The New Yorker
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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The Reality Derived From Fairy Tales

The Reality Derived From Fairy Tales

 A Review of Between the Lines  by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

Did you really think that a story exists only when you’re reading it? When you go to sleep at night do you [too] cease existing? (36)

Whenever readers pick up “Between the Lines” the characters in the fairy tale put on a show by acting out the script that has been written for them by the author. When the book is closed however, they drop their act and try to appreciate living their own lives until the next reader picks up the book and they have to perform the story all over again.  Oliver, the hero, is tired of having to repeatedly go on a quest to save the love of his life who he, outside the script, believes is a total Bimbo.  He desperately wants control over his own life.  Delilah, a fifteen year old girl, who is ostracized socially at school, finds herself constantly dreaming about her prince charming. The stress of improving her social standing and making her single mother proud of her lead her to escape into the fictional world that the fairy tale provides. One day, after her millionth time reading the story she notices something new on the page, the words “helped me” carved out by the hero of the fairy tale. After overcoming the shock triggered by her disbelief that Oliver is talking to her, she initiates her quest to release him from the constraints of the book and the tale of the star crossed lovers begins.

The style of the novel is unique in that it offers a frame narrative, a story within a story, which is a mode of storytelling that was made famous through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The book immerses the reader into a world where fiction is reality and the barrier between the book and the reader becomes permeable.  The story alternates between three different storylines; there’s the direct storyline from the fairy tale with an omniscient narrator and there’s the focalization of both Delilah and Oliver told from the first person point of view. By alternating the focalization, Picoult and Van Leer paint a more complete picture of the action for the audience while allowing us to peer into the direct thoughts of the characters. This method is crucial in the bridging of Oliver’s fictional fairytale world and Delilah’s nonfictional world.

Picoult and her daughter Van Leer, create a reversal in hegemonic gender roles through their characters. They create a storyline in which the prince is the one that needs saving instead of the archetypical damsel in distress; this makes the man look helpless and gives agency to the woman. The men in the novel are also cast as being the ones more likely to swoon over their loved ones.  At one point Oliver says “I can live without leaving this fairy tale but I can’t live without her.”(216) The prince is willing to give up his life to be with a girl that he has never met. The women in the story with the exception of the protagonists are all cast as feminists. Delilah’s mother, works all day so that she provide for her daughter and does not have to depend on a man. The mermaids in the fairytale world all encourage Delilah to leave Oliver because she does not need him to be happy. Delilah herself however is cast as being very selfish,  she focuses on comforting herself by attempting to bring her prince charming into her world at the expense of worrying her mother and ignoring her best friend. I was disappointed in that there was really no significant character growth in any of the characters by the end of the novel.  It’s interesting to note that after the book is shut within the fairy tale world, the characters break out of their character genres; the prince needs saving, the bad guy is benevolent offering help to his fellow actors, the trolls are joyous and the love-hungry mermaids are hard core feminists.

Delilah immerses herself in the fairy tale to escape the reality of her lonely life, while Oliver calls out for help in the hopes of escaping his monotonous scripted life. This theme of escapism arises from the universal need of attaining happiness. The reason for this need to escape is hinted in the novel as being instigated by unrealistic expectations presented by the  cultures hegemonic presentations of love. The book particularly blames Disney’s whitewashed versions of fairytales where the Little Mermaid doesn’t commit suicide and Cinderella’s stepsisters don’t hack off chunks of flesh from their feet to fit into the glass slipper. By withholding these facts, Disney paints love as always having a happily ever after and causes girls like Delilah, to become disappointed at how incongruent these expectations are with the real world. In the novel we learn that Delilah was escaping the real world to find comfort in the world of her fairy tales only to learn that her fairy tale characters were also trying to escape their world. Through this Irony the novel tries to teach that life will never be perfect, not even in fairy tales so one must embrace the good things in their lives and make the best out of the hand that they are dealt with in life.

Picoult and Van Leer suggest this universal idea of escapism through books by using the title to create a parallel between the fairytale that Delilah reads and the story that we are reading. I believe they  did this with the purpose of demonstrating how relatively easy it is to lose ourselves in a good book and the accompanying ideas presented with it. This parallel includes the reader as part of this escapist phenomena  and allows us to sympathize more with Delilah.

Though the book is targeted at younger readers, it can easily appeal to everyone because in addition to being a fairytale-esque  novel  it encompasses topics such as gender role reversal, the subconscious effects of culture, and  feminism ideology. As a fan of Jodi Picoult’s other novels I was excited that her first co-written  YA novel still embodied her captivating writing style (minus all the court logistics).