FEMININITY’S DISAPPEARING ACT
In thinking beyond femininity in its past and present incarnations, both theorists and imaginative writers have invented narratives in which feminine abjection can be transformed, displaced or otherwise evaded. One strategy, as we have seen, is to look to the past: when Бготё chooses to have the child Jane Eyre align her resistant and angry self with ‘any other rebel slave’, she does so in the years after the abolition of colonial slavery in British colonies (Вготё 1987: 9). Similarly, the aristocratic identifications in Woolf, Bowen and Hall are nostalgic ones — a displacement into the past of privilege. Another strategy exploits the fantasies of upward mobility so endemic to capitalist societies. In mass – market fiction — in Harlequin or Mills & Boon romance and the blockbusters and bodice-rippers which target women readers — a favoured move has been to alleviate the restrictions of gender by conferring on women status and money rather than democratically extended rights and opportunities. The avant-garde as well as the popular has been keen to displace the narrative of female degradation and melancholia. French feminist theory and fiction of the 1960s and 1970s that called itself ‘ecriture feminine’ was committed to transforming gender, and what was written about it, by celebrating as well as changing femininity. We have looked at Wittig’s linguistic and narrative experiments in the previous chapter. She is one of many feminists from the late 1960s onwards who chose to take up modernist strategies or who turned to utopian and science fiction to find a style or genre which would allow them to bypass the seeming inevitability not just of gender binaries but of femininity itself as a trajectory for little girls, with an identity called ‘woman’ as its necessary outcome.
Yet in literature as in life, as Snitow’s interlocutor suggests, resistance to a particular social narrative of gender may take the form of the fantasy of being a man, although it is always a fantasy with problems and limits, a fantasy that, whether simply imagined or acted out tends simultaneously to undermine and to confirm gendered identity. The history of female cross-dressing is well documented, and its place in western social practice and imagination has been much analysed of late. Orlando, of course, is a playful incarnation of this fantasy but Woolf cleverly keeps the mechanism which alters Orlando’s gender safely in the control of the author rather than her protagonist; similarly Radclyffe Hall makes the fantasy itself a narrative dead end for Stephen Gordon who must turn to theories of a ‘third sex’ to advance the human rights of homosexuals. Hall’s fictional crusade has become reality; as transgendered and transexual humans acquire more rights in western democracies, so it becomes more possible for imagined gender to be lived out.
In the first half century of psychoanalysis the persistence of women’s identification with masculinity into adult life — her ‘masculinity complex’ — was a favoured topic for analysis; to understand the psychic process whereby adult women fail to relinquish such ‘infantile identification’ — the masculine stage — was thought a route to understanding female homosexuality. In 1929, the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere published a fascinating essay on the meaning of so-called masculine identification in otherwise ‘feminine’ women. ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’ highlighted the performative status of femininity. Riviere foregrounds just those groups of professional women who were emerging in the period, women who, in her view:
seem to fulfil every criterion of complete feminine development. They are excellent wives and mothers, capable housewives; they maintain social life and assist culture; they have no lack of feminine interests, e. g. in their personal appearance, and when called upon they can still find time to play the part of devoted and disinterested mother- substitutes among a wide circle of relatives and friends.
(Riviere 1986: 36)
For Riviere, who saw the social categories of gender in relatively conservative terms, the fact that these women ‘fulfil the duties of their profession at least as well as the average man’ makes them a ‘puzzle’ to classify psychologically (36). Her leading ‘case study’ involves ‘a woman of this kind. . . engaged in work of a propagandist nature, which consisted principally in speaking and writing’ who suffered extreme anxiety after every successful performance, worried whether she had done ‘anything inappropriate’ and in desperate need of reassurance, both about the competence of her performance and her sexual attraction, from men who were ‘unmistakable father figures’ (36). Yet in unravelling this and other similar cases, Riviere comes to a surprising and radical conclusion. She does not argue, as she might, that the supposed masculine activities of such women are cross-gender ‘performances’ (although the logic of her analysis implies that they are), but rather that femininity — womanliness — is itself a ‘masquerade’, and one, moreover, that many woman adopt as a defence against the extreme anxiety produced by masculine identification. While Riviere roots her analysis in contemporary psychoanalytic debates about the psychic stages of infancy and early childhood, her exploration leads her to ask a much broader question in her conclusion: ‘what is the essential nature of fully developed femininity?’ (43). As if she herself must propitiate the gods of gender whose special task it is to keep masculinity and femininity in place as binary terms, she seems through this question to draw back from her own startling answer that no such ‘essential nature’ exists.
