- Masculinities without Men? Female Masculinity in Twentieth-Century Fictions
Jean Bobby Noble's Masculinities without Men? focuses not on clothes as the marker of gender destabilization but rather on the flesh itself. Through an exploration of a limited selection of twentieth-century fictions Noble suggests that metatextual events have the potential to produce as yet unimagined ways of inhabiting bodies. This book states its obvious indebtedness to Judith Halberstam's groundbreaking work, Female Masculinity. Where Noble's text differs is in its willingness to explore the relationship between all guises of [End Page 333] masculinity, including masculinity performed by "men." Moreover, its aim is significantly different, in that Female Masculinity "is primarily concerned with lesbian masculinity," whereas Masculinities Without Men? "seeks a post-identity politic and, at times, post-queer, anti-heteronormative but trans-ed materialization of masculinity" (xxxix). Although Noble claims to trace a "genealogy of reading practices" (92) of female masculinity in twentieth-century fictions, the more than sixty-year gap between the publication of Radclyffe Hall's novel and the next text discussed as well as the space given to each text (for example, eighty-nine pages to The Well of Loneliness and fifteen to Boys Don't Cry) suggest less an engagement with the complexities of fictional twentieth-century representations of female masculinity and more a focus on texts that support the author's thesis.
Noble approaches female masculinity from the position of language, postulating the potential of language to challenge existing regimes of knowledge and knowledge production. The usage of pronouns, he argues, is always political. Therefore, through a rethinking of the ways in which they are used, it is possible to bring into existence, to "language" (xvi), as yet unarticulated forms of embodiment. In this sense, he reads Stephen Gordon from The Well of Loneliness as he; Jess(e) Goldberg from Stone Butch Blues as s/he; the main protagonist from Sacred Country as Mary, Martin, and Mary Martin Ward simultaneously; and Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) from Boys Don't Cry as the "crisis . . . of language and bodies" (149). Noble's choice of pronouns works to confirm his thesis that there is potential for rearticulation of bodies and identities through a process of disidentification with available discourses. This potential is reiterated through his mantra of "disidentification, rearticulation, and materialization" (107). Jess(e)'s and Mary Martin's refusal to transition "fully" from female to male, both wanting to stay in a space, a body, that is still being articulated in both linguistic and bodily terms, indicates the potential and need for linguistic change and for new ways of conceptualizing embodiment. Noble's main point appears to be that arguing over whether, for example, Stephen or Brandon are lesbian or transsexual is to miss that these texts produce all of these possible readings and more. It is this "more" that is crucial to Noble because it is here that a crisis in knowledge is brought about and that we, as readers, begin to "un-know" what we have learned in order to learn anew what is happening in this space of unknowability (150).
This space of undoing knowledge is appealing and full of political potential on both a theoretical and somatic level. However, in the context of Masculinities without Men? there are a couple of issues that Noble ignores. First, he appears to recognize the importance of being read as a readable body (152) but suggests that this recognition comes at a high cost (151). While I agree that the stakes of recognition are high, it is critical to recall that the impact of unreadability can be traumatic and violent. His criticism of Prosser for reading The Well of Loneliness as a transsexual text in Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality is that Prosser moves [End Page 334] away from the novel, imposing his own ideologies and, thereby, closing down the reading process. What Noble does not admit is that Prosser's, Halberstam's, and Esther Newton's readings all make available...