Challenging Binary Gender: Woman on the Edge of Time and Trumpet

January 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

Examining the concept of binary gender proves valuable when exploring gender and sexuality within literature. This essay will examine this notion by focusing on how key novels relating to gender and sexual challenge the fixity of a gender binary, focusing specifically on how far Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Jackie Kay’s Trumpet challenge this idea in their textual depictions.

Trumpet criticizes binary gender by its inclusion of issues relating to gender identity in a context of a contemporary society that fails to approach gender as anything but binary. In the novel, when considering the fact that recent widow Millie had been married to Joss – a woman who lived as a man – journalist Sophie asks herself ‘why?’, proceeding to ponder that ‘it’s all weird […] a woman who slicked her hair with oil’.[1] This example is one of many in the text representing that the bulk of in response to Joss’s identity came after his death, in the form of others opinions, and was not indicative of dissatisfaction on his part. This contrast highlights the narrow-mindedness of Sophie’s viewpoint regarding the dismantling of a fixed gender binary, suggesting that the text is criticizing this standpoint.

Woman on the Edge of Time furthers the criticism of binary gender by use of a science fiction component to the novel, introducing a future world that exists without gender binaries. This element allows for the notion of non-fixed binary gender to be explicitly presented, contrasting against the gender binary that exists in the present day of the novel, and with the preconceived beliefs of main character – Connie – herself. Next to the definitive displays of gender binary critiques in the future setting, more subtle criticisms of gender binary are seen in the narrative of the present timeline of the novel. This represents the inherent obliviousness to the damage caused by binary gender in the present day.

The second world, Mattapoisettis, is able to highlight the issues that present-day Connie misses, by its introduction of a perfect, harmonious world that is bred from the dismantling of gender binaries. The fact that Connie initially disagrees with – and is shocked by – the non-binary elements in Mattapoisettis is ironic, as she is presently living a life as ‘Consuelo […] silent as clay. The woman who suffers. Who bears and endures. […] who managed to get two years of college – till Consuelo got pregnant’,[2] thus a victim to her binary. The use of non-gendered pronouns in Mattapoisett identify that issues caused in the present would be eliminated if people were not considered to adhere to a binary. In Connie’s case she is a victim of sexism – due to the expectation of her to fit inside a female binary – which would not exist in a genderless society. The challenge of the fixity of gender binaries is a constant presence in the novel, implied by the contrast of the binaurally gendered world next to the genderless one.

Both Woman on the Edge of Time and Trumpet explore the effect of binary gender in regards to parenthood. In Woman on the Edge of Time, many of Connie’s hardships stem from her being a mother.[3] As a woman she is expected to be the primary carer of her child, causing strain on her due to her position as a single parent. When her child is then taken away from her the experience is heightened in severity due to her being a woman, leaving Connie feeling she failed as a mother, and thus as a woman. In contrast, the futurist community of Mattapoisett introduces the idea of co-parenting between multiple individuals who are all considered mothers, regardless of sex. This setup is depicted as harmonious due to the lack of polarized or fixed gender identities being able to eliminate biases in parental responsibility (‘”The way we do it, no one has enough alone, but two or three together share breast-feeding”’[4]).

In Trumpet, being unable to conceive a baby causes conflict in Connie and Joss’s relationship (‘He can […] walk like a man, talk like a man, dress like a man […] Why can he get me pregnant like a man?’[5]). Connie’s frustration is in part due to Joss not being able to fully conform to the binary of a male, due to not being able to be an impregnator. A factor that is seen to be eliminated as an issue in Woman on the Edge of Time’s genderless Mattapoisettis. Trumpet further identifies tension in the family unit due to the inclusion of transgenderism in the family. Colman’s discontentment regarding his relationship with his adoptive father is due to the realization that his deceased father was born a woman. This confusion is not simply due to his father being transgender, but due to a failure to reconcile the man and woman as one person. Colman ponders why this father shaved; ‘how [did] the hair [get] there. Or was there never any hair. Did he just pretend? Did he take hormones to make himself hairy? Fucking Jesus’.[6] This example fixates on the importance Colman applies to his father to have introduced him to masculine experiences. He renders the experiences he did have with his father buying him his first shaving set as tainted and invalid as it was not really a man guiding him through the experience. Colman’s conflict exists due to the societal expectation of binary gender, his conflict a result of attempting and failing to fit his perceptions of his father into the constraints of this preconceived binary.

