“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.
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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The ability of human beings to reason and develop that has separated our species from our environment. However, claiming the human identity, this “privileged” species, has not guaranteed a completely communicable group. Conversely, the ability to reason has left us with the ability to lack completely congruent thought. While this seems a visionary prospect, individuals will claim allegiance to various patterns of thinking. In doing so, their thoughts and/or goals form an individual system of values referred to as an ideology.
Now, in order to form an ideology, a group of people must agree on a set of values. This is how individuals form groups and identities. For example, there are ideologies which relate and depend on facets such as media, government, education, geography, ethnicity, race, heritage, gender, religion, social status etc. One ideology, which grew out of the Late Classical Period is based in the arts. Claiming an idealistic attitude for music and art through the title of Romanticism, this way of thinking brought a concrete expression of lofty ideas. In other words, the work of Romanticism brought forth attempts to find truth and clarity through ambiguity. The ideals of Romanticism are often problematic, in that they often create dual interpretations for both the creator and audience. This battling of self and other makes way for a number of dualities that guide one through the analysis of art through a Romantic lens.
While “Man versus Nature” begins by questioning the effects humanity and nature have on each other, “Science vs. Irrational” pits humans against each through their ability to reason and live reasonably. Each duality represents a version of questioning the self’s relationship to the other. In order to explore these dualities further, I will consult Timothy Morton’s “Environmentalism” and the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche as they apply to examples in music across the genres.
Timothy Morton describes environmentalism as “a set of cultural and political responses to a crisis in humans’ relationships with their surroundings” (Morton, 696). This description is haunting in relationship to Romanticism, because Morton reveals that environmental crises rather than appreciations are what have called humans to examine their relationship with phenomenons other than themselves. I would argue that Romanticism struggles to create a balance between the self and other, constantly critiquing the effects each has on the other. For example, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl not only affected the physical land but those living in and near the city. Morton writes “no matter what our nationality or class affiliation is, we share the toxic legacy of Chernobyl” (697). This instance speaks to the long lasting relationship between humans and earth, and puts into perspective the values humans hold (industrialism over environmental consciousness).
Nature is included in this discourse but certainly not the sole focus. The neglectful behaviors that led to Chernobyl illustrate the attitudes humans can have toward each other due to “otherness.” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” allows the listener to reflect upon the economy and state of the inner city ghetto of New York City. Written in 1971, there are aspects of the song which deliberately expose the inequality among the races, especially between black and white. The echoing vocals are illicit emptiness and the addition of percussive bongos brings the listener to a bleakness of losing oneself in that emptiness. The lyrics describe the inability to pay bills, monetary inflation, and the double standard of living in the city as a black community. The piece could be angry, but I believe Gaye deliberately chose to write “makes me wanna holler” rather than “I will holler” in order to prevent the creation of a violent voice/attitude. In this piece there is simultaneous fear and frustration for change. Gaye’s “self” struggles to be heard over the dominant “other” without precautions or policing of behavior- an environmental (social) injustice he undoubtedly aimed to affect with his music.
To elaborate on the policing of human behavior, I will move to discuss the duality of “Science vs. Irrational.” According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “man must understand that life is not governed by rational principles” (Brady, 1). Rather, humans are absurd and when stripped naked, cannot claim allegiance to society while continuing to stay true to themselves. Therefore, there are various instances of humans defying social norms. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the system is constraining (yet we strive to subscribe to it by forming ideologies).
Prince is an appropriate musician to analyze for this duality because of his tendency to skirt in an out of social constraints and expectations. For example, he has made several statements based on gender nonconformity and against labeling identities. In these actions, he illustrates that society is constraining. Perhaps this makes him crazy, but perhaps he is saner than those who conform. “Let’s Go Crazy,” (1984) is a commentary on the restrictions humans face on earth. The lyrics form most of the commentary, calling on the audience to remain true to themselves and to their own mind. He says “So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills/You know the one, Dr. Everything-will-be-alright/Instead of asking him how much how much of your time is left/ask him how much of your mind” he attitude is not as morbid as Nietzsche would suggest, that we are all naked and alone in the world. On the contrary, we should be not be brought down by the constraints of society at the expense of ourselves. He ends by bringing the shrink back into conversation, “Dr. Everything-will-be-alright will make everything go wrong.” This is a blatant stab at psychology, and the “fixing” of human incongruences and aligns perfectly with Nietzsche’s theories.
