Monthly Archives: November 2013

Midterm essay prompts

1.  Drawing from the 1890s sexological texts by Ellis and Carpenter, and the overview article by Gibson, write a short paper addressing the following questions (in no particular order):

a. What are some important medical or/and cultural ideas and discourses about male and female homosexuality in the 1890s that are addressed in these texts?

b. Which rhetorical strategies and arguments do Ellis and Carpenter employ to argue for a more sympathetic and fair treatment of “inverts” in society? To develop b, please think about audience and purpose of these texts: who most likely comprises their audience, why and of what exactly do they want to convince them? Even though Carpenter’s and Ellis’s texts were progressive, they also echo the influence of cultural ideas of decadence and degeneration that ultimately pathologize homosexuality.  Still, how did they argue for changes in the laws and cultural views of homosexuality at the time?

c. And finally, what are your personal impressions of these 1890s texts, looking back from the year 2013? Do some of the sexologists’ ideas, arguments or strategies look familiar, different, or both, when we compare them with the ways our own culture still sees and debates homosexuality today?

2.  In which ways can or/and cannot The Importance of Being Earnest be considered a queer text, and why? And what does and doesn’t “queer” mean when we apply our own understanding of the term to the particular context of this play, in which sexual and gender aspects are so intricately interwoven with social, cultural, and stylistic aspects? What makes this text “queer” in your eyes, and what about this text or its author may resist such an anachronistic description?

3. Write an essay discussing how Radclyffe Hall’s novel (in the excerpts we discussed in class) tries to advance the public understanding of, and sympathy for, sexual difference through its adaptation of sexual inversion theories and by other means (such as the religious discourse it employs).

4. Compare and contrast the ways in which Girls in Uniform and The Well of Loneliness (two roughly contemporaneous texts) present lesbianism.

5. How does Velvet Goldmine develop a queer genealogy that reaches from Oscar Wilde to the glam rock era to the present of the movie’s narrator, Arthur Stuart, to the present-day audience watching the film, and what are some possible purposes of developing such a queer genealogy?

6. Pick two texts from the course thus far to discuss and elaborate on the theme of the queer family, commenting on how each text develops this theme, and spending some time thinking about differences and similarities in the ways your two picks treat this topic.  Good candidates for such a discussion might be The Importance of Being Earnest, Velvet Goldmine, the lesbian short “You Move Me” (the longer, non-swimming one we screened in class), Fun Home, All About My Mother, or the two short stories you just read, “Bodhisattva Incarnate” and/or “Brokeback Mountain.”

7. How does race intersect with and complicate ideas about queerness in Paris Is Burning, Giovanni’s Room, or in Cherrie Moraga’s work (which we’ll read the week after next)?  Pick one or more texts for this question, as you prefer no need to be exhaustive in covering all these texts; I’m just giving you various textual choices for your   In your opinion, is either text more successful in complicating these intersecting “identities”?  Why?

8. Discuss the problem of deciding or pinning down what can make a literary or filmic text “queer”, using at least two different examples from the course thus far that illustrate this problem. Is it the sexual orientation of the author, the direct or indirect presentation of queer issues (whatever those might be), the contents, the aesthetic (style) of the text, the audience’s reading of a text, the specific cultural context, or a combination of those factors?  I’m less interested here in a definitive answer to this question (let me tell you: there is none!) than in an intelligent discussion of the problem itself: what is a “queer” text, and why is that question so difficult to answer?


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Final project week instructions


