The Erotics of Gender Ambiguity

L. Timmel Duchamp
The discussion about children…got me to thinking on another aspect of the gender system besides its interpretive power for making meaning about, namely the way it ‘hails’ us. ‘Hailing’ the individual, telling her/him that s/he is like this, or like that, not only assigns meaning, but helps produce and determine identity. ‘Hailing’ takes place both individually and en masse. “You, you’re a girl,” gendered ‘hailing’ tells the child. (And the meaning of that falls into place, slowly, slowly, over many years of socialization.) You’re a girl, and so you’re this that and the other, and because you’re a girl you’re not this that and the other that boys are. ‘Hailing’ asserts you are this, and therefore not that. The little girl picks up gender meanings (and others, too, especially raced meanings) and pulls it inside herself, and recognizes herself by this way of being hailed. (Or else she struggles against it: “Don’t hail me as a girl. I’m more than just a girl.” Which is, I suppose, what Freud calls penis envy.)

‘Hailing’ in relationships markedly inflected by power illustrates how perceptions (for instance, the double-seeing of gender construction) determine how individuals ‘hail’ and are ‘hailed.’ Obviously, wide variations obtain within the limits of these constructions, depending on personality and personal chemistry and emotional history and other subjective factors. But when one person, particularly the ‘superior’ in the interaction, ‘hails’ the other, it must necessarily be circumscribed by the prism of gender, race, and other fields of identity. One individual perceives and is able to ‘hail’ another only within the limits of what their sexed, gendered, and raced blinders makes possible. Speaking personally, it seems that I usually dislike people because of the way they ‘hail’ me-their ‘hail’ doesn’t speak to who I feel myself to be, and thus misses making contact, or else their ‘hail’ is obnoxious, telling me that I’m this and not that.

[One story conscious of these issues] is “And Salome Danced”. The story opens with auditions for a production of a play entitled “Salome”-which has the telling subtitle “Identity and Desire.” The auditions begin with the role of John the Baptist. In the course of his audition, an actor, Joe Sand, sexually ‘hails’ Lucky, the heterosexual stage manager, very deliberately: “Then he moves very slightly, a shifting of weight, a leaning in toward Lucky. While he does it, he looks right at her, watching her eyes for that uncontrollable pupil response. He smiles. Then he tries it with me. Aha, I think, surprise, little actor.” The director, in other words, is a lesbian. The actor’s attempt to ‘hail’ her sexually does not work. The next day, they audition for Salome. The actor-now calling herself Jo Sand-shows up, and this time sexually ‘hails’ the director. “When she leans toward me, she watches my eyes and then smiles. Her smell goes straight up my nose and punches into some ancient place deep in my brain… I wonder if Lucky is having the same trouble, and then I see that she has simply removed herself in some internal way. She doesn’t see Jo look at me with those primary eyes”.

Later, when the director and stage manager are discussing Jo(e) [the stage manager being convinced that the real sex of the actor is female, and that she was merely crossdressing when auditioning as Joe], the director says, “If I’m looking at someone who can play John, I don’t really care how they pee or whether they shave under their chins. Gender’s not important.” The stage manager replies, “It is if you think you might want to go to bed with it”. The interesting thing about the way ‘hailing’ works in this story is that the one doing the ‘hailing’-the actor, Jo(e)-is both physically (presumably, sexually) unstable, as well as able to shift gender identity according to how s/he wants to ‘hail’ her/his interlocutor of the moment. Note well: it isn’t the identity and desire of this gender-shifting character that is involved here, it is the desire and identity of the women in the story who are being ‘hailed’ by the actor. Gender and sexual identity, utterly facile in the latter, are used to manipulate the director and stage manager precisely because they each have a stable gender and sexual identity to be ‘hailed’ and manipulated. I think it’s this asymmetry that makes the story horror, not the fact that the character’s very bones and muscles change shape right before the director’s eyes.

