Book Rec // ‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson

Today’s book review is of the unusual, poignant, unforgettable novel Miss Jane by Brad Watson. I picked up this book on my birthday of this year, when I was just browsing around Barnes & Noble looking for a gift to myself! Miss Jane jumped out at me because of its beautiful peacock cover. Yes—I judge books by their covers and I am proud of it. Miss Jane immediately appealed to me because of its subject matter: a young woman with a genital defect finds freedom in her condition, and it’s set primarily in 1920s-30s Mississippi.

miss jane

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Fairy Tales Retold: "Ella Enchanted" and Free Will

When I was nine years old you could find me in the corner of the B&N Children’s Section in the “L” section—for Levine—reading the same copy of Ella Enchanted. I never bought the book. I just read a little bit every time I came, until I finished it. Then I started it over again. Finally, I borrowed a copy from the library—and kept it for three years. When I finally gave it back (and somehow avoided paying the exorbitant fee) I was left bereft. It was my favorite book, and well-thumbed. Thankfully, for something like my thirteenth or fourteenth birthday my sisters bought me a brand-new hardcover copy. The rest is history.

Photo Nov 13, 12 20 19 PMElla Enchanted, a retelling of Cinderella, tells the story of a young Ella in the imaginary and magical kingdom of Frell. Her mother passes away suddenly and her greedy merchant father marries a rich woman with two young, doltish, and cruel daughters. So far we’ve got all the major ingredients of the classic tale, but Ella Enchanted has a twist: Ella is under a curse bestowed upon her by the fairy, Lucinda.

The curse Lucinda bestows upon her is a “gift” of obedience. “Ella will always be obedient,” she says. (3) This curse is an excellent plot device as it is responsible for nearly all of Ella’s hardships. Had she not been cursed, she wouldn’t have been exploited by her stepfamily or forced to give up her possessions, and her “happily ever after” would have come easily.

But Ella does not succumb to the effects of the curse without a fight. “Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me,” she says. (5) Ella describes how she evaded the curse by finding loopholes in the commands she’s issued. For example, when her godmother Mandy tells her to “hold the bowl while I beat the eggs,” Ella resents being ordered to do anything, and while holding the bowl, she’d move around the kitchen so Mandy would have to follow her, making it more difficult. (5) Despite her curse, Ella shows strong sense of self and a large measure of mischievousness that is apparent throughout the novel.

The curse, of course, is a metaphor for the expectations of obedience and docility that society places upon women and girls. It may also be interpreted as the feminine ideal that many fairy tales of the past and even of the last fifty years of movies and television have enforced. But what is most notable about Ella’s curse is how she finds liberties within the confines of the curse to exercise her will. Her free will, to be exact.

What is interesting about how the curse operates is that it does not strip away Ella’s free will. One of the biggest reasons why I hated the movie (there are many, the least including Anne Hathaway’s parody of a strong-willed woman) is because the curse forces Ella’s actions. Movie-Ella had no control over her actions; the spell simply took over her body and acted for her as if she were a puppet. The oversimplification of the curse robbed it of its allegorical power.

Contrarily, in the novel, the curse includes symptoms of dizziness, concentrated pain, buzzing of the ears, vertigo, and nausea if she does not obey. But ultimately, the decision to obey is Ella’s. She has free will but forces of nature and of society, metaphorically, work against her. If she does not obey, she runs the very real risk of bodily harm and it is suggested, even death. This metaphor of the curse calls attention to all the societal pressures that are packaged with the female identity and how difficult it is to resist gender norms and establish one’s identity outside of societal expectations and the feminine ideal.

Ella excels at gaining small areas of ground by disobeying while obeying the curse, as described. She’s an example of a free-thinking woman living in a patriarchal system, doing what she can to make herself happy. However, she also knows that the curse may be broken and that it can only be broken by herself, and by no one else. The scene in which she breaks the curse is poignant, powerful, and my favorite passage of the novel:

Then I lost sense of it all. I went on rocking and crying, but my thought burrowed within, concentrated in a point deep in my chest, where there was room for only one truth: I must save Char. For a moment I rested inside myself, safe, secure, certain, gaining strength. In that moment I found a power beyond any I’d had before, a will and a determination I would never have needed if not for Lucinda, a fortitude I hadn’t been able to find for a lesser cause. (226) (emphasis mine)

Ella displays such formidable strength and finds that strength wholly within herself. It is that strength which was always at her fingertips, the strength she always possessed that would have allowed her to break the curse, but she needed reason enough. For Ella, saving the man she loves is enough for her to be able to break the curse. In Levine’s estimation, love—equal, honest love—transcends social boundaries and expectations and can result in uncommon happiness despite societal norms. Stepsisters still exist, there is still a king and queen and a patriarchy, but Levine suggests that with personal strength any girl can overcome these forces. Every girl can break her “curse.”

Also notable is that Ella “refused to become a princess” even though she marries a prince. (231) Instead she opts for the titles “Court Linguist” and “Cook’s Helper,” titles that call attention to her skills and knowledge rather than to her status as a royal’s wife. (231)

One last thing:

Now it was over. Ended forever. I was made anew. Ella. Just Ella. Not Ella, the slave. Not a scullery maid. Not Lela. Not Eleanor. Ella. Myself unto myself. One Me. (228)

And now I must affirm the influence of that passage above upon my nine-year-old psyche. Strange as it sounds, ridiculous as it sounds, Ella Enchanted may have turned the pre-preteen me into a tiny little feminist.

