September 16, 2011

Written on the non-gendered body

Hey there gender blenders,

via Goodreads
I recently finished reading Jeanette Winterson's novel, Written on the Body. It is a love story, but is light-years away from a cliched romance. The characters are realistically flawed, and the story is often painfully raw--no frills here. But the best thing of all is Winterson's deftness at never revealing the gender of the narrator.

Interestingly, I consistently saw the narrator as a woman, albeit a more androgynous one. My reasoning for this gender assignment is complicated and somewhat of a gut or subconscious reaction. Still, I want to untangle the assumptions I'm making.
  1. Because the world of the novel seems to be in our world and within our time, I assume that the narrator must have a gender.
  2. I find the narrator more relateable as an androgynous woman who is in love with a woman than as a man (androgynous or otherwise) who is in love with a woman. 
  3. A love story about two women is better/more interesting than a love story about a man and a woman because it is non-heteronormative and works against the under-representation/invisibility of woman-loving women.
I think it is important to recognize these assumptions as being rooted in my identity as a person and reader. When a novel presents itself as taking place in a world or time where a completely nongendered or other-gendered reality is possible, I am much more successful at refraining from reading gender into characters. (I'm thinking of Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness for example.) But Written on the Body isn't quite in that kind of speculative category. I also recognize that my thinking--no matter how awesomely queered it is--is still affected by societal structures.

I am invested in queer feminist culture, and I have often felt alienated by male protagonists (and their interpretations of the female characters that appear in novels with them). As a reader, I want to relate to the protagonist because "she" is very likeable (despite "her" shortcomings). Therefore, I very nearly need "her" to be a she because as a she I can feel "her" more viscerally. But at the same time, I'm also very open to the protagonist queering what it means to be gendered.

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