The Official Blog for ENGL 41416.

Posts tagged ‘society’

The Shared Existence of the Lesbian and Homosexual Man.

Adrienne Rich makes a strong case for the lesbian as the ultimate marginalization within feminist culture in her essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” She writes of a “male power” that not only “deny women [their own] sexuality,” but also “…force [male sexuality] upon them.” (291) This is a system so rigid that it makes for a society where deviant sexuality is nearly impossible to conceive of.  Rich seeks to expand the term “lesbian”  into a word that includes any woman who have at any time engaged in “primary intensity among women” and asserts this group to be one that “bonds [sic] against male tyranny.” (292) In doing this, Rich removes the lesbian from the GLBTQ community, and reappropriates them as representative of the female struggle, albeit on a sexual extreme. This reappropriation is made, however, at the expense of the male homosexual; further, in defending this decision, Rich engages in the very of stereotyping of homosexual men that she loathes being done to women who act outside the compulsory frame.

In order to strengthen the association between lesbians and women at large, Rich describes what she calls “a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify as lesbians or not.” (293) Rich is adamant in her assertion that lesbianism need not describe the kind of physical/emotional/sexual relationship as the ones seen in the society of compulsory heterosexuality. One can include themselves within the lesbian continuum whether one seeks to live the life of a Beguine, “who ‘practiced Christian virtue on their own, dressed and living simply and not associating with men'” or even simply if one remembers “the impudent, intimate girl friendships of eight or nine year olds.” (293)

Women like Emily Dickinson and Zora Neale Hurston, according to Rich, lived outside of the world of compulsory heterosexuality and instead within the lesbian continuum:

Dickinson never married, and had tenuous intellectual friendships with men, lived self-convented in her genteel father’s house in Amherst, and wrote a lifetime of passionate letters to her sister-in-law Sue Gilbert and…her friend Kate Scott Anthon. Hurston married twice but soon left each husband…her survival relationships were all with women, beginning with her mother. Both of these women in their vastly different circumstances were marriage resisters, committed to their own work and self-hood…Both were drawn to men of intellectual quality; for both women provided the ongoing fascination and sustenance of life.”
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (Rich, 293)

By being “committed to their…self-hood,” Dickinson and Hurston eschewed one of the principles of male power, and refused “to cramp their creativeness” for the sake of living within the frame of compulsory heterosexuality. (293, 291) These women, who didn’t (to our knowledge) engage in openly homosexual behavior, instead represented those women who shared an aforementioned “primary intensity” and passed in and out of the lesbian continuum as a result.

These women, Rich asserts, are considered to be (among other things), “emotionally and sensually deprived,” and as creative women, “the work…is undervalued, or seen as the bitter fruit of ‘penis envy’ or the sublimation of repressed eroticism or the meaningless rant of a ‘man-hater.’ (293) Rich is calling upon all women, regardless of sexual identity, to rise up against these stereotypes, for they subjugate all women for their gender as much (and according to Rich, if not more) than they subjugate lesbians for their sexuality. In this sense, lesbianism for Rich is a symptom of greater discrimination, one that can only be overcome with the help of all women.

Immediately before this “rich” text is a passage that, in analyzing anachronistically, serves to first separate the bonds between lesbians as members of the “gay” community so that what comes after can cement the bonds between lesbians and women at large. Rich, however, breaks the bonds of sexuality unconvincingly. She claims that because lesbians are tethered to gay men, they are “deprived of a political existence through ‘inclusion as the female versions of male homosexuality.” (292) Without going further, this statement provokes many questions. For one, is Rich implying that lesbians are denied the rights they deserve because of their connection to male homosexuals? Or are lesbians perhaps pushed to the background while male homosexuality is given comparatively greater political freedom?

