I recently saw Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, the second in her planned Shakespeare female prison trilogy (yes, you did read that correctly). It’s quite wonderful, especially Jade Anouka as Hotspur (even my friend who hated the production thought she was great). I’m generally obsessed with Early Modern gender issues anyway (well, everyone needs a hobby) and so this week I thought I’d give into this obsession and look at novels which explore notions of gender. In many ways the written word is an ideal means to do this, as it’s not reliant on the visual image, so the theme can be explored without us all obsessing over a specific physical body. Having said that, let’s have some androgynous beauty to start us off, just because I adore Patti Smith & her & Robert Mapplethorpe are great to look at:
(Image from: http://www.vsmag.com/cms/robert-mapplethorpe/)
Back to books. Firstly, Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate, 2007). Girl Meets Boy is a reworking of the Iphis myth, part of Canongate’s The Myths series. As the title suggests, the story plays with easy ideas of how gender is constructed. It begins: “Let me tell you about when I was girl, our grandfather says.” This simultaneously sets up the other major theme of the tale, how stories are made and how they are used to define ourselves.
“You’re going to have to learn the kind of hope that makes things history. Otherwise there ‘ll be no good hope for your own grand truths and no good truth for your own grandchildren”
Anthea listens to her grandfather’s tales which are filled with slippery notions of gender. The Iphis myth is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Boy Meets Girl is full of refiguration: of language, of gender, of how language constructs gender. When Anthea grows older, she falls in love at first sight:
“She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life”
Anthea and Robin’s relationship is passionate and fulfilling, and denies definition, however hard those around them try. They challenge gender roles through their overwhelming happiness:
“She had the swagger of a girl. She blushed like a boy. She had a girl’s toughness. She had a boy’s gentleness. She was as meaty as a girl. She was as graceful as a boy. She was as brave and handsome and rough as a girl. She was as pretty and delicate and dainty as a boy. She turned boys’ heads like a girl. She turned girls’ heads like a boy. She made love like a boy. She made love like a girl. She was so boyish it was girlish, so girlish it was boyish, she made me want to rove the world writing our names on every tree.”
Meanwhile, Anthea’s sister Midge is struggling with her own identity, wanting to be recognised by her full name of Imogen, trying to decide between her career and her ethics, struggling with anorexia. Ultimately Midge and Anthea learn that while we can never start entirely anew – we are all born into a society that will seek to define us in some way or another – we can challenge how we are constructed in any variety of ways, both by ourselves and with others:
“I was born mythless. I grew up mythless.
No you didn’t. Nobody grows up mythless…”
Boy Meets Girl shows the power of stories, but also how they can also be constantly rewritten; they continuously metamorphose with each telling and with reader.
Secondly, Trumpet by Jackie Kay (Picador, 1998). Joss Moody, a famous jazz musician, has died. As his wife Millie is reeling with grief, she simultaneously has to cope with Joss’ secret being exposed: that he was biologically gendered a woman. Their adopted son Coleman is furious that he father he adored has lied to him his whole life, and is threatening to write a tell-all book with a muck-raking tabloid hack. And yet Coleman, if he stopped to think for a moment, would realise he is not so dissimilar from his father. When he works a motorcycle courier he learns the power of clothes; how we construct our identity through them, and how others read them as signs:
“When he was a courier he felt liberated. Like he could suddenly act the part of the biker and nobody would know any better….He could just put the gear on and join the clan…When he stopped to get a bacon roll, people would instinctively let him go in front of them. It was quite a discovery.”
Through Moody’s death, Kay is able to explore how much meaning we give to gender, how important we make it, and yet how little room there is for manoeuvre when we make it a fixed binary of male/female. Trumpet is a story of a happy marriage, and a talented jazz musician – what does it matter what was under Joss’ beautifully tailored clothes?
“I managed to love my husband from the moment I clapped eyes on him till the moment he died. I managed to desire him all our married life. I managed to respect and love his music. I managed to always like the way he ate his food. I managed to be faithful, to never be interested in another man….I know that I loved being the wife of Joss Moody.”
By telling Moody’s story through others, Kay puts the reader in the position of the characters in the novel – Joss is a dominant presence, but slightly removed and never fully known. Trumpet makes a powerful comment on the damage society does when it seeks to restrict how people express their genders and sexuality, and it does this with a light touch that never loses sight of the individual personalities involved.
“He was always more comfortable once he was dressed. More secure somehow. My handsome tall man. He’d smile at me shyly. He’d say ‘How do I look?’ And I’d say, ‘Perfect. You look perfect.’”
It’s a beautifully written novel that doesn’t seek to tie up all the loose ends: one character’s epiphany takes place “off-screen” – we’re not told what was said to evoke such a change in behaviour. This is a master-stroke. Lesser writers would want to spell it all out, but Kay understands the power of what is left unsaid; and in a way, this is what the whole novel is about.
To end, how about a 90s sing-a-long? All together now: “Girls who are boys/Who like boys to be girls/Who do boys like they’re girls/Who do girls like they’re boys….”