Cross-gendered fantasy in general must be viewed as a crucial part of imaginative life. Certainly it is the sine qua non of the creative process, and especially of fiction and drama, for what novelist or dramatist could survive without it? However, there is a more disturbing logic within certain feminist narratives that moves inexorably from a critique of the feminine as it is expressed in particular cultures and social groups, to an identification with and/or an idealization of the masculine, as if femininity were a kind of disappointing daughter to be discarded for a more favoured son. In these narratives the problems and burdens of femininity are magically resolved through a kind of sleight of hand in which a ‘woman’ becomes ‘more like a man’, psychologically and socially, and is thereby positioned in a brave new world where the privileges and priorities of gender inequality have disappeared. This turn towards masculinity as a refuge from an embattled and undervalued femininity seems, at one level, perfectly rational, but at another it only intensifies the ‘puzzle’ about the nature of femininity and feminism. It points to feminism’s simultaneous censure and envy of the masculine as well as its own latent misogyny — or at the very least its suspicion that there is something irremediably wrong, not only with the universal preference that human cultures give to men, but with female subjectivity itself. In a striking number of feminist texts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to the feminist science fictions that have been invented from the 1970s onwards, there are points where the lady seems to vanish and her place is taken by virtual masculinity. In order to see what is at stake when femininity performs this kind of disappearing act we need to look more closely at how gender and its effects are represented in such texts.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1969 novel about a planet of androgynes, a female anthropologist from a future federation of ordinary, two-sexed human worlds reflects on the liberating but frightening possibilities of a society without fixed gender. On Gethen, she muses, there is ‘no myth of Oedipus’, ‘no unconsenting sex’, ‘no division of humanity into strong and weak halves’. Unique among the varieties of mankind that people the known universe, Gethen is a place where ‘the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened or changed’ (LeGuin 1977: 69). Yet even for LeGuin’s sympathetic social scientist, trained as she is to encounter and accept new ways of being, the ontological shift that signals the collapse of dualism’s old certainties about sexual difference registers as shocking and terrifying. Its abandonment threatens the categories of thinking itself, as well as those of selfhood. It challenges the very ground on which ethics are based. Convention is all, even if it is a convention of radical inequality, so that for a species whose sense of self has been fashioned from and through the deformations of gender to be suddenly ‘respected and judged only as a human being… is an appalling experience’ (70).
Daughter of the anthropologists Alfred Louis and Theodora Kroeber, LeGuin often conceives her science fictions as didactic ethnographies. Her alien worlds and peoples combine elements of actual and imaginary human cultures, while her plots are parables of humanity’s worst excesses and best impulses. Written in the first years of the second wave of the women’s movement in North America and Western Europe, The Left Hand of Darkness echoes a utopian desire at least as old as the feminism that inspired it, evoking (if never citing) Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘wild wish. . . to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour’ (Wollstonecraft 1988: 57). On Gethen, Wollstonecraft’s wish is achieved in part by effacing one of the significant differences between the sexual lives of animals and humans: LeGuin’s androgynes, like earth’s animal species, are restricted to brief and exclusive periods of desire and sexual activity. In this recurring active phase sexual difference asserts itself as an arbitrary effect of each discrete periodic encounter. Whether one will become a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ in any given pairing is outside the willed control of the individual or the couple, but the result is always a heterosexual union. So while LeGuin keeps a two sexed model in play, she also relegates it to a restricted space in Gethenian life; her androgynes are only properly men or women when ‘animated by love’. In their fertile years these perfectly hermaphrodite beings both bear children and father them so that everyone is equally liable to be ‘tied down to childbearing’. The psychic and social divisions of labour, which LeGuin sees as more or less inevitable in a world where only one sex reproduces, are evaded, and the happy result is that ‘Anyone can turn his hand to anything’ (LeGuin 1977: 69).
No more or less innocent than Freud’s division of labour into those who can think gender and those who only display it, LeGuin’s provocative use of the generic masculine for her androgyne species points to a familiar paradox at the heart of her egalitarian vision of an undivided human subject — the hate-love relationship that women have for most types of femininity as they are embodied and lived in any given historical moment. Androgyny, what Francette Pacteau has called ‘the impossible referent’, is less a solution to the revulsion than a clarification of its problem. Indeed her essay takes its title from The Left Hand of Darkness, citing the human male, Genly Ai, when he says of his Gethenian friend that ‘it was impossible to think of him as a woman. . . and yet whenever I thought of him as a man I felt a sense of falseness, of imposture’ (LeGuin 1977:16).
