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Published by Annie

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Published by: Annie on Jul 06, 2014
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Rory Fleming SCHC 352J – 501 11/11/10 Cohen Gender Performativity and the Complexities of Androgyny in Virginia Woolf’s
 Simone de Beauvoir famously stated on the issues of sex and gender that “One is not  born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The counterargument to Beauvoir’s claim is found in the doctrine of essentialism, which assumes that gender differences correspond directly to physical sex of individuals and are hence inflexible. Constructivism, the idea that Beauvoir and her contemporaries helped generate, states that these observable differences are a result of the cultural reiteration of norms. Female fiction writers active at the turn of the century played with the idea that “womanness” is not itself inherent, and one of the most recognizable examples of this can be found in Virginia Woolf’s
. In this novel, Woolf’s theoretical fluidity of gender fits neither the stark essentialist ideology nor complete constructivism. Her answer is more akin to the more contemporary theory of gender performativity, codified by post-structuralist philosopher Judith Butler. While it seems that there is an undisturbed kernel in Orlando’s sense of self, she instinctually adapts to social roles imposed upon her while critiquing  both her firsthand experience and that which she observes.
 is a nuanced exploration into how a unique identity is formed while enduring the current of social pressures and the safety of conformity.
 is told from the perspective of a nameless biographer, who claims to not be a writer of fiction but of facts. The narrator constantly reminds the reader of his presence and his distaste for sentimentality and non-historical narrative developments. Indeed, we can assume that this biographer, generally interpreted as male, chose to write on the topic of Orlando’s life under the impression that it would be a high-profile, aristocratic and masculine topic filled with  beheadings and political maneuvers: the “meaningful” acts of important
, constructed as
separate and superior to the deeds of women. Ambiguity also makes him profoundly uncomfortable, preferring exceedingly clear dividing lines between phenomena. His job as a  biographer, supposedly a recorder of “true” histories, is always at risk of becoming hopelessly complex until he draws a linear path through the life of the individual. In
, the nebulous quality of life in practice is represented in the titular character, who the biographer is writing about. Orlando is an artist and poet, first of all. These qualities are hard to accept for the  biographer; the trade of the poet
 the expression of the ambiguity that complicates his work. He encounters this conflict of interests after providing the impressionistic description of Sasha’s  betrayal and Orlando’s subsequent removal from courtly affairs. Orlando enters a trance for seven days, something that the biographer wishes to fulfill his duty when outlining it and nothing more. He states that the first duty of the biographer is “to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth” (Woolf 
65). Even though the next part of the story is “dark, mysterious, and undocumented,” he has to make do with the information he is provided as that is his role and profession. What actually follows is a mythical account of the tribulations of an aspiring artist, which the biographer has no choice but to divulge because there is no other information on that time of Orlando’s life. Making matters even worse for the biographer, Orlando transforms into a woman without warning halfway through the novel. When Orlando switches biological sex in Chapter Three, the  biographer-narrator is flabbergasted by the fact that the character’s mannerisms do not change notably as a result. Rather, Orlando the woman reacts very little initially. The biographer states in his bafflement that “We should not have blamed her had she rung the bell, screamed, and fainted. But Orlando showed no such signs of perturbation. All her actions […] might have indeed been thought to show tokens of premeditation” (Woolf 
139). She decides almost
immediately afterward to leave her post at Constantinople as an ambassador to spend some time at a Gypsy camp before deciding on her next move. Why is the biographer made so obviously uncomfortable by the transformation that occurred, and what opposition does it set in place? Besides the fact that it undermines his initial project to recount the life of a “more noteworthy” male figure, it forces him to revaluate divisions that he previously took for granted. Language fails him in his quest to write a rigidly determinant narrative on even the pronoun level (“he,” “she,” “their”). Thereafter, Orlando lives a life marked by the experience of both genders, and her commentary frequently deals with gender relations in her current historical moment. The  biographer gradually includes Orlando’s personal statements, perhaps so to illuminate the narrative’s actual fact: the very ambiguity he used to fear. Pamela Caughie’s essay locates
 as a text that defines itself in accordance with this very indeterminacy. Since “there is nothing out ‘out there’ to measure [gender, language] against,” categories such as male or female are defined based on what they are not (Caughie 43). In other words, the distinctions have the appearance of being arbitrary: the difference is
. Cultural discourses based on varying levels of accuracy widely disseminate the myth that personality traits and emotional dispositions belong primarily within one gender or another, and are generally pseudo-scientifically justified via “biological” inference. However, once a person is developed it is virtually impossible to determine whether development in a certain direction occurred during biological stimuli or conditioning. If a girl’s parents tell her to  play with dolls, wear frilly dresses, and stay in the house to help bake while the boys play outside, then other interactions will occur as a result: the identity becomes sedimentary. This is what Judith Butler describes to be the performativity of gender. Changing the person down to their dominant system of perception, molded and built upon since his or her first interactions

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