Destabilizing Gender & Splicing Queer Space

Destabilizing Gender & Splicing Queer Space

Written by Gajanan Velupillai

for Prof. Irene Ogrizek

Alice Munro’s acute sense of human interactions and relations is often perceived as being driven by a feminist ideology. Through reading her short stories, the reader instinctively casts Munro as being a writer on the woman’s side. Although most of her stories are indeed centered on their emotional and spiritual growth and development, Munro’s concerns are not limited to female subordination; she is not demanding equity assuming only the woman is being systematically disadvantaged. In contrast, Munro simultaneously acknowledges the paralyzing effect of heteronormative codes and ideals on the male. This is prominent in Munro’s “Hateship Friendship Loveship Courtship Marriage.” In this short story, she challenges traditional distinctions of gender, and consequently gender norms and archetypes, as a means to create queer identity that has been both present and subdued in society with the emergence of the 1950’s (Bauer).

Through a chain of subversive echoes and allusions to “Cinderella,” Munro is able to prioritize gender fluidity as the subversions serve to highlight the rigidity in idealistic portrayals of masculinity and femininity. Munro does so by specifically subverting the relationship between gender and the role associated with that gender as depicted in the traditional “Cinderella” narrative. In the original folktale, the female lead, Cinderella, is subject to extreme emotional abuse and physical exertion, while the male lead, the Prince, serves as her sole medium to escape her troubled reality. With this situation, two complementary ideals are presented: one in which the male must play the role of the savior and the latter being the frail and helpless female.

Munro immediately sets the register for this short story with Johanna being the intended Cinderella figure in its opening lines where the narrator begins by saying, “Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair” (1). Such is the usual approach taken by fairytales to introduce their female princesses. However, the destined Cinderella figure in this story actively rejects her Cinderella associations. Namely, Johanna does so by not passively waiting for Ken Boudreau. It is Johanna that displaces in the story to seek out her prince. By the same token, Ken Boudreau is not described as feeling at all emasculated. When Johanna deliberately enters Ken Boudreau’s life unannounced, Ken is in his most vulnerable state. Johanna describes him as being “delicate” and like a “stricken boy” (112). Johanna also speaks to Ken with an authoritative tone. In response, Ken “understood that she did know” what is right, and displays no signs of discomfort (50). Ken abiding by Johanna is significant because it depicts a man lacking managerial aptitude, which is largely stigmatized as being an inherently male quality. In fact, Ken’s inability to provide consistent economic support for his daughter as he juggles between jobs whilst making unsuccessful business investments is stressed numerous times in the short story. Johanna is cast as holding the surplus of knowledge. In these characterizations, there is an evident reversal in roles, but Munro pens it with ease such that there is no peculiarity surrounding the reversal. Moreover, we see Johanna as the prince and as the princess at various instances. Perhaps the most significant example of this is her relationship with the brown dress. Analyzing the brown dress and the reactions that it invokes is integral in identifying Johanna as travelling between two distinct genders. In respect to the Cinderella narrative, Mrs. Milady serves as Johanna’s fairy godmother. This parallel is reinforced with the mythical imagery associated with Mrs. Milady: “[Mrs. Milady] gave it a wicked snip with the scissors” (11). As a result, the brown dress that is acquired by Johanna through Mrs. Milady is symbolic of the glass slipper. The moment she puts on the dress, there are certain transcendental descriptions. For instance, her eyes are described to be twinkling, and Johanna later exclaims that it is the dress in which she’ll likely get married (9). In the dress shop, Johanna exudes traditional female aspirations of male companionship and marriage. However, there is a shift when she willingly removes the dress, before Ken is even in a state to appreciate her wearing it. This selective removal of the dress can be seen as Johanna metaphorically removing the guise of Cinderella to appropriate another gendered role: the physically able man that is quick on his feet to run errands. Along with Ken’s natural appropriation of submission, Johanna’s ability to travel back and forth between set norms, as needed, stresses the idea of gender being constantly in flux along a continuum.

