This essay was originally composed in May 2019 for Professor Lisa Diedrich’s Feminist Interdisciplinary Histories and Methods course at Stony Brook University. The essay appears in its original form.
“Definitely, too,” Nella Larsen writes in her 1928 novella Quicksand, “it conveyed to Helga her exact status in her new environment. A decoration. A curio. A peacock” (67). As protagonist Helga Crane is paraded around by her aunt and uncle in Copenhagen, she discovers that she has been lavishly dressed in exotic costume in order to display their worldliness—she, an American mulatta, has become cultural capital within their white Danish social circle. While I am neither black nor an expatriate, I realized at age fourteen that I, too, had become a decoration, curio, and peacock for my mother.
I was raised Catholic by my first-generation Italian-American mother, who was also raised to dress in traditionally feminine clothing, go to church every Sunday, and eventually marry “a nice man.” I had implicitly internalized these expectations, which were further reinforced by the television shows I watched and the small community in which I grew up, with a mission to make my mother happy—to become someone that she could both accept and love. Yet, faced with more emotional difficulties and body image issues than I could handle, but that were not unique to me, I decided that I wanted to wear my heart on my sleeve—literally.
My mother and I were shopping in our favorite department store. We had just scavenged the entirety of the junior’s section and convened in the dressing room with armfuls of clothes. This store had always offered “appropriately feminine” selections, but this season, it had introduced a line of clothing that couldn’t quite be considered “goth” but was edgier than my mother was used to. I was struck by one item in particular—a black and purple checkered button-up shirt with a garish gold-starred breast pocket that came with a clip-on black tie. Not only was it comprised of my favorite colors, but it hid my body and had that Guitar Hero punk rocker look that I had always secretly coveted. So I decided to try it.
My mother was beside herself. “You look like a man—it does absolutely nothing for your figure,” she said. “You look like those devil worshippers who shop at Hot Topic. How are you ever going to get any man to want to go out with you in that?” Of course, this was before I would develop my own sense of style or sort out my feelings regarding my faith—and this was several years before I would start discovering my sexuality. But I fought for it. I loved the way it looked and the way it made me feel. I did not loathe the way I looked in the mirror, as I did when she forced brightly-colored floral blouses and slim-cut skirts on me. “It’s just one shirt,” I pleaded, though she was convinced that it was the gateway to dyed hair (I tried—she refused, though with the exception of disastrous do-it-yourself highlights), tattoos (I still want them), and a big fat lesbian life (she didn’t even know what that meant—neither did I). After an embarrassing fight in the crowded dressing room, she caved in. She had allowed me for the first time in my life to dress myself.
Having lived another fourteen years since this incident and having failed to meet my mother’s expectations in each of these three categories—that is, gender presentation, attitudes and beliefs, and heteronormativity—I find that I am less frequently changing costumes, holding my tongue, and guarding the details of my personal life in order to please my mother. But this was not always the case. I recognize that I live in a particularly privileged age where I can get away with this, whereas my literary counterparts, committed to the confining late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, could not. It has taken an extraordinarily long time to extricate myself from the clutches of my mother’s wishes as well as to understand why it was that I needed to do so. But I never would have gotten to this point of self-understanding had I not approached literature with a mission to discover how characters “dressed themselves.”
Queer theorists like myself, as Eve Sedgwick points out in “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” have capitalized upon suspicious reading as both a method of discovering themselves and their experiences in literature as well as a method of “bearin[g] [. . .] witness” (141) to their pain but to the detriment of their scholarship. She highlights Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity as a prime example of paranoid reading for its obsession with “revealing” knowledge. In seeking to constantly prove the queer subject’s dastardly position within society, Sedgwick recognizes that we have self-sterilized the possibility for more generative and reparative forms of scholarship at the mercy of uncovering what we already know to be true. Sedgwick does not necessarily want us to stop uncover these truths—rather, she recommends that we work toward projects that move beyond these truths to capitalize upon positive affect. Thus, as a frequent-flyer of Butler’s theory of performativity, I take heed of Sedgwick’s recommendations and wish to propose a method of reading for positive performativity, or “dressing yourself,” that wishes to look beyond Butler’s self-squelching, negative-affective performativity to ones that affirm positive experience. While I do not claim to have fully escaped paranoid reading, I intend to see beyond it, though this project may turn out to be one of those “[sexy] mistakes” Joseph Litvak imagines (qtd. in Sedgwick 147).
