Challenging the idea of Gender Identity: An analysis of two Post-War novels.

February 13, 2017 6:29 pm

Sigmund Freud in his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis quotes ‘when you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’’ Therefore, is it possible to make a binary distinction with ‘unhesitating uncertainty’ or do the gender and sexual identity have a deeper meaning and less visible characteristics? Betsy Driver, the co-founder of both Bodies Like Ours and Intersex Awareness Day during an interview on intersexuality and transsexuality also stresses on this question:

What makes us male or female? Our genitals? Is it our chromosomes? Is it our gender identity? Is it the way you perceive my gender identity?

This essay seeks to analyse how gender identity is represented in two different novels, published in two different periods by two different authors. The first part of my work will focus on The Passion of New Eve and the sex-change journey experienced by Evelyn, the main character of the novel, while the second part will be entirely dedicated to the analysis of Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, stressing on the matter of cross-dressing and gender liminality. The choice of these two specific novels lies in the fact that both deal with the sensitive matter of gender confusion, study of identity and self-discovery. Furthermore, the two masterpieces focus on similar points, in fact Trumpet, for many aspects recalls Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve as a review on the New Statesman reported after the publication of Kay’s book.

Therefore, the aim of this essay is to highlight how the two writers challenge the social norms of gender binarism promoting a more enlightened perception of gender identity’s psychological and emotional factors rather than linking gender to the physical apparatus one is given at birth. To enrich and develop my analysis on Kay and Carter’s thoughts I will be referencing to some important writers such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault and Minnie Bruce Pratt.

According to Angela Carter, being assigned a determined gender at birth is not to be considered as a mandatory long-term status as she quotes in her novel The Passion of New Eve ‘To be a man is not a given condition but a continuous effort’. This statement clearly suggests that the identification of a gender should not be stigmatised with beliefs of the popular culture but, on the contrary, Carter challenges the norms and rather focuses on the gender as an effort or in Judith Butler’s terms as a performative act, where the gender identity is found in the way someone feels and behaves rather than in the mere physical characteristics.

The Passion of New Eve, first published in 1977 by Virago Press can be included in the so called second-wave feminism of the United Kingdom that focused very much on sexual identity and the idea of ‘coming out’ as an act of ‘authenticity, honesty and confession;’ defining ‘identity primarily in terms of sexuality’ (p.165). Particularly, the gay liberation movement raised in the 1960s and 1970s along with the women’s movement were extremely keen on opposing the conventional patriarchal and heterosexual norms focusing instead on a ‘stable understanding of difference which could be used to establish a consistent definition of alternative gendered or sexual identity capable of challenging the status quo’.

Indeed, Carter’s work fits perfectly in this context, more precisely in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century women’s writing which focused not only on the matter of gender and sexual identity but more specifically it intended to analyse the act of gender subversion and conceived sexuality as performance ‘invoking pleasurable metaphors of cross-dressing and transvestism’.

In The Passion of New Eve, Carter elaborates an incredibly complex experience of gender subversion through the use of myth, metaphors and psychoanalysis. The narrator of the novel, Evelyn, describes his movement from London to a dystopian New York, where he is assigned a chair at a city University but loses his job after the school is taken over by a militant rebel group. At this point, Evelyn after a passionate but short relationship with Layla, an African American club dancer, undertakes a journey to the desert where he is captured by a group of feminist guerrillas in the city of Beulah. Consequently, he is imprisoned by the women-soldiers of Mother, a matriarch who has made herself artificially a many-breasted goddess. Mother rapes Evelyn by preserving his sperm. Later she operates him, removing his genitals and implanting a fully functioning vagina and ovaries, as well as giving him a breast augmentation surgery. The experience Evelyn goes through is the epicentre of my analysis about the meaning of gender identity.