The subversive allusions are heightened when one places “Hateship Friendship” in context with “The Ugly Duckling.” Johanna’s appearance is described with eccentricity and a certain level of grotesqueness in Munro’s short story. The opening fairytale-esque lines themselves instantly focus on the apparent disconnect between Johanna and conventional standards of beauty of the standard princess: “high forehead,” “frizz of reddish hair” (1). Furthermore, Johanna is ostracized and isolated for this very reason by both Edith and Sabitha. Given these parallels, it is clear that Johanna is initially being modeled after the ugly duckling in the fable. Likewise to the Cinderella allusions, the parallels between the duckling and Johanna slowly dissolve as Johanna’s character progresses. The duckling is only able to substantiate its sense of self upon its metamorphosis into a white swan, whereas there is a complete lack of an overt physical transformation in Johanna’s case. Johanna’s stagnancy in terms of her physicality is conveyed when she claims that she hadn’t “suddenly starting thinking she was pretty” (9). Johanna nonetheless merits the same happy ending as the duckling in that she is able to find a significant other who appreciates her for who she truly is and that instills within her “such busy love” (51). What is key in this is how Munro divides the psyche from the body. To the contrary, “The Ugly Duckling” functions on the basis of social stratification. The duck only garners its respect through its physical transformation into a swan. The swan must then be associated with higher levels of prestige and viewed as superior relative to the other birds. The deliberate suppression of a physical metamorphosis in “Hateship Friendship” can therefore be viewed as a suppression of the idealized form as conveyed by the swan, which in this case translates into the idealized forms of gender. Instead of assimilating and transforming, Johanna displaces to an environment in which she can be socially included: from Exhibition Road to Gdynia, Saskatchewan. With this, Munro acknowledges that the idealized form is unattainable and deals directly with individual realities.

The queer identity that is introduced through subverting the traditional gender binary is extended through female homosocial spaces embedded within the narrative. The homosocial space is achieved through the letters between Johanna and the girls that Ken Boudreau mediates, as well as through the close bond between Johanna and Mrs. Willet. Sabitha and Edith in the story pen letters posing as Ken Boudreau to Johanna. These girls are immersing themselves into a world of knowledge in which they are able to explore their own respective sexualities as the letters they are writing are sexually charged: “It would be wonderful if you were reading it in bed with your nightgown on and thinking how I would like to crush you in my arms”; Sabitha tells Edith to write “suck on [her] titties” (38). It is important to note, however, that the correspondence of these letters is essentially between females; the girls are writing to Johanna. This is significant because Munro orchestrates the sexual exploration of young virgin girls under a homoerotic light. They are writing from a place of male lust in a heterosexual union as opposed to that of a female’s. Although gender and sexuality are two distinct ideas, hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity are derivatives of heteronormativity. In this lens, heterosexuality is taken as the basis upon which socially constructed notions of gender are built.

Thus, by splicing latent homosexuality into “Hateship Friendship” which opposes heteronormativity, Munro simultaneously continues to destabilize gender. Furthermore, it is through adding a playful element to the act of writing these letters that Munro is able to explore burgeoning alternate sexualities as such. The girls’ natural inclination and ease in assuming the male role in a period of their development that is characterized by innocence further stress the artificiality of heteronormative gender relations. This is why young girls are restricted from exploring their sexuality prematurely, as are Edith and Sabitha by Edith’s mom: they have not yet been instructed about proper gendered conduct in relation to sex. Coupled with this, the close bond between Johanna and Mrs. Willet that is being described in the letter only adds to the homosocial entity. They both eat “every meal together” and sleep “in the same room together” (28). Also, Johanna was not involved with any other male during her time with Mrs. Millet. Another important implication is when Johanna explicitly describes her heart being “dry” after Mrs. Willet’s passing and only then “warmed” by Ken (51). Both sexes have a deep, emotional impact on the protagonist. Although there may not necessarily be any homosexual desire within any of the characters, it is simply the ambiguity and the notion of such a relationship being couched within the text that works to propagate the idea of gender nonconformity.

Through blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity, Munro creates a completely gender-neutral identity that is applicable to either sex. Male or female readers can resonate with any of the personas presented in “Hateship Friendship” almost entirely given there are no overt limitations that embody gendered conduct. Also, it is through careful selection of allusions and insightful subtleties that enables Munro to showcase society’s reductive stance on gender relations. Nonetheless, the nuances only serve to enhance the power embedded in these implied messages. Despite being indirect, Munro still manages to project her humanist position and denounce the common feminist label.

 

Works Cited

Bauer, Heike, and Matthew Cook. Queer 1950s: Rethinking Sexuality in the Postwar Years. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Munroe, Alice. “Hateship Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage.” Short Stories of Alice Munroe, edited by Irene Ogrizek, Dawson, pp. 89-116.

 

About the Author:

My name is Gajanan Velupillai. As an ardent proponent for increasing awareness about gender, sex and sexuality, I enjoy pivoting my works on just that. I wish to continue pursuing my love for writing while aiming for a career in medicine.


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