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Acting Out(side) Appropriate Gender: (per)Forming Desires in Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café

Acting Out(side) Appropriate Gender: (per)Forming Desires in Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Café

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Darragh Hall. Originally submitted for English and Philosophy at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Anne Mulhall in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Darragh Hall. Originally submitted for English and Philosophy at University College Dublin, with lecturer Dr. Anne Mulhall in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
 
1
 A 
CTING
O
UT
(
SIDE
)
 
 A 
PPROPRIATE
G
ENDER 
:
 
(
PER 
)F
ORMING
D
ESIRE IN
C
 ARSON
M
C
C
ULLERS
 
HE 
B
 ALLAD OF THE 
 AD
 AFÉ 
 
 A 
BSTRACT
:
 
Carson McCullers
fiction has been analysed by commentators withreference to its grotesque and queer dimensions. This paper analyses the text in terms of its dialogue with Judith Butler
s theories of gender performativity and returns to thepsychoanalytic aspects of Butler
s theories of gender performativity, to the authenticrealm of the unconscious, in order to argue that McCullers text challenges not justnotions of essential or fixed gender, but also confronts normalised structures of sexuality.While authenticity of appropriate gender is deconstructed through (the lack of)corresponding articulations on bodily surfaces and performative citations,heterosexualised formations of sexuality are foregrounded in relational dynamicsbetween the text
s central figures, relations which con-fuse heterosexual and homosexualdesire.
K
EYWORDS
:
Twentieth-Century American fiction; Carson McCullers; genderperformativity; Judith Butler; queer theory.
____________________________________________________
J
udith
Butler’s
 
Gender Trouble
sets out a theory of gender performativity that underminesthe binaries of man and woman and the privileging of heteronormative constructions of sexuality as an original or correct sexuality. What becomes exposed is that gender is notessential nor is it linked to anatomy in any essential way, but is rather an articulated effect of a reiterated citation of norms (Butler,
Gender Trouble
). In
 Bodies That Matter 
, Butler arguesthat these theories of gender need to return to material dimensions in terms of how the matterof the body is produced through hegemonic structures from the moment that the body, as
“matter”, is formed. There is no “I” prior to gender 
(Butler,
 Bodies
)
. In “MelancholyGender/Refused Identification”
, Butler suggests that heterosexuality is cultivated through aseries of prohibitions that, foremost, foreclose the desire for the same-sex as an impossibility.The subject, unable to mourn this loss, incorporates the same-sex object of desire, and thiskind of melancholic identification is effected as gender (Salih,
 Butler Reader 
). Carson
McCullers’
The Ballad of the Sad Café 
, as a text, lends itself well to theories of genderperformativity. It subverts fixed categories, exposes the illogical premises of a fixed gender
ontology, relates the “relational” of gender effects, and deconstructs the binary division and
strict separation of desire and identification.
The Ballad of the Sad Café 
, then, subvertsnotions of gender as essential and fixed not by reversing binaries of masculine/feminine orhetero/homo, but by deconstructing and exposing the binary logic of gender norms and theprocesses by which they become naturalised. What McCullers mobilizes in presenting figureslike Amelia Evans, Marvin Macy or Cousin Lymon and their relationships is an effective
“queer 
ing
of heterosexualised formations of gender and sexuality. Sex and gender roles aresevered from what apparently determines them; this subversion of essential and naturalgender works in two ways; first,
in how “correct” gender 
 
is (or isn’t) articulated on the bodies
of the figures in the text; and second, in emphasising the relational dynamics
between
thesefigures.
 
 
2
To turn first to the bodies in the text, the pre-dominant figure that seems to articulatean-other gender in terms of bodily surfaces is Miss Amelia Evans. Sarah Gleeson-White,following Butler and Bakhtin, argues that gender is inextricable from forms of masquerade.Gleeson-White uses Bakhtinian theories of the grotesque as a lens through which to view the
 bodies in the texts, arguing that gender is revealed as nomadic in McCullers’ texts through
both a suspension of gender categories and through the foregrounding of genderperformances (Gleeson-White, 68). Gleeson-
White’s
framework is useful in terms of MissAmelia. If Miss Amelia as a textual figure is subversive, however, it is not merely becauseshe performs a kind of masculinity;
Miss Amelia doesn’t just reject fem
inine norms.Descriptions of Miss Amelia always result in this kind of vacillation between categories; weare confronted not just with subversive presence, but also absence, difference and possibility.In
Gender Trouble
, Butler questions the source of the
sense of “gender reality”
around the
concepts of “man” and “woman”, arguing that when such categories [man/woman] come intoquestion, the “reality” of gender faces a crisis.
 
