Prompted to think about creative writing and gender, I recalled that one of my favourite examples of writing gender is a book that ostensibly avoids it, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, a novel published in 1992. The novel is an incredible feat of writing because the narrator who dominates the narrative all the way through is not explicitly gendered; no give-away name for the narrator is given, no body parts described, clothes are nondescript and other characters avoid referring to the narrator in obviously gendered terms. To maintain this throughout the novel is an accomplishment in itself, given the sticky density of gender props (signs and symbols) that relentlessly impose themselves like unwelcome photobombers into ‘commonsense’ frames of reference.
Some Winterson readers will baulk at this suggestion that the narrator is not a woman; hello, this is Jeanette Winterson we’re talking about, you know, the writer of lesbian desire, how could you miss the signs that the narrator is a lesbian, a woman with a love that ‘dare not speak its name’. A good friend, very accomplished in the area of feminist and queer literatures read the book and in her mind the narrator was a man. Only years later, on second reading, did she realise that this gendering was something she had brought to the novel by listening to some parts more than to others. So it is with culture and gender too. The loudest, fluoro-pink gender flags stake their claim for our attention, making it difficult sometimes to look elsewhere, hear differently, and read in favour of thinking otherwise, enjoying and learning from the uncertainty.
Creative writing has this capacity to encourage us to care to look elsewhere, to upend everyday assumptions about gender; in particular the sedimentary, regimental expectation that there be only two kinds of gendering that result in either men or women. Wordiness, perhaps even more than visual cultural forms, can prolong and extend the suspension of knowledge about gender identity, in ways that makes it possible to glimpse how gender identity of the binary kind is a kind of shortcut, and even a forfeiture in the face of gender’s multiple possibilities. These possibilities play an important role in undercutting gender norms that themselves form a basis for gender discrimination.
Like many feminists, I am not interested in a feminism that does not take into account multiple genders and sexualities. A feminism that concerns itself primarily with defence spending on ‘women’s only’ institutions looks increasingly shaky, like prose voiced in fear of being left out of a revolution. I have this gloomy sense when encountering the work of ‘gender critical’ theorists. In part they are motivated to make sure that equity projects for women are not infiltrated by those who have not suffered the specific inequities of women. But their worry is that when women are not ‘biologically’ female/women, then ‘women’ no longer have solid grounds on which to protest their specific (read: biological) disadvantage. Biology as social justice destiny. But has it always been only biology that has stacked disadvantages against women? And how stable a logic is the biological when it comes to sexism and misogyny? After all, it’s not like the sexist/misogynist/racist/homophobe calls out ‘show us your tits!’ in order to ascertain whether their sexual harassment is targeted in a biologically correct direction (as if having breasts can guarantee that…). The abusers do not rely on a quick genital or chromosomal check on ‘female’ compliance before launching their attack; it is enough that we do not look like men to them; it is enough that we look, to them, like the audience for their policing of bodies.
And it’s not just gender but gender with race, class, ability; gender not as separate biological quantum that can be extracted from other markers in a game of subtraction and addition (luckily, I was never that great at maths), or a ‘lens’ that can be taken on and off, but gender as racialized and intersectional, always already an intersectional starting point. Indigenous gender theorists (Madi Day, O’Sullivan) point to this in important work that highlights the ways that gender roles and gender thinking comes with the settler colonial state, changing gender roles, disrupting and disappearing cultural knowledge, forcing gender identities to conform to western understandings of gender binaries. This western approach involves exaggerating the differences between genders in order to downplay the differences within genders; that way all ‘men’ get to be [insert value eg: stronger, taller, faster] than all ‘women’, regardless of how many ways this is simply not true.
Creative writing ideally keeps cultural alternatives alive to possibilities, in contrast to the ways that politicking sometimes demands stasis in order to make a platform stable enough to stand on/for. The act of writing is itself an opportunity to imagine other worlds of possibility, bringing to the surface stories that do not get told or not told easily. Quah Ee Ling and Alexandra Ridgway argue that women’s writing in academia obscures and anonymises their traumatised bodies, (institutional racism hurts, literally), and that this anonymising can be part of the politics of hiding unruly bodies. Quah describes reclaiming writing from ‘knowledge production plants’ (universities and their writing quotas) and embracing purposeful writing that is a ‘helpful noise cancelling meditation’ where ‘gnawing pain is momentarily ignored’ in an ‘exhilarating trance of thinking, creating, expressing, arguing, dreaming and hoping’. Writing affords the writer momentary escapes from institutional limits. This is an affordance brought about by the paradox of losing oneself and anchors of restraint in order to write oneself with the option of making those restraints visible.
Not all of writing’s potential is due to the length and breadth of the novel or the literary article. Think of ‘MeToo’ which, thanks to Tarana Burke, roared across the world as a kind of mini haiku, even shorter in words but wielding a supersonic, resonant punch. Those two words announce a major shift in public discourses of sexual violence; spoken words for unspoken traumas; harrowing narratives that would testify to the prevalence of sexual violence and its disproportionate effects on black women, indigenous women, trans women and women with disabilities. We could add tweeting to Helene Cixous’ aphorism: ‘writing/[tweeting] is precisely the possibility of change’. Cixous’ work highlights the challenges and importance of writing as an act of resistance; where the question of ‘who’ gets to write, who can claim Authorship, is important along with the question of what can be written. Writing gender is then always also a question of unwriting its restraints.
Join Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, along with Roanna Gonsalves, Yves Rees and Jazz Money, for a public webinar on Friday 17 September about the role of writing in generating new knowledge and understandings around gender. Find out more and register here.
Cixous, H. (1976). The ‘laugh of the Medusa’, [trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen]. Signs, 1(4), 875– 893.
Day, Madi (2020) “Indigenist Origins: Institutionalizing Indigenous Queer and Trans Studies in Australia” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Volume 7, Number 3, August 2020 367-373.
O’Sullivan, Sandy (2015). “Queering Ideas of Indigeneity: Response in Repose: Challenging,
Engaging, and Ignoring Centralising Ontologies, Responsibilities, Deflections, and
Erasures.” Journal of Global Indigeneity 1, no. 1. ro.uow.edu.au/jgi/vol1/iss1/5/.
Quah, Sharon Ee Ling and Ridgway, Alexandra (2021). The woman writer’s body: multiplicity, neoliberalism and feminist resistance. Gender, Work & Organisation. Published Online First: http://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12743.