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.