Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Author: Smyth

Alison in Drag

What Alison Bechdel and her father have in common goes beyond genetics. They share a common sexuality and confusion over their gender expression. Alison explains this confusion over her gender expression several times in the novel, once even begging her brothers to call her Albert instead of Alison in the cab of a tractor, “As the man showed us around, it seemed imperative that he not know I was a girl.” (113). Alison is acutely aware from a young age that this man objectifies women and that perhaps it was not safe to identify as one in his presence. Likewise, her father tells her he wanted to be a girl, recalling not only the time he dressed in a woman’s bathing suit in college (120) but also how he dressed in girl’s clothes as a child. (221). This scene is where both of them admit to having done drag and made love to people of the same gender is the closest to a mutual coming-out that they share. Face to face, this interaction is awkward, with Alison constantly looking wide-eyed and straight-ahead, communicating that she was uncomfortable during this conversation, yet intrigued by its openness.

When Alison first finds the photo of her father in the woman’s bathing suit, she assumes it is a fraternity prank as the singer from The Magnetic Fields bemoans, “I’ll never see that girl again, he did it as a gag, I’ll pine away forevermore for Andrew in drag.” in the song “Andrew in drag”. The lead singer of The Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt, sings about how he’ll only love Andrew in drag and how he is not attracted to other men or women, just Andrew in drag. Alison and her father never discuss being attracted to someone in drag or how much their sexualities have in common, but both reveal they have dressed in drag and wanted to be another gender, hypothetically so their sexual desires would feel more “normal”. Stephin Merritt identifies himself as male in the song but unlike Alison’s father, he is proud of his sexuality and this gives him the confidence to sing about it so openly.

 

Video for “Andrew in Drag” by The Magnetic Fields. Warning: video contains brief nudity and homophobic slurs.

Tyler’s Dress

“I did not even consider leaving her room dressed as I was. I was endowed with a sense of propriety, depended on it, for that matter, for the most basic level of survival. I changed back into my trousers and white-shirt and rubbed my cheeks and lips clean. I stuffed the dress and stockings behind the dresser, deciding to keep if not to wear it again, at least for the memory of some power it seemed to have imparted. It had been a day and evening to treasure. I had never felt so extremely ordinary, and I quite loved it.” (78).

 

Tyler alludes to his non-heteronormative sexuality and non-conforming gender identity in this passage and in several other times throughout the novel. The first time these identities intersect is when he tries on the dress; he enjoys the power wearing the dress gives him. Dressing in traditionally feminine clothing gives him the opportunity to express parts of his self that he has previously been unable to do. He’s never experienced what it’s like to dress as a woman and finds “something delicious about such confinement.” (77) because he has confined this part of his identity for so long. He feels “extremely ordinary” and “love[s] it”. (78) He likes feeling like a woman, but we don’t know yet if he wants to be one or simply enjoys expressing himself as more feminine than masculine. He simply says he identifies as something “in-between, unnamed” (71) and that he hasn’t determined all of the facets of his identity yet. If he had the correct language to speak about his sexuality and gender identity he might be able to define it for himself but he may or may not tell anyone else how he feels. He has not articulated or pondered his desire for Otoh or wearing a dress because he lacks the language to do so.

If Tyler could articulate clearly his identity, he would probably only reveal it a few people. Currently, his closest (and perhaps only) friends are Mala Ramchandin and Otoh Mohanty. He feels some sort of attraction to Otoh and a connection to Mala so it is likely that if he came out to anyone, it would be his two friends. He is speechless when Mala tells him he wants to wear the dress and is at first fearful that she may have figured out his secret. When he realizes she not only doesn’t care if he doesn’t identify as cisgender and/or heterosexual but also wants him to feel happy and wear the dress, he feels a sense of relief and freedom.

One Last Act For The Dead

What would you do? Pass the body into the hands of strangers? The body that has lain beside you in sickness and in health. The body your arms till long for dead or not. You were intimate with every muscle,  privy to the eyelids moving in sleep. This is the body where your name is written, passing into the hands of strangers.

This passage is unusual because the narrator refers to Louise as “the body” because ze is in a cemetery and believes Louise to be dead and cannot bear to refer to Louise as a dead body yet. The narrator also speaks to the reader directly asking, “What would you do? Pass the body into the hands of strangers?” referring to the embalming process before burial and how people used to bury their dead themselves instead of passing them off. The narrator believes the past was more romantic, as a family would take care of their dead as an act of love before burial but now families don’t want to see the dead. Nowadays people fear death, and the narrator is no different, with the slight exception that ze fears more about Louise’s death than zir own. This fear translates into a desire to see Louise again, but ze fears it will only be at Louise’s funeral.

