In a Fairy Tale Fictions class I taught recently, while analysing the set text, a discussion was started concerning the gender-coding found in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Carter famously moves away from much of the gender expectations, by swapping gender-roles, or at time combining them. (Eg. In “The Bloody Chamber”, it is the mother, not the brothers, who come to the maiden’s rescue. In “The Werewolf”, ‘Red’ is both the young girl, and the hunter, while her grandmother is both Grandmother and Wolf.)
This discussion triggered a desire for me to lay-down to paper (or page) some ideas I had a while back regarding this topic. I will begin by saying that I have often been complimented and thrive off subverting gender-roles and expectations in my work. For example, In The Sons of Thestian, the prophetic royal in need of rescuing from a vicious step-mother is not a Princess, but a Prince, while the knight in shining armour who comes to his rescue is a fairy woman, not a man. It will come as no surprise that I actually wrote The Sons of Thestian whilst first studying The Bloody Chamber, during those delicate school years long ago. Whether I realised it at the time or not, I can see now that Carter’s writing—however much it was prone to make me squirm!—had a significant influence on how my feelings toward gender were initially shaped.
Carter, unfortunately, died the year I was born. And almost ten years after picking up her book for the first time, I cannot help but notice cracks in her particular brand of feminist writing, and re-analyse why in some parts I felt so disconnected by what she wrote. This is through no fault of Carter, nor should she be seen as anything other than a voice at the forefront of feminist writing and literature. Had she been alive today, as the conversation of gender continues to grow, her writing may have reflected the new discussions we are having. It feels cruel to poke at the work of someone who is dead, and cannot defend, explain, or allow their voice to grow in accordance with all modern information. So rather than hold Carter accountable, I will instead use the foundation she built to springboard into some new ideas.
To me, the problem with simply reassigning gender-roles is that ultimately it still exists within the binary. Once again, I say this as someone who frequently explores the dynamics of a story by switching the gender-roles, and swapping typically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characters, tropes and ideas. The exploration of gender (and sexuality) is something I pursue in almost all of my works, and I believe it produces nuanced, three-dimensional and believable characters. I also tend to be influenced by fairy tales, which are massively gendered, thanks to the way they were shaped into moral tales for the middle and upper classes. What then can I do but subvert the roles for my enjoyment, just as Carter did? By doing it, however, and advertising it, I am acknowledging the fact that these tropes are gendered. It’s like the exception that proves the rule. I’ve done something new, by acknowledging, and therefore, reaffirming the ‘norm’. Now, this is really a product of society, more than my (or Carter’s) fault as authors. We, as people, gender the most inane things—hobbies, behaviours, objects, colours, names—and then reinforce these ideas in everyday life. You can’t go into any babies sections, without seeing the segregation of the girlish pink, and the boyish blue. From before our fragile minds can even process the information around us, we are inundated with gender specifics. So is it possible to write about gender without acknowledging the very ideas, tropes and expectations which promote and reinforce the arbitrary binary?
Personally, I think Carter’s writing was revolutionary and important, and I think her switching of the gender-roles was a rebellion against the expectation of women (and of men). I also think, however, it relies on the cis-gendered, straight perspective.
In today’s world, we understand that the subject of gender is much more complicated than genitalia. What defines gender is as much to do with brain chemistry, hormones and the general mysteries of the universe, then it is to do with the reproductive system, the mechanics of which is a complicated debate even of itself. The binary is an ancient concept, used as the simplified answer to a deeper conversation, based on a statistical average. And yet, we allow it to dictate the colours of our clothes, toys, hobbies, habits and lives? Essentially, trying to claim that 50% of all human beings are a certain way, must fulfil certain expectations, and all want certain things, based on an understanding they share a physically similar reproductive system, is…putting it bluntly, bat-shit insane. Were we to try and divide it in any other way, it would seem ridiculous. Do we create categories of blue and brown eyed people, and consider green, hazel and grey as outliers? Do we define intelligence, habits, capabilities by this?
Now, the matter of gender is more complex then eye colour. There are a mixture of biological factors that come into it, but these too fall under question the moment you accept that there are more than two genders, and that transexual and transgender people exist. You might say, the strongest man will always be stronger than the strongest woman, but in that example, what constitutes a man? And what constitutes a woman? Could a trans woman compete as the strongest woman? And if she were permitted, would she be forced to medically and hormonally alter herself to fit certain parameters first? Not to say anything about where one places intersex, genderfluid or non-binary people. The case of Renée Richards comes to mind, as well as Caster Semenya*.