References

Levine, G.C. (1997) Ella Enchanted. New York, NY: HarperCollins

What "Middlesex" Taught Me About Gender Identity

Last week, I found myself re-reading that modern classic and Pulitzer-darling, Middlesex, and ruminating again on how much influence the novel had on my own gender identity. In this unforgettable novel, Eugenides weaves a complex, harrowing story of how a young girl, Calliope Stephanides, ended up with an intersex condition known as 5-alpha reductase deficiency. As a teenager in the 70s, Callie struggles immensely with both her sexuality and how she defines her gender. However, eleven years after the novel was first published, the last decade sheds more light on Callie’s story, and has served as a guidepost for the expression of my own gender identity.

At the end of the novel, when Callie has chosen to identify as Cal, he expresses a tempered joy that his father died before “missile shields and global warming and September 11 and the second president with only one vowel in his name.” (512) Yet now, eleven years after Middlesex was first published, we have had our first biracial president. We’ve had more terror scares, more threats of attack. And then there are the cultural aspects of contemporary American life: gay marriage is legal in fourteen states and is quickly gaining political supporters across America; rape culture is addressed and condemned with more virulence than ever before; and personal technology has changed the way people relate to each other and to themselves.

Technology has progressed to the point where nearly everyone has a smartphone and multiple social media accounts, and thus are quickly searchable, their identities outlined by Instagram photos of nights out, lunch preferences, and time lounging on the couch with a pet. Twitter feeds are the way we get to know people now. Blogs allow each person an audience and a forum to express him- or herself with few or no boundaries. So, keeping in mind this social atmosphere, where is Cal now? How would he have responded to this world? And more importantly, what would Eugenides have written had he published Middlesex in this decade instead of the last?

In my mind, I see Cal as a fiftysomething apolitical yet optimistic and outgoing man. Not an activist or a demonstrator, but perhaps he would have written an article or two for the Huffington Post. I like to think that in contemporary America, Cal would have been met with acceptance and understanding, rather than the inhibiting fear of rejection he exhibits with romantic (and to some extent, platonic) relationships in the novel. Rediscovering Middlesex has allowed me to ponder and plumb these questions about how the American social landscape has changed in the last ten years, and how the complexities of gender identity have permeated the consciousness of more people than ever before.

How? Gender dysphoria is no longer classified as a “disorder” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as of May 22, 2013. Previously known as “gender identity disorder,” the newly rechristening of GID represents a shift in the way we relate to and understand gender identity. Rather than as a dichotomy of male versus female, gender identity has evolved into a broader spectrum. Transgender individuals are seen less as anomalies and their experiences are more widely shared and understood. The complexities of gender identity affects us all; as Cal states, “We hermaphrodites are people like everybody else.” (106)

The most poignant part of the book, in my reading experience, was the point at which Cal[lie] decides he does not wish to undergo any kind of operation to become either anatomically male or female. His decision echoes an earlier statement made in the narrative by the forty-one year old Cal: “hermaphroditic genitals are not diseased.” (106) Cal does not wish to join either “team,” so to speak. He admits to not feeling fully integrated into the community of men (he doesn’t like them that much) and also states that he never felt out of place as a girl. Cal, apolitical throughout, admits that his decision to be a man hinged on his sexual preferences, not on a feeling of belonging to a preordained gender identity. He is, allow me the indulgence, a middlesex.

Whenever I read Middlesex, I identify so closely with Cal/lie. I don’t mean that as a cisgender female I know what it is like to be intersex; simply that the description of gender in the book got me thinking. It got me thinking about myself as a twenty-two year old female, somewhere between girlhood and womanhood, and all the ways in which I express gender identity internally and externally. I thought about my speech habits, the way I behave on dates, how I address men, how I carry on conversations, my wardrobe choices, my choice of friends, of jobs, even of bars. I realized how subtly my decisions were influenced by the female gender identity to which I belong, and it also allowed me to realize the many freedoms contemporary women enjoy, more than they ever did in Callie’s 1974.

As a fourteen-year-old patient to the sexologist Dr. Luce, Callie describes being interviewed by the doctor: “He watched my facial expressions; he noted my style of argument. Females tend to smile at their interlocutors more than males do. Females pause and look for signs of agreement before continuing. Males just look into the middle distance and hold forth. Women prefer the anecdotal, men the deductive.” Cal recognizes these as stereotypes, “limited but useful.” (417) Back in 1974, gender lines were much more distinctly drawn. These lines, though very much still intact, have grown fuzzier in the intervening decades between Callie’s adolescence and my own.

For example, I can pay the check on a first date, and happily. I can confidently express opinions without pausing to smile winningly, eager for acceptance. I can respond to an older man’s “honey”s or “sweetie”s or “gimme a smile, beauty”s with as much hostility as I deem appropriate. I don’t find it necessary to defer to a man’s perceived power, or allow my behavior to fall in line with a preconceived notion of femininity. I feel free to reject gender norms and, as much as possible, live with the knowledge of their influence and try to combat it.

Yes, there are still many obstacles to living free of the gender dichotomy, but, perhaps like Cal would have felt these days, I feel more optimistic about social change. Neither an activist or a demonstrator, I am, like Cal, a person, and a writer. Maybe we’re all a bit of a middlesex if we allow ourselves the freedom to choose neither, or both, to live as a person without succumbing to gendered expectations.

References

Eugenides, J. (2002). Middlesex. New York, NY: Picador.