And of course the amusing little twist in the story is that this character is perfectly the perverse, decadent, misogynist version of Woman that Salome represents. Asked what s/he is, the actor says, “Whatever you need. Every director’s dream. At the moment, I’m Salome, right down to the bone. I’m what you asked for.” and later, “Isn’t that what making love is, giving someone what they really want?” Refusing a stable sexual identity, and gender masquerading, may well be subversive, but that subversiveness has a double-edge if, as in the case of Jo(e), the manipulative masquerade is without any identity that the others can ‘hail’. Jo(e) is alone, unhailed except as femme fatale-monster. There’s power in the position, but the subjectivity achieved (if one can call it that) is sycophantic.

I guess [this story] might be construed to be warning us against absolute refusal of a stable gender identity. I say ‘guess’, because I’m speculating, and can’t be sure I haven’t made a mistaken inference somewhere along the line. It’s tricky, thinking about these things. But the important thing, is that we do think about them, we do inquire about them, without ceasing.

Janet Barron
On the subject of gender ‘hailing’, this may be reprehensible (if unavoidable) but now since I know who ‘I’ am, over the years I have obtained a great deal of sly pleasure from the deflating of someone who is treating me as something I’m not. These days since I know that I can, in general, get people to see me by my own lights, I don’t always bother. Is this a cop-out? It certainly makes for a more laid back attitude. A further thought. A few decades ago, there were few adventurous role models for girls in fiction. As a young child this gave me no problems, I simply assumed that the hero could just as well be me, but was male because that was how ‘things in books’ were. Now of course, there are books full of feisty females, almost to the extent that choosing traditional female pursuits is not PC.

Let’s give girl-children a full sense of choice. Swordswomen who marinade a terrific kebab, lawyers who knit, housewives who can change a distributor. Nothing should be forbidden simply because of gender.

Jeanne Gomoll
I like the use of the term ‘hailing’ for the very complex set of interactions that can happen between people. It’s a lot more than whether or not we buy pink or blue clothes for kids, or whether we bounce boy babies more energetically than girl babies. It’s a whole protocol that, if anything, gets more complex as we get older.

I was also very impressed by Kelley Eskridge’s short story. She read it aloud at WisCon 19, and my primary reaction was that it was first of all an erotic story, and much less one of horror. People in that story are turned on by one another by more than just physical appearance. That very complex set of interactions, so aptly described by the term ‘hailing’, comes much closer to describing the elements I think essential in an erotic encounter.

Nicola Griffith
Very interesting stuff, Timmi. I’m particularly interested in your perception of the narrator (Mars) of “Salome” being a woman and therefore lesbian. There are no gender markers in that story, one way or another-the reader is left to make her or his assumptions. (I have seen two reviews talking about Mars as a man-both written by men-and several, mostly by women, about Mars being a woman.) What made you think Mars was female?

L. Timmel Duchamp
Oh wow. I feel as though I’ve just had my brain turned inside out. (Thinking, that is, about Mars as male.) To answer the question of how I came to my conclusion about Mars’ sex & gender, I have to think back to the first time I read the story. What I think is this: that I at first did not decide one way or another. …I think I decided Mars was female because Joe’s expectation was that he could hail Mars at the same time [as] he could hail Lucky-that what worked on Lucky would work on Mars. The only way he could make that assumption is if Mars were either markedly gay or female. Since it didn’t work, & the second hailing of Mars-by Jo this time-did, it seemed to me that Mars couldn’t be a gay male. By process of elimination (since Jo did successfully sexually hail Mars), I assumed Mars was a lesbian. Of course, it could be that Mars, as a male, gave off signals of being gay, but wasn’t really. Though that seems to me rather unlikely. So I guess that’s how I came to believe that Mars was female.

Fascinating. And of course the ambiguity is going to linger, since, as you point out, the author never does give us any decisive piece of information allowing an indisputable inference. Needless to say, I didn’t sit down & figure this out as a puzzle. The process of deciding what’s going on in a piece of fiction tends to just happen, first as one reads, & then later as one thinks & rethinks the bits of the story that continue to float about in one’s head. As is still happening, I can see, with this story.

Suzy McKee Charnas
Nicola wrote: “What made you think Mars was female?”