“A DECORATION”: SELF-PRESENTATION
I was not Helga Crane. I was not content with being paraded in front of my mother’s family in form-fitting blouses, lavish jewelry, and high-heeled shoes. And, God forbid if I should ever leave the house without makeup on. But this was how her mother raised her and her older twin sisters, who were given the most lavish fur coats and the most stylish sandals their parents could afford while she was left pining away for their hand-me-downs. When she could control the way she dressed, she made herself up like her mothers and sisters and sought to do the same with me.
It is worth acknowledging at this point that this war-mongering shirt was not the most masculine thing I could have decided to try on—even my mother would admit this. The biggest problem she had with the shirt was that it was not traditionally feminine—it was not something she ever would have imagined herself in. My wearing of this shirt represented the fact that I did not care to perfectly reproduce her idea of femininity, and for her, my refusal represented her failure as a mother. Carolyn Kay Steedman reflects that “children are always episodes in someone else’s narrative, not their own people, but rather brought into being for particular purposes” (122). Though my mother is not as callous as Steedman paints hers, she often tells the story of how she never wanted children—until she felt that something was “missing” in her life. I often wonder if she still secretly feels this way given that she has “failed” to replicate herself in me, whereas her sisters succeeded in doing so with their daughters.
In rupturing the feminine self-presentation she had so carefully crafted for me, I had also shattered her belief that sex and gender were inseparable and thus indistinguishable. As Butler has philosophized, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being” (45). My appearance was unnatural to her, for it disrupted not only the façade of femininity I had attempted to emulate for her sake but her genuine belief that she, a straight woman had given birth to a straight daughter. She believed that this shirt was the gateway to more masculine clothing, a shorter haircut, masculine swagger, and an ultimately “dykey” existence not unlike Radclyffe Hall’s—I know this because she repeatedly thanked me after coming out for not “dressing like a man.” Despite her belief and the images of “lesbians” I saw on television, I did not see myself becoming like them—and because I did not see myself in them, I floundered when it came to labeling my sexuality. These internal conflicts preoccupied me, slowly creeping into my college papers and presentations until I found myself in awe of Butler’s gender performativity and dedicated to the quest of seeking out “my people” in the literature I read—those who had been forced to pander to gender stereotypes and traditional social roles in order to survive.
In fighting to “dress myself,” I discovered that I was fighting not only in favor of Butler’s theories but against them. I recognized how normative gender performativity had flattened my experience out into the narrative of universal self-effacement, but I also knew there had to be more than that. I knew that I did not have to confine myself to one self-stylization—that I could exist in an androgynous space, but the weight of my mother’s expectations upon me—to confine to one gender or the other—stifled my self-recognition. In Mary Jo Bona’s project on the “generational rift between [the Italian-American] mother and daughter,” she posits that the queer daughter “recognizes that she futilely longs for a mother she cannot have” in that her mother is unable to imagine life beyond “the limitations posed by heteronormative behavior on all women from her mother’s generation” (187). I do not believe that my mother, had she the opportunity, would have developed a different self-presentation than the one she came into in the 1970s and ‘80s—at least I do not believe that any other identity she might have developed would have been helpful for her understanding of me. She happens to be one of those women who is relatively content with the lot laid out in life for her in most respects, which makes my dis-identification with her that much more difficult for us both. My refusal to be content with the life she imagined for me also signaled other ideological departures that would later reveal themselves.
