- Masculinities without Men? Female Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Fictions
Many readers will recognize immediately that the second half of Jean Bobby Noble's Masculinities without Men? Female Masculinity in Twentieth Century Fictions refers to Judith Halberstam's earlier examination of 'female masculinity.' While Noble takes up Halberstam's challenge to the biologically based binary gender order, his account of female masculinity clearly departs by demarcating an interstitial space in the existing gender order. One cannot help but wonder if the first half of the title is an unacknowledged reference to Tania Modleski's study Feminism without Women, which examines the impact on women and on feminism when males fulfill roles traditionally gendered as feminine by virtue of an assumed biological correspondence. However, instead of categorizing female masculinity as a form of colonization - a critical commonplace for the reverse phenomenon - Noble stresses that the best sources for the study of masculinities need not be the (biologically) male practitioners of these gender formations, especially hegemonic masculinity. In other words, Noble argues that, since gender is contextual and contingent, the practices adopted by marginalized masculinities reveal the socially accepted effects not only of gender, but also of dominance. Here Noble echoes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick by locating gender as a discourse of power. However, by situating the analysis outside the hetero/homosexual binary Sedgwick studies, Noble demonstrates that the very terms of the discipline - gender, sex, and sexuality - not only are separate and unstable categories, but should themselves be subjects of study. Rather than privileging these categories as signifiers of identity, Noble demonstrates that as ideological constructs they are imbricated with (the) other signifiers of identity, especially nationalism, race, ethnicity, and class. Indeed, a major contribution of the study is its consistent exposition of the tendency for white, male masculinity to maintain its appearance of immanence based on the strategic deployment of these formations.
The most frequent reminder and example of the ways in which gender is (re/de)constructed through pre-existing discursive categories occurs in Noble's own language. In every instance, when analysing a character's female masculinity, Noble lets the character decide which gender pronoun applies. For example, the infamous Brandon Teena, of Boys Don't Cry, and Stephen, from The Well of Loneliness, are both 'he.' Jess(e) from Stone Butch Blues has the intermediate 's/he.' Completing the spectrum is Mary/Martin of Sacred Country, who remains 'she' regardless of her contemporaneous state. Simply put, Noble's syntax destabilizes the act of reading and therefore the act of reading the subject. For each of the characters, 'country' then signifies not only a geographical space but also a lifestyle and an [End Page 357] identity, none of which is completely circumscribed by the discursive categories. Simultaneously, the language game subtly reinforces the attempts at self-articulation by the characters, the contingencies of gender as an everyday experience, and the dominant culture's attempts at incorporating the transgressive. In this last regard, Noble highlights the inherent contradiction of a culture which allegedly rewards individuality but which punishes purported transgressors. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Brandon Teena, whose disputed fate - in real life and in the movie - suggests a radical individualization outside of gender.
Based on such a finding, Noble concludes that Halberstam's attempts to disavow the contingency between female masculinities and male masculinities are neither fruitful nor necessary. Instead of dismissing the effort, Noble asserts that both sets are derivative forms. Gender performance, then, depends on passing. Whereas male masculinities attempt to pass as the natural, essential form, female masculinities reveal the currently accepted, and therefore socially constructed, aspects of any such performance. Thus, Noble also defines a radical re-essentialization. However, where other considerations of marginalized masculinities typically fail to address a politics of the body, Noble reactivates the body as a locus of gender debate. Instead of the limits of the body providing the limits of the discourse, the body itself is a source of instability and is no more a guarantor of one's gender, sex...