The narrator has also tried to block Louise from zir mind while living outside of London to reduce the pain caused by her diagnosis and imminent death. This is why ze cannot bring zirself to say “Louise’s body” and instead adopts a tone as if ze were addressing the reader and the body the reader longs for, not Louise. The narrator cannot admit that ze longs for Louise and her body nor does ze want to pass Louise off to strangers to prepare her for her death, which is exactly what ze does when ze allows Elgin to attempt to cure her. The narrator is beginning to regret zir decision to leave Louise and realizes that passing a loved one’s body to strangers removes the acts of love one does for the dead. The narrator is trying to reconcile this idea with zir thought processes about leaving Louise because up to now, the narrator truly believed ze had helped Louise by leaving her. In fact, the opposite is true, and the narrator now deeply regrets sending zir lover off to strangers when ze could have stayed with Louise and tried to cure her zirself.

Dryads

There are plenty of legends about women turning into trees but are there any about trees turning into women? Is it odd to say that your lover reminds you of a tree? Well she does, it’s the way her hair fills with wind and sweeps out around her head. Very often I expect her to rustle. She doesn’t rustle but her flesh has the moonlit shade of a silver birch. Would I had a hedge of such saplings naked and unadorned.

In this passage, the narrator compares Louise to a tree. The narrator compares Louise’s flesh to the shade of tree bark and says her hair fills with wind the way leaves rustle in the fall. This passage is unusual because the narrator is unsure of the commonality of this comparison. “Is it odd to say that your lover reminds you of a tree?” is the narrator’s central question in this passage and the reader’s immediate reaction is to say yes. At least, that was my first reaction. Comparing women to anything always hints of objectification to me, even when the comparison is to something beautiful, like in nature. On second reading, however, this question is not so outlandish because trees are quite common to women- both provide life and beauty to humans. I believe this passage is not just about the similarities one can draw between the beauty of a woman and the beauty of a tree but also about the abilities both have to provide life and the narrators newfound understanding of this. The narrator is asking us to reexamine identity and our bodies as they relate to nature. The narrator wishes to have a tree as “naked and unadorned” as Louise, signifying that the narrator is more interested in trees turning into women than women turning into trees, as questioned in the beginning of the paragraph. In Queer and Now, Sedgwick talks about how queer youth develop attachments to cultural objects as a mean of finding queer representation where there is none while the narrator only develops attachments to objects in nature when viewed as a representation of women. The narrator’s life focuses on lovers where they do not exist while queer youth focus on LGBTQ representation where there is none.

The narrator is going against the norm by asking this question, as it is more common for women to turn into trees in legends, such as the tales of dryads (tree nymphs) who turned into trees to resist the advances of male gods such as Zeus. The narrator seems to be comparing Louise to a dryad and therefore zirself to Zeus. Given that Zeus was always chasing after women and goddesses and our narrator seems to move equally fast from lover to lover, this comparison to Greek mythology might not be too far off.

Lanyon’s Secret

“Rather, as there was something abnormal and misbegotten in the very essence of the creature that now faced me- something seizing, surprising and revolting- this fresh disparity seemed but to fit in with and to reinforce it; so that to my interest in the man’s nature and character, there was added as to his origin, his life, his fortune and status in the world.” (39)

This passage is interesting because Dr. Lanyon is the only character to wonder about Mr. Hyde’s personality and not just his persona. Lanyon is the first character to view Hyde as a person and not a sum of his parts or deformities. Dr. Lanyon knows there’s something wrong with Mr. Hyde but he wants to know Hyde’s origin, not his crimes. This is a contrast to most of the reactions to Hyde’s face and most of the thoughts on identity in the novel because almost all of the characters do not ask themselves these questions about Hyde but rather fear him blindly. However, like everyone who encounters Hyde, Lanyon also has trouble organizing his thoughts and struggles to describe Hyde in one long, messy sentence rather than a succinct description of his face. This implies that the majority of the characters have trouble with analyzing another’s identity when it is so different from their own. Utterson easily describes Lanyon and Jekyll because they are friends, but he grapples with his description of Hyde as well.

Lanyon is the only character to wonder about Hyde as a person and his origin. Tellingly, he is also the first to find out the truth when Hyde transforms into Jekyll in front of him. None of the other characters reactions to this reveal are shown but Lanyon’s is- he dies from the shock of finding out that his best friend was responsible for the murder of Sir Danvers Carew. His curiosity about Hyde’s life is what killed him. We also never discover Utterson’s reaction to Lanyon’s narrative or Jekyll’s confession nor the consequences of learning Jekyll was Hyde and therefore a murderer. Presumably, both Lanyon and Jekyll’s accounts were taken to the grave but the reader is left with no answer to this question.

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