I think I recall that when Kelley read this story aloud (I was there too, and it was a humdinger to hear), she asked how many of the audience thought Mars was one sex or the other. I know I thought Mars was female, and I think a majority of the listening audience averred that they thought so, too, but I may be misremembering this. There was some discussion about the fact that a character who actually seems to see or otherwise seriously notice other female characters in a story comes across as female, because the typical male narrative voice only ‘notices’ female characters in specifically sexual ways or, mostly negatively, if the female character in question is challenging the narrator or other males in some way.

Rebecca Holden
I was also at Kelley’s reading and I think that Suzy’s right in that most of the audience thought Mars was female. At the time, I wondered how much we, the audience, had been swayed by Kelley’s sex. I wondered what I would have thought if I had read the story not knowing anything about the author.

Suzy McKee Charnas
Excellent point; I have a feeling that if a male reader had read the story as his own, there would have been a subtle current of discomfort with a perception by many that here was a man trying to appropriate a female point of view in a particularly tricky way, i.e. by ‘pretending’ to make his narrator female. Which might have led people to find the femaleness of the narrator less ‘authentic’ out of resistance to the ‘trick’.

It would be interesting to try it; a lot would depend also on whether the supposed male author was seen as somebody with some sense of reality about gender and an honest desire to explore, or just a guy pulling a stunt.

Nicola Griffith
I have mixed feelings about this story. It seems clear to me that Mars is female because, as you say, s/he notices things that women — generally speaking-notice and men — generally speaking — don’t. It’s that ‘generally speaking’ bit that’s the rub. And it interests me that male reviewers don’t notice Mars noticing and therefore assign the male sex. And, besides, Kelley insists that to her Mars is neither male nor female.

I was asked a question recently about Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, and it reminded me that her sex-nonspecific narrator came across to me as very definitely a woman. I can’t see how any woman could read it otherwise. I could of course see how men-particularly straight men-might. They might not realize that the narrator’s angst makes no sense if she isn’t a woman and therefore a dyke. Any other opinions?

L. Timmel Duchamp
I mentioned in a post a few weeks past my diffidence about Written on the Body. Afterwards, I began to wonder why I found that book disingenuous. I decided it was precisely because I never felt the slightest doubt that the narrator was a woman, & that for some unspecified reason I believed that the author had decided to leave the sex of the narrator unstated either for opportunistic, rather than aesthetic or politically strategic reasons, or in order to claim that when a woman loves a woman it’s in the same way that a man does-which is a premise I take as either naively or cynically simplistic. (Particularly in a book purporting to concentrate on ‘the body’. Which, by the way, Monique Wittig did so much more stunningly in her original version of body-writing, The Lesbian Body). In short, I saw no utopian or politically subversive project in the move to conceal the narrator’s sex. If anything, it could be read as a move to distance one kind of lesbian (reverting to the medically-defined & politically retro ‘mannish’ type of early 20th century psychiatric discourse) from other women (the object of the narrator’s passion). Making, of course, the other kind of woman not particularly lesbian, & in fact not particularly anything but an object that either men or certain kinds of women can desire.

It’s interesting to contrast my experience reading Written on the Body with Kelley’s Mars, Melissa Scott’s Trey, & the various unspecified narrators in Candas Dorsey’s stories. In the case of the latter, I never decided one way or another the undisclosed sex — & never felt an urgency to do so. In the case of Mars & Trey, it was the explicitly sexual that tipped the balance for me. In the case of Mars, it was Joe’s expectations & the failure of the first sexual hail to Mars that made me see Mars as female. Until then — unlike my experience reading Written on the Body — where I felt from Go that the narrator was female — I had a question mark in my mind — a question mark that wasn’t really all that pressing. With Trey, it was again sex that tipped the balance. In the case of Emma Bull’s Bone Dance, I always took the narrator as female, probably because of all the little things that would make no sense for men in the current gender system (a system which wasn’t challenged in that book, & so was safe to base judgments on). As for Mars’s observational powers — these didn’t particularly sway me, because I’m always willing to believe some men can be exceptional, particularly if they’re in something like theater, where acuteness is a valuable asset.

I guess I’m a little surprised to discover just how important sex is turning out to be in matters of gender identity. Exploring the connection further might well lead to some interesting insights.

