Sexing the Cherry
The Unsuccessful Overturn of Patriarchy in Sexing the Cherry
How should we fight against evil? The question is an eternal one, one which will have bearing on life during all ages. Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry is a good example of this because it crosses the lines of multiple time periods – it is set in 17th century London, the present day and a few time periods in between – and because it addresses many perceived social injustices and makes statements about them. It is the story of a journeying mother, Dog-Woman, and her son, Jordan, who break boundaries, blur lines and question conventionally accepted ideals. One such topic that is questioned is the idea of patriarchy and Winterson employs the retelling of a fairy tale, in which the women actively seize their own destinies, to make a statement about the oppression and inadequacies of the patriarchal system. The retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, however, is unsuccessful in its fight against patriarchy because it portrays women as violent, over the top, maniacal creatures who dish out punishments that do not fit the crime.
A case by case analysis shows that the majority of the twelve dancing princesses fights evil with evil. A few of them find some method of escape that is fairly harmless, but many of them end up murdering their husbands. The first princess falls in love with a mermaid and runs away to begin “housekeeping with her in perfect salty bliss” but the second princess tells Jordan that “she had wrapped her own husband in cloth and gone on wrapping the stale bandages round and round until she reached his nose” (43-44). While the method of some of the princesses is harmless, those princesses are a minority. Instead, most of them, like the second princess, murder the husband in a fairly violent yet creative manner. They are faced with evil – oppressive and often violent husbands – and they meet that evil with more evil – murderous behavior. This suggests that the only way for women to be active against injustice or to be autonomous is to behave in an evil manner. Winterson wants the reader to think about fighting against the oppression of women, but the only example she gives of the fight against oppression is murder. This sends the message that not only is murder acceptable, but also that it is the only or maybe the best way to struggle against an oppressive husband. If Winterson is suggesting that the way to fight evil is with more evil, she does not present a successful argument for the fight against oppression because evil cannot drive out evil, it can only add to it.
Some of the princesses resort to violent punishments that are unwarranted in terms of the crimes of their husbands. Many of the husbands are not innocent, that is for sure. But the justification for some of these cases is certainly lacking. One of the princesses poisons her husband to death and she does not even really attempt to justify why she does it; in fact, the most negative thing that she says about him is that “he is very, very fat. He is the fattest man in the village. He has always been fat. He has eleven brothers, all of whom are as slender as spring corn. Every day he eats one cow followed by one pig” (49). Certainly, this man demonstrates gluttonous behavior to an extreme level, but does this warrant death? Is overeating so bad that one ought to be poisoned to death for it? The way this princess describes his death (“As soon as he had finished [the poisonous concoction that she had mixed up for him] he began to sell up. He swelled out of the house, cracking the roof, and within a few moments had exploded” ) seems cruel and unusual if the crime is enjoying food too much. Perhaps his death could be justified if this man had been painted as a person who takes excessively and does not regard that some things should not be taken, but Winterson does not do that. Instead, she depicts him simply as a gluttonous man and, in effect, she makes the woman look ridiculous for poisoning someone to death simply because they enjoy food. This example presents the woman as cruel, unjust, and irrational; it does not present compelling evidence that women ought to fight against the patriarchal system that constrains them. Instead, it suggests that women are ridiculous and are unable to react in a relevant way when presented with difficulties.
The behaviors of the princesses place them on the same level as their oppressive husbands. It does not merit approval; instead, it depicts them as being just as bad as their dictatorial husbands. When the husband of the fifth princess blinds her, no reaction is necessary in order to feel sympathy for the princess. His actions are so horrific that no response is needed for the reader to acknowledge and be outraged by his chillingly evil conduct. But the princess does respond and she responds in a way that suggests that she seeks personal vengeance:
As for me, my body healed, though my eyes never did, and eventually I was found by my sisters, who had come in their various ways to live on this estate.
My own husband?
Oh well, the first time I kissed him he turned into a frog.
There he is, just by your foot. His name’s Anton. (47)
This quote is cold, sinister. It suggests that the princess has become just as evil as her husband was. It continues the theme that the princesses ought to fight against their evil circumstances with evil tactics. Indeed, it is the second princess who says that she “had a moment’s regret, and continued” as if she knew that what she was doing was not right, was not warranted, but she does not stop (44). The princesses are fighting against evil, but they have become evil themselves, so why should we sympathize with them? Why should we advocate for their behavior? Is it not just as bad as the behavior against which they are so opposed?