The emphasis on the ritual of shaving in Trumpet is an example of what Judith Butler describes as ‘gender performativity’. In Gender Trouble, Butler defines performativity as ‘the way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self’.[7] This performativity is practiced repetitively during one’s life, meaning that one is constantly attempting to simulate the attributes associated with one’s binary gender, rendering displays of gender unnatural. In Trumpet, Joss can be read as explicitly exemplifying gender performativity, due to his submission to fit a binary, even if it is not the one he was born under. Despite Joss’s predisposition to adhere to a male binary, his subconscious, which is portrayed when playing jazz, is portrayed as living outside of either binary (‘It all falls off – bandages, braces, cufflinks, watches, hair grease […] He is himself again. […] It is liberating. To be a girl. To be a man’[8]). In this description, we can see that, despite living comfortably as a man, Joss feels most liberated and true to himself when not tied down by the constraints of adhering to one binary. This is reflective of Butler’s assertion that ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender’.[9] And with the inclusion of many instances of other characters in the novel similarly displaying gender performativity (‘I buy up the shop. I don’t shop for pleasure. A wardrobe thick and dense, black skirts with slits, gold mesh halter neck tops […] is a wardrobe of the woman I’d like to be’[10]), it can be deduced that the texts representations of performativity serve as criticism of the binary gender system, due do the failure of characters to naturally fall into it.

Butler also considers that, as a result of performativity, it is ‘never possible finally to become a woman’.[11] In Woman on the Edge of Time, the introduction of the character Gildina prophesizes a reality where performativity could reach an outcome. Gildina represents the outcome of rigid gender roles if they continued to be adhered to with progressively rigid application – her heightened femininity (and her unawareness of its unusualness) blurring the lines between performance and an inherent binary. Gildina’s physical appearance is described to adhere to a ‘cartoon of femininity’, and she appears as if she could ‘hardly walk for the extravagance of her breasts and buttocks’.[12] Gildina also lives in a future where women fall into submissive roles, much more so than in Connie’s time period (‘You look me in the eyes, unlike a fem’[13]). The extreme setting of this second potential future is able to add another layer of illumination to the criticism of binary gender in the text, the dystopian, totalitarian society contrasting with both the present day and the Utopian Mattapoisettis, highlighting the disturbing reality of what gender binary could progress towards.

To conclude this essay, whilst Kay explores gender identity in depth in Trumpet, her challenging of the fixity binary is heavily represented by a concentration of the two binaries. Woman on the Edge of Time, however, challenges the fixity of the gender binary further by introducing a fictitious world that runs efficiently and harmoniously as a result of the non-incorporation of a gender binary.

[1] Jackie Kay, Trumpet (London: Pan Macmillan, 1998), p. 133.

[2] Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (London: Penguin Random House, 2016), p. 129.

[3] K. Rudy, ‘Ethics, reproduction, utopia: Gender and childbearing in Woman on the Edge of Time and The Left Hand of Darkness’, NWSA Journal; Baltimore, 9.1 (1997), 22-38 (p. 25).

[4] Piercy, Woman, p. 143.

[5] Kay, Trumpet, p. 35.

[6] Kay, Trumpet, p. 109.

[7] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002), p. 179.

[8] Kay, Trumpet, p. 120.

[9] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 33.

[10] Kay, Trumpet, p. 204.

[11] Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 43-44.

[12] Piercy, Woman, p. 314.

[13] Piercy, Woman, p. 327.

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