The dreadful scene of the castration described by Evelyn is quite specific and detailed. In the scene, Mother uses a phallic object as a knife. This underlines the attention that Carter pays in using symbolism as a mean to understand the character’s psychological and physical journey of sex transition. She quotes:

Raising her knife, she brought it down. She cut off all my genital appendages with a single blow, caught them in her other hand and tossed them to Sophia, who slipped them into the pocket of her shorts.

Moreover, the act of slipping the male sex into the pocket suggests the matriarch’s disdain for Evelyn’s use of his manhood and her intent of punishing him and consequently creating a ‘perfect specimen of womanhood’ out of him. Therefore, Mother specifies that Evelyn in his being a man has ‘abused women’ and ‘made a weapon’ of his ‘delicate instrument’ (p.66). In fact, since the first pages of the novel we are introduced to Evelyn’s misogyny:

The girl who was with me got to her knees in the dark on the dirty floor of the cinema, among the cigarette ends and empty potato crisp bags and trodden orangeade containers, and sucked me off (p.9).

Again, during Evelyn’s permanence in New York his perverse attitude towards women is highlighted in his sadomasochistic relationship with Layla, who would usually get punished after raping him during the night while asleep:

Then to punish her for scaring me so, I would tie her to the iron bed with my belt. I always left her feet free so she could kick away the rats (p.27).

Mother’s punishment is not only physical but it also includes a series of minatory lectures on how women of different cultures had been abused, which describe all the horrors that Evelyn’s old sex had perpetrated on his new one:

She told me how the Ancient Chinese had crippled their women’s feet; the Jews had chained the ankles of their women together; and the Indians ordered widows to immolate themselves on the pyres of their husbands (p.73).

Therefore, this first step into the sex transformation as a punishment is explained by Carter through the concerned and reluctant thoughts of Evelyn who is still wondering which kind of crime he has committed to deserve such brutal faith. His fear of becoming a woman highlights further his rejection towards women and helps raise in Sophia – one of Mother’s creatures – a feeling of anger and disappointment against Evelyn’s misogyny. Eventually Sophia will ask him ‘Is it such a bad thing to become like me?’ (p.68).

Just after the castration scene Carter starts developing the deep and sensitive topic of gender identity through the voice of the matriarch who states:

Well…. one day you’ll discover that sexuality is a unity manifested in different structures and it’s hard thing, in these alienated times, to tell what is and what is not (p.66).

In fact, what Carter suggests here is that ‘things are interchangeable in nature, because in evolution there are many possibilities of combination’. ​Indeed, the writer underlines that a body does not necessarily mirror the gender identity and arises an important concept that was also analysed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble where she criticises the general stigma of the body considered as a ‘passive medium’ on which ‘gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate’. With regard to this specific matter Butler and Carter both stress on the fact that the physical body and the psychological side of the gender identity are two different factors belonging to the human being, which are completely independent from one another and do not compulsorily match what society calls standard male and female.

For instance, it is extremely interesting and well thought by Carter, to use the term shape to determine a different gender, alluding at the shape of the physical body and clearly not at the psychological side of one’s gender identification, as this following statement made by Mother underlines ‘are you sure you get the best use of it in the shape you are?’ (p. 66).

Indeed, at this point Evelyn who became New Eve only physically undergoes an intensive psychological treatment made of video tapes sequences of Virgin and Child paintings and non-phallic imaginary such as roses opening to admit a bee and other scenes to instil the maternal instinct. Eve is completely aware that they are all designed to adjust her to the ‘new shape’ (p. 72). Though, the psyco-surgery seems useless and apparently has no effects on Eve, who looking at the mirror for the first time sees a new young woman who she could not identify as herself. This first experience with the new shape underlines the fact that although Evelyn underwent a sex transplant, his gender identity is definitely detached from his sex organ and he is extremely unfamiliar with the body he has been given. As Foucault states in his essay on the theme of genealogy ‘nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men’. This particular argument can be related to Carter and Butler’s concept, where a body is conceived as an empty box and signify nothing without the psychological substructure of gender identity.