Ultimately, neither party is worthy of admiration because both the princesses and their husbands are in the same moral condition. This is most clearly displayed by the tale of the ninth princess who was chained to the bed and chained when she rode her horse and who had to hang at her husband’s arm and feed at his hand (50). One night in June, she “flew off his wrist and tore his liver from his body, and bit [her] chain in pieces and left him on the bed with his eyes open” (51). It is hard to choose which person behaves more despicably. I suppose that the argument could be made that her husband is worthy of greater blame than she is because he instigated horrid behaviors without reason while she was merely reacting to her circumstances. But when it is such an evil, such an immoral, such an unspeakable act, does motive matter? Certainly, it makes the crime more understandable, but not more justifiable. But I would argue that the behavior of this princess is just as bad as the behavior of her husband and as such, it is not commendable, it is not justifiable, it should not be hailed as a courageous struggle against oppression and patriarchy. If their behaviors are at the same place on a spectrum of morality and her husband’s behavior is not acceptable, her behavior is assuredly not acceptable either. To admire this princess’s conduct would be grossly inconsistent because it would mean that one admires in the princess what one despises in her husband.
The validity of Winterson’s idea – that women must combat the evilness of oppression with which they are surrounded and that they take an active role in expressing their autonomy by resisting the repression of their husbands who are so ingrained in a patriarchal system that they know no other way to behave – is completely negated by the fact that she demonstrates this struggle as a violent war, a war in which one must meet evil with more evil. She contradicts herself. On the one hand, she presents the oppressive, unfaithful, and sometimes, violent men as evil, abominable, as a force against which the princesses ought not give in, but ought instead to endeavor actively to combat these men. But on the other hand, she portrays the violent and cruel women who commit murderous acts as commendable, as people who fight bravely against injustice. The problem is that this suggests that murder of the oppressor is the only way to combat oppression. This is ultimately what renders Winterson’s argument unsuccessful – it suggests only one way, and an evil way at that, to break free of patriarchal constraints, but life is not so one-dimensional. Life is complexity and the fight against oppression is no exception.
Winterson, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. New York: Grove Press, 1989. Print.
The Broadened Notion of Gender and the Possibilities It Implies in Winterson’s ‘Sexing the Cherry’
Jeanette Winterson’s 1989 novel Sexing the Cherry, through postmodern elements of experimentation of literary forms and untraditional narrative structure as well as featuring elements of magic realism subverts the established notions regarding gender as well as sexuality. This subversion from the prevailing ideas of gender does not just happen in a role reversal manner, but also asserts to broaden the spectrum of gender itself, whilst drawing close attention to the formulation of the conventional gender identities (and gender binarism) and at the same time, demolishing them.
The long-established gender identities are perturbed through various characters and methods, such as through Dog-Woman, the motif of grafting and the provocation of a dilemma in Jordan of his gender. It is to be noted that Winterson reverses the gender specific expectation by shifting the focus on the “selves” of these characters rather than their roles, and thus normalizes the unconventional roles that they play. In the words of Gilbert and Gubar, “The woman who speaks out is branded as an active monster.” Winterson adheres to this definition when she pens the character of the Dog-Woman, and in doing so, she challenges the repressive patriarchy, which deliberately denies women the execution of an aspect of the self, outside the predesigned gender role. Winterson uses and challenges this orthodoxy of definitions and their normalcy by normalizing the unconventional idea of freedom and agency in choosing one’s own identity in the novel. This agency is not just bestowed to the Dog-Woman, but also the twelve dancing princess, Jordan and exhibited with the idea of grafting.
As depicted by Winterson, the Dog-Woman is an almost monstrous and hideous woman, who considers profanity decorative, one that even Winterson describes as “The only woman in English fiction confident enough to use filth as a fashion accessory.” This description undermines the notion of femininity. Even Elizabeth Langland argues that “women’s bodies are at once a site for inscription of conventional meaning and also a locus for their disruption. The very materiality of body is vividly depicted in the huge bulk of Dog Woman …her representation reinvents the female body as a site for cultural transformation.”
The female narrator also takes over the agency of the novel, which conflicts with the idea of a Medieval Woman as she refuses to be the representation or mockery of men, but all the more upholding certain features as the talkative and sexually aggressive woman. She remains anatomically and biologically a female, and even goes to the length of acquiring some lady like manner whilst meeting Tradescant, but this doesn’t obliterate how she single handedly takes down a dozen of men who come to forfeit her house, or kill and gouge out eyes and teeth of the people who are against the king. This authenticates that she is ready to transgress from the definition of a woman in a patriarchal society, and become an agent of her own life, standing up for what she believes in, even if it means to go to the length of violence. What is to be kept in mind is the normalization of the gruesome language used by Dog-Woman and her violent ways. This alludes to the fact that Winterson writes familiar into the strange, as this normalization of violence has an uneasiness surrounding it, one which won’t entail had the same action been taken by a male protagonist and would be, perhaps dubbed heroic. This doubled edged design seems almost intentional to challenge the normativity of gender binarism. Her violence against Firebrace and Scroggs brings her closer to a warrior than to a delicate woman and the imagery of dismemberment and necrophilia points to the type of woman that men fear. As Toril Moi puts it: “The monster woman is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell—in short, a woman who rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her” (57). It is not due to happenstance, therefore, that the men who the Dog-Woman kills are Puritans, “a community linked to repression, conventionalism, asceticism and the condemnation of the worldly, of the flesh.” Dog-Woman rebels against patriarchy first by using bodily force, by reversing the natural balance according to which man is more powerful than woman and secondly, by choosing not to censor or euphemize the horrid aspects of bodily functions that she witnesses. Dog-Woman is as “masculine” as she is a “female”. This idea of double identity encapsulates that of a grafted cherry. The gender doesn’t remain one but becomes a “self” rather than a “role”. Grafting hands over this agency (of choosing the gender) to the self. This is what Winterson supports. She is in favor of the agency of the self to espouse to one gender or the possibility of many of them, in accordance with the decision of the self. Winterson describes that hybridization doesn’t lead one to be sex less but encompasses all that one could be. This is exemplified skillfully in the character of Jordan.