Heading back to Carter, and without accusing her of being a TERF—because, as I said, she’s dead, and never even touched on the subject**—her ideas do still rely on the cis-gendered experience. Were I to present her with the ‘strongest man vs strongest woman’ conundrum—and again, I can only imagine, so I will not put words in her mouth—I assume she would answer the question from a limited, cis-gendered standpoint, and would not consider gender as being contained in the brain, but as being irreversibly tied to the body. Instead she might approach the question as I once did:
“Just because the strongest man is stronger than the strongest woman, does not mean all men are stronger than all women. For the strongest woman will still be stronger than the average man. And the weakest man stands no change against the average woman.”
I maintain this belief, which is grounded in the idea of merit being given to the individual’s strength, rather than there gender, but I also understand that there is no true basis in which we can irrefutably say that the physically strongest and weakest people on earth are and will always be a male and female respectively at any given time. (Unless we universally start measuring how much all new-born babies can bench-press?)
Once again, this is not an attempt to demonise Carter. I have genuine bones to pick with her, like some of her appraisal on De Sade and her occasionally maddening writing style, but her brand of feminism is merely a product of its time. But Carter’s writing, despite the reassignment of gendered ideas, is still firmly stuck within the binary, because it does not acknowledge that anything beyond cis-gendered men and women exist. Her women may be nuanced, but their femininity is physically tied to their (straight) sexuality, and their (cis-gendered) body.
Carter’s exploration of female sexual liberty is unapologetic, and arguably still crucial in an era where it remains repressed and underexplored, but Carter’s writing remains painfully hetranormative in it’s exploration. To begin with, so far that I know (and please feel free to prove me wrong!) Carter doesn’t portray any homosexual or Queer relationships in her work. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but the dated hetronormative angle of her work is pronounced even beyond this. In particular it shines through in the tropes she uses, with the undercurrent of power and empowerment going hand in hand with (hetro)sexual liberty.
For example, when depicting her happy relationships, Carter brings the couples together under equal terms—there is consent, there is enthusiasm in both parties—but a traditional binary coding burns clear, either unconsciously or through deliberate choice. How often it is the men, antagonistic or not, who guides the sexual experience to a nervous, virginal girl? How often is the occasion marked by that archaic breaking of the hymen and the blood on the sheets? How often does the maiden swoon into the man’s arms? How often does the woman become the seductress, to try and induce the man to provide her with what she needs (not wants), be that liberty, purpose, or sustenance? How often is the woman described as beautiful? And how often is fulfilment supplied not by the self, but by the right man?
A message shines through, right from the hellish landscape of De Sade’s writing, which equates sexuality with empowerment, the kill or be killed, or in this case, the dominate or be dominated. And while we can wax lyrical about the potential philosophical usefulness and realism represented in De Sade’s disgusting writing, it doesn’t change that it fits a traditional gender role, even if De Sade himself arguably disregarded gender (and even sexuality) as part of the equation. The role of the dominant, sexually capable and strong man, and the subdued, innocent – or perhaps coquettish – female who presents herself to him as a lamb for metaphorical slaughter, is a painful stereotype, and it’s one Carter uses, over and over. The trembling virgin woman and the sexually advanced man, the man being the provider of wealth and home, the virgin myth and the breaking of the hymen, the first orgasm and sexual fulfilment being induced by a male hand… Even the idea of sex as a penetrative act between a man and woman. It’s all outdated. And when the woman is the dominant character, empowered through her sexuality, it is because through this she can control a man. A man then is still needed for her to fulfill her basic needs.
These may be real experiences for some women, but in the Western world, I’m not sure I’d paint them all as the standard, even if we completely ignore the LGBTQA+ community. There’s nothing wrong with Carter’s writing, but as a modern conversation it doesn’t push any new boundaries in the gender conversation. It simply reinforces the old ones, which is an important job, mind, since as quick as those conversation go, someone out there tries to stamp them out again.
I think it’s important to recognise that for some women and men, cis-gendered or trans, their gender identity is tied to their physical body, and is expressed through their sexuality. For some, the gender-norms do apply, and this should not be snubbed, or disregarded. But as we enter a new age of feminist writing, as we explore the subject of gender and sexuality, we must question the binary nature of the discussion. No one quality belongs to a gender, be that strength, colour, or a predilection for knitting. If you want to empower your character, empower them as an individual, and remember; simply applying a male-coded trope to a woman does not equal empowerment.
* This case, beyond gender-politics, was heavily steeped in racism, which must be considered and acknowledged when discussing it.
** That I am currently aware of
This article has just been an expression of some of my thoughts, and I welcome opinions and ideas, whether they be contrary or an expansion of what I have written. I would ask you engage the subject with respect. Intolerance, rudeness or abuse will be deleted. Should you have your own thoughts on the subject, from another standpoint, I would love to hear them as well, and should you have any examples of Carter engaging with LGBTQA+ issues, I especially welcome it.