Consequently, Eve starts touching the breasts and the different parts of the body she is not able to recognise and realises that she should ‘put on the conduct of the unfamiliar orchestra’ of herself.

With regard to this topic, Judith Butler in Gender Trouble analyses the body referring to Christian and Cartesian’s views where the body is conceived as ‘inert matter’ and she specifies that the body is figured as a ‘mute facticity, anticipating some meaning that can be attributed only by a transcendent consciousness’. Moreover, she underlines the Cartesian dualism of mind/body, which becomes clear in Eve’s struggling identification in front of the mirror. Eve is given a prima facie, an inert and empty shape that she will fill up with the on-going events throughout the story; as Foucault affirms ‘the body is the inscribed surface of events’.

It is after escaping Mother’s Kingdom that we perceive how Eve starts feeling what being a woman is like. Through her experience with Zero, a woman hater who has a harem of seven wives Eve firstly gets raped ‘unceremoniously’ and experiences the loss of her virginity. Eve is not prepared to the pain he is inflicting her, as he is the very first man she met after becoming a woman. She describes his body as an ‘anonymous instrument of torture’ and feels completely defenceless and lost face to his savagery. Since that moment, Eve will be taught by Zero’s wives the feminine behaviour and undergoes a proper training in manners, or as Eve calls it a ‘savage apprenticeship in womanhood’ (p.107). The aspect of learning to be someone through a real performance, regardless of the gender someone is given at birth is cleverly introduced by Carter in the novel and it underlines the absence of defined rules between the body as a mere surface and one’s sex identity. It also suggests the Foucauldian idea of the body being a surface of events, as Dr. Zirange highlights in his essay:

Gender is thus a social/cultural construct, which Carter illustrates by showing how Eve acquires womanhood through the socio-cultural situation in Zero’s establishment.

It becomes apparent that Eve, although she has not a woman’s mindset yet, she has a woman surface and she is taught to perform like she really was. Finally she eradicates her ‘notional unfemininity’, which remained significant to her until that moment. Eve states ‘although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman’ (p.101).

This theatrical aspect of acting like a woman though becomes suddenly and visibly unnatural and starts raising Zero suspicions as Eve explains:

However, the result of my apprenticeship as a woman was, of course, that my manner became a little too emphatically feminine. […] I began to behave too much like a woman (p.101).

Moreover, the fact that Eve is now too concentrated on being extremely feminine increases Zero’s attraction towards her and consequently raises more consistent sexual assaults, which lead to a deep introspection where Eve acknowledges herself as a former violator at the moment of her own violation. This point corresponds to Eve’s self-acknowledgment as a woman as she states: ‘The mediation of Zero turned me into a woman. More. His peremptory prick turned me into a savage woman’ (p.108).

Nonetheless, Eve’s trans-formation is far from being complete. In fact, after the physical and psychological side of the journey Eve has not experienced the sentimental part yet: love.

Eve’s encounter with Tristessa, the love relationship that brings the two characters together along with the consequent pregnancy is the turning point of her complete transformation into a woman as Dr Zirange states in his essay: ‘Her conversion to feminity is complete with the male intervention’.

The obsessive attraction for Tristessa is clear since the very beginning of the story, as Tristessa is presented as Evelyn’s first object of desire as he used to watch the silent movies where she starred. In fact, The Passion of New Eve begins with the following description of one of Evelyn’s intense experiences at the cinema:

The last night I spent in London, I took some girl or other to the movies and through her mediation, I paid you a little tribute of spermatozoa, Tristessa.