Suzy McKee Charnas
I also disliked this book [Written on the Body], for that reason: this felt like a stunt to me, as opposed to Kelley’s story, which felt like a purposeful and highly entertaining exploration of weighty matters. In other words, an achievement rather than a stunt. On the other hand, I’m usually very harsh on so-called mainstream work because I think mainstream work is so consistently over-valued vis-a-vis work in our own genres.

Nicola Griffith
Yes, Timmi: I felt played with by Winterson and didn’t much care for it. I’m tempted to say she was manipulating her readers just for sake of controversy but that’s probably just my irritation speaking. I really don’t enjoy being used….

Suzy McKee Charnas
Yes, some men can [be exceptionally acute], but not, I think (maybe it’s an illusion?), with the sustained attention that Mars exhibits. It isn’t so much what Mars notices, for me, but the quality of her awareness: that this apparently female person is worth paying attention to beyond a summary glance, is an ongoing part of the living world, not just something you look at for the moment you can use something about her professionally or otherwise. I get the feeling that men are much more easily distracted from paying real attention to women because, apart from sexually, there are so many other things that are more important or at least equally important to men (with exceptions of course), and because men have the luxury of not attending to those who they define as inferior to them and thus are not sources of serious challenge and competition.

I think, however, that women are more inclined to attend consistently to the personal and interpersonal present moment with another (male or female) maybe in part because the interpersonal is where many women feel or are led to feel that their sole power and effectiveness in the world lies. And because we are encouraged to regard other women as our competitors for that effectiveness (especially in the sexual arena), we come to regard other women with the attentiveness that men tend to reserve for their peers/competitors, other men. I’m talking about heterosexuals here, since that’s my own experience.

Maybe I’m just theorizing myself into the wild blue yonder, but it seems to me that something was happening in that room when Kelley read the story that had to do with the quality of Mars’ awareness (as well as with Kelley’s own sex-as-author), and it has to do with attentiveness, with the narrator’s version of Who Really Matters.

Elisabeth Vonarburg
Timmi writes: “In the case of Emma Bull’s Bone Dance, I always took the narrator as female, probably because of all the little things that would make no sense for men in the current gender system (a system which wasn’t challenged in that book, & so was safe to base judgments on).”

No it wasn’t challenged, which precisely allowed the author to make that (for me) neat switch from male to female etc. in her chameleon character. I for one, was delightedly surprised.

But reading this whole exchange for a few weeks now, I am wondering how much we really don’t take into account, subliminally, the author’s sex in our assumptions about the characters’ sex, as we see it on the title page. Nobody has talked about that yet, I think; is it because it is a given that we are not that naive, or because it is just not done according to High Feminist Theory or something, and we are loath to confess it does count? I personally doubt it doesn’t count. I don’t remember who said “the first thing I read in a novel is its author’s name” but it is still very true for me, and I must consciously ‘forget’ it. I guess my ‘A Woman Is James Tiptree Jr!’ traumatism is really long lasting… 🙂

Janet M. Lafler
Another thing we may think beneath our notice is the cover illustration. My copy of Bone Dance has a picture of Sparrow on the cover, and judging by this illustration, I initially assumed that Sparrow was female. Then I started reading the book; in the first chapter a character calls Sparrow ‘son’, so I took another look at the cover painting and said to myself, “I guess it’s a young man.” Then a few pages later someone calls Sparrow ‘chica’. A typo, poor Spanish, or a clue? At this point, I looked up from my book and asked my (then) boyfriend, who had already read the book, “Is Sparrow male or female?” He hemmed and hawed, and the game was up.

Sylvia Kelso
I took Sparrow as male to start, then as chameleon when I really looked at the front cover, which in mine is distinctly androgynous. I don’t think I’ve ever considered Sparrow female at all, to tell the truth.

Elisabeth wrote: “But reading this whole exchange for a few weeks now, I am wondering how much we really don’t take into account, subliminally, the author’s sex in our assumptions about the characters’ sex, as we see it on the title page.”

