Inside vs. Outside

“If the body is not a “being,” but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, then what language is left for understanding this corporeal enactment, gender, that constitutes its “interior” signification on its surface?” (Butler, 139)


In Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble,” they explore the idea that our bodies are constantly being perceived by others in our society. It’s impossible to escape the way our bodies signify gender to others because of the stylizations we have built over time surrounding sex and gender. In this sense, we almost lose control over our physical bodies. Once they are put out into the world, they are no longer ours. We may have our interior identity, but nonetheless we are expected to behave according to our perceived gender. Furthermore, Butler brings forth the concept of an interior gender and how this interior is connected to the exterior gender that we express, if it is at all.


The concept of interior vs. exterior gender relates to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red in that Geryon is a winged red monster who is very much aware of how he is seen because of it. He hides his wings in an overcoat because his external body will alter how people treat him in the world “It was not the fear of ridicule, to which everyday life as a winged red person had accommodated Geryon early in life…” (Carson 83). When I first read this it felt like a metaphor for queerness. The idea that a queer person is seen as a monster by others is definitely relevant. However, I think this has more to do with the ways in which our bodies perform. Without us asking them to, our bodies perform for each other through the significance we give them. 


This bodily performance is subconscious, as it’s ingrained into us from birth, with the speech act of a doctor declaring a gender (as we discussed in class). The doctor looks at the sex of the baby and says either “boy” or “girl.” From that moment on, the baby is categorized into certain expected behavioral patterns in relation to their exterior. Their bodies therefore are their gender, as the two are assumed to coincide. Thus, we rarely give thought to the idea that maybe the interior and exterior are separate. Geryon is a “monster” on the outside and is thus perceived to be a monster. Once his wings are revealed, he can’t change the way they are perceived. They don’t belong to him anymore, their meaning is created by others. People have made up their minds. Like Butler wrote, there is no language often used to define the inside. “…He thought about the difference between outside and inside. Inside is mine, he thought” (Carson 29). Interestingly, Geryon seems to believe that the inside belongs to him while the outside does not. He cannot control how his outside is perceived, but only he can control his inside. His wings may make him a monster to others on the outside, but the inside does not have to follow suit. He has the power to create his interior despite what the exterior signifies, a distinct separation between the body and the interior much like what Butler writes about.


Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. McClelland & Stewart, 2016.

“Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990).”

Something That Just Is

“Not a man and not ever able to be a woman, suspended nameless in the limbo state between existence and nonexistence…The reason Miss Ramchandin paid me no attention was that, to her mind, the outfit was not something to either congratulate or scorn—it simply was” (Mootoo 77). 

This quote about Tyler from Cereus Blooms at Night explores how his identity does not yet have a name or label in his society. He exists in a liminal space, unable to properly fit into the definition of man nor woman, and therefore people don’t know what to make of him. We are conditioned to see gender as binary, and stepping outside of this binary is often seen as negative. In Tyler’s case, he is not physically harmed but he is mocked for his femininity. His coworkers make passing comments, laugh, and stare. He stands out, which is an inherently bad thing to them. On the contrary, Mr. Hector views Tyler’s gender as celebratory. Tyler’s queerness reminds him of his beloved brother. He even asks Tyler and Otoh if they know his brother just because they are queer. For Mr. Hector open queerness is something to be celebrated, as he knows the harm his brother suffered in their childhood for being too feminine so he empathizes. However, Mala does not take on either of these lenses, but a neutrality to Tyler’s queerness. She views it as natural, nothing to gawk at, something that simply exists, neither congratulating or scorning it. Queerness to her is neither good nor bad as society categorizes it as. It just is

Mala’s lens reminded me of something I read in my philosophy class, excerpts from Martin Heidegger’s book “The Question Concerning Technology.” While Heidegger’s politics were disgusting, his claim about technology surprisingly relates directly to Mala. Heidegger wrote that while technology itself is neither inherently good nor bad, humans think of all of their surroundings as either technology or on its way to becoming technology (looking at it for how it can become useful rather than what it currently is). Everything is seen as materials for technological advancement, even the earth is seen as materials for oil and the cutting down of trees to build factories.

Like the characters’ need to label Tyler’s gender as good or bad, there is a human need (perhaps a result of socialization) to label things, to understand their purpose in the world. To believe that everything must have a purpose, one that’s either good or bad. In his book Heidegger wrote “When we once open ourselves expressly to the essence of technology, we find ourselves unexpectedly taken into a freeing claim,” meaning that when we begin to look at technology as something that simply exists rather than the way to view the entire world, we can be free. This freedom would allow us the understanding that there is not one correct way of thinking, that multiple lines of thought can coexist not necessarily in relation to the others. Adopting this neutrality like Mala does in regard to gender, we can look at queerness (which is either celebrated or scorned), as simply existing alongside heterosexuality, rather than the antithesis of it. Queerness is queerness, not directly opposing the dominant framework, not as something that is good or bad, but something that just is. 


