclear (Mazo).
Wright paints an interesting picture of his younger self within this pre-operational stage of development. On page 19, he describes of a memory from when he was only four years old. In this excerpt, the reader is able to visualize a child’s thought process:
I wandered listlessly around the room, trying to think of something to do, dreading the return of my mother, resentful of being neglected. The room held nothing of interest except the fire and finally I stood before the shimmering embers, fascinated by the quivering coals. Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn?”… My idea was growing, blooming. Now I was wondering just how the fluffy white curtains would look if I lit a bunch of straws and held it under them.
The curiosity of young Wright is depicted through phrases such as “shimmering embers” and the “fascination” of “quivering coals.” An adult would understand the fireplace as a tool for warmth rather than something which holds any sense of mystery. However, Wright is four years old at this point, and doesn’t comprehend the “cause and effect” relationship of lighting things on fire. In fact, because he doesn’t understand, he is driven to find out on his own: “Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn?” This disconnect also leads to Wright’s impulsive action to light the curtains on fire as his idea was “growing, blooming.” The reader should also take into account the argument with his brother, where he asks “how come” he shouldn’t burn more straws on the broom Although his brother gives a valid reason as to why, Wright refuses to listen. This is classic egocentric and defiant behavior, where curiosity of the child outweighs his or her logical reasoning.
Another instance in which Wright uses poetic language to describe the cognitive processes of his childhood self occurs on pages 22-23. This inner monologue is written as a list of observations that are saturated in metaphor and symbolism. The reader is led to understand that the following musings take place not long after the fire incident:
Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue…There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads…There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of whitewashed frame houses…There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass.
This is a very condensed version of Wright’s list, which carries disheartening message from the perspective of a young child. The curiosity and observational skills are intact for the pre-operational stage. For example, he takes notice of colors, sounds and how they relate to his senses. However, the language Wright employs in this and the previous passage is very advanced for a four or five year old. This can be expected, as Wright is retelling his experiences as an adult, therefore removed from original childhood experience. However, his languages choices seem to be deliberately advanced for the descriptions of a child’s cognitive process. For example, he could have chosen to write “the smell of fresh cut grass made me feel oddly hungry” but instead he writes, “There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odor of new-cut, bleeding grass” At a first glance, the reader is taken aback by the child’s profoundness and pain, but when deconstructed, the reader can see that Wright made conscious language choices in order to create that narrative. This construction of the list on pages 22-23 establishes Wright’s character for the remainder of the memoir, urging the reader to judge his cognition as unusually advanced, and that his actions come from his desire to improve upon his oppressive experiences as he grows into adulthood.
Because Talk Thai is also a memoir, the narrative is also written from a perspective that has been removed from childhood. However, there are noticeable differences in the language of Sukrungruang, which present the reader with a narrative that echoes a more “child-like” voice than Wright’s suggestive text. An early metaphor initiates Ira’s childhood complications with religion, “I felt the cold of the Buddha my mother gave me against my chest, felt the way it pressed into my like a sharp pebble in a shoe” (Sukrungruang, 14-15). Not only does this language produce a more simplistic metaphor for a 5-6 year old child, the tone of this language is brighter and more concrete. This concrete image of a pebble in the bottom of a shoe is easier to see and feel. At the same time, this constructed metaphor is clearly the work of an adult, because his child self would be too egocentric to be able to directly compare his experience to another.
In the same memory, Sukrungruang recalls his uncomfortable experiences attending a non-Thai school:
“I didn’t want to lose face in front of my first grade teacher like my mother had warned, but I could not make myself say yesibsong, twenty-two, even though it had been drummed over and over into my head, even though this is what my mother had been waiting for, an opportunity to show how brilliant her only son was”
The recollection of this interaction on page 15 seems very developmentally appropriate. While Ira knows the answer to his mother’s question, he is also defiant. He is acting under egocentrism; therefore, he isn’t able to process what his mother wants as well as the nervousness he is feeling. At the same time, Sukrungruang uses phrases that a kindergartener wouldn’t understand, such as “save face” and “drummed…into my head,” even if he could have consciously noticed the feelings those phrases describe.
Through a brief analysis of the text, I am able to conclude that both authors are creating a particular narrative with their language choices. I compared the characters simply at their pre-operational stages, because their cognitive process are crucial for the basis of the rest of the memoirs. While Wright uses his colorful language to create a profound image of his childhood self, Sukrungruang seems to create a more developmentally appropriate narrative that the reader can relate to.