When Gender Enters a Blender in Literature

I like a lot of literature in which women display so-called “masculine” behavior and men display so-called “feminine” behavior.

That not only applies to recent fiction written during a time when gender roles are thankfully becoming less defined, but also applies to older lit by the occasional authors who weren’t totally rigid about gender roles in an era when that kind of tolerance was considered “out there.” Sometimes, older lit was dismissive of the gender-role flexibility it was depicting; other times, it was more sincere.

Why do I like it when female and male characters are not put in gender boxes? Besides the fact that gender roles should be more fluid, that fluidity can make for stories that are more interesting, unconventional, etc.

Two works I read this summer exemplify how compelling all this can be. One of them was Julia Alvarez’s superb novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), a part-fictionalized tale of four real-life sisters who riskily (three were murdered) became prominent in the effort to depose despicable dictator Rafael Trujillo — ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until he was assassinated himself in 1961. The other work was Bret Harte’s memorable short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868), in which hard-bitten California Gold Rushers act maternally with a baby born in an all-male camp (the mother died in childbirth).

I read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White a couple of decades ago, but still vividly recall one of its most original characters: Marian Halcombe, who was depicted as kind of “masculine” even as her main attributes were intelligence, resourcefulness, and bravery displayed while helping unravel the 1859 novel’s mystery.

There’s the also-brave Judith Hutter in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer — which, despite being published in 1841 and set in the 1740s, has her be the one to propose marriage to frontiersman Natty Bumppo.

In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Ma Joad becomes the decision-maker (and her husband takes a more subsidiary role) as intense hardship befalls their family.

Then there are novels in which women run for high political office — as does the title character in Robert L. Haught’s engaging Here’s Clare (2014) when she seeks the California governorship. (I’m now reading the 2016 sequel, Clare’s New Leaf.) Of course, politics is less of a male’s world than it used to be, but still unfortunately a majority-men realm.

Or novels in which women work in other professions many still tend to associate with men — as does the Sheila character who runs a New Orleans bar in the memorable Grail Nights (2015) by Amanda Moores (wife of commenter jhNY).

When it comes to female characters who are girls, there are many examples of “tomboys”: Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Jo March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Maggie Tulliver of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), Frankie Addams of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1946), and Idgie Threadgoode of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987), among others. Some grow out of their “tomboy” ways, some don’t; some are definitely or seemingly gay, some aren’t.

Adult males who don’t fit the conventional masculine mold? The gentle giant King of Elizabeth Berg’s Open House (2000) cooks like a chef and has had just one sexual experience as he approaches middle age. And there’s the also-gentle Forney Hull, who works in a library in Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is (1995).

Heck, being gentle is not that unusual a male trait, but there’s still an expectation that many male characters will be macho, sexist, domineering, sports-talking people reluctant to share their feelings.

Other male characters defy the “conventional wisdom” by being much better parents than their wives; one example is Subhash of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013).

Young fictional males acting in non-stereotypical ways include Paul Irving, the sweet, daydreaming boy in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea (1909) who eventually becomes a published poet; and John Grimes, the sensitive teen protagonist in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).

(In Baldwin’s novel, John’s nice-guy biological father Richard died because of police racism that’s still tragically with us in 2016 as trigger-happy white cops yet again shot and murdered defenseless African-Americans — this time, Alton Sterling of Louisiana and Philando Castile of Minnesota, after which there was retaliatory violence against police in Dallas.)

Sadly, many female and male characters are thwarted when trying to break free of gender boxes. For instance, the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s riveting 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” just wants to work and have some mental stimulation, but — like many 19th-century women — has to deal with monotony and oppression at the hands of her patronizing husband and society in general.

What are some of your favorite literary works that scramble gender expectations?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

55 thoughts on “When Gender Enters a Blender in Literature

  1. Another great topic, Dave. (Sorry, just found this. Not posting through NSNC anymore?) More books to add to my list to read or reread. Strong women and gentle men have always been with us. Look at all the queens going back beyond Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, et al. Then we took a turn toward male dominance. Now, we’re moving back toward center.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, energywriter! This and other literature pieces did end up in Columnist Clubhouse, but there are so many excellent posts there it’s hard to keep up with them all. 🙂

      “Strong women and gentle men have always been with us” — very true, even as authors also unfortunately often feature weaker women and men with a bit too much testosterone. But I guess that’s reality, or at least a part of reality. And you’re right that history zigs and zags!

