Transparent Men and Inscrutable Women: Gender Essentialism in The Knife of Never Letting Go

When I first read the book about four years ago, I was absolutely enchanted by its originality and style. It’s so different from anything else I’ve ever read, rooted deeply in the voice of its main character, Todd. The novel has depth and heart, two qualities that aren’t as common in any genre as I would like them to be. But at the same time, something about it made me uncomfortable, and it’s taken me a while to sort out what it was that made the book feel so problematic.

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The First Gay Romance Storyline I Ever Read: or, a Case Study in Why We Need Representation

I don't know how old I was when I found out that gay people existed. I probably learned it from my friends, who were a lot more worldly than me; I'm pretty sure I learned a lot of (mostly erroneous) facts about the birds and the bees from them, too. I do remember a lot of jokes about the the gay kid in our school and the lesbian in the school across town—not that they were out, they were just assumed to be queer.

I grew up in a conservative, mostly Catholic, mostly low-income town in Neuquén Province in northern Patagonia. One of my classmates got pregnant at thirteen; by the end of high school, I'd lost track of how many girls dropped out of my school or got held back a year because they had a baby. Gay rights were a pipe dream in Argentina (though same-sex marriage was legalized country-wide before it was in the United States). I didn't know a single out queer person until I left my town, and my country, to come to college. The only queer people I encountered were in literature and media.

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Women Make Magic, Men Wage War: Gender Dichotomies in Children of Blood and Bone

In 2018, a novel by a young Nigerian-American author, Tomi Adeyemi, took the young adult fantasy world by storm when it released to great commercial and critical success. Children of Blood and Bone landed Adeyemi a movie deal before it was even released. There are few young adult books in the last few years that had as much hype or generated as much discussion, and it’s no wonder—the novel, inspired by West African mythology, deals with topics that almost never get represented in the genre, such as state-sanctioned brutality against Black people, and features a (practically) all-black cast. It also tackles gender dynamics in startling and refreshing ways that reflect and reimagine the dynamics in our world, and that’s what I want to discuss today.

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Mina's Transcendency: Sexuality, Class, and Power in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about mental illness and vampirism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and focused especially on the way Mina and Lucy, the two female characters and victims of Dracula, embodied a lot of aspects of what was considered to be mentally ill in the Victorian Era. Mental illness is front and center in the novel, considering that a lot of it takes place in a mental asylum and two of its main characters are “brain doctors.” Sexuality, however, takes more of a backseat, relegated to innuendo and suggestion. Three female vampires try to feed on one of the male characters, Jonathan, in a very sexually charged manner. When Lucy becomes a vampire, the chaste young woman becomes much more alluring and “hungry.”

In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic series that ran from 1999 to 2007, sexuality is much more explicit. Its first issue gives a modern twist to many of the classic Victorian monster and adventure stories, from Bram Stoker’s novel to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In her introduction in the comic, we learn that Mina was “ravished by a foreigner,” which excludes her from the polite society to which she previously belonged. The “foreigner,” of course, is everyone’s favorite Transylvannian vampire, and her being “ravished” is a clear reference to the events of the source material, in which she was fed on and partly turned into a vampire. In the novel, she was cured of the vampire’s curse when Dracula was slain and of the potential damage to her reputation by marriage to Jonathan, but in the comic series, she is without her cadre of male protectors and left to fend for herself in a society that rejects her for her perceived “sexual deviance.” The association between the vampire bite and sex or sexual assault is made much more explicit than in the source material and used to exclude Mina from middle-class Victorian society.

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Witches and Bitches, Cyborgs and Assassins: The Ageist Portrayals of Women in Young Adult Cinderella Retellings

The heroines of Cinder by Marissa Meyer and Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, both inspired by canonical Cinderella stories, are active, talented, and intelligent, rejecting the passive, limited roles reserved for the Cinderellas of nineteenth-century European compilations and many adaptations since. Unlike in the canonical versions of the story, the heroines of these novels have the support of some female peers, rejecting the competitive positions the women of past versions have had to take up against one another in order to obtain mates. These representations of femininity are certainly an improvement over those in older tellings of the story, and even some of their contemporaries, such as those in Disney’s 2015 Cinderella.

It’s older women in general and mother figures in particular whose representation suffers in both Cinder and Throne of Glass. Jeanna DelRosso notes that mothers in Disney films are almost always dead and frequently replaced by an evil stepmother or “false” mother; this trend is reflected in these two modern re-tellings. The living older women and mother figures in Cinder range from a bitter, stingy stepmother to a sadistic queen, whereas those in Throne of Glass are feckless or unimportant minor characters.

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Middle-Class Masculinity in Crisis: From Jekyll and Hyde to Fight Club

Both Robert Louis Stephenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club emerged at moments in history in which masculinity—specifically white, middle-class masculinity—was perceived to be in crisis. Jekyll and Hyde was written in 1886, at a time in which the professional men of the emerging middle class chafed under a perceived lack of agency as they were corralled into domesticity and inaction by shifting economic models. Fight Club was written in 1996, amid a growing body of media decrying the way corporate culture disenfranchised and de-individualized middle-class men, who became out-of-touch with their masculine power. In both novels, the middle-class main character feels stifled by the class and gender roles he is expected to play within society. Both men find an escape through alter-egos who represent the lower, working class, and thus are free to enact a primitive, violent masculinity and rebel against middle-class repression; this transgression of the norms of masculinity contains elements of class warfare, which functions as a commentary on the intersection of masculinity and class in these novels.

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