A Woman In A Man’s World…And Vice Versa

This post focuses on comparing Sylvia Beech’s ‘Shakespeare and Company” and the hit TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ It is interesting to see the ways in which the characters struggle to understand who they really are and try to find what is socially acceptable for them in society and their friends group.

What's My Role?

paris_James-Joyce--Sylvia-BDominance is argued to be a biological trait of the male species in which the larger size of males  as well as their higher levels of testosterone lead to their “aggressive and dominant behavior” (623).  In contrast, females are described as being more timid and shy which lead to them being more nurturing.  The dynamic duo of Sylvia Beach (author of Shakespeare and Co.) and James Joyce (author of Ulysses) are two friends who experience a swap in their gender roles.  As has already been noted, the typical role of the female in a relationship is as the subordinate while the male role is as the dominant.  In the case of Beach and Joyce however these roles are reversed.  Through the simple act of a handshake, Beach is described as being more masculine than Joyce:

“We shook hands; that is, he put his limp, boneless hand in my tough…

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Gender and Sexual Identity

Take a look at what one of my fellow classmates has to say on the issue of gender and sexual identity within Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home’. Pay attention to what she talks about in regards to the article ‘How to Bring your Kids up Gay.”

Great job Melissa 🙂

The Creation of Gender Identity

I want to begin by stating that I loved Fun Home, and in addition, I think Alison Bechdel is one hell of a person. After doing research for our group presentation for the course assignments, I found myself more and more impressed, not only with the way in which Bechdel articulates herself, but also how she is able to assist the reader in understanding gender identity.

Throughout Fun Home, the reader learns that despite recognizing her homosexuality all along, Alison is pushed away from embracing her sexual identity. As an adult, she finally identifies as a butch lesbian. Bruce, Alison’s father, is constantly trying to force Alison to be more feminine. Most of this is done through her physical appearance. As mentioned in my blog post “Gender and Appearance”, in many cases one’s appearance is understood in direct correlation with their gender. It seems that in order to ensure…

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La Cage aux Folles, One-Upped

51WFQ930PQLCaryl Churchill’s 1976 play, Cloud 9, shows her “continuing obsession with questions of identity of identity – a theme that unifies much of her work…” (Klein).  The published front cover of Cloud 9 alludes to the ambiguity of identity through its artwork.  The characters within the play are constantly challenging gender stereotypical roles.  Churchill alludes to this notion with the picture of a colonial’s head, a woman’s naked body, and someone’s sneakered feet where the gender is left uncertain.  Before a reader opens the play they must first look at the front cover.  Similarly, if audience members go to watch the play performed live, they will encounter a poster or image on the front of a cast pamphlet.  With these images, they are made aware that this is an unusual production.  The bizarre aspect of cross casting is something that Churchill intentionally chose for her play.  Take a look at the character list that I have added below and see if you can find any peculiarities.




Clive, a colonial administrator

Betty, his wife, played by a man

Joshua, his black servant, played by a white

Edward, his son, played by a woman

Maud, his mother-in-law

Ellen, Edward’s governess

Mrs Saunders, a widow

Harry Bagley, an explorer


Betty, played by a woman

Edward, her son, played by a man

Victoria, her daughter

Martin, Victoria’s husband

Lin, a lesbian single mother

Cathy, Lin’s daughter, aged 4 and 5, played by a man

Gerry, Edward’s lover

Churchill has female characters being played by men as well as male characters being played by women.  Are you confused yet?  Take a moment to watch this video as a way of helping you to wrap your mind around the obscure nature of this play.

Churchill uses this play as a way to create fluctuating identities within theater.  The parotic cultural structures and iconic figures of the characters are used in a way to help reconstruct gender stereotypes (Humphries Lecture 8).  “…what Churchill is after in Cloud 9 is not creating convincing illusions, but rather destabilizing our notions of gender, sexual, and racial identity. One of her most audacious conceits is having the character of a black man, a two-faced Victorian-era servant who is alternately complaisant and hostile, played by a white man. Also in Act I, the wife, Betty, chafing at her constructed femininity, is portrayed by a man; the role of her son, Edward, who wrestles with his lack of conventional manliness, is assumed by a woman; and her daughter, Victoria, is represented by a doll. The casting makes a political point: that gender (as well as race and class) is, in fact, a performance” (Klein).  Because the characters are played by opposite genders, their homosexual relationships, while still homosexual, are seen in a heterosexual manner.  This is because a sexual act is being performed by a male and a female even though the male is being played by a female character or vice versa.  With this very confusing casting, “Cloud Nine makes acceptance of gay male and lesbian desire easy because it represents these forms of desire in terms that reinforce heterosexuality” (Harding).   It appears that Churchill’s intent with this play is to impose resistance against the social norms of society.