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    • Thank you very much, Ram Sai Nag!

      SO TRUE that well-behaved women seldom make history. Reminds me of the famous Frederick Douglass quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, jhNY! I saw that item in today’s print edition of the NYT — and you’re right that it’s relevant to this post. As you note, Jane definitely had an independent streak, and believed that women were the equal of men — not exactly a widespread early-19th-century line of thought. (Though published in 1847, I think “Jane Eyre” was mostly set in the early 1800s.) I should see that exhibit!

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      • Yes, I think you should go too!

        Lucky, sorta, for me, that the Morgan library is on the route to my dentist’s office– a man I have need to visit repeatedly over the coming months. I’ll pop in there if I get an early start, as I’m seldom in the mood for much after besides getting home and laying low. I am most interested to see the entire exhibit, especially Jane Eyre in its original publication form, and the JE manuscript, and the teensy handmade book, and…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Nice that the Morgan would be convenient for you to visit in tandem with the (unappealing) dental appointment. For me, it wouldn’t be too hard to go either — train to Penn Station and then a nice walk to that library/museum. The 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth is bringing great things to NYC…

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          • Excellent comparison, bebe. Both Palin and Pence are extremely right-wing, anti-gay, etc., but the latter seems kind of bland.

            I’m thrilled that my governor (Christie) was passed over as veep. I’m sure he’s devastated, and that nasty bully deserves to be unhappy. Yes, he was a real lapdog for Trump, and it didn’t pay off. I’m sure one reason Trump didn’t pick him was because of the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal — a case not totally closed yet.

            Unfortunately, Christie will still be NJ governor for another year or so, and an unhappy Christie might make for an even crueler guv. Ugh.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Maybe I’m taking this topic the wrong way, but I think most of the so-called gender role changes in a capitalist society derive out of economic conditions as often as they derive from anyplace else. I have, for example, always linked the increase of women in the workforce in the mid-1970’s with the oil embargo– the moment that, for so many, there was no longer any way for a single earner, nearly always male, to adequately provide, given the sharp rise in the cost of living. Not saying increased feminist consciousness had no bearing, but I am saying that feminism may have provided a philosophical and political environment in which to act out of economic necessity, while imbuing its actors with a sense of liberation and greater purpose than they might otherwise have had to rely on, if all they perceived themselves as doing was bringing more needed income home. The emphasis on “new” feminism at just that historical moment also distracted the menfolk from their own sense of deep and helpless failure– after all, by their own lights, most of them could not bring in enough income for their families.

    Likewise, the new hands-on dads of now and recently– with no extended family to help out, child care expensive, and male unemployment up– does it surprise that many men are doing what they must, even if they enjoy the doing? Diapers, feeding, general supervision are all part of their daily activities, and it is a change from what they might have expected themselves, or have been expected to do. But necessity is a mother.

    We most of all nowadays have meaning and value out of our work, and much of our liberation of late has been the freedom to be considered, without racial or sexual prejudice, as job candidates. The economic system remains a relentless drive to undervalue labor and overvalue ownership and management, and we who must labor contort ourselves into pleasing shapes as best we can– including those shapes that please ourselves.

    . . .

    I see “Orlando” has been mentioned. I now, for mischief’s sake, mention “Myra Breckenridge”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Economics is definitely a big part of it, jhNY, although a long-pent-up demand by women to have professional lives (or some kind of out-of-the-home working lives) may have changed things even with less of an economic impetus.

      And excellent point about how expensive day care, unemployment among many men, and not having extended family around are among the things that have led to more sharing of home responsibilities among wives and husbands. I’m certainly in that category, doing most of the cooking and being a stay-at-home parent (and freelance writer) while my wife works out of the home.

      “The economic system remains a relentless drive to undervalue labor and overvalue ownership and management” — unfortunately, truer words were never spoken!

      Great comment, and “Myra Breckenridge” is indeed relevant to this topic. 🙂

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      • That “long pent-up demand” also took place at around the same time black American men might have thought they’d finally get an equal chance at a good job, only to find that in the offices of yesteryear, they made their white counterparts more uncomfortable than working with white women– coincidence? I have my opinion, but that’s about all I have.

        Guess I’m grateful you have given me an opportunity to try on a sociologist’s hat– but it’s ill-fitting, and I lack data.