The Romantic ideology of finding a truth through ambiguity and binaries can easily be explained through the examination of the self as opposed to the other. The musical examples I have described in this short essay have hopefully exposed the reality of these conflicting issues in our history and current society. So long as romantic ideals of questioning through expression prevail, humans will be enacting their skills as thinkers and communicators.
I began annotating this novel though my simple observations of gendered language and pronouns. As Book one progressed, I noticed the Rufus’ preoccupation with Leona’s use of the term “boy” as compared to his use of the term “girl.” The preoccupation, as I have come to realize through learning more about Rufus and his friend Vivaldo, may not be an entirely simple display of dominance (which I had originally assumed). Baldwin creates these male characters very carefully, by hinting at the closeness of their relationship with each other. I began to notice this closeness after Rufus’ flashback of Vivaldo in the hospital; “From that time on, Rufus had depended on and trusted Vivaldo- depended on him even now as he bitterly watched him horsing around with the large girl in on the path. He did not know why this was so; he scarcely knew that it was so…it was only Vivaldo who had the power to astonish him by treachery” (36). The way he refers to Vivaldo resembles that of a significant other or ex significant other.
Despite, or possibly because of this relationship, the men compete with each other in attempts to enhance their masculinity. This is often at the expense of women. Rufus continues his thoughts about Vivaldo with “Jane seemed to be exactly what she was, a monstrous slut, and thus, without knowing it, kept Rufus and Vivaldo equal to one another” (36). So long as both men a woman on the side as a “distraction” of sorts, they are not pressured to be with each other in a similar way. Their relationship is less suspicious if they are involved with multiple women.
Their equality is further challenged do to their racial opposition. Because Rufus is black and Vivaldo is white they experience things differently. Vivaldo struggles to support Rufus without belittling him, and Rufus struggles to accept any help from a white person, even if he loves Vivaldo.While Vivaldo innocently gives advice, he is perceived as almost oppressive. He playfully says to Rufus “Trouble is, I feel too paternal towards you, you son of a bitch,” and Rufus responds “That’s the trouble with all you white bastards” (25). Rufus is very defensive, and rightfully so, but his inability to trust his own identity, let alone Vivaldo, leads to a disconnect that the men struggle to overcome. For example Vivaldo gets caught up in a racially compromising situation and specifically does not tell him about the encounter. He can only continue to remind Rufus that he’s not like other white people, or at least Rufus’ conception of white people. Both men are self-loathing because of the difference in both their race and sexuality. They differ from the norm, but also from each other, so they cannot find validation.
Perhaps this is where the gendered language comes in. As previously mentioned, Rufus is very aware of when the word “boy” rather than “man.” He tells Leona, “don’t call me boy” even though he calls her “girl” frequently. Rufus cannot find authority in himself because of his black masculinity. The term “boy” connotes immaturity as well as ignorance, especially for a black man, and I think Rufus knows that. He uses “girl” and “baby” as an attempt to assert masculinity and to appear in control. This control, unfortunately cannot be maintained through the language and Rufus’ search for it leads to violence against Leona. The psychology of Rufus’ character is perfectly realistic, but my question is, how can we help those who struggle with such identity issues? Vivaldo tried to use his power for assistance, but he was rejected for is lack of full understanding. Can subcultures only help themselves?
Through the following comparative essay, I will attempt to address examples of intersectionality in Cereus Blooms at Night, a novel by Shani Mootoo, and Orange is the New Black, a Netflix original series based on a memoir by Piper Kerman. These texts are appropriate for an application of queer theory due to consistently queered characters. The reader struggles to define and identify the characters, which leads to the discourse of intersectionality. According to the University of California Center for New Racial Studies, “Intersectionality is the name that is now given to the complex of reciprocal attachments and sometimes polarizing conflicts that confront both individuals and movements as they seek to ‘navigate’ among the raced, gendered, and class-based dimensions of social and political life” (University of California). I enjoy this particular definition because of the simultaneous sense of isolation and fluidity it creates. With this in mind, I will begin to investigate the condition of Chandin Ramchandin in Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night.