Tristessa is an embodiment of beauty, the ultimate woman, an obsession, an enigma, an illusion, a platonic love, in Evelyn’s words a ‘piece of pure mystification’. Her image is a motif that occurs throughout the entire novel, which haunts the narrator Evelyn more than it does the reader. Zero himself is obsessed with Tristessa as he believes her being the cause of his infertility. Therefore, this is the reason why he starts a haunt for Tristessa and leads his harem, along with Eve to the silent-movie star’s glass palace, willing to kill her. This is the first time Eve sees Tristessa in flesh and blood and discovers that in reality she is a transvestite male. Upon discovering this, Zero and his wives organise a mock-up wedding ceremony and recreate a masquerade where Eve is asked to dress up as a man with suit and tie for the occasion. Carter through this scene has intensified once again the concept of gender as a performative act, which is underlined by Eve’s statement ‘under the mask of maleness I wore another mask of femaleness’, however she knows that she will never be able to remove the latter.

At this point Tristessa is forced by Zero to rape Eve and even though the sexual act was imposed by a third person the scene described is flooded with passion and desire:

I clasped my legs about him and drew him into me. He came immediately. […] He tumbled out on to the floor, uttering great cries, while I writhed on the hard bed, consumed by unsatisfied desire (p.138).

As a result of the exiting performance, Eve now feels complete as she realises that her womanhood is rectified but in reality she experiences a deeper and stronger epiphany on her very first orgasm with Tristessa, which she defines as ‘solvent of the self’ (p.149). Consequently, Carter through Eve’s still gasping voice, stresses on the importance of the masculine-feminine interaction highlighting the fact that it is a necessary relation that leads to the acknowledgment of the self as she explains:

Masculine and feminine are correlatives which involve one another. I am sure of that -the quality and its negation are locked in necessity (p.149).

However, Carter still questions what exactly the ‘nature of masculine and the nature of feminine might be’ and weather they involve male and female apparatus or not. This question is in fact the epicentre of Carter’s theory that aims to challenge the heterosexual society fixed norms. Therefore, conceiving gender as a given sexual apparatus is out of question for Carter, who would rather focus on the psychological and emotional experiences of a human being and finds a solution to Eve’s identity frustration through her sentimental relationship with Tristessa. As Dr Zirange affirms in his essay on The Passion of New Eve, ‘Sexuality without love leads to frustration’. This means that the importance of socio/cultural phenomena are the main attributes that really matter and contribute in building a self-acknowledged gendered body.

After having analysed Carter’s, The Passion of New Eve, it is worth concentrating on another novel that focuses on the sex/gender transformation, written in 1998 by Jackie Kay: Trumpet.

Differently than Carter’s work, Trumpet provides an unusual critique of transphobia analysing the experience of Joss Moody, a jazz trumpeter who had a female body but lived his adulthood as a man. The particularity of the novel lies in the fact that it starts with Moody’s death, when he was discovered being assigned female at birth and that the story is fully narrated by different voices such as his wife, his adopted son and his friends with the aim of analysing a masculine trans-formation ‘by foregrounding the views of cis-characters instead of a trans-protagonist’.

Trumpet was inspired by the life of the white American jazz pianist Billy Tipton – born Dorothy Lucille Tipton – who passed as a man to pursue his career as a musician in the 1930s. According to Mandy Koolen’s analysis of the text, Jacky Kay made significant changes to Tipton’s life, depicting Joss Moody as a mixed race African-Scottish jazz trumpeter residing in England. ‘These changes highlight Joss’s position as someone who embodies liminality in terms of gender, race and nationality’ and the choice of a trumpet as the instrument played instead of the piano shows Kay’s brilliant use of symbolism. In fact, the trumpet is, as the castration’s knife in Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, an evidence of phallic object that completes Joss’s masculinity. As Tomas Monterrey notes, ‘when Joss plays it […] the phallic trumpet physically compensates for his absence of male sexual members’ and it is also composed of ‘a concave end, combining thus the masculine and the feminine in its form’ (p.172).