        BTW— Grateful and sincere thanks for mentioning Grail Nights and its author, Amanda Moores!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s hard to be 100% sure of anything, but your theories make sense, jhNY. (Immigration has also taken some jobs from African-Americans — and whites — though I am a supporter of fair immigration.)

          And you’re very welcome on the “Grail Nights” mention!

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          • “Immigration has also taken some jobs from African-Americans — and whites — though I am a supporter of fair immigration.)”

            I am too– but I am even more for guaranteed healthcare, retirement, housing, minimum income, public education through college– and I see none of those things as politically possible so long as nativists can point to millions of “illegals” among us who might benefit. Not the fault of those they would blame, as none could remain here if they weren’t getting an income (often below minimum wage), but until the folks her illegally are offered a path to citizenship, and the borders no longer afford opportunities for others to get around the system, we can look forward to something less than what I want for all citizens.

            Also, another theory of mine– that the civil rights movement cost the rich not a dollar nor a square foot of property and made competition for low wages even more intense, to the advantage of employers. In other words, the civil rights movement cost something to the poor whites at the bottom of the economy, but left those who had most profited by racism untouched by financial loss, and even in an improved position as employers– more workers fighting for the same number of jobs.

            Liked by 1 person

            • You’re right — the rich almost never lose out, no matter what happens. America’s economy is rigged by them, and on their behalf.

              “…guaranteed healthcare, retirement, housing, minimum income, public education through college” — all wonderful things I would love to see, too. But, even without “illegal” immigration, I’m sure “the powers that be” would still do all in their power to make sure none of that happens, or that all that stuff remains relatively minimal. But a bloated military, corporate welfare, etc.? Always money for that!

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  3. Dave Lisbeth Salander in Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larrson was androgynous sexually active bisexual tomboy. Extremely smart computer hacker. She is particularly hostile to men who abuses women, and took pleasure in exposing and punishing them with no mercy.

    Salander showed a kind and gentle side and developed complicated relationship with investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

    Lisbeth was declared legally incompetent as a child and is under the care of legal guardian Holgar Palmgren whom she trusted with all her being and never forgot him even after He suffered a massive stroke. She never forgets a kind hand extended toward her which is rare and would risk her life to protect them.
    In the end at the courtroom Anita Giannini her lawyer demonstrated that Lisbeth is just as sane and intelligent as anyone in the courtroom .

    Liked by 1 person

    • bebe, Lisbeth is a TERRIFIC addition to this discussion. Wish I had remembered to include her in the column. 🙂 She is indeed one of the most interesting modern characters not in a gender box (in addition to being interesting in other ways). Excellent description of her and her situation in Stieg Larsson’s outstanding trilogy — which you thankfully convinced me to read!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,

    A few years ago, I was working some crazy hours, and was having a lady come to clean my house. She saw my bookshelf, and decided to donate some books to me. Most of them were ‘chick lit’ books that got read and then tossed in the bin, but one was a really charming fantasy book called “The Aware”.

    It was a while ago, and I don’t remember all the details, but the protagonist was a big masculine woman, who had been abandoned at birth. She may also have been mixed race. Having no family line, she was considered as less than human, and some pretty horrible things happen to her. But she’s not ‘girly’. She doesn’t run off crying, but instead gets tough and kicks some butt. She develops a relationship with a warrior man, while also having a crush on a little elf type girl who is very feminine. Glenda Larke’s characters were so well brought to life that I can still vividly see them, though the details of the books completely escape me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Susan! “The Aware” sounds like quite a novel (excellent description by you!), and fits into this discussion perfectly.

      Also, your mention of it being a fantasy book is a great reminder that that genre — and other genres such as sci-fi — can wonderfully get characters outside of gender boxes and other boxes.

      Nice to have had books donated from a person cleaning one’s house. 🙂

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  5. Hi Dave..another great topic, young Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was a tomboy. Constantly in physical altercation with boys in school . Always protected by Jem her older brother and end of the day Atticus her Dad had to take a role of a mother as well.
    Then there was Boo who saved her life but was never seen again.

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    • Thank you, bebe! And great observations — including the widowed Atticus being kind of a feminine figure (mother) as well as a masculine figure (father) to his two children.

