The Sexualized Body as Object and Agent in “Bottoms”
In “Bottoms” by Dagoberto Gilb, the protagonist, who is also the narrator wishes he were the kind of person who would act on “raw desire”. In other words, he wishes for the kind of dominance he identifies with being a top. In order to connect with this masculinity he distances himself, both mentally and physically, from men he perceives to be “top or bottom oriented” and gravitates instead towards a woman at his local pool. This woman is never named, nor do we learn more about her than that she “lives near by” and that she has a husband who is even larger than she is. Instead of providing information about this woman’s past or personality, the narrator fixates on her body, specifically the sexual parts of it. However, the body he initially appears to objectify for the purpose of proving his masculinity takes on power and size of it’s own, ultimately becoming synonymous with the sexual dominance the narrator wishes for himself. Through this reversal of traditional gender and power roles the large woman becomes the symbol of the “top” and the narrator is forced reckon with is own relationship to sex in contrast to her.
The story opens with the narrator coping with a recent breakup and reflecting on what he believes his romantic and sexual shortcomings to be. He says “ I am afraid of raw desire when I encounter it. Though I do wish I could just go after what’s available, even potentially. I hate being such a romantic. I want to be a stereotype: man sees woman. Thinks woman. Thinks tops. Has woman. Satisfies self,” (130). This excerpt reveals three things about the narrator. First, that he is “a romantic” who does not consider himself motivated primarily by carnal desire. Second, that he views his sentimentality as a flaw and would rather be a masculine stereotype of sexual desire. Third, that he extends the “tops and bottoms” framework beyond homosexuality and equates topping with manhood, and perhaps, by extension, bottoming with womanhood.
This concept of tops and bottoms is first introduced to the narrator in a book about “cocks and pecs, hard and soft, big and small,” (129). Defining people by whether they “want it put or want to put it” preoccupies the narrator so much that he can’t help but speculate which way each of the men at his local pool is oriented. Rattled by this preoccupation, he distances himself from a “way too handsome,” presumably gay man who catches him in conversation. He turns instead to the woman at the pool, who, by contrast, has a “soothing” presence. To rescue himself he exits the conversation with the man and joins the woman in the pool. His “touchiness” around the gay man and his distress about tops and bottoms at first read like run-of-the-mill homophobia. However I argue that they foreshadow a deeper insecurity about his passivity in sexual encounters with women.
After allying himself with the woman at the pool once, the narrator opens himself to a friendship with her. The two continue “talking, all caught up in it” and the narrator describes the tone of their relationship as “fine, all of it, friendly and okay. A straight line,” (136). He explains that he has no aim to seduce her, yet his narration focuses more on admiring and noticing the sexual allure of her body than on exploring her life or character. Whereas the handsome man – who the narrator dislikes – is described with a full page of background detail, the woman is described only as someone who lives nearby with a happy husband who is even larger than she is. This woman, who is never named, is developed more as a body than as a character. The narrator notes her “buxom cups…very big,” her “cleavage up to her chin,” (141). He notices that “any shift of fabric or flesh around the breast or thigh… unavoidably make themselves visible,” (133). The narrator, who is dedicated to keeping his life surprise and trouble free, only wants friendship with this woman. Yet his attention to her body seems more in line with the “stereotype of masculinity” than with the romantic self he identifies with. Read in a certain light, it would seem that he wants to look at her through the eyes of the the man he wants to be: as an object to be desired and then topped.
However, when the opportunity for sexual contact arises, the narrator is passive. The large woman initiates: “her mouth is against mine and her tongue goes inside…I am not responding negatively, I am only passive,” (138). Given the narrator’s desire to “see woman. Think woman. Think tops. [Have] woman,” this seems the appropriate moment for him to act on a desire for sexual dominance. However, he does no such thing. He first passively accepts the encounter and then actively ends it.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm about the encounter, the narrator continues to focus on the sexual elements of the woman’s body. But after the first sexual contact, her presence is no longer soothing to him. She becomes a source of anxiety. Rather, her body, its sexual nature and its increasing size, become sources of anxiety. The narrator speaks about her “unavoidable chiche” and describes her sex parts “busting out…and enlarging before [his] eyes,” (144). While previously it seemed possible that the narrator’s male gaze might be a source of power for him, he now seems unsettled by it. The woman’s growing body parts demand attention. In fact her body, which actively grows in front of him, seems to have more agency than he does. He can “feel the gravitational pull of her flesh, the Jupiter of it,” (138). While “gravitation” is a term often used to describe romantic interest, in this case it seems to highlight the unavoidable force that her body exerts over the narrator. Like a small object near a planet he is caught in the pull of her mass by no choice of his own.
The woman’s body becomes unavoidable to the narrator. Although he has no interest in engaging with it sexually, it continues to present itself to him and to expand in his thoughts. He uses the term “sicko” to describes his attention to these “breasts and hips and vaginas” and even tries to return to the task of reviewing his book in order to distract himself. No longer do his descriptions of her body seem to be motivated by a desire to objectify or assert power. Rather, the woman’s body, by growing and attracting his attention, asserts agency of its own.
In contrast to the big woman, the narrator considers the fact that he may be shrinking. He comments that her body is “the very biggest, in truth not opinion. I swear, she is larger every time I see her. Or am I shrinking?” (144). I argue that, because size is a symbol of power, the narrator’s concern that he is shrinking alludes to his fear of being emasculated. The narrator seems to believe that there is a connection between size and power. He alludes to this at the pool when he first comments on the woman’s size: “Ordinarily I’m not this way,” he says, “considering large and small. It is a direct effect of this novel,” (131). Nowhere in the story does the narrator say that size is discussed in the novel. All he says is that it is a story about tops and bottoms, gay relationships, and sex. For this reason, it is implied that his thoughts about large and small are directly related to his thoughts about tops and bottoms. It is important to note that outside of “Bottoms,” topping and bottoming refers to sexual roles that do not necessarily prescribe power dynamics. However, the connection the narrator draws between large/small and top/bottom implies that he conflates topping and largeness with power. For this reason, the woman’s growing body can be read as a symbol of her increasing sexual dominance while the narrator’s fear of shrinking corresponds with his fear of being “a romantic” and his anxiety about asserting sexual dominance. Not only is the narrator passive, but he is “shrinking” from the stereotype of masculinity.
As the woman continues to press her body onto the narrator, first “boring through the skull’s thick crust” with kisses and then plunging through his window with “her muscular arms and then this bulk that is her body,” she continues to perform dominance by penetrating first his brain and then is home. In these examples the sexual power of her growing body not only invades his mind, but it pushes into his physical space. It is in these moments that the woman truly embodies the raw sexual desire that the narrator both fears and wishes that he himself could act on. More than a character, the large woman becomes a symbol for the things the narrator cannot become. Although he attempts to evade his thoughts about tops and bottoms by putting off reviewing his book, by exiting the conversation with the handsome man, and by ignoring his phone-calls, ultimately, the narrator is confronted by the embodiment of everything that frightens him in the form of a woman.
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