Although Cereus is set in the fictional country of Lantanacamara, Mootoo based much of the book’s construction on her experience living in Trinidad. Lantanacamara mirrors Trinidad geographically and socially, with a racial composition of white, indian and black peoples. Racism runs rampant in even this fictional country, leaving many indians to struggle as servant laborers. When Chandin Ramchandin arrives in Lantancamara, his father takes precautions against subjecting his son to the system.The boy enrolls in a school founded by a white Reverend, who eventually adopts him. In associating with the Reverend’s education system, Chandin and his family are forced to convert to Christianity. While Chandin is in favor of this change, his parents are not and continue to practice Hindu traditions. Displeased, Chandin all but disowns his own family in favor of the “smarter-acting Reverend’s religion.”
This small excerpt of Chandin’s early life presents the “complex attachments” of intersectionality. Because he is indian, Chandin’s options for a career are limited. He comes from a servant laborer’s family who has worked very hard to improve his status, but the best option is also limiting. Chandin receives education at the expense of his family and family’s customs, which is a tough decision to follow through with. Among the gossip of the Ramchandin’s story is heard “If it is the only way for your child to get an education and not have to work like a horse sweating and breaking back in the hot sun for hardly nothing, you wouldn’t convert?” (28). While he is taken away from his family in the name of education, he is also being exploited by the Reverend to help convert more of “his kind” to Christianity. These particular comments strike a chord. I wonder how much an individual should expect to give up of themselves to reach the smallest of opportunities?
Chandin’s situation is complex because even though his religion and race are compromised in the opportunity for education, at least he is granted at least one opportunity to break out of the “caste.” Chandin is an intelligent young man, which puts him at more of an advantage than if he were a young woman instead. There are only two girls in the school enrolled in Chandin’s class, and one of them is the Reverend’s daughter, Lavinia. Chandin’s gender is not very helpful beyond granting him admission to the school. He is usually uncomfortable with his “new family,” constantly deliberating his role among them;
Chandin’s favorite time of day was after the evening meal when the family gathered in the living room for an hour of relaxation. At other times, he was unsure of his place in this new household. He often felt conspicuously lost. But evenings, sitting quietly in the living room with his new family, he had a very definite place…Chandin found that a straight-back upholstered chair had come to be marked as his. Although it was only a physical place, the chair became an antidote to the chaos of his uprootedness.
This moment describes Chandin’s otherness quite well, in that he has a very specific function in the family that is only appropriate or helpful at very specific times (i.e. religious conversion and education). His race is detrimental to him yet again when he shows interest in his non biological sister, Lavinia. The Reverend scolds for his desires, insisting they are “surely against God’s will…Otherwise…” The break in the Reverend’s speech suggests racist undertones, of which he fears announce outright. This is proven by Lavinia’s engagement to a white man, who is indeed distantly related to her. Chandin’s lack of control over his own life and emotions undoubtedly becomes a factor in the treatment of his daughters later in life. Because of the complete exposure to Chandin’s exposure, the reader struggles to form a consistent judgement of his character. His “navigation” through identities is troubled and limiting.
Sophia Burest of Orange is the New Black is another character who suffers from the implications of intersectionality. She is a black transgendered woman who is serving time because she organized credit card scams in order to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Before transitioning, Sophia was a firefighter. The hyper-masculine job allowed her opportunity for social acceptance, but as I questioned earlier with Chandin’s case how much should a person really be expected to give up of his or her identity in order to live safely? As a man, Sophia was safe but as a woman is “free” (until convicted of a real crime).
Although she was fortunate enough to be admitted to a women’s prison rather than men’s, I wonder if the only reason this happened was to admit her quickly without too many questions. As an she is already limited in her options for gender expression (as are all the characters). However, she manages to fashion small additions to her wardrobe and run a makeshift salon for the women through the barter system. Problems come to the surface in two cases. First, Sophia is denied her prescribed hormones due to “budget cuts” in the prison, but there are reasons to believe that she is being discriminated against. Other inmates manage to reason or make deals with each other or the C.O.’s in order to get what they want or need. There are a few white women who acquire street drugs with ease, while Sophia is being weaned off of her medication. It should be noted that when trans women are not able to receive their hormones, the experience is quite painful. This pain is disregarded and the medication is not considered necessary. Sophia’s black trans identity is put in jeopardy and she knows her rights. However, she is silenced until forced to injure herself for an emergency trip to the doctor.