The Holiday Moodiness

“The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it?—is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some way it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all” (Sedgwick 5). 

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay “Tendencies” touches on an essential theme in both the text and queer studies: how the dominant culture works to ‘other’ queer people and identities. We don’t tend to put the concept of Christmas and queerness in the same conversation, but there is something to be said about the queer isolation that the concept of Christmas causes, as Christmas can be seen as the epitome of heteronormativity. It’s heavily centered around the idea of the nuclear family, which is the “purest” example of the word and the type of family to which most ads market to. As soon as Thanksgiving is over, or even during and before it, the stores bring out the holiday mood, imploring you to start buying. They can’t waste one day of sales because it all comes down to money. The people who have those “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper stickers would be making a real statement if it weren’t for the fact that someone cleverly sold those stickers to them for money, going against their very message. Christmas in either form, religious or capitalistic, or a mix of both, all feed the same monster called capitalism in the end.

Sedgwick goes on to talk about how every aspect of culture becomes monolithic, and if you don’t fit into it like many queer people do not, you are forced to sit down and watch anyway. If you are trying to escape Christmas, good luck. You will be met with it through the television, apps, radio, stores, and advertisements which are found in all four of those. Sedgwick asks the question of why everything has to be saying the same thing. The dominant culture dominates other voices and thus destroys a sort of diversity in ideas about how to live. What would be so wrong with different aspects of culture saying different things? I think that would make for a more interesting society, one that doesn’t follow certain institutions’ every move. I understand that most parts of society have something to gain from Christmas, namely money. 

However, this leads to people buying into the script that these things write for us. So many people who aren’t particularly religious celebrate Christmas, specifically the gift-giving of it. That is only one of the small ways the heteronormative lifestyle is given value and its one that queer people subscribe to as well. Grow up, get married, have kids, and die. Obviously other lifestyles exist out there, but that’s just it, these lifestyles are ‘othered’. They are called ‘alternative’. I’m not saying that if you celebrate Christmas you are giving into the Man, I’m not the Grinch. I just think it’s worth noting the ways in which we are conditioned to want to follow the linear structure of life that is presented to us through things like Christmas and elsewhere in the dominant culture. The linear way of life is emphasized as the way during Christmas, and in turn, disregards the existence of queerness.

The Armchair: Fate Worse than Death?

“Death’s head in the chair, the rose chair in the stagnant garden. What is the point of movement when movement indicates life and life indicates hope? I have neither life nor hope. Better then to fall in with the crumbling wainscot, to settle with the dust and be drawn up into someone’s nostrils. Daily we breathe the dead.” (Winterson 107-108)

This poetic passage from Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson contains several significant themes from the novel. When the narrator arrives in the deteriorating cottage they banished themselves to, they look at the armchair, which is a symbol of the cliché heteronormative life they despise. The armchair represents eternal monogamy, something that they have never allowed themselves to have or want until Louise. They look at an armchair and imagine sitting in it, fading away, which is a death-like fate for them, exemplifying the novel’s theme of questioning heteronormative life. Furthermore, this quote demonstrates the novel’s themes of life, death, and the in-between. The narrator gives themselves the title of Death itself, insinuating their sorrow is so overcoming that they are not living. This brings up the question that is present throughout the novel’s latter half: What does it mean to be alive? 

The first half of the novel focuses heavily on themes of sex and the external body as it details the narrator’s sexual pursuits and failed relationships. However, when the narrator discovers Louise has cancer, the structure of the novel shifts along with the theme as the narrator examines Louise’s body physiologically. The focus shifts from sex, a sign of life, to death and the deterioration of a body that was previously romanticized heavily by the narrator. The language in this passage correlates with this dichotomy of life and death, as the narrator paints the picture of a garden that was once filled with life, no longer blooming. They are hopeless and resign themselves to deteriorate with the cottage, also symbolic of their belief that the cliché life is destined to fail. The crumbling wainscot is a symbol of the inevitably crumbling life of the person who lives in the cliché house with an armchair, or at least according to the narrator. The narrator then suggests a reincarnation of sorts, claiming that death is always present in even life, reminiscent of their description of Louise’s skin “Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead” (Winterson123). The narrator further blurs the lines between life and death, claiming they embody death though they are living. They stay stagnant because they don’t feel alive, and moving signifies life and thus hope, neither of which they believe to possess. 

What it means to be alive, therefore, is not the mechanical operations of the body that the narrator examines in later sections but something much more. Something that the narrator experienced for the first time with Louise and can’t live without, possibly love. The narrator’s self-pity has led them to resign to life in the cottage, the picture of heteronormativity, perhaps as a form of self-punishment. Ironically, the cliché is still not fulfilled because they are alone, without the monogamy that they now find they desire for the first time. It’s a cliché, but a mere ghost of one, much like a stagnant garden in which the narrator sits their dying head in a rose chair.