“A CURIO”: ATTITUDES AND SILENCES, OR, SURVIVING INTERROGATION
Every room of my grandmother’s and mother’s houses was filled with curios that displayed very specific things—Blessed Mother figurines, ceramic flowers, and Hummels, always little girls in pigtails and skirts holding farm animals and little boys in cropped hair and lederhosen carrying lunch pails. They literally showcased our family’s outspoken faith, a reverence for the “natural,” and their gender conformity. When it came time for my mother and her sisters to empty my grandmother’s house after her death, they hesitated to open her curios and dismantle her carefully-placed knick-knacks as though they were tasked with opening a perfectly-preserved casket. If there was one thing you didn’t do, it was that you were never to alter what my grandmother had set up decades ago.
That checkered shirt was the tip of the iceberg. In rearranging my self-presentation, my mother sensed the “death” of my willingness to bow down to her will—that I would also seek to evade each of the values she sought to instill within me. A shift in presentation was also a shift in presentability—the shirt outwardly signaled a discontinuity between my mother and I, not only in terms of gender but of identity, faith, and politics (which, for her, aligned with Catholic doctrine). While these figments of selfhood do not always travel in packs, mine did, and my total departure from her desires was something she refused to expose to her family, and she thus forced me to present more traditionally in their presence. Bona asserts that the queer daughter’s quest for selfhood is met with the “tradition of omertà,” or the code of silence, “about personal matters” (188). Non-normative gender presentations fly in the face of this rule, for they make external matters that traditionally would have been dealt with either privately or not at all. The shirt might as well have been a sign that read in large red letters “I don’t know if I’m a lesbian, but I do know that I don’t buy into this religious hoopla.” For her family, gender non-conformity was equated with homosexuality and godlessness (that is, anything outside of organized religion)—I would eventually discover both these things to be true about myself. But for the time being, I felt inordinately chastised for deciding to wear something that I felt good in. Simply put, I was done being told who to be and sought out to prove that I was not the first person in this world who had felt this way.
In Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow,” Nick Adams seeks consolation for his romantic difficulties from his best friend. Interestingly, the issue Bill focuses on is not Nick’s compatibility with Marge but his unwillingness to navigate her mother’s expectations:
Imagine having them around the house all the time and going to Sunday dinners at their house, and having them over to dinner and her telling Marge all the time what to do and how to act. [. . .] You came out of it damned well, [. . .] Now she can marry somebody of her own sort and settle down and be happy. You can’t mix oil and water and you can’t mix that sort of thing [. . .]. (46-47)
“The End of Something,” which directly precedes this story in In Our Time, explains the reason for their breakup: Nick is tired of being out-performed by Marge. The paranoid reader’s inclination—as was my own the first time I approached this text—is to unveil the coded language, i.e. to reveal Nick’s homosexual panic through his crisis of emasculation. In being told “what to do and how to act,” traditional masculine performativity is forced upon him. However, focusing on this, it is easy to miss the fact that Nick has left Marge precisely to stop performing and to embrace his true self. Hemingway concludes, “None of it was important now. The wind blew it out of his head. Still he could always go into town Saturday night. It was a good thing to have in reserve” (49). Nick recognizes that shirking Marge signifies his own queerness, which is precisely what triggers this crisis, but his ambivalence about returning to this rigid performance of Victorian masculinity suggests his desire to escape self-stifling roles. Like oil and water, Nick’s self-separation from his surroundings has rendered him a pariah, but he does not feel as despondent and hopeless as paranoid readers make him out to be. Without Marge, he is no longer forced to perform or to deal with inquisitive stares—he is free to be or “dress himself” however he pleases. Nick’s positive performativity, as it turns out, is not a performance at all—it is a natural enactment of self.
