Re-verseing Space/Creating Norma(lcy)
essay by Daniel Swenson
The 1950s exist in a space of contemporary thought that is stagnant and unchanging in time. The popular American images of poodle skirts, brylcreem, plastic bracelets and aviators reinforce and reward an image of gleaming surface. Heteropatriarchal gender roles were not just mere scripts that people noted and adhered to; rather, they existed as rigid constructs that were violently and wordlessly enforced. Allen Ginsberg, a main player in the Beat counterculture revolution, played these scripts of heteronormativity and gender-enforcement against each other in radical ways. In a similar vein, Graham Rawle, in his 2005 novel Woman’s World, cuts and pastes over 400,000 words from early 1960s women’s magazines. Both writers use the problematic discourses of the late ’50s and early ’60s to expose and write into being alternative gender performances. They work to queer and alter the culture that scripts their characters into privatized, localized and commodified spheres by turning it against itself. While Ginsberg uses the familiar image of a grocery store in his poem “A Supermarket In California” to create, alter and destroy a queer space, Rawle turns to narrowly worded and limited magazines that a cross-dressing man in this time would use to exist in a queered, gendered space. Each author writes both with and against the grain of conventional culture to create spaces that problematize and radically oppose strict scripts of normalcy, while also lamenting the need to do so.
Ginsberg employs free verse and prose-like poetry to work against the standards of structure and form. This immediately alerts the reader to Ginsberg’s treatment of inversions and others him to past poets. The altering begins as he invokes Walt Whitman, a notably queer poet and one of the first voices of democracy (Sinfield 4). Ginsberg’s hunger for images is satiated as he sees a “neon fruit supermarket” (5). This image sets the stage for Ginsberg’s altering of normative ’50s symbol systems. The supermarket stands as a lasting image of consumerism, America and the nuclear family. By choosing it as the creation of queer space, Ginsberg is commenting on what normalcy is and raging against this status quo. Immediately upon entering the supermarket, Ginsberg begins to deconstruct the notion of family by not only separating the mother, father and child into separate aisles, but also imagining them as constructed social scripts, commodifying them. The phrase “babies in the tomatoes” (8) creates an image of a child ready to be packed up and sold. The idea here is that the naturalized, heterosocial construct of a child is in fact a mere product being sold to Americans to normalize and legitimize dominant strains of morality. Ginsberg’s words are strikingly ironic; he uses the very images and ideas that other him as a queer man to deregulate and disrupt the hegemonic powers doing the othering. He continues this sentiment by bringing in a third queer player to alter the supermarket from the traditional family archetype. Garcia Lorca – another queer poet (Smith 1) – begins to wander “among the watermelon” (9) in the aisles where the family members are. Here, again, we see a challenging of common heterosexual praxis. Not only are there queer members in the supermarket; there are three, a number that unsettles the tradition of duality in male/female partnerships. Adding Lorca toys with the idea that queer men engage in alternatives to monogamy. That the three can exist in opposition to a mother/father/child trichotomy parallels, intersects, and ultimately breaks free from these heterosexual creations.
Graham Rawle’s novel works in undoings as well. By taking words, sentiments and sometimes images from their original context of women’s magazines that were created to enforce and regulate a certain type of femininity (that is, subservient and normalized), Rawle undoes certain rigid inscriptions of women. Peculiar to this text, however, is that no matter how subaltern and radicalized the cross-dressing protagonist Norma/Roy is, the very words and images used to describe their alternative lifestyles work to ensnare and constrain them. Indeed, this creates a sense of claustrophobia in-text wherein the reader receives the idea of a radically different lifestyle but also a looming sense that the sentences used to describe it are sourced from oppressive material. Rawle’s work is important since it paints an image that works against the grain of a privatized and regulated sphere of gender in the ’60s, using its own language against it while also reaching and being deliberately held back by certain limitations. In this way, Rawle does not work to reverse gender norms of the 1960s, but rather re-verses or rewrites these ideas.
One example of this re-verseing appears when Norma first ventures out to apply for “the post of delivery driver” (42). The reader at this point is not aware that Norma exists as the female alter-ego of Roy; but, upon re-interrogating the text, one can see the subtle ways that Rawle works to undo Norma’s feminization. For instance, Rawle sometimes clips whole and intact pieces of text out of the magazines that he sources from. His undoings of these texts work to further the story. While describing the way a secretary speaks to Norma, for instance, Rawle clips an entire sentence – a rarity in this novel. The secretary remarks that “[a]s a matter of fact, [Norma’s] the only woman to apply” (42) for the position. The word “woman” here exists as a separate piece of the sentence; Rawle has deliberately clipped it out from a different source text using different font and different colouring. This choice jolts the reader to remember that the text is not whole, is not continuous, and that it adds subtle layers to the gendering power society holds. While Norma presents and performs as a woman, we know later on that her very being in the world is under constant negotiation and scrutiny from the gazing public. Rawle undermines the authenticity of Norma’s narrative. Through re-reading, we know that the secretary is fully aware of Norma’s denormalized state of being – existing in a feminine body that does not match up with what the secretary, the women’s magazines or society as a whole would deem a feminine body. This re-verseing of Norma’s dialogue through juxtaposing colours and fonts is reminiscent of Norma’s incongruous body. As Ginsberg uses symbols of 1950s normality to invert and subvert a heterosexual gaze, Rawle uses text and ideas from 1960s women’s magazines to invert, subvert, and layer onto images of traditional femininity.
