April 25, 2010

Gendered narrative and shifting(?) paradigms

Over at Parabasis, Ben Owen gives a few "Notes on Closure and Quality." Isaac posted a comment that contained a statement that I wanted to explore in more depth and coming from a different direction. It suggests the core of what I've been thinking about lately about the personal being politically radical. I'm responding to it directly here not because I have a personal thing against him or what he's saying, but because it's the clearest way for me to align the content of his comment with the larger point I want to make. It sucks that I have to say this, but since this is the Internet, I should state this as plainly as I can.

Isaac states that:
I'm not sure i totally understand the idea that a desire for closure is (a) gendered and (b) specifically masculine. I get that the traditional narrative structure makes a rather nice metaphor for the male experience of sexual pleasure (and vice versa) but I'm not sure I really get it beyond that, particularly since I don't see much evidence that female artists or audiences are more willing to go for non-closure narratives (I'm not including Soap Operas here simply because I think there's a difference between Finite Narratives that end without closure and Endless Narratives like Soaps-- which traditionally appeal to a female audience-- or mainstream comix franchises-- which traditionally appeal to a male one) . If anything, I see a lot of art that frustrates the desire for closure as being full of masculine posturing, i.e. "Are you MAN enough to deal with my lack of wrapping things up for you, or are you a wuss?!"
I recall reading on an anti-racist blog about someone describing a friend of theirs having a tough time of acclimating to university life, and that friend had talked about feeling as though as people were speaking in a secret code that allows them access to resources and opportunities. At the time, the narrator said that they didn't feel that was the case. The friend countered with the idea that perhaps the narrator spoke that code without realizing it.

It may be hard for you to fully understanding the distinction because, well, you're a cisgender man*, and your own style of communicating - at least in writing - is firmly within that masculine paradigm. In addition, from what I've seen, you engage most fully with a manner of communicating that also fits that style - even if you disagree with the content of what you're responding to. Not to mention, a lot of these ideas are very nuanced and can only be fully grasped through experience. As a result, it's not surprising that what you talk about as closure in general is actually a very specific type of closure**, one rooted in a paradigm dominated by men.

As I hinted at in "The Visibility of Whiteness," part of how dominance works - at least in cultural terms - is that it takes a subjective perspective and renders it neutral. It takes the visible and makes it invisible. So what you get is a very particular way of looking at things and making it simply "the way things are."

Is it really any wonder that you don't have the tools to recognize or analyze narratives that don't fit that model?

Of course, this naturally leads to a question I find incredibly interesting, if only for the fact that it increases possibilities instead of reduces them. That question being . . .

Where and how do you find these tools?

You might want to start with Helene Cixous (in the original French if you want to grasp the full richness of her ideas - which I cannot do yet). After getting a grounding in Cixous, I would suggest examining narratives that have traditionally been handed down by women. Namely, fairy tales. Try to focus on collections from the Italian, Germanic, and French traditions because those are closest to the original oral sources (aka women). I would avoid the ones created by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson. If you can get your hands on it, Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber is a must-read.

Outside of fairy tales, literature by Black women is a good place to go because that non-linear narrative is presented so clearly. Toni Morrison, naturally. Gayl Jones' Corregidora also. Octavia Butler's Kindred. Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuff. Toni Cade Bambara.

Manga is a very interesting place to look as well. The entire shoujo-ai genre (not the same as yuri!) is heavily female-centric. Revolutionary Girl Utena (the series) is a great example of  feminine narrative. You might also want to check out Strawberry Panic and Maria-sama ga Miteru. The Inuyasha manga is also a good source to explore.

Why do I focus on literature as opposed to other media? In collaborative arts like film and theatre, it's hard to get a sense of who's driving the process. I also majored in English at an HBCU, which meant that most of my teachers (and most of the works I studied) were by and about Black women. As a result, I can list things off the top of my head that most people have to dig around to find. Ditto my thing for anime.

* You sort of brushed this off as tangential when you probably should make it central. When you say, "I don't see much evidence that female artists or audiences are more willing to go for non-closure narratives," why do you think you don't see it?

** A circle has closure, but that shape carries clearly feminine connotations. So what do people really mean when they say "closure"?


  1. RVC,

    I've actually read many of the examples on your list. I love Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison (although I need to read more of them). I read Cixous in college, as most people taking 200 level lit classes end up doing. And I've read Shange. Do you like Spell #7?

    Thinking over your list... I still don't get it. And I totally understand that quantifying something that's most easily visible in an experiential way is... complicated. So... I get that Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (to take a really concrete example) has a seemingly-impulsive plotting style that Freytag and his Pyramid couldn't touch with a jet pack, where event carooms into the next event in a way that just builds and builds and builds until it explodes on the last page. And I'm totally open to the idea that her blackness and femaleness deeply underpin her plot structures. I'm just interested in someone laying out for me how they do that.

    Or is it simply that black female writers tend to plot like that and white and or male writers don't? (I'm not saying that's true, I'm just thinking about the Black Playwrights Convening, where a black playwright/director/lit manager laid out what for him were the commonalities underpinning black dramaturgy that make black playwriting different on some fundamental level from white playwriting).

  2. I've actually read many of the examples on your list.

    You kind of missed the point.

    It's like learning a different language. You need to be immersed in that language to get a feel for what it really sounds like so you can recognize the language even if you don't understand the words. It is next to impossible for me to render that understanding in a logical, concise, easily comprehended manner without doing a huge disservice to the attempt.

    I may as well try to teach you Chinese through a blog post. The most I could do is say, "This is the textbook I used. Here are some sources I came across where you can use your limited vocabulary and grammar. Go and study." Many people have already seen old-school kung fu flicks or Chinese cinema like Raise the Red Lantern, but not from the perspective of learning how to speak and listen to Mandarin.

    And I totally understand that quantifying something that's most easily visible in an experiential way is... complicated.

    As it seems, only intellectually, and only in the sense that such a quantification would be inaccurate rather than problematic because of how it would adhere to instead of transform the dominant discourse - which is usually what I'm getting at but no one seems to grasp.