The New Yorker
BREAKING AWAY FROM GENDER NORMS IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE
BY KAREN ALVAREZ
December 12, 2012

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The assignation of gender comes intertwined with a socially justified rigid set of social roles that are expected to be met from said individual who is being categorized. In her article, “Gender”, Judith Halberstam mentions that this social construct is imposed upon us at birth usually based on our sex and remains rigid for the rest of our lives. “Gendering of the sexed body begins immediately,  as soon as the child is born, and that this socio-biological process is every bit as rigid and immutable as a genetic code.” (117) We have no personal input on deciding our gender from the time that we are born and changing it at a later time based on traits that we choose to embody creates much controversy.

disordered gender

The immutability of gender can be seen in classical literature such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott in which characters who try to break away from the construct end up getting sucked right back into it through the encouragement of other characters. Jo, truncated version of Josephine, is characterized by her free spirit, independent thinking and her tomboyish nature. Jo openly reveals her rejection of femininity, and the ideals that encompass it, in the first chapter of the novel. She gets insulted when her oldest sister Meg encourages her to start acting more like a young lady to which she responds “ I hate to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as Prim as a Chinaaster. It’s bad enough to be a girl any-way, when I like boys games, and work and manners.” (3)  She commits acts like shortening her name and not conforming to the latest fashions in an attempt to rebel against the femininity she cannot dispel. Jo’s frustration with her gender arises from her longing to achieve things beyond “stay[ing] at home and knit[ting] like a pocky-old woman.” (3) Her passion of writing and her refusal to marry Laurie, sets up the reader to believe that her independent nature will ultimately allow her to live a solitary life in pursuit of achieving her dreams and becoming a writer. This hope is shattered when Jo gives up writing to marry Professor Baehr and bears him a son. She ultimately conforms to the fate of her sisters and all women in her society by taking on the roles of mother and wife enclosed in the domestic space. Jo provides literary evidence of the immutability of gender that Halberstam commented on. What happens when the assignation of gender in literature is absent?

Steve Brezenoff makes a bold move by assigning an ambiguous sex to his protagonist Kid in Brooklyn Burning. He successfully achieves this through his usage of non-gender coded names such as Kid and Kid’s love interest Scout in addition to his mode of storytelling. We view the world of the book through Kid’ eyes in a past tense first person narrative written for Scout. This mode of storytelling was the most appropriate for the novel because it enables Scout’s sex to remain unknown since it does not force Kid to refer to Scout with the pronouns of “he or she” but rather as “you”. By lifting the assignation of Gender, the expectations associated with that gender are lifted along with it. As a reader you do not expect the character to act in any particular way or love a particular gender. By not having a gender construct to bias our expectations, we can gear our attention to the genuine traits of a character that all humans share. We learn that despite of the sex or gender identification, everyone suffers hardships the same, we all fall in love the same, and we all get heartbroken.  Transgender literature delivers a world that accepts breaking away from the construct as a norm.

Kid, Scout and the other characters of their generation such as Konny and Ace redefine the social norm in the novel. Konny and her unfaithful boyfriend Ace are presented as bisexual characters. Kid at one point in the novel tries to make a move on Konny because Kid thought that is what she wanted out of their friendship. Konny and Ace also both show lustful interest in Scout but Kid manages to avert their interest to develop into something further. Brezenoff presents a world in which characters have broken out of the gender constructs in which they don’t criticize each other for their decisions. He does however add in an opposing figure representative of a previous generation that disapproves with the changes that the new generations are imposing. Kid’s father is the only character in the novel that bluntly rejects Kid’s choice of identification because it brings him shame. When he is being offered custody of his child he refuses to accept it and says “I’ve got the only kid I know who doesn’t know whether to be straight or gay or a girl or a boy or what.” (121) He follows this statement by saying that he has kept his family hidden from his co-workers for five years implying that it is because he doesn’t want them to see Kid. Though his rejection of his child may also be reflecting his own perceived insecurities of failed parenting, they are meant to be reflective of past generations that are too close minded to allow change in the gender norms. Through the rejection we experience the emotional and physical danger that transgender and homosexual individuals experience and we witness how that unstable state significantly subsides when they find a source of acceptance.

Breaking away from gender norms is controversial but exposing others to different sexualities and identifications is the only way we are going to make them socially acceptable. Through Little Women we witnessed the beginnings of breaking away from gender norms only to ultimately conform to the larger society. In Brooklyn Burning we get see the push beyond the norms and witness how being true to oneself and not conforming to society leads to happiness. By advocating for literature that encompasses different sexualities and identifications, we not only contribute to the effort of making them more acceptable but we also include aid in diminishing the isolation that these people feel by including them in pieces of scholarly mainstream culture.

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