      If I’m remembering right, Scout hated to wear dresses — a feeling shared by Idgie Threadgoode in Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes…”

      Just finished another Flagg novel, “A Redbird Christmas.” Very heartwarming, happy-ending book — and there’s a scene in it of a woman proposing marriage to a man.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Dave, this is a column that is interesting to me, but I’ve been having trouble coming up with any books that would be appropriate for comments. I think I’d have to go back to my tween years when I read every Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, and others that I could get my hands on. I thought it so intriguing that young women could read these books and feel that they too could be smart enough to solve crimes that Nancy’s father and boyfriend were unable to do without her help. There were also the Hardy Boys, but they didn’t mean as much to me as Nancy and the other girl detectives that were out there then. I’ll try to think of other examples, but I’ve yet to come up with any so far.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kat Lib, the Nancy Drew and Dana Girls novels are great examples for this topic! While female sleuths are not that unusual in relatively recent fiction, there were certainly fewer of them when the ND and DG series began in the 1930s.

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      • Agreed, Dave, and I certainly remember the women who may have played a supporting role in the mysteries back in the 30’s and older: the foremost to me was Harriet Vane (a writer) of the “Lord Peter Wimsey” series, but there was also Agatha Troy (a portrait painter) of the Ngaio Marsh series about Roderick Alleyn, and who could ever forget Miss Marple of Agatha Christie fame? These female characters, among too many to mention, helped to form my life and the way I’ve lived it for so many years.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Definitely a few female sleuths back then, and some had starring roles. As you know, for instance, Harriet Vane had a bigger part than Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Nights.” Of course, I’m not an expert on mystery and detective fiction, but you are!

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  7. Several years ago my book club read The Whip by Karen Kondazian. Not a great work of literature, but it was an interesting fictionalized account of a real-life woman named Charlotte (Charley) Parkhurst, who lived her life as a man for many years so she could be a stagecoach driver during the gold rush. She definitely pushed some gender boundaries for her time.

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    • Sounds like a fascinating book, Betsy. One can definitely understand the desire for women to do that at a time when so many lines of work were closed to them.

      Somewhat related to that is the way a number of female authors have used male pen names (George Eliot, etc.).

      More of a cameo than anything else, but the Eowyn character in “The Lord of the Rings” dressed as a man in order to go into battle.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  8. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are some of your favorite literary works that scramble gender expectations? —

    Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” may be a little too on-the-nose an answer to this question, so I will go with Mark Twain’s “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” Of course, it is a favorite not because of the gender-bending on the part of its title character but because of the genre-bending on the part of its writer: I believe that this novel, unlike Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” could fairly be described as a real piece of historical fiction. Who’d a thunk it?

    J.J. McGrath (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great examples, J.J.!

      The historical protagonist in “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” definitely acted “male-like” for her time in leading a military campaign — even as Mark Twain expertly depicted the doubts she had (doubts male military leaders would have had as well but perhaps they would have tried to hide them more).

      I’ve read that Twain did years of research for “Personal Recollections,” so I’m sure you’re correct that it’s a more historically accurate novel than the otherwise-excellent “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

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  9. Love that you included Bob Haught’s book here, Dave! I’m slogging through a gender bender right now, in the form of “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” Exquisitely written, but very confusing (to me) keeping all the spies and alliances straight. Especially in the evening after my glass of Chardonnay! I finally gave up on that and am just reading to see how it turns out – it’s that good!

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    • Thank you, Cathy! Very happy to have mentioned Bob’s work! I’m now two-thirds of the way through the sequel, and Clare is having quite a life for a former politician. 🙂

      Love the term “gender bender”! And I hear you — sometimes one has to acknowledge/accept that a book is confusing and just enjoy the great writing or other positive attributes. One example of that for me was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

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    • You’re welcome, Robert! Clare is definitely a feminist, even as she’s also “traditional” in other ways. A very three-dimensional fictional creation by you.

      When I finish “Clare’s New Leaf,” I’ll see if I can fit that sequel into a future post. I’m enjoying it — and its many twists and turns — very much.

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  10. Nice !! as always, Dave. Especially like the reference to Grapes of Wrath. The devastation of life bringing out the strengths in all who have any left within them. What a commentary on real life it was/is. Have a lovely week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, hopewfaith!

      “The devastation of life bringing out the strengths in all who have any left within them” — very well said. One can’t blame people when they break under that kind of strain, but it’s admirable and awe-inspiring when they don’t.

      Have a great week, too!

      Like

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