The literal gender confusion found in Could 9 is embodied by the characters’ search for their identity.   The theme of homosexuality is presented through the characters and their relationships.  In a play that is pastiche, “a hodgepodge of pieces put into one place,” the context of the characters’ relationships is explored through the perception of gender and sexuality. (Humphreys Lecture 8).  I will use the character of Edward, who is played by a woman, as an example of someone struggling to find their true identity.  In the first act of the play, Edward is subject to his father’s cruel nature and has to hide his homosexual tendencies.  Edward enjoys playing with his sister’s doll yet he gets chastised for even holding it for her, let alone playing with it.  Everyone tries to hide the fact that Edward likes dolls from his father in order to keep him out of trouble.

BETTY: Well I should give it to Ellen quickly. You don’t want papa to see you with a doll (Churchill 8).

In the second act of the play, Edward is now played by a male.  He is in a homosexual relationship with a man named Gerry, who like his father, does not want to accept him for who he is.

GERRY: Just be yourself.

EDWARD: I don’t know what you mean. Everyone’s always tried to stop me being feminine and now you are too (Churchill 70).

Gerry does not want Edward to play the role of the wife, which is what Edward is content in doing.  Judith Butler comments on the emotional perceptions of gender and sexuality within her article Gender is Burning. “In the reprimand the subject not only receives recognition, but attains as well a certain order of social existence in being transferred from an outer region of indifferent, questionable, or impossible being to the discursive or social domain of the subject” (Butler 1).   Edward exists in the social order, but he is seen as out of the ordinary, even within his homosexual relationship with Gerry.  While struggling with his feminine features, Edward confides in Victoria that he is sick of men and believes that he is a lesbian.

Edward: No listen Vicky. I’d rather be a woman. I wish I had breasts like that, I think they’re beautiful. Can I touch them? (Churchill 72).

The character of Edward is a prime example of the struggles one must go through while searching for their identity.  Churchill’s play pushes the envelope on deconstructing gendered norms in society.  Her ability to create a work that entices the audience with humor, while bringing forth the serious matter of the search for identity, is a performance unto itself.

The iconic single by Blur, Boys and Girls captures the sentiment of this identity struggle most appropriately.


Girls who are boys
Who like boys to be girls
Who do boys like they’re girls
Who do girls like they’re boys
Always should be someone you really love

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Phone Booths Are Not Just For Superheroes

superman boothMy previous posts have all discussed struggling with identity in fiction literature.  Readers are still able to relate to the characters and feel what they are going through, however they are not able to make a personal connection as the characters are made up.  Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home goes beyond the power of fictional characters and allows readers a look at her personal experiences growing up.  This graphic novel memoir deals with events that I’m sure many readers can relate to.  It “…features the author’s family home as it undergoes meticulous historical restorations, providing a shifting framework for the more disorienting and on-going construction of bodies, identities and relationships taking place within its walls” (Lydenberg 58).  The two characters that struggle with finding their true sexual identities are Alison herself, and her father Bruce. The use of multimodality “any text whose meaning is reached through more than one semiotic code” shows the social expectations that are created throughout the novel (Humphreys Lecture 9).  By using both images and text to render her personal experiences, Alison shows how signs and signifiers can impact the readers understanding.