In “A Supermarket in California”, Walt Whitman is brought into the supermarket in the next stanza. Ginsberg violates time and brings the ideas of social progress and futurity into question. In evoking Whitman, the American of the 20th Century, he is attempting to phase and alter the ideas of moving forward. The speaker poses the question at the end of the poem: “what America did [Whitman] have” (29) when he died? Ginsberg works against the notion of progress: the imagined “store detective” (18) that follows the speaker around the store works to subtly undermine the queer space the author has created by reinstating a heterosexual and accusing gaze. This move is similar to how Rawle uses juxtaposing fonts and colours to undo the spaces of acceptance that Norma perceives.
We see a comparable violation of time and progress in Woman’s World. The book itself exists as a hybrid scrapbook/manuscript, preserving and re-telling a point in time while also existing as a modern novel written in a time where the world is more ethically conscious of cross-dressing and genderqueer people. Nowhere is the tension between 2005 and 1960 more visible than on the back cover of the text. Similar to the book’s subject, its reviews are made up almost entirely of ‘zines – localized and independent magazines appearing on the Internet or in small circulation. Popular feminist blogs and ‘zines such as Nerve.com., BITCH, Bookslut, and Jezebel.com immediately prepare the reader for a clash between 21st century and 1950s values. It is precisely these tensions which problematize and produce yet another layer to this book. It can be argued that the 1950s’ moralizing forces that act upon the cross-dresser – or, more appropriately, the now-outdated term “transvestite” – are in tension with a more “enlightened” 21st Century. This is a complex point to make, however, in a world that has many theories about the treatment of people who occupy resistant spaces in the gender spectrum but little action to protect them. Indeed, some may criticize the way that Norma exists out of trauma, thereby scripting Roy into a certain sphere of mental illness. This is a common trope used to “treat”, other and explain away trans-people or those who cross-dress (Shelley 390-391).
Indeed, one of the first images of Norma is a reliving of the incident that caused Roy to be fascinated with his sister. The reader encounters the image of a dead child, which we can assume is a reimagining of the original Norma’s death. However, the image itself exists within the terms of a woman’s magazine: “her head […] flat at the back like a burst football” (37). If we keep this apparent cissexism in mind (that Norma has such a “deviant” lifestyle because of a childhood trauma) with Rawle’s current world-view, it can be read simply as the way that Norma and Roy would be explained away in the 1950s. Rawle cannot seem to escape from (re)producing a medicalized and reified trans body that is reduced to confusion, mental illness and, ultimately, Norma’s death. This is appropriate, however, as Rawle’s work is bound to the words from which it is sourced. Norma’s body becomes a site tied to the archived magazines that the author saved – some 1,000 of them to be precise (Stokes). The novel cannot escape the 1950s world that would condemn it. Norma’s body becomes a parallel to this. In the same way that Ginsberg summoning an image of a dead poet violates the ideas of time and progress that the 1950s represented, Roy’s reclamation of Norma’s body is a violation of time. He takes her out of context, places her in a time where she should not exist, and in this way serves to queer and alter his performance of her even more. As Rawle takes words and articles out of the time in which they were produced, dresses them up again to speak of their era in an altered way and time, Norma is reproduced as a site of othering and undoing. In this way, Norma’s death can be seen not as an event that reinforces the trope that queer and trans people are killed at the end of their use by the author (however important it is to problematize such misogynistic, transphobic and homophobic deaths), but rather as a comment on the type of world where she is not allowed to exist in.
Just as Norma embraces “the darkness closing in around [her]” (434), Ginsberg closes his poem by acknowledging the finitude of his queer-creation. The supermarket, whether it exists as a hallucination or a conscious construct, remains an imagined queer space. The speaker turns to Whitman once again and acknowledges that “the doors close in/ an hour” (21-22), and asks him where to go next; for the “lights [are] out in the houses” (25) and the domestic, normative, heterosexual world does not include them, cannot include them. In fact, Ginsberg creates another queer space, but this time out of regret. He describes a “silent cottage” (28) where he and Whitman may end up – an image of exclusion and isolation from the quintessential 1950s suburbia.
I use Norma and Ginsberg’s speaker as contrasting characters for a reason; for, while Ginsberg is writing a space into being, Norma is being read by the space she occupies. The characters in the book, the reader, the author, and the women’s magazines the author uses to write her, are constantly interrogating Norma’s presence. In this way, we see the ultimate reduction of Norma; she exists as the very words on the page that describe her. Indeed, the book itself functions as a drag performance, sourced from other magazines, repositioned on the page to stand out as different, othered and jarring.
The most unique thing about Rawle’s text itself, however, is that after the first few pages, reading it becomes naturalized. It is only through certain markers (large text, images, words pasted out of the margins) that readers are reminded that they are reading a collage. In the same way, Norma exists in an in-between space. While she can walk through the public sphere as an explicit and radical undoing of gender norms, she can also exist in a state of absence. The people confronted with her are quick to have her leave, in a hurry to forget her, before she can oppose more of the rigid roles and regulations they are bound to produce, reproduce, and consume like groceries in a supermarket.
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