If one thinks that one sees a man dressed as a woman or a woman dressed as a man, then one
takes the first term of each of those perceptions as the “reality” of gender: the gender that isintroduced through the simile lacks “reality,” and is taken to const
itute an illusory appearance. Insuch perceptions in which an ostensible reality is coupled with an unreality, we think we knowwhat the reality is, and take the secondary appearance of gender to be mere artifice, play,falsehood, and illusion
…[t]his is na
turalized knowledge, even though it is based on a series of cultural inferences. (Butler,
Gender Trouble
, xxiii)
Miss Amelia troubles the
supposed “
reality
of gender by dragging ontologicalpresuppositions into a space where they are questioned in order to deconstruct normalisingeffects of appropriate gender.
To think of the figure of Miss Amelia as “a woman dressed as aman” (or “a man dressed as a woman”) doesn’t seem to
provide a description correlative withthe figure that the text presents us with. Masculinity is not performed over an essentialfemininity that situates itself beneath the performance. Business, manual labour and court
cases are, for Miss Amelia, what the narrator describes as “a way of life”.
The surfacearticulations of masculinity too, after all, manifest not just in her clothing, but also in herphysical morphology, and the behavioural effects that she reiterates
. McCullers’ physical
introduction of the figure of Miss Amelia is resonant of 
Butler’s simile: “She was a dark, tall
woman
with bones and muscles
like a man
(
McCullers 8; my emphasis). What is enabled
through the figure of Miss Amelia isn’t a mere subversion of gender norms by assigning an
uncomplicated gender effect
(masculinity) to a body that doesn’
t anatomically correspond (awoman), after all, Butler warns that this is not always subversive. Claire Kahane aligns MissAmelia with the image of the androgyne or the hermaphrodite (347). These readings seem tosuggest that what Miss Amelia emits are a set of (physical and behavioural) signifiers of both
a kind of “
masculini
ty” and “femini
ni
ty” which both attach to the hermaphrodi
te orandrogynous signified. These bodily articulations take on different significance on a bodywhich is underscored by culturally informed pre-suppositions of a fixed gendered ontology.The markers of masculinity articulated on the bodily surface and through repeated acts andmannerisms also hold traces of signifiers that are absent. The sustained presentation of socialand physiological manifestat
ions of gender deviancy from one’s own “natural” sex (anatomy)
 carry traces of their difference
 ––the manifestations of “correct” gender not present(ed).
In itsvery absence, femininity is invoked and simultaneously effaced. The spectacle of femininityis that which situates itself uneasily beneath the articulations of masculinity. And yet, anuncomplicated masculinity seems unfitting too
 –– 
for it is always ruptured through theseattempts to establish itself. Through the doubleness suggested by androgynous readings of Miss Amelia, the body of Amelia, then, acts as a site where performative acts foreclose each
 
 
3
other as confirmations of an essential and corresponding gender. Following Butler, thatAmelia is
like
a man, is premised on the culturally informed presupposition that she is
not 
a
man. “Man” being introduced through a simile here
forecloses any possibility that MissAmelia
is
a man. If Amelia deviates from an idealized femininity in every performative andmorphological marker except her differentiating anatomy, then for notions of essential genderto hold, this anatomy is to be the matrix of her ontology; her sexed reality. But the anatomicaldifference is precisely what remains private, unseen. In that there is an awareness that this
unseen
” is what notions of fixed gender take as the determinant of “reality”, McCullersgestures towards an ambiguity even around Amelia’s this anatomy:
 
There was not a grain of modesty about Miss Amelia, and she frequently seemed to forgetaltogether that there were men in the room. Now as she stood warming herself, her red dress waspulled up quite high in the back so that a piece of her strong, hairy thigh could be seen by anyonewho cared to look at it. (McCullers, 71)
The red dress (the only visible
marker of femininity in this passage) is “pulled up quitehigh”. The dress then is revealing but also reveal
ing
; it is not the outward sign (the dress)which draws us in, but what lies beneath it. The hairy thigh gestures towards perhaps even ananatomical ambiguity.
This ambiguity is felt again in the “unholy” unconsummated marriage
 between Amelia and Marvin Macy; they never have sexual relations. The morphologicalpossibilities are suspended
, even in “private”,
both for the reader and for
Amelia’s
(non)sexual partner.
A “reality” of Miss Amelia is never offered
; it is precisely that whichcan
not 
be seen by anyone who cares to look at it. As Clare Whatling perceptively notes,
“[w]hat we
witness
in Amelia is an objective display of masculine style. What we
imagine
isthe translation of behaviour into morphology. The story plays on this ambiguity but gives noanswer.
(
241
; emphasis Whatling’s).
Through the troubling of these binary categories this
idea of gender “reality” is itself brought into crisis.
 To move to the image of the red dress
 –– 
the only visible token of femininity
 –– 
theinclusion and position of this gender token is important.
McCullers’ introduction of Miss
Amelia had brought the notion of a gendered ontology into a space where it is placed inconsciousness rather than as a presupposition (she is like a man, and therefore not a man).The culturally supposed
reality
 
of Miss Amelia’s gender is that
she is a woman; yet, thelanguage used to describe any manifestations of femininity (in this case, wearing a dress) isdeployed in a way that resonates a kind of drag performance which conflicts with notions of essential gender. Where
displays of masculinity work toward Miss Amelia’s refusal
of 
aligning herself with an “appropriate” gender,
then her performance of femininity becomes just as disruptive. It emphasises the impossibility of ever approximating ideal norms of femininity. If we consider Amelia as a
woman
, we
are confronted with a kind of “womandressing as a woman”.
The red dress in this passage she which begins to wear on Sundays is
described as “[hanging] on her in a most peculiar fashion” (31).
Her wedding dress is
described as “yellow satin and at least twelve inches too short for her” (37).
These dresses,these signals of femininity, cover
in an almost comedic way Miss Amelia’s tall, muscular frame and her “hair 
y
” body beneath.
 If the figure of Miss Amelia shows that gender is not
essential
, she also shows throughher relationships with the two other central figures, Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon, that itis not
 fixed 
. Through her relationship with Lymon she becomes more feminized to an extent,appearing to take on a mothering role. The narrator tells us tha
t “[Miss Amelia’s] manners…and her way of life were greatly changed” (31).
Joseph Millichap notes this dynamic of 
mother and child between Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon. He suggests that “[Lymon] is aman loved without sex, a child acquired without pain” (
335). Lymon, after all, claims an

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