Yet again: Biology vs Society

In a “bringing-it-full-circle” kind of way, the readings for today made me think about biology and the historical and still present primacy of biology in light of social roles. The entire premise of the Gubar and Gilbert article was fascinating but reinforced the importance of the physical body. Exploring how the social strata manifested itself in a physical ailment in a woman is an alarming and supported concept but places the body and bodily reactions as more important than emotional or psychological reactions to the world. (A slightly tangential extension of the pervasive attitude can be seen in a general stigma against mental health.)  As a reader I found myself intrigued and compelled by the arguments but wonder to what degree this delegitimizes distress or discomfort that does not present itself in a physical means or even typically-presenting mental illness.

I felt this concept was particularly interesting in that the reading was paired with a work of fiction.  I suppose the justification for valuing the physical over the mental or emotional is that it is tangible, visible, and able to be accurately measured, whereas the psyche requires the intermediary of language which makes people fearful to trust its validity. I do not aim to debate this argument in this forum, but instead to point out that in a work of fiction we are given the luxury of complete trust in both the physical and psychic realities of characters. With an omniscient narrator, like we get with Monsieur Venus, there is no doubt as to the internal state of the characters as the text is gospel. It is not to be questioned that Raoule identifies with a male self that is in conflict with her physical body.

The gendered-nature of the conflicts of Raoule and Gubar and Gilbert’s female writers are different though, in that Raoule’s conflict lies fundamentally in biology whereas the writers’ lies in gendered social power structures. Raoule and the female writers discussed by Gubar and Gilbert are all capable and effective at performing gender and assuming masculine roles, yet they are unable to attain their desired ends.  Social strides have been made for conflicts like Raoule’s, A modern day Raoule could pursue sexual reassignment surgery and hormones, but progress is slower or less visible for modern female authors who still struggle to reconcile their female selves with the structure and history. Here again, we see that problems with a biological or physical basis are more easily addressed than an intangible, though very real, social ideology.


3 thoughts on “Yet again: Biology vs Society

  1. This is super interesting! I’m glad you brought back the idea of the biological. It reminds me of the dilemma that Jordan Young had faced – sex (the physical?) and gender (the societal?) had to be separated but somehow intermingled. Although I thought that Gilbert and Gubar were arguing against delegitimizing the distress women felt emotionally/psychically? Like in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman, they explained that the woman was suffering from what would now be deemed severe postpartum psychosis. However, the doctor’s treatment attempted to a fix a woman-specific physical weakness of nerves with bed rest, which of course made her more unstable and this was problematic not only for her, but for how all women were perceived.

  2. This post makes me wonder what Judith Butler would make of our cluster on cultural production. As we noted in class, the topic of sexuality has been somewhat quieted as questions of female production reign supreme, and I wonder if Butler would critique that ‘lack’ in our conversation. How does sexuality (or the tension between biology and sexuality) influence the potential for cultural production? How would Butler’s notion of permanent drag, so to speak, change the way works of art are allowed in the canon? I realize these are very broad questions, but your post really prompted me to think about the way in which art is so connected to the psyche and yet the canon, even our canon, seems to exclude the alternatives.

  3. I wonder whether Rachilde intended for Raoule to actually feel biologically male, or whether Raoule identified with a male persona because of the cognitive dissonance she felt as an individual woman with power in a society in which women have very little power. Raoule may dress as a man, but it often seems as though she does so because it allows her to physically manifest her power, whether sexual or social. If Raoule identifies as masculine because of this cognitive dissonance, perhaps modern-day surgeries, etc. isn’t really the solution in reconciling this conflict. In some ways, it seems to be the same conflict female authors might have in choosing a male pen name. By doing so, they might feel as though they’re simply reinforcing the biased institutions already in place, yet by not doing so, their voices might not gain the wider recognition and acceptance that a male voice might.

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