Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2002 / 21 Teves, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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The Desire for Gender: The novelist who made me an ex-feminist | Lately I've been re-reading the works of Angela Carter--the feminist novelist so good, she helped me give up feminism.

Carter made her name writing feminist revisions of fairy tales; her (excellent) rewritten "Beauty and the Beast" began, "My father lost me to The Beast at cards." She wrote nine novels, and her lush imagery and bizarre characters got her labeled a "magical realist" writer. They appealed to me as a teenager for reasons good and not so good: Carter writes with a high sense of adventure (one book ends with the phrase, "a wild surmise," and that wild sense of possibility infuses all her books), she can write from within the perspective of a self-dramatizing teen girl, her world is rich in symbol and meaning, and her florid language mirrors the sometimes histrionic atmosphere of adolescence.

Now, re-reading the books, I realize that at least in her earlier novels she generally did not, or could not, empathetically imagine the lives of older women or women who want children; in her later works, especially her last novel, " Wise Children ", she was better able to see aging as a woman's achievement rather than a failure.

Fortunately, I didn't take the earlier books' dismissal of older women to heart. What I did take home from her books was the omnipresent fact of gender: roles, delineated by culture and subculture and literature, divvied up by sex. Her characters are never "people"--they're always either men or women, and are unimaginable without the trappings and habits of gendered life.

Almost all literary characters are gendered in some way, but Carter's seem aggressively male or female. This is why the conversations between her characters are so charged: Men and women are different enough that they do not always understand one another; they sometimes view one another as aliens or enemies or animals; their silences and misfired attacks and misinterpreted advances never quite communicate what is intended; and yet it is because of this disturbing difference that they are attracted to one another. (In Carter's novels, this attraction is generally, but not exclusively, sexual; even characters that are not physically attracted are fascinated with one another because of their gendered differences. The heart of eros is a passionate desire for union with another who remains "other," different, not-me.)

This, of course, is not how I saw things when I was a feminist. I believed that gender roles were traps. Although I enjoyed playing with others' assumptions about gender, I tried to steer clear of anything that savored too pungently of "masculine" or "feminine." Some feminists believe that gender itself is the problem, and that we should seek to be "people" rather than men and women; ridding ourselves of gender would be liberating. An essay collection by radical feminist John Stoltenberg is titled, Refusing to Be a Man--his advice to men seeking to treat women justly. This was not my feminism: When I called myself a feminist, I didn't reject gender--I just viewed it as a costume box. You could combine a boa, a pirate eyepatch, a muumuu and a Stetson hat, and as long as you didn't create a unified picture that could be somehow identified as "womanly" or "manly" you were performing a feminist act.

But this attitude is self-defeating. Gender provides the underlying frisson that makes attempts to confuse or complicate gender so exciting. Again Gallagher gets it right: "There's nothing more feminine than Cher in a black leather motorcycle jacket."

The problem is, almost all of us want gender, even if we don't want to want it. For all my feminist beliefs, I didn't want the males I knew to "refuse to be men." I didn't want them to take on cruel or charmless versions of masculinity, sure--I harbored no longings for the stern patriarch, the abusive husband, or the self-obsessed artist.

Similarly, I didn't want to be an "angel in the house" or an earth mother (people who know me are laughing already) or a perky Pippi Longstocking, and I didn't want the women I knew to be confined to those roles either.

But I wanted men to be men and women to be women. I knew, from looking around me and especially from reading (where gender roles, like all roles, appear in artificially heightened form), that gender was more flexible than many feminists think. Rosalind, Antony, Lear, Beatrice, Iago, Emilia, Leontes--could any of them exist in a genderless world? I think not; and I think even the apostles of gender neutrality would miss that menagerie when they were gone.

And also: Could any of them exist in a world where women were "angels in the house" and men were Strong Silent Types? Again, no; I can only hope that the apostles of gender rigidity would miss them.

Acknowledging the desire for gender would help us avoid one of the more pointless fights in child-rearing literature. Parents all have their stories about the couple who tried to raise a boy or a girl without gender stereotypes--but after just a week with a gender-believing relative, the kid sassed the parents with, "That's boy stuff, eww!" or, "Boys don't cry." Then everyone fights about whether this means that gender roles are natural or societal. Presumably some gender differences are natural--how could it be otherwise? I suspect girls in all cultures tend to like dolls more than boys do, for example. But most specific gender roles are cultural. Just look at how often St. Augustine writes about crying, with no sense of special shame at performing an "unmanly" act. Kids aren't gendered because they have to be; they're gendered because they want to be. The desire for difference is innate, though specific differences are largely cultural.

Children want gender because they want a role in the world, a place in the story unfolding around them, a role to live up to and by which they can judge their actions. Gender fits us into the cycle of family and fruitfulness; it connects us to our parents, who have taken on the most obviously gendered roles of all when they became mother and father; and it provides children with a connection to their future maturity, and thus to sex. Children want a sexual identity even when they do not plan on kids or a spouse, because they want an adult identity.

This is why what Richard Brookhiser calls "the contemporary failure of fatherhood" is so devastating: We have removed our support for beneficial masculinity. When fatherhood is no longer a cherished role with clearly-delineated responsibilities, males seek manhood elsewhere--and most of the other options are terrible. Gallagher gives two strong hints of where men seek manhood outside the family: "My six-year-old son puts a large grey plastic knife underneath his sweater. He then pulls it out and looks up at me, anxiously, testing, and announces, 'Women have babies. Men have swords.' ...The result [of trying to abolish sex roles] is not a gender-free society. If we do not offer our children--by deed and word--a constructive sense of gender, destructive sex roles will emerge to fill the vacuum. ...[O]ur children will eventually emerge with a new sense of gender based on what they observe in the world around them: women are poor and have children. Men make love, money, and trouble. Something very like this conception of gender appears to have emerged in America's ghettos."

Men have a harder time than women finding their desired gender role within family life. This is because, not to put to fine a point on it, the women have the babies. Fatherhood is a societal convention in a way that motherhood, with its inescapable physical changes, its rush of hormones and tigress-passion for the baby, and its deep connection to the developing child, simply is not. Even in the age of DNA testing, men are not as securely tied to their children as women are; even when they want to be, they need societal help in order to maintain their familial role as father and husband.

And Carter realized this, too. " Wise Children "'s title is taken from the wry adage, "It's a wise child that knows his own father"--paternal parentage is often clouded in a way that maternity is not. " Wise Children " is in large part a novel about "illegitimacy," about how children respond to the knowledge that their father did not care to make a family with their mother (and with them). Carter plays this scenario as a comedy, and the novel is sweet and fun as far as it goes; but its vivacious swing seems out of place in a world where the lack of fathers and father roles usually brings tragedy.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet