Intersectionality in Cereus Blooms at Night and Orange is the New Black

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.
Cereus Blooms at NightAlthough 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 Bursett
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.

CREATIVE WRITING: First (and Last) Date: A Sexist Sestina

I have been meaning to write a poem like this for a long time. I recently performed a piece about the transgender community but until now, I haven’t written much about sexism. I find this strange, since it’s one of the social issues I am most passionate about. I feel there is more to come, especially with how cheeky this poem turned out.

 

First (and Last) Date: A Sexist Sestina

Ellen Scherer

 

“So… are you pro-life or pro-choice?

Cuz like, I’m pretty intelligent, you know street smart.

I know if I walked around half naked like some of the sluts

I saw this Halloween, I’d have to assume my ass

was on the line. It would be like a main entrance”

 

Hold up, Imma let you finish…

but first let me just point out that a woman’s choice

is in her voice. And even though she may never be a fine

looker, she shouldn’t feel obligated to resemble a hooker

and yet, sometimes we do like showing off our butts-

 

“I’m not saying you women ‘deserve it,’ but

the abortion barbies have it coming. (mouths

on them) Seriously, it’s your choice

I’m sure you’re all brilliant.

assert your independence, because the world’s watching you, sluts.

 

Then again… most women are too chunky to be sluts.

Maybe if they emptied out that dress a little… but

that means they’d have to fill their whorish mouths

with something other than cheeseburgers and choose

a salad for once, maybe try out some of that smart”

 

food for thought? “You don’t care to know I’m smart”

My 3.7 is useless to you. “If I told you about my sex life you’d call me a slut.”

you need a new prescription for those “blurred lines,” but

your blind eyes should see that “These words are my own”

and “I can still upgrade you.” Use your discretion,

 

Choose wisely.

Go ahead, label me “slut”

But you best be ready to bow down bitch.

 

MEDIA LITERACY: Lesson Plan

Media and Social and Political Culture

Age/Level:
Freshman/100 Level English, Communications, Gender Studies Course

Rationale:
The media has transformed into a more influential aspect of society, especially non-print media.This lesson will help students raise their awareness of the media helps shape contemporary social attitudes. Students will use a prezi to present their findings because most of their information will be visual and interactive, rather than textual.

NCTE Standard:
Model for students how to evaluate ways in which messages in nonprint media shape contemporary social and political culture.

Objectives:
Students will research various non-print media forms for examples of gender representation in designated groups.

Students will make informed decisions about contemporary attitudes of gender based on their research and prompts found on the research guide.

Students will present their findings as a group through Prezi, a media-based technological program.

Materials:
The lesson will take place in a computer lab, where computers will have working sound. There should be at least 1 computer for every 4 students and 1 central computer for the instructor’s examples.
Other materials:
Non print media resource guide
note taking tools (pen and paper)
if technology fails, paper examples of nonprint media (magazine covers, film jackets, book jackets… etc.)
group prezi account

Procedure: DAY 1 (Monday)

Instructor will introduce lesson by explaining types of non-print media.
Instructor will show an example of non-print media that represents gender in a certain light.
Students and instructor will discuss their reactions to the example in terms gender. Students should take some quick notes of this discussion to begin forming their own opinions of gender representation as well as any helpful note on how to read non print media.
Break up students into groups of 4 or 5. Each student in the group will focus on one aspect of nonprint media. For example, a group of 5 could be split up as such:
Student 1: youtube video
Student 2: films,
Student 3: television shows
Student 4: commercials
Student 5: music
Students will research non print media in their groups, starting with the resource guide provided by the instructor. There are clear prompts for where the research should be headed.
Students should each take notes on their personal and the group’s reactions to the various non-print media sources.

Assessment: DAY 2 (Monday)

Students will have a week to create a group prezi that will be presented to the class. Each presentation should be about 15-20 minutes. The presentation should include:
A well researched argument about gender representation with non print media sources as support. For example, “Based on my research of television commercials, I have noticed that men have a tendency to be represented as interested in sports, while women are represented with less interest in sports. (show commercials that support this argument).
Try to present individual interpretations of gender representation through non print media so each group member has a voice, but group members may find that they are coming to similar conclusions. That’s okay, make sure everyone has something to discuss.
At least 2 different types of non print media to be discussed. (meaning every example cannot be for example, a TV commercial.)
Standard English conventions, including citations.

Helpful Hints:
Members within the group may disagree on certain representations. Make sure each claim is supported with a non print media source.
Find multiple examples for your claims to build a supportive argument.
Use Google Drive, email, Texting, or Skype to quickly communicate with group members. (outside of class time)

Extension:

Design a non print media type with gender representation in mind. Make conscious choices for the men and/or women in your example.