In Sedgwick’s landmark text Epistemology of the Closet, she takes up the issue of the position of the lone queer subject in the heteronormative family structure. “[G]ay people,” she posits, “seldom grow up in gay families; [. . . and] are exposed to their culture’s, if not their parents’, high ambient homophobia long before either they or those who care for them know that they are among those who must urgently need to define themselves against it” (81). I, like Nick Adams, was caught between the urge to blend in with my religious, homophobic family (if only to avoid their fervent diatribes about fire and brimstone) and the urge to “define [myself] against [them].” For me, this meant hiding in front of my family by “dressing myself” as my mother would have. As much as I would love to be able to say that I shouted, “I don’t care what you want. I’m not fucking wearing it!”, as young Carrie “Big Boo” Black does in Orange Is the New Black when presented with a frilly frou-frou dress (“Finger in the Dyke”), I didn’t have it in me. My survival depended upon presenting in a way that my mother could be proud of. I would camouflage the ways in which my attitudes and beliefs differed from my mothers’—how I evaded the customs of the family that prided itself on producing carbon copies of themselves in their children. But, as Butler theorizes in The Psychic Life of Power, “a feminine gender is formed (taken on, assumed) through the incorporative fantasy by which the feminine is excluded as a possible object of love, an exclusion never grieved, but ‘preserved’ through heightened feminine identification” (146). I was too young and scared at the time to do anything other than evade interrogation and abide by omertà, but I certainly had not “excluded” the feminine. In fact, the longer I performed, the more it became evident to me that I was homosexual, not because I felt out of place in my gendered performance but because I desired a different form of femininity—both for myself and in a potential partner. But where the narratives of so many queer theorists stop at melancholia, my story does not, and neither should the narratives we perpetuate about the literature we analyze through the lens of performativity.
“A PEACOCK”: HETERONORMATIVITY, OR, MEASURING UP TO HELGA CRANE
Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936) is perhaps the most well-known lesbian text published after Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), yet she is famously known for insisting “I’m not a lesbian. I just loved Thelma” (Martins 108). Barnes’ refusal to adopt the “lesbian” label echoes the controversy surrounding Hall’s censorship trial. The “scandalous” novel was censored almost immediately after publication for its positive portrayal of its “invert” protagonist. Significantly, the reportage of the trial “rendered the author as a type, visible not as fashionable but as a mannish lesbian” (Marshik and Pease 141-42). From that point on, according to Laura Doan, “life changed utterly for all women who lived with other women, or all women drawn to masculine styles of dress, whether lesbian or not” (qtd. in Marshik and Pease 142).
To be a “lesbian” in 1936 was to be grouped with women like the masculine-presenting Hall, and Barnes saw no kinship with Hall other than their shared love of women. This idea of the “quintessential lesbian” has not only haunted individuals like myself into the twenty-first century, but it has also created a partisan “visibility” for homosexual women. The idea that a “lesbian” has a “certain look” has made passing for feminine-presenting lesbians quite easy, but it has also perpetuated this damaging stereotype to the effect that “femmes” have been rendered invisible to the public eye and therefore “do not exist.” My mother believed that the moment I came out as a lesbian that I would “progress” into this “lesbian-ness” and begin dressing like Ellen DeGeneres. (Of course, the fact that DeGeneres’ wife, Portia de Rossi, was an example of a feminine-presenting queer woman escaped her mind.) She was hung up on the possibility that either I or my partner might present masculine because the only time my mother ever “saw” a lesbian, she was dressed “like one,” and her partner—if not butch—was “just a friend.” I would use her assumptions about homonormativity to find myself in literature—to prove that queers existed outside of those rigid structures, though perhaps that’s my paranoia talking.
My mother’s knowledge of gays and lesbians as I entered the queer dating scene in 2013 was comparable to the attitudes presented in If These Walls Could Talk 2. In the “1972” segment directed by Martha Coolidge, Linda (portrayed by Michelle Williams), a feminine-presenting lesbian, finds herself attracted to Amy (Cholë Sevigny), a masculine-presenting one. Given 1972’s relative distance from the self-effacing era for the women depicted in “1961,” Linda comes up against the same issue my mother did. While her generation recognizes that “women love women,” she mistakes Amy’s masculine performativity for the desire to become a man. Pressured by her friends to seek a more “ideologically-progressive” partner, Linda resists Amy because a relationship with her would suggest that she desired to replicate the heteronormative patterns she and her progressive friends sought to escape. In “2000,” directed by Anne Heche, Fran (Sharon Stone) and Kal (Ellen DeGeneres) seem similarly stuck in homonormativity. While their union would not have been legally recognized in 2000, nor would have been their parentage over the child they attempt to conceive via sperm donor, their adherence to a normativity recognizable to the rest of society betrays their fear of being perceived as illegitimate. Representations of queer livelihoods such as these, though Fran and Kal are filmed dancing and embracing happily through the credits, are still self-squelching ones. Perhaps they are happy in their homonormativity. But to suggest that this is the only way queer women can find a happy ending perpetuates a model of negative performativity for others.