Alison’s father, Bruce, is a closet homosexual throughout the novel.  As readers we do not gain the knowledge that Bruce is actually gay or bisexual, however Alison alludes to the fact that her father is hiding something at numerous points in her narration.  “He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not” (Bechdel 16).  In order for one to explore their sexuality they must first go outside their comfort zone and learn to accept who they are.  Bruce struggles with the fact that he is a closeted homosexual and channels his energy into renovations on the family home.  As Alison relives the memories she has of her father and the work he was always doing on their family home, she realizes that this was his attempt to mask his true identity.  Bruce seemed to believe that if he could have the perfect house and a perfect family, then he would not have to accept the fact that he was a homosexual.  He felt as though he could continue to delude himself into living a lie for the rest of his life.   As stated in lecture, one must step out of cultural encoding and enter into self-reflexivity (Humphreys Lecture 10).  By creating a fictional, ideal world for himself, Bruce is oppressing his true sexual identity, all the while making it harder for his family to understand and relate to him.


From a young age, Alison is aware that she is considered ‘different’ than most girls.    Bruce tries to ignore these small tendencies that start popping up with his daughter in order to keep his façade intact.  Alison defies gender roles constantly, even as her father tries to force femininity upon her.  She tries to get her brother to call her Albert, instead of Alison; she doesn’t understand why she cannot wear a boy’s bathing suit, and she doesn’t like to dress in the clothes her father picks out for her.  Alison would rather identify as a male then as a female and she truly starts to realize this when she sees the female truck driver.  Alison is trapped by her father, his beliefs and in the way that she was raised.  If Alison had lacked the courage to come out to her parents then she would have continued living a false life.  However, her fortitude to accept herself changed the story of her life


funhome-panelIf Alison had been aware of her father’s struggle with his sexual identity then it would have made coming out as a lesbian much easier for her.  After sending her parents a letter announcing that she was a lesbian, Alison receives a phone call from her mother explaining that her father had had affairs with other men.  After her father’s death, Alison begins to discover more about him.  She finds pictures of him dressed in a woman’s bathing suit striking an “elegant” pose.  It seems to me that Alison truly began to understand her father after his death.  All of the arguments they had throughout her childhood began to make sense for her in a way. “I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death” (Bechdel 228).  The Bronski Beat song Smalltown Boy deals with a young man struggling with his sexual identity.  The song would resonate strongly with both Alison and Bruce.  The lyrics “But you never cried to them, just to your soul” would have resonated with Bruce as he never talked to anyone about his struggles, he lived in silence and only had himself to cry to.

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We Are Family

Christina Rossetti was she was a nineteenth century poet.  Rossetti’s designation as a women affected the interpretation of her poem Goblin Market because it is seen as natural for women to write for children and not for adults (Humphreys Lecture 4).  Rossetti did not intend Goblin Market to be a poem for children, simply based on the fact that the poem itself holds very mature and chilling content.  The poem’s main characters, sisters Lizzie and Laura, find themselves experiencing ways of life that they have previously been unfamiliar with.  Both Lizzie and Laura struggle with their identity throughout this poem.  Their innocence is tainted and tested by the sexual encounters that the sisters experience.  “‘Goblin Market,’ most frequently reads as an allegory of sexual fall, is, perhaps more accurately, also a poem about sexual differences…” (Michie 415).  Rossetti explores a new realm when it comes to Lizzie and Laura and their relationship as sisters.

Goblin Market Book Images 5

“Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;” (Rossetti 468-471)

Such allusions to an intimate relationship between Laura and Lizzie would have been seen as unorthodox within Christina Rossetti’s lifetime.  Her religious views were strictly Anglican and this is evident throughout her work (Escobar).  Goblin Market is undercut with numerous religious aspects such as the fallen women, who would be Laura and one who saves them, who would be Lizzie. I am unsure if Rossetti was aware of the lesbian sexuality that is alluded to throughout the sister’s relationship in the poem. With her religious views, it could be said that Rossetti would not write with any indication of homosexual relationships.  However, the content of Goblin Market lends itself to a different interpretation. “Not only are Rossetti’s men grotesque and therefore unfit for commerce with Lizzie and Laura; Rossetti’s poem is in fact remarkable for its unusually vivid suggestion of an incestuous lesbian sexuality” (Flannigan 29).


“Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapp’d to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast” (Rossetti 184-197)

I believe that Rossetti’s intent was to display how females are not defined by males.  The goblin men who entice Laura into eating the fruit are to be seen as overpowering beings.  However, it is Lizzie who stands up to the goblin men in the end, in order to save her sister’s life.  She then becomes the more powerful gender within the poem.  As we talked about in the Diana Fuss’s Reading Like a Feminist, “no man should seek in any way to diminish the authority which the experience of women gives them in speaking about that experience” (Fuss 25).  This resonates with everyone in the world, not strictly females. We need to be able to identify from our personal frame of reference whether it is lesbian, gay, bisexual transgendered, or queer (LGBTQ).   In the case of Rossetti’s poem it is unclear if her intent is to show the sisters as lesbian “The poem acknowledges the likelihood of women to fall, something the iconographic fallen woman, whether victim of seduction, adulteress, or prostitute, made pervasive in nineteenth-century culture” (Escobar).  By removing the goblin men from the picture, Rossetti allows the sisters to bask in the love that they share for each other.  They do not need men to define them, even if they are seen as fallen women.  They are able to right their wrongs by sticking together.  The sisters’ struggle with identity can be observed from two viewpoints:  an unconventional sibling relationship and an unconventional gendered relationship.  These themes are evident in John Bolton’s 1984 painting titled For there is no friend like a sister.


“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”  (Rossetti 562-567)

A sister does not have to be someone who is related to you by blood.  It can also be “a female friend or associate, especially a female fellow member of a trade union or other organization” (Oxford English Dictionary).  The concept of sisterhood became popular in the 1970’s, and is epitomized by the song We Are Family by Sister Sledge which became the defacto anthem for many women’s groups.  The fact that this term can be ambiguous means that Rossetti is not trying to categorize her characters.  The journey that the sisters experience together is the most important aspect of the poem.  The idea of maleness as a central theme is abolished within Rossetti’s writing.  This aspect of lesbian relationships is eye-opening and the gender performance roles are challenged throughout Goblin Market. 

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Incongruous Liaisons

boy-george1The 1980’s band, Culture Club released their song Karma Chameleon, explaining that, “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.” I believe that Boy George wrote this song as an expression of his own life experiences and physical appearance. The meaning of this song would resonate strongly with the characters of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.


Cross dressing was common in the Elizabethan era and was most often found on the stage of theatrical performances. It can be described as individuals wearing clothes that are not associated with their gender.  Young male actors who had not yet hit puberty were always cast in the roles of women on the stage.  Shakespeare was well versed with the concept of cross dressing and often used this vehicle within his plays.  One play in particular that challenges the identity of gender and sexual orientation is Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night.  “Homosexuality existed in Renaissance society and Shakespeare knew it. Furthermore, Shakespeare wrote with a homosexually aware audience in mind. Otherwise, lines such as Hamlet’s “Man delights not me–nor woman neither” would not play (lI.ii.309)” (Van Watson).  Twelfth Night’s main character, Viola, spends most of her stage time disguised as Cesario, a man.  With this disguise, Viola (as Cesario), earns Duke Orsino’s trust and begins falling in love with him.  The Duke is in love with Olivia who does not want anything to do with the Duke.  However, when Olivia meets Cesario (Viola in disguise), she falls in love with him.  This creates a love triangle of mistaken true identity between characters that are unaware of Cesario (Viola’s) true gender.  By the end of the play all is revealed; Viola, playing Cesario, states that she is really female, the Duke then asks her to marry him, yet the Duke still wants her to leave the male disguise on even after Viola has revealed her true self.

twelfth_night_by_kikki_chan-d3126s3ORSINO: …Meantime, sweet sister,

We will not part from hence. Cesario, come –

for you shall be while you are a man

but when in other habits you are seen,

Orisno’s mistress, and his fancy’s queen (V.i.375-378)


This aspect makes Twelfth Night one of the earliest works cited for differing views on gendered roles.  “Her performative roles as the maiden Viola and ‘‘boy’’ Cesario, as well her position as the object of desire for both a man (Duke Orsino) and a woman (Countess Olivia), effectually eroticize her ‘‘service’’ to these figures and place her at the center of a sexual and therefore social and economic matrix” (Thomas).  The homoerotic relationships that transpire while Viola is disguised as Cesario leave Duke Orsino and Olivia conflicted with their gendered identities.  Twelfth Night blurs the typical heterosexual relationships.  Shakespeare’s play allows the characters to be attracted to someone of the same and opposite sex (in the case of Duke Orsino and Olivia).  Orsino displays homosexual tendencies in regards to Cesario and heterosexual tendencies towards Olivia. Olivia’s heterosexual tendencies towards Cesario could be viewed as homosexual since Cesario is actually a woman in disguise.