The second case that comes to mind is Sophia’s experience as a father and mother. During her sentence, Sophia’s wife grows consistently different. She is dealing with the distance but also her husband’s transition from male to female. This becomes a real issue for Sophia, because she is replaced by a white man (colonization??). Sophia’s wife claims that their son needs a father as well as a mother. I am not condemning this woman, because her experience is difficult as well. However, the instance of a replacement father is heartbreaking and another example of Sophia being silenced, this time in her own family.
The actress who plays Sophia, Laverne Cox, is quite the advocate for the trans community. She has proclaimed herself a “black, trans, middle class, woman” and is very focused on intersectionality and identity. By examining the characters of Cereus Blooms at Night and Orange is the New Black I have seen how different combinations of identities affect an individual. While carrying multiple identities should open up opportunities, they have proven to be limiting based on stigmas and historical patterns. These texts, Orange especially, should open up this discourse to the public and allow more individuals to see the effects of intersectionality.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale is a text which opens a number of discourses through a queer theory lens. Topics of discussion include various forms of oppression as well as gender performances and performative language. I would like to initially state that the novel is set in a dystopian society, allowing the reader to critique Atwood’s work more freely. Her ability to combine a number of authentic instances of oppression in one setting allows for a “worst case scenario” for the reader to deconstruct. This speculative fiction is a reminder that the oppression and static roles of characters are, in fact, constructions. In this way, she constructs a fictitious world from a real society with real constructions.
One example of these realistic constructions is the role of the Aunts. While they are women themselves, they promote the isolation of the handmaidens in the community. They hold power over the handmaidens, and encourage them to accept their limiting roles. Aunt Lydia tells Offred, the narrator, “There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (Atwood, 24). This statement suggests the handmaidens are lucky in their situations, because they are “safe” from societal dangers. In a way, this is true. The handmaidens are protected in their isolation, but this only applies if they follow certain constructions. For example, if a handmaiden follows her schedule and uses “proper” orthodox language, she will be safe. On the other hand, if she were to speak out against the structure of her day (as Moira did), then she will most likely be punished through exile or death. Aunt Lydia recognizes the limitations of her women, but rather than speaking out against those limitations as a woman of power, she rationalizes the constructions: “You are a transitional generation…It is hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make…For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts” (117). In this moment, Aunt Lydia is not only rationalising the oppression, but normalizing it. Offred notices her superior’s language choice. Rather than saying “Because they will have no memory of any other way” she says “They won’t want things they can’t have” (117). By using Offred and Aunt Lydia’s phrasing against each other, Atwood exposes the power of language in its ability to construct roles in society.
Offred seems to hint at this power earlier in the novel, reflecting on her required uniform as a handmaiden: “Some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break” (24). In the same way that it is habitual (or required) for one to wear certain clothing, it is habitual (or seemingly required) for one to follow gender constructions. On page 37, Offred muses on the power and gendering of words:
Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I only Had their words for it
I lie then, inside the room…and step sideways out of my own time.
This quotation is very complex. Offred knows there are implications of using lay as opposed to lie- while lay implies submission, a more feminine construct, lie implies dominance, a more masculine construct. There are other examples of gendered language in our society, such as referring to a group of people as “guys” rather than “girls.” Somehow the second label promotes an air of subordinance, while the first is understood as “neutral.” Despite these very real language constructions, Offred manages to queer them, applying the feminine “lay” to men and the masculine “lie” to herself. This monologue is also troubling, because even though she is attempting to show some assertion, she is also working within a very limited role and dismisses her powerful statement on language by saying “this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say.” Queer theory would take issue with this dismissal, claiming that Offred is still performing as a dismissive character; therefore reinforcing the binary between men and women.
This reinforcement is also expressed through the handmaidens’ objectification of each other, referring to themselves as interchangeable shapes as well as competing with each other for attention through pregnancy. There are far too many examples of oppression that are completely possible in our society to go into detail with this short reflection. This is due to the novel’s construction as a dystopian piece. Again, Atwood’s work is an example of the “worst case scenario,” giving the reader a type of warning as to what constructions can ultimately do to a society. The work should function to motivate discussion of binaries and the dangers of relying on them. I am personally drawn to this genre of literature because although reading the texts make me moderately paranoid, they also allow me to examine my own performances as they relate to social construction.