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Narrative 12.2 (2004) 226-229
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Physiology, Gender, and Feeling:
On Cheering Up
Robyn R. Warhol
Kay, you summarize my argument beautifully. What's more, you brilliantly tease out the philosophical underpinnings of my project's refusal to buy into the Cartesian mind/body split, and you remind me of questions grounded in feminist epistemology that got me interested in my topic in the first place. For me, the point of feminism has always been to ask "what difference does gender make?" in how we see, feel, know, and are known. This question overlaps in fascinating ways with the question "what difference does biological sex make?" but, as your response makes clear, the answers will not necessarily be the same.
When I consider the gendered experience of an upper-middle-class woman author in the 1850s, for example, I am always more interested in the effects upon her of culture than those of physiology. I think about the impact on her work of such matters as the lack of formal higher education for women, the conflicts between the period's definitions of "professional" and "female," or the prejudice against women writers endemic among her reviewers. In this respect my practice does not depart from a second-wave historicist feminism. But I also think more viscerally about the body of the woman who faced those social circumstances. I focus on what it would feel like to compress one's ribs daily in the leather and whalebone of a corset, to stand in the middle of the eight-to-ten-foot circumference of a crinoline, inclining one's head, perhaps, or extending one's hand to another person, but moving always in a strictly delimited version of what we might call "personal space." I am more [End Page 226] interested in these gendered differences between her and her male counterparts than I am in her experience of, say, her menstrual cycle, and I freely admit that my interest is politically motivated. I want to know what difference gender makes, but then I want to know the ways in which that difference has operated to the social and cultural disadvantage of women. Most of all I want to know what I, or rather, what we can do to end that disadvantage. Menstruation may take some hitherto unknown form in the future, and it comes (or not) and goes in the life of any individual woman. Its meaning varies from culture to culture, but the fact of it is, for now at least, outside the realm of political action. I lean always to the anti-essentialist, poststructuralist forms of feminism because I want to believe there is hope for the changes that gender equity will require. Reading your response, I have to admit that my purposeful anti-essentialism forces me to downplay physiological aspects of gendered experience that my project would seem to require me to consider. You write that you "wonder still about the role physiology, apart from cultural training, might play in prompting [me] to feel a greater pleasure watching As the World Turns than reading the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Maturin series" (223). For me, though, there is no physiology outside of culture—or, at least, there is no place we could stand outside of culture to perceive what that physiology would feel like.
While you were reading Jennifer Boylan Finney's She's Not There, I was reading Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, a recent novel told in the first person by a hermaphrodite, raised as a girl until age fourteen, then transformed into the man who eventually narrates his life story. I was pleased that the back cover blurb identifies Cal as an "engaging narrator," because that's exactly what he is, in both the colloquial and the narratological senses of that phrase.1 Although the novel starts slowly, getting bogged down in an overly detailed American Studies lesson on immigrant Greeks' experience of Detroit throughout most of the twentieth century, the voice of the narrator offers a compelling and original representation of the connections and disconnects between the body's sex and...