Jordan breaks down all sorts of barriers, between the sexes, between the ages, and between reality and lie. When explaining grafting Jordan says, that it is “the means whereby a plant, perhaps tender or uncertain, is fused into a hardier member of its strain, and so the two take advantage of each other and produce a third kind” This grafting carries a metaphorical significance for Jordan as he later on says, “What I would like is to have some of Tradescant grafter on to me so that I could be a hero like him. He will flourish in any climate, pack his ships with precious things and be welcomed with the full honours when the King is restored.” Jordan’s writing is charged with a dilemma and pervaded with a poetical virtuosity that is often equated with the spoken language of womankind. Even though there is the evidence of his discourses being marked by the qualities of femininity, this instance demonstrates Jordan’s performance of male values. Here he is in pursuit of, “the colonial male dream of conquering other spaces and he incorporates the stereotypes of travelling, fighting, searching for love in the model of the male hero”.
Here, ironically, the Dog-Woman reflects the ideology of a patriarchy which doesn’t accept this new gendered species, and says that “such things had no gender and were a confusion to themselves.” This connotes the reaction that is witnessed against bisexuality and even gender fluidity. The transgression of gender stereotypes and the open embrace of bisexuality is only ascribed to Jordan; Dog-Woman remains a conservative being who sticks to clear-cut distinctions and the cast-iron certainties of matter. From this we infer that Sexing the Cherry reverts the traditional assumptions of women’s language as sentimental and men’s language as clear, scientific, pragmatic. Dog-Woman’s discourse becomes highly-unfeminine in its emphasis on grotesque details of the body; its monstrosity resides in its capacity to speak out, to refuse the passivity that society assigns to women.
Winterson, while showcasing the need for grafting emphasizes on the possibility of more than two genders and it is Jordan, who through his preoccupation with grafting and crossdressing, rejects and blurs the clear distinctions between the sexes. His search is not so much for the missing dancer, Fortunata, but for the fantasy of androgyny, symbolized by the very metaphor of grafting in the title. This fantasy of androgyny is brought about Jordan in many instances, such as “The inward life tells us we are multiple, not single”. Winterson also suggests experimentation with different gender identities in the case of Jordan. He doesn’t want to be confined to just one thing, for example he questions the notion of identity when asking “I’ve heard people say we are shaped by our childhood. But which one?” or when he desperately tries to fit into his biologically given role, “I want to be like other men”. It is to be kept in mind that Jordan wants to pursue a “self” or a “role” unknown (or unnatural) to him, whilst not losing who he is; he doesn’t want to not delve into the questions and philosophy that he does, he doesn’t want to not go on adventures of fantasy and meet people who don’t exist, he just wants to explore the opposite of this role as well. He is also very aware of how he isn’t like other men (or how Dog-Woman doesn’t adhere to the conventional role of a woman). An interesting example of this is showcased when Jordan seems to be aware that the Dog-Woman is the one between them who takes on the role of a protector when it is supposed to be him. This acceptance doesn’t bring about resentment in him; instead he embraces all that he is. What he wants is to transgress the boundaries set for him. He wants to be all that he is and more.
Judith Butler asserts that “gender identity is a matter of ‘performativity’ and we see how the novel destabilizes the notions of gender identity by exposing how these are mere cultural constructs and not something which is natural and inherent. The Dog Woman is very much a woman and a mother but doesn’t conform to behavioral norms, notions of motherhood, femininity as laid down by patriarchy whilst Jordan’s discourse, is permeated by multiplicity regarding reality, sexuality, history, and challenges phallocentric unity. In the feminization of Jordan and the empowerment of Dog-Woman, Winterson explores the notions of gender identities and its various possibilities, by rewriting and reassigning gender roles and shifting the focus on the “self”, more than on the “role”.
Winterson, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. New York. Vintage. 1987
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York. Routledge. 1990
Doan, Laura. “Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Postmodern” in The Lesbian Postmodern. Columbia University Press. 1994
Langland, Elizabeth. “Sexing the Text: Narrative Drag as Feminist Poetics and Politics in Jeanette Winterson’s “Sexing the Cherry.” Narrative 5.1. 1997. 99-107.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 2002