Moreover, Kay sets Moody’s career in the 1960s, which complicates thinking of him as passing for the sake of his career as it would have been more likely for a woman to become a musician in the 1960s than in Tipton’s time. Therefore, as Koolen underlines in her essay:

Kay [seems] challenging the tendency of historians to read people in the past who cross-dressed as really being women or lesbians who passed solely for strategic reasons – in order to find employment or in an attempt to escape sexist and/or homophobic oppression (p.72).

Kay’s intent, similarly to what Carter underlines in The Passion of New Eve, is to challenge the stereotype of heterosexual norms of conceiving maleness and femaleness, with the focus on describing transsexuality from the point of view of cissexual characters. Kay through her novel raises the relevant and contemporary concept that Minnie Bruce Pratt discussed few years earlier, that ‘the categories male and female do not contain the complexity of sex and gender for any of us’.

Kay uses Moody’s adopted son Colman as main character who plays the role of mediator between the cis and trans-world and embodies the transition from an aggressive transphobic and misogynist hyper masculinity to an empathic and sensitive person who will finally accept Joss as his father and masculine role model. For instance, it is thanks to Colman’s eyes that we can understand Moody’s transition and experience as Colman is willing to dig in his father’s past after discovering he was a woman. Colman is the perfect representation of the stereotyped cis and heterosexual mindset and in his mind the penis is the central signifier of maleness. In fact, he focuses on the physical structure of his father repeating assertions such as:

My father had tits. My father didn’t have a dick. My father had a pussy. My father didn’t have any balls.

Consequently, Colman wonders if his father was wearing a strap-on dildo confused on how Joss could have ever felt like a man not being in a male ‘shape’ but having a ‘cunt’ down his pants and stresses again on the physical body as centre of gender and sexual identity:

My father never got a leg over. Had a hard on. My father was never tossed off. He never stuck it up or rammed in, never spilt his seed, never had a blow job (p.169).

Furthermore, Colman feels discouraged remembering his puberty and disgusted at the idea that his father who he considered as his masculine role model, never went through it and thinks ‘My father wasn’t a man like myself […] The idea of my father getting periods makes me want to throw up’ (p.67).

As Mandy Koolen notes, Colman also experiences a sort of ‘superiority of his maleness in contrast to his father’s “performed” and “inauthentic” masculinity’ when suddenly ‘his cock seems bigger since his father died. Bigger and harder’.

The aspect of the performed masculinity that recalls the Butlerian theory of gender identity as performative act is evoked by Kay in the last pages of Trumpet when Sophie, the journalist who is planning to write a book about Moody that characterises him as a ‘weirdo’, negates Joss’s experience as a man by understanding his masculinity as a thrilling performance, or in Carter’s terms as a masquerade. In fact, she states:

She liked wearing those bandages, didn’t she? She liked the big cover up. […] Going to the Gents. She got a buzz going to the Gents, didn’t she? […] Walking down the street with that walk that she must have practiced. […] She studied that walk all right. She didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be a man. She must have practiced first. She must have given a lot of thought (pp. 263-264).

Sophie’s attitude towards Joss, calling him ‘pervert’, ‘freakish’, ‘monstrous’ and referring to him with female pronouns underlines how language can be used to ‘violently erase trans-people’s identities and gender expressions while simultaneously reaffirming sex/gender binaries’. Moreover, Kay through this passage cleverly raises the matter of public washrooms, which are known as the place where most transphobic violence occur and are the clearest example of the standard binary division male/female which creates a real challenge for transsexuals as they find themselves in front of a choice dictated by mainstream popular culture. As Marjorie Garber underlines:

For transvestites and transsexuals, the “men’s room” problem is really a challenge to the way such cultural binarism is read. Cross-dressers who want to pass prefer to read the stick figures literally: those in pants, in there; those in skirt, in here.