I think the author’s purported sex has a lot to do with it. I’m still trying to work out some way to theorise the gendered author back into existence and importance when reading a text, without falling into the intentional fallacy and the biographical bog. I am beginning to think it matters a lot- found myself when talking about Beagle’s The Folk of the Air saying things like “If this was a book by a female writer with a female protagonist I would be cheering at how it turns the great Happy Ever After ending on its head” — whereas for a male writer and protagonist a Freudian reading (I was also foregrounding this constraint) made me say “Here’s a male protagonist headed for the Great Pre-Oedipal Disappearance Back Into the Mother.” … The turn back to the Resurrection of the Author hasn’t yet got past such insurrectionist (I can’t help it!) thoughts as those above, or at least, not in anything I’ve read yet.

Brian Attebery
I’m very interested in the discussion of perceptions of gender in androgynous or ambiguous characters and in narrators. I’ve long wondered about what used to be called third-person narrators, more accurately described as undramatized narrators, since they are still “I” when they make comments but do not appear as characters in the narrative. What sex and/or gender is Jane Austen’s narrator? Can you imagine listening to one of her books on tape read by a man? When my wife and I were commuting between cities a few years ago, we listened to a lot of books on tape and I noticed that the company always matched the sex of the reader to that of the author. In the case of Austen or Woolf I cannot imagine it any other way. But what about Tiptree? I can imagine the narrator of “The Women Men Don’t See” as a man — James Tiptree, Jr.’ is as real to me as Alice Sheldon, and a very interesting man at that. When I read the Tiptree stories I experience a sort of flickering between the masculine and feminine aspects of the authorial presence-part of the power of the stories, I think. I also ‘knew’ a male Andre Norton for years before I discovered that there was a female one — I still sense the former in the earlier books.

I wonder whether we are so influenced by the name on the spine that we accept the qualities of the author as masculine or feminine ones. That was certainly the case in the 19th century, when the author of Jane Eyre was berated for ‘his’ crudeness and ‘his’ failure to consider the delicate sensibilities of female readers.

All of which reminds me that I can no longer accept any statement of the form “Women do these sorts of things,” or “Men are this way.” I don’t believe in ‘men’ and ‘women’ as behavioral categories. I do believe in categories like ‘More women than men’ or ‘Men and women in positions of power’ or ‘A majority of men’. So I can’t assume that a character that the book tells me is androgynous, like the one in Emma Bull’s Bone Dance, is ‘really’ a woman because s/he does what only women do, or vice versa.


Several months later, Timmi Duchamp posted the following remarks as part of a discussion about science fiction texts that seek to expunge gender, citing “And Salome Danced” as a text that does so by unhinging gender identity from sexuality.

L. Timmel Duchamp
I want to add to my examples a more difficult-to-discuss text to complicate this notion of expunging gender, Kelley Eskridge’s “And Salome Danced”. (Caveat: I haven’t read the new story about Mars, which may have altered the context somewhat. My comments are all within the restricted context of “Salome”.) The considerable discussion of this story has tended to focus on questions of what the narrator, Mars’s, gender is-as did my own discussion of sexual hailing in that story, when I argues that Mars was female on the basis of which form of the gender-bending actor, Jo or Joe, successfully hailed Mars. I thought of Jo(e) as a creature who put on gender for certain functional purposes. (Making meaning, if you will.) On further thought, I see my own (& other readers’) desire to penetrate the narrator’s gender identity as desire to insist on a gender meaning where, in fact, there really is none. The new story may contradict this reading, but I now believe that Mars’s gender is as irrelevant as Jo(e)’s, in the story’s narrative economy. Pronouns here, too, are irrelevant for Jo(e), except as s/he wishes to manipulate meanings the people around him/her are likely to make. (Which means, also, the readers.) What is even more interesting, I think, is that the story reminds us that sexual hailing/response is not necessarily based on gender identifications (which is what my earlier reading was assuming), but could be based on other sorts of factors (examples of which Delany offers, if I recall correctly, in Stars in My Pocket). The story demands that we unhinge gender identity from sexuality in a way that readers (like me) have clearly demonstrated they don’t easily do.Pronouns, as I think I said a few months back, are red herrings. Red herrings aren’t just irrelevant, they distract. And an obsession with penetrating missing pronouns is partly what this story has to show us — as in a mirror.

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