Along with Orsino and Olivia struggling with their sexual identities, Viola faces some internal confusion as well.  By adopting the behaviour of the opposite sex while disguised as Cesario, Viola becomes a transvestite.  She enjoys playing the character of Cesario and feels conflicted when her secret is out and she can freely be Viola again.  Current pop culture displays numerous forms of transgression in ways similar to Shakespeare and his play, pushing the envelope on society’s accepted norms and values.  The major motion picture She’s The Man, appears to be a modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  In a similar vein, the 1975 film, Rocky Horror Picture Show, is a perfect example of blurring the line between the search for identity and confusion of sexual orientation.  Both works address controversial subject matter presented through a humorous plot line for the audience.

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Why Can’t That Be Me? An Exploration Of Identity

343819-bigthumbnailIdentity can be defined as “the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is” (OED).  Although this definition seems fairly straight forward, it is extremely complicated to know exactly who or what someone is.  It is impossible to know another person’s inner turmoil and fears.  Struggling with identity remains a popular theme in literature and pop culture.  The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby exemplifies this theme.  Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction, the search and struggle for identity can be insightful for readers experiencing similar issues in their lives.  The search for identity is a very broad theme as there are numerous identities that people struggle with, such as: political, class, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, parental, or simply the differences between men and women.

Throughout Daniel Defoe’s novel, Moll Flanders, main character Moll is subject to the struggles of finding one’s true identity.  This eighteenth century woman was intent on breaking the stereotypical image that women were dependent and weak minded.  In order for Moll to break such a conventional view, she had to mold her identity to certain situations. Moll explains on the very first page of the novel, “The author here is supposed to be writing her own history, and in the very beginning of her account she gives the reason why she thinks fit to conceal her true name, after which there is no occasion to say any more about that” (Defoe 1).  From the very beginning, the reader never truly knows who Moll is, as ‘Moll’ is not her real name.  Throughout the novel, Moll becomes somewhat of a professional impersonator as she is able to take on any guise that will work to her advantage.  The most prominent struggle that Moll faces with identity is during her days as a thief.   She creates an alternate identity in her life of crime. “…this was to dress me up in men’s clothes, and so put me into a new kind of practice” (Defoe 296).  Moll’s Governess believes that as men, they have a better chance of stealing items, and their true identity will be concealed with a disguise should something go wrong.  In doing this, Moll crosses boundaries regarding both her gender and appearance.  She acts like a man and lies to everyone she meets, making them believe she is male and not female.  In doing this, Moll entangles her sexual identity as a female with the sexual identity of a male only differentiating from the two when it suits her.  Dressing as a man allows Moll a short time away from her real self, she gets to be someone completely different.  Her male character acts and behaves any way Moll sees fit as she is in full control of both identities.

5027At one point throughout the novel, Moll (as a man) and her accomplice are chased down after stealing silk.  Moll has enough time to run to her Governess’ house and hide “…I got time to throw off my disguise and dress me in my own clothes…” (298). If not for her dramatic alteration in apparent sexual identities, Moll would have been arrested on the spot and faced the gallows.  After this incident, Moll never dresses as a man again, remaining a woman to avoid sharing her companion’s untimely demise. “…the question of whether or not our identities are continuous (and, by implied association, unique) is not one that many of us wish to keep foremost in our minds. So, as it lurks in the rhetoric of this narrative, in imitates the quality of its presence in our consciousness; the rhetorical texture of the narrative becomes almost a metaphor for the less specifiable currents of our own minds” (Butler).  Although somewhat chastened by this experience, Moll perseveres and continues her search for her true self.

Obscuring one’s identity is as relevant today as it was 300 years ago.  For your viewing pleasure: Dean Pelton from the TV show Community would rather pretend to be different characters than his true self.

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