The turning point of the novel starts with Colman’s discomfort about collaborating with Sophie in writing the book as he realises he is doing violence to his father memories sharing his secret and selling it to ‘people [who] are interested in weirdos, sex-changes and all that stuff’. In fact, Colman, after receiving from Joss’s mother a photo of him as a seven-year-old girl, suddenly can perceive ‘something feminine in his memory of his father that must have been there all along’ (p.241). Therefore, through the picture Colman tries to create a connection between his father and the former girl he was to establish a kind of naturalness in his father process of sex-change even though Colman is not able to make a clear distinction between the female and male part of Joss. As Julia Serano explains the before photos of transsexual people are often used to ‘emphasise the naturalness of the transperson’s assigned sex, thereby exaggerating the artificiality of their identified sex’.

The concept of gender liminality is also evident when the funeral director, Albert Holding, discovers the female body under Joss’s clothes. In fact, as he glances at Moody’s face, he has the feeling it transformed into a ‘more womanly’ face and he thinks incredulous that ‘he had never seen a man turn into a woman before’ (p.111). Through this point, Kay invites reconsidering questions about gender and challenges the idea of whether anatomical and physiological differences define gender, as she underlines in a subsequent passage: ‘Yet today, he had a woman who persuaded him, even dead, that he was a man, once he had his clothes on’ (p.115).

Furthermore, the fact that Joss Moody is perfectly comfortable with his past and his youth complicates the stereotyped vision that all transsexual people have miserable childhood and feel born in the wrong body. In fact, Kay writes an entire chapter entitled Music, which focuses on Moody’s experience by using indirect speech and third-person narration. Kay’s aim goes beyond the mere disclosure of Joss’s life choice, as she rather focuses on the metaphysical and emotional side of the process emphasising the importance of music in Joss’s ‘bodily journey’. This section once again stresses on the gender liminality as Joss, accompanied by the sound of his trumpet can clearly see himself as a ‘small girl skipping along an old disused railway. […] A lucky, lucky girl’. Suddenly the picture changes and Joss is now concentrated on analysing deeply the continual changes he experienced during his life:

He can taste himself transforming. Running changes. The body changes shape. From girl to young woman to young man to old man to old woman (p.133).

Consequently, the changes memories become more vivid and Joss is taken again to a musical journey through the details of his transformation:

He can’t stop himself changing. Running changes. Changes running. He is changing all the time. It falls off – bandages, braces, cufflinks, watches, hair grease, suits, buttons, ties (p.135).

At this point, he can picture himself as a little girl again ‘skipping the along the railway line with a long cord his mother had made into a rope. In a red dress’ (p,135). Joss feels a kind of freedom and naturalness in recalling his transformation steps since his childhood. In fact, he asserts that ‘it is liberating. To be a girl. To be a man’ (p.135). It becomes evident that by depicting as liberating the way Joss feels both a girl and a man, Kay encourages to think critically about how limiting it may be ‘subscribing to either masculinity and maleness or femininity and femaleness for the duration of one’s life’.

Therefore, it is exactly the matter of the acceptance that Kay wants to highlight throughout the novel. In fact, Colman will finally acknowledge his father’s gender identity and will affirm his acceptance of Joss as masculine role model stating ‘He will always be daddy to me’. Through Colman’s experience Kay suggests that the characters as well as the readers of Trumpet ‘must recognise the limits and exclusionary nature of the male/female gender binary’, in order to understand and reconcile Joss’s maleness and femaleness. Therefore, Kay emphasizes the importance of acknowledging that ‘every aspect of a person’s gender expression and sex will not be consistently either masculine or feminine, man or woman’.

In conclusion, Kay’s Trumpet, similarly to Carter’s The Passion of New Eve, encourages readers to think critically about the stereotyped binary rules of gender identity present in the cis-heterosexual popular culture and contradicts the society rigid ideas of what gender should be. Both writers affirm that the idea of male and female is not clearly defined and that love and life exist beyond the basic perception of men and women. Therefore, as Charles Busch states in his documentary Gender Revolution ‘gender is fluid, vibrant and even unpredictable. In the end individuals must define it for themselves’.

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