We all like being in a club. It gives us a sense of belonging, camaraderie, having someone on your side. It also usually helps if you have an opponent you can set yourself up against. The one ‘club’ that is often presumed to be pre-ordained, is that of your gender role. I’m not sure it’s quite so straightforward as that.
Just the other night, me and my friends got into a discussion about Gigi Gorgeous, a transgender Youtube sensation (apparently) whose boyfriend insists that he is a straight man. It’s understandable. From a sociological and anthropological point of view, the straight man is pretty much the strongest position to be in, from the perspective of the species. Unfortunately, as with any membership, it carries an inherent disavowal of belonging to any others – i.e. so I’m not gay. Which carries a value judgement.
Call me idealistic (although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that raising a child as ‘gender-free’ is entirely necessary or desirable) but I think we’re all overcomplicating the issue in order to feel like we have a sense of belonging. Rather like the autistic spectrum, people occupy different places on the scale in terms of gendered and sexual identity. Thus many females display what are considered ‘male’ characteristics, and many gay people display what are termed ‘straight’ characteristics – and everything else in between. Ditching these gendered and sexualised polar opposites and adopting an outlook whereby we all carry a range of gender-determined behaviours would place us all in the same, while possibly occupying different sides of, the boat (at this point feel free to extend the metaphor and decide which crew member you’d like to be, port v starboard etc.)
Which is why I was intrigued to read Larry’s Party by Carol Shields. Partly because I am a woman writing a male narrative voice, but also because I was curious to see the elements she would include in order to communicate ‘maleness’ through the close third person point of view (interesting that she chose this rather than first person).
In part, we are on fairly ‘traditional’ and well-trodden ground: A straight white male, living in Canada/the USA who gets married, has a kid, gets divorced, the usual. She does give him a passion for flowers and plants, which is a nice touch. Arguably he displays more ‘male’ behaviour here as he gets obsessed with mazes and privet. It’s quite common to attribute pseudo-scientific characteristics to show maleness, as opposed to the ’emotional’ feminine side. But I digress. It does allow for an interesting inter-generational point to be made about changing attitudes towards what constitutes a man – spanning twenty years. The book takes us from 1976 to 1996, a period of enormous change in these areas. Larry has to work within completely different parameters to his father, as does his son as he begins to grow up. Each generation seems perturbed by the next.
Part of the ‘maleness’ is the topics covered. The entire chapter when he turns 40 is entitled ‘Larry’s Penis,’ and includes many musings on his use of it, the importance of sex to him, and how this has developed over his life. Over the course of the novel, these self-aware sections allow for a much wider critique and exploration of what it means to be a modern (at the time of writing) man. The fact that she allows her character more inner musings as he gets older also fits the way she develops the narrative voice over the years. The writer shifts his vocabulary and syntax subtly as the novel progresses, allowing the later chapters to be more verbose and ‘literary.’ She does insert a plot point around the middle when he suddenly gets obsessed with words and their meanings, which I think is a slightly sneaky way of allowing that to happen (note to self).
In other ways, he does very much fall into the ways we usually see maleness. He can’t express himself very well emotionally to his friends, he only cries once in twenty years, he is obsessed with the female form and he struggles with how to relate to his son. It is refreshing that he doesn’t go to college, and that he works in a flower shop for a very long period in his life. These are lives that, while on the surface might seem ‘dull,’ are worth exploring and commenting on.
Which leads, perhaps circuitously, to what literature may or may not be all about. So often we turn to forms of art or entertainment to reassure of us of the things that we want to be true (American Sniper being a good current example) because it is comforting to have the world represented as we want it to be. At other times, we want to be challenged, to have our expectations turned upside down (think The Wasp Factory or the Smack my Bitch Up video). Frankly, I’m greedy and I want them all.
Living in someone else’s head for a few hours/days/years is the privilege of book reading. Losing myself in Larry’s head taught me that not everyone is willing to crowbar gender into ‘accepted’ shapes, or that even if they do, the outcome can be far more subtle and intriguing than you might expect.
I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on gendered roles. Also how you write a post like this without using an excessive amount of inverted commas…