An incomplete or simulated masculinity has often been preferred to the impossible feminine. Late-eighteenth-century feminism framed its distaste for femininity as an excess of desire for femininity; Wollstonecraft puts it baldly, even brutally, in A Vindication: ‘This desire of being always women, is the very consciousness that degrades the sex’ (Wollstonecraft 1988: 99). ‘Women’ or ‘the sex’ was the negative site of gender in the eighteenth century; femininity often measured the distance or decline from the human ideal. Early feminists, launching their critique both at the everyday androcentrism of bourgeois society and at the theorized misogyny of progressive social philosophers such as Rousseau, shared an uncomfortable common ground with their opponents in their dislike of actually existing femininity. But while Rousseau believed that the feminine was innate, and recommended restraint as the only cure for its inevitable excesses, Wollstonecraft argued that it was cultural, and therefore open to reform. Rejecting biological determinism, and its accompanying fatalism about the future of sexual difference, she believed that women could and should transform their ‘degraded’ consciousness through exercising their latent rationality or ‘understanding’. It ‘should be the first object of laudable ambition. . . to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex’, wrote Wollstonecraft, but her ‘human being’ is remarkably close to an eighteenth-century ideal of masculinity (Wollstonecraft 1988: 9-10). It sometimes seems that the scenario of women’s slow but steady emergence from their subaltern status rests not only on the assumption that women are made not born, but on a model of regendered humanity that owes more to imagined masculinity than to any other. Now and then The Left Hand of Darkness reminds the reader, almost as an afterthought, that Gethenians are women as well as men, but for most of the time masculinity is imaginatively as well as grammatically the default mode of subjectivity on Gethen.
When Genly Ai, the male dimorphic emissary to Gethen, is asked by his androgyne friend Therem Harth what women are like, he comments first on what they are less likely to be — mathematicians, great musicians — before his capacity to describe them falters and then fails: ‘I can’t tell you what women are like… In a sense women are more alien to me than you are’ (LeGuin 1977: 160). In this way LeGuin reads back to us the problem of gender difference at its most extreme, for in Genly’s failure to describe femininity we can also perceive a failure or fault line in LeGuin’s profoundly humanist project, for its success rests on the perception of similarity — on human commonality and the sense of community and affiliation that should, but often does not, flow from this basic connection. Underneath Ai’s rueful afterthought that ‘You and I share one sex, at least’ (160) lies the sense of something unspeakable and negative in the feminine, and something noble and expressible in the masculine, a difference as ‘impossible’ as the androgyny that pretends to change it.
Women’s imaginative evocation of masculinity as a scene for idealized human relationships, both social and erotic, in the late – twentieth century has taken some strange and wonderful forms. Cultural critic Constance Penley writes about a subgroup of fanzine culture around the US TV series Star Trek which imagines in stories, drawing and videos drawn from the actual programmes, an explicit sexual romance between Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise and his Vulcan first officer, Mr Spock. The K/S zine is one of a number of ‘slash’ fanzines which publish stories that eroticize male duos from television series. Penley suggests that the K/S narratives ‘retool’ existing masculinity, making it more ‘sensitive and nurturing’ than that which exists around them, but she also argues that the ‘slash characters have to be male’ because:
the fans do indeed reject the female body as a terrain of fantasy or utopian thinking, but the female body they are rejecting is the body of the woman as it has been constituted in this culture: a body that is a legal, moral and religious battleground; a body seen as murderously dangerous to the foetus it may house; a body held to painfully higher standards of beauty than the male body.
(Penley 1992: 498)
The K/Sers, most of whom are self-described straight women, do not and will not call themselves feminists, but their transgressive reworking of the emotional and sexual possibilities of what is already an avowedly humanist series, if it stops short of a worked out political critique of either femininity or feminism, does seek to ask the same question that LeGuin’s novel poses. What is the future of femininity and of humans, if men are the new women? The utopian element of such writing cannot be easily pinned down as a naive escape from or denial of femininity and its discontents, or conversely, flagged as a simple radical revision of it. Like LeGuin’s androgyne planet, its very existence troubles a more settled common sense humanism that holds out hope for a better deal for gender in all its manifestations.
How well and how much can men or women understand or imagine their own or the other sex? Are the limits of such understanding, if limits there are, a reason for humanist despair? In making her male protagonist unable to define what ‘women are like’ LeGuin both reproduces and criticizes Sigmund Freud’s conclusion to ‘Femininity’, where he concedes with deceptive candour that his ‘incomplete and fragmentary’ discussion ‘does not always sound friendly’. Freud adds that of course he has only ‘been describing women in so far as their nature is determined by their sexual function’ and although ‘that influence extends very far; we do not overlook the fact that an individual woman may be a human being in other respects as well.’ (Freud 1973: 169). Both the vagueness of ‘other respects’ and the conditional tense of ‘may be a human being’ underline how provisional and problematic a woman’s identity as a ‘human being’ might be.
The Left Hand of Darkness imagines a cross-species love between Gethenian and human that cannot be consummated, a love that
is composed, like that between men and women, and like that of women for their femininity, of attraction and repulsion. While Gethenians are a kind of material realization of Freud’s universal notion of bisexuality, their embodiment of that acknowledgement, of the fact that difference is in great part a fiction, makes them, for humans, figures of taboo, both noble and untouchable.