Becoming a Girl
by Joseph Cutolo
The fluid foundations of gender allow for “switching” from one to the other. Man, woman; boy, girl: they must not be thought of as complete opposites that are concrete, always-already there, inescapable. Rather, gender is the reified form of an act. Our society, far from having transcended gender, still works in its favor, treating as transcendental a mundanity that is created: the worship of a falsity, the acceptance of a construction. In other words, gender is a category which is treated as “natural”. Although it may, at the present time, represent the unthinkable, the terms “female man” or “male woman” are not completely impossible, contradictory, or even fantastical. The reason itself may seem contradictory: gender – while being an act – effaces itself in its own production, wearing the guise of nature, hiding itself at the moment of its appearance. I intend to address these issues, explored by critical theorists, through the lens of a literary text that performs its relation to gender. My reason for this literary analysis is to show that, as Judith Butler said, “gender is a sustained set of acts”. Alice Munro’s short story “Boys and Girls”, in my view, demonstrates this fluidity of gender: throughout the story, the nameless narrator switches from assuming the role of a boy to being named a girl. The narrator embodies the fluidity of gender which subverts its presumed “naturality”; and gender determination, for the narrator, will express the force of a desire.
The narrator of “Boys and Girls” is a child who lives on a farm with her parents and brother, Laird (I will refer to the narrator as “she” or “her” for now for simplicity). Laird, being the boy is expected to be a man and to do “manly” things. Her father is a fox farmer – he would raise foxes then kill them to sell their pelts. The narrator enjoyed the pelting process even though her mother “disliked the whole pelting operation” (1). The narrator, in fact, enjoys being with her father more than her mother. However, this begins to change when, in an attempt to stop a horse from escaping its stable, she gets to the door of the stable and, instead of closing the door, lets the horse – Flora – escape. Laird, having seen this, tells his father about the incident, to which he answered with “the words which absolved and dismissed [her] for good. ‘She’s only a girl’” (10). The narrator “didn’t protest that” and feels that “Maybe it was true” (10). The ambiguity of the narrator’s feelings creates a rift in the structure of gender – that is, the narrator is neither a boy nor a girl: gender becomes fluid.
First of all, I would like to denounce biological sex as a determining factor for gender; considering whether the narrator has female sex organs as well as a female chromosomal makeup would not be enough to assume that the narrator is a girl. According to Judith Butler “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its results” (Gender Trouble 33). There is a doer behind gender, but gender is not a concept which exists outside of its application (that is, acting like a boy, or acting like a girl – when one assumes these roles, it is no different from being a boy or being a girl). Only through participation in the act can gender be reified and said to exist. Gender is not inherent in nature, and is a linguistic fantasy. It is clear that the narrator rejects the girl-determining acts when her “grandmother came to stay with [her] for a few weeks and [she] heard other things. ‘Girls don’t slam doors like that’. ‘Girls keep their knees together when they sit down’. And worse still, when [she] asked some questions,” she was answered by being told “’That’s none of girl’s business’. [The narrator] continued to slam the doors and sit as awkwardly as possible thinking that by such measures, [she] kept [her]self free” (5 my italics). I would change this to “he kept himself free”; by denying to assume the role of a girl, the narrator chooses other, chooses boy, which is equal to being a boy.
To say what girls do or do not do is an attempt at controlling the narrator, making him a “case”, a body to be “corrected, classified, normalized, excluded” – I employ these terms in the way that Michel Foucault used them in his book Discipline and Punish. That is, “corrected” in the sense of normalization (a female body is a girl, and should act as such); “classified” in the sense of exclusion (being constrained to one gender – the narrator must be one and must choose the accepted one). We see, though, that the narrator refuses being a “girl” and feels that working with his father was “ritualistically important” (4). This was because, recognizing a woman’s duty, the narrator sees that “It seemed that work in the house was endless, dreary, and peculiarly depressing” (4). The narrator is aware of the attempted formation that is happening, and remarks that “A girl was not, as [she] supposed, simply what [she] was; it was what [she] had to become” (5). The narrator notices that the house is what traps, conceals, and steals. Its power, however, is not simply negative or hindering – it also produces a stronger desire for the outside. This is doubtless why his mother says that she has no help in the house because “she just gets her back turned and [she] runs off”(4). Again, I would change that to “he runs off”. Therefore, we see that the narrator’s gender expresses the force of a desire: he wants to be a boy, so he assumes the gender roles accordingly.
Now, to my conclusion: what is at stake in reading Munro through this framework is to attempt to undo the myth of sex by means of the analysis of the “female boy”. Both Judith Butler’s and Michel Foucault’s poststructuralist perspectives help us expose the mystical fusion of sex and gender. Gender and sex, in the last analysis, are only fictitiously connected, and one is not causative of the other: their connection is only a linguistic fantasy with no place in reality.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls.” Tripod. n.d. [Web]. 5 March 2013.