Thursday, March 11

Literary Gender Issues

The funniest thing happened in class yesterday, and I feel that it highlighted so many gender issues that still exist in the field of literary studies (or amongst "intellectuals" in general).

We were reading and analysing some surrealist poems. Some of them were very erotic, explicitly so; very powerful with an extremely strong and confident narrator. In one line, the narrator mentions "my innocent sex". And we interpreted it as a display of dehumanised or disjointed masculine energy, because what man would call his sex innocent! It gave a very obvious image of shame, someone who lets their sex remain untouched by intellectual decision, or someone who (in the rest of the poem) is very aggressive and fatalistic, and disconnects himself from his sex, as so to leave it untouched by "dirty" reality (or to be witty; why else would they call it "family jewels").

And it strikes me that we, in the class, read no biography of the writer, who has a (relatively) sexually ambiguous name, and lo and behold - Joyce Mansour is indeed a woman! So firstly - we immediately, automatically deduced that the writer was male. And we read a lot of masculinity into the analysis - about manhood, sex and gender, power - and when the poems were less "masculine" (e.g. "innocent sex") we saw it as a loss of manhood, with the thus implied shame. Secondly, why on earth does the gender of the writer even matter - why do we put so much of the writer into the narrator, when they are perfectly separate (metaphysical) beings. A woman can assume roles and employ male narrators and protagonists as well as a male writer can impersonate his own, or the other, sex.

So in the end, I think the session would have turned out very differently if we had known that the writer was female. It would perhaps come across as daring and shocking that a woman in the 50s could write these things, but we wouldn't react with the same sense of shame and loss of power when the "feminine" elements were introduced. Most likely, they would be seen as definitely feminine, and the weakness and futility they expressed would be seen as perfectly natural reflections of being a woman.

It is atrocious and fascinating all the same; that the given name assigned to a work of art becomes the perspective from which you interpret it. And on one hand you should keep that in mind, but on the other hand, the artwork - with its narrators and implications - takes on a very much separate character from the writer.

1 comment:

  1. "A woman can assume roles and employ male narrators and protagonists as good as a male writer can impersonate his own, or the other, sex."

    I think people forget this way too often...

    Og jeg så deg igår på Akademisk vorspiel! Jeg hadde sagt hei hvis jeg ikke hadde hatt dårlig tid. Litt dårlig stil å stikke av på foredrag osv akkurat når man har fått folk på visit hjemme ;)