There was one thing I did want for myself that my mother had also wanted for me—a family of my own. Of course, replacing the “nice man” she always hoped I’d meet with a nice woman made her renege on that particular desire. The fact that my partner and I both present feminine boggles her mind. Though she does not ask “Who is the man in your relationship?”, she does ask which of us does the dishes, as though the answer would provide her with some more insight as to how our relationship “works.” I recognize that I have not quite escaped homonormativity either, as my partner and I are engaged and intend to have children (I can already hear my mother asking which of us will wear the dress). But I cannot say that our performances are self-squelching—they are our attempt at positive performances, for they do not seek to hide or alter anything about ourselves for anyone else’s benefit.
Had my fourteen-year-old self sat across from Helga Crane upon her return to Harlem, I would have admired her newly-acquired self-assured performativity. Helga did not blush when admitting that she did not wish to either marry or have children. She laughed in the face of the men who approached her to fulfill such a role. She would have been the model of positive performativity that I needed. Nick Adams knows that he can return to his performativity, currently “in reserve,” if he so wishes, and Fran and Kal are happy in their homonormativity—all while Djuna Barnes died a miserable, grumpy old woman in her New York apartment, insisting that she was “not a lesbian” (Herring). The bottom line here is that these people shine brightest when they do not take heed of others’ expectations. They are in “full bloom” when they dress themselves in a way that embraces their truest selves. Of course, I may just be paranoid about Barnes and looking for symptoms of this supposed happiness. But that, according to Sedgwick, would mean that this happiness was already there and that I’d merely uncovered it. These readings certainly feel do better than those negative-affective ones Butler’s disciples cling to.
Last weekend my mother nearly guilted me into attending a family gathering. Even though I now present more feminine, the engagement ring on my finger violates the code of silence no matter how quietly I sit at the dinner table. The kicker in all of this is that my mother is still my preferred shopping partner. Perhaps it is because it affords me the opportunity to rail against her desires and reassert my identity—but perhaps not. I horrified myself last year when we both tried on the same blouse and loved it. Perhaps I have so deeply internalized my melancholic performance of gender that I no longer realize what I have become. But there is no foreclosure of desire here—I have not denied myself anything, and thus I am happy. While she did not succeed in pushing me back into the closet, nor did she convince me to dress myself differently, I now realize that my mother has been wearing me all these years—that she has been the one performing for her family. But “None of [that is] important now” (Hemingway 49), for I have successfully dressed myself.
Bona, Mary Jo. “Queer Daughters and Their Mothers: Carole Maso, Mary Cappello and Alison Bechdel Write Their Way Home.” La Mamma: Interrogating a National Stereotype, edited by Penelope Morris and Perry Willson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 185-214.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd reprinted ed., Routledge Classics, 2008.
—. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Palo Alto, 1997.
“Finger in the Dyke.” Performance by Melanie Hinkle, directed by Constantine Makris, written by Jenji Kohan and Lauren Morelli. Orange Is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan, season 3, episode 4, Netflix, 11 June 2015. Netflix.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1925. Scribner, 1996.
Herring, Scott. Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History. U of Chicago P, 2007.
If These Walls Could Talk 2. 2000. Directed by Jane Anderson, Martha Coolidge, and Anne Heche, HBO, 2010.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. 1928. Martino Publishing, 2011.
Marshik, Celia, and Allison Pease. Modernism, Sex, and Gender. Bloomsbury, 2019.
Martins, Susana S. “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, 1999, pp. 108-26. JSTOR. Accessed 7 May 2019.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Updated ed., U of California P, 2008.
—. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke UP, 2002, pp. 123-51.Steedman, Carolyn Kay. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. Rutgers UP, 1986.