Rich seems to be implying a little of both:

“…there are differences: women’s lack of economic and cultural privilege relative to men; qualitative differences in female and male relationships – for example, the patterns of anonymous sex among male homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual attractiveness.”
Rich, 292

What Rich fails to articulate (purposefully or not) is the great dichotomy inherent in the very pairing of “male” and “homosexual.” While men may have more economic freedom on paper, there were many decades (certainly at the time Rich penned this essay) that men could not claim such high paying jobs were they to openly admit their homosexuality. This secrecy extends to Rich’s point about level of anonymous sex, beyond it being a well-worn argument by the religious right against the immorality of homosexuality in both sexes.

Lesbianism may be “a profoundly female experience,” but Rich doesn’t admit an important reality: gays and lesbians are marginalized for the same reason, that being their divergence from heterosexuality (compulsory or otherwise). The fact that women are subjugated regardless of sexuality does not make her plight any more important, or the plight of male homosexuals any less relevant. (292)

Advertisements

Gender Passing.

While reading Joan Riviére’s Womanliness as a Masquerade, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sarah Jane from the film Imitation of Life. Constantly seeking approval from white society, the African-American Sarah Jane takes advantage of her fair complexion and throughout the film, passes as white to varying degrees of success. According to Riviére, this phenomenon is not only racial, but also occurs across the gender line with “men and women [who]…plainly display strong features of the other sex.” Both Sarah Jane and “women who wish for masculinity” attempt to project what society wants them to be, but women, Riviére argues, have become so skilled at this “masquerade” that they may seamlessly shift personalities depending on the situation. (132)

Riviére frames her essay by reminding her readers of a time when gender essentially determined the job one could do, and to engage in work not designated to one’s gender was nearly impossible. For example, a woman entering the world in intellectual pursuits had to be “an overtly masculine type of woman, who in pronounced cases made no secret of her wish or claim to be a man.” (132) This image harkens back to illustrious director Dorothy Arzner. A pioneer in the film industry for women, Arzner eschewed the mask of femininity Riviére claims women now adopt, choosing instead to wear her hair and clothes in the same style as her male colleagues. For Arzner, there was no balancing act, and her story begs all sorts of questions concerning gender play and how gender is perceived in society, like how did simply looking and acting like a man make a woman’s presence in the directing world suddenly acceptable? Was gender and job truly mutually exclusive?

Evidently, society has, to some degree, seen the folly of its former viewpoint, and as Riviére writes, a healthy dose of feminine energy has been injected into the previously masculine-dominated intellectual world, so much so that “it would be hard to say whether the greater number [of women] are more feminine than masculine in their mode of life and character.” (132) Riviére goes on to write of what sounds like an ultimate marriage between conservative and progressive ideas regarding woman’s role in society; she talks of women she meets “in University life, in scientific professions and in business…who seem to fulfill every criterion of complete feminine development.” All this sounds very encouraging; it would appear that, despite what one may have heard, women can “have it all,” so goes the old adage.

However, Riviére warns, things are not as pristine as they may appear. She recounts a story of a woman who balances the dual roles of “masculine academic” and “feminine homemaker,” yet underneath the facade of gender-balanced perfection, Riviére cannot help but notice the woman’s “need for reassurance [that] led her compulsively…to seek some attention or complimentary notice from a man or men” after having given a speech. Immediately, one is made aware of this woman’s rush of “feminine” energy on the heels of performing a “masculine” activity, like giving an academic speech. Instead of feeling empowered as a man would undoubtedly be in the aftermath of his success, this woman downplayed her obvious talents and reverts back to a more comfortable, more familiar role those of her sex are expected to play.

This leads Riviére to her thesis:

Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it –much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not the stolen goods.
Womanliness as a Masquerade, pg 133

Are then, women any better off than they were in the days of Dorothy Arzner? She who had to embrace a wholly masculine identity in order to function in masculine society? While it may now be possible for women to more fully explore their identities, one must tragically admit that women must maintain, at the very least, the facade of the subservient feminine in order to function in the still very much masculine-driven society.