  • MONDAY, Dec 2: By common consensus, we are canceling our class meeting on Monday, December 2, but anyone who wishes to use this time to speak with me more about their project should contact me before then to set up a time to talk. This can happen during class time either on the phone or in person. Just let me know as soon as you can if you’d like to do this, so I can arrange to meet or talk with you.  I am wrapping up all my regular blog commenting in the next few days, so some of you will get emails with comments on previous posts as appropriate. Let me know if you have questions or concerns, as always! I’m here to help.
  • WEDNESDAY, Dec 4: This will be our class wrap-up and also informal class conference for the final projects in class, and I’ll be bringing some cookies and fruit to celebrate our work together this quarter!  Please come to class prepared to talk about your final project in development and bring any materials you have already developed.  I will have my laptop and we can project or pull up any images or video you’d like us to look at and may already have posted on our website (see “website development” below).  At a minimum, you must bring the following  and provide AT LEAST 4 HARD COPIES of each—one will be for me, the others for classmates to look  over and workshop in class):
    • a draft of your pedagogical rationale (see below)—ca. 1 page single-spaced
    • an overview list of your teaching sequence that lists all primary and secondary texts in the order you plan to teach them in, even if you have not fully decided on the texts yet (just include all possibilities and indicate which of these might be alternatives, so we can give you some feedback on text choices and pairings)— ca. 1 paragraph (list form)
    • draft of at least one (ideally more) material(s) you are developing yourself for the sequence, such as handouts etc.  Examples are a list of reading questions for a chosen primary text, a handout on some theoretical terms or background for a specific text or writer or filmmaker, an electronic draft of a blog post with images and videos which you will link to your final project (see below under “website development”)
    • anything you’d like us to look at as a group and help you with.

Here are some thoughts to help you start writing your pedagogical rationale draft.

  • Target audience: who is the audience for this teaching sequence? How much might my target students know or do not know about my proposed topic yet?
  • Goals and objectives: Why should they care about this topic (why should this topic be taught)? What do I want my students to learn about the topic a) in general, and b) specifically in the 2-week sequence I propose, with the help of these texts?
  • Texts: why did I choose these specific texts (such as novels, theoretical readings, films), and how are they best put together to develop a logical connection between subtopics for the students?
  • Materials I have developed: which extra materials have you developed that will help you achieve the goals and objectives of your teaching sequence? For example, comment on the specific purposes and your own thoughts behind developing certain handouts, your reading or viewing questions for specific texts (what are your questions supposed to elicit or bring out?), excerpts you have chosen to give the students to stimulate their thinking about certain ideas or connections, video you are producing yourself or are linking from YouTube, visual images you are collecting to show to the students, etc.

Website development: I will be setting up an area on our website ( that will be exclusively devoted to our final projects.  You may start posting things there in draft form as soon as you are ready to put something there.  I’ll send out a separate email about this as soon as that website area is ready for you to use.  None of what you post there will be regarded finalized before the actual project deadline (Wednesday, Dec. 11), so feel free to experiment and post/repost/take things off or add before then at your will!

Please let me know if you have any questions as you move into this final phase of the course.  I am really excited about your projects and can’t wait to see how they turn out.  We’ll discuss some publication/marketing strategies for them next week; for now, please just focus on your own work.

All best, and happy Thanksgiving!

Petra Dierkes-Thrun

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Progression of Look in Transamerica

            A character’s evolution over the course of a film is often representatively demonstrated through hair, wardrobe, and makeup.  The changes that we see in these elements of Bree’s character as the film progresses indicate a progressive internal shift as she moves closer to her true self.

The first time that we see Bree, we first see her disembodied — we see her mouth, her legs, her breasts, but all separately, and eventually, her body is nearly completely shrouded in pale pink clothes.  The first time we can fully see her face is in the doctor’s office; her bangs are thin and wispy across her face, and the supposedly feminine pink of her clothes seems to clash with her skin tone, and makes her seem washed out.  Her face also shines like she’s sweating or her skin is just very greasy, and her turtleneck paired with a skirt seems to imply that the turtleneck is not for warmth, but for hiding under.  As the film progresses, we see each of these elements transform with Bree’s inner transformation.  It is not difficult to sense Bree’s discomfort at the beginning of the film — not discomfort with what she feels is her identity, but discomfort with how she feels other people will perceive it.  The sunglasses, hat, and turtleneck all seem to indicate a degree of hiding due to a fear of judgment.  If we look at the midpoint and the end of the film, we can see a shift.  The midpoint shift is more subtle, but when Bree arrives at her parents house, the colors of her clothing are more intense, her bangs are fuller, and she even wears a bit of a V-neck as she sits outside with her son.  The most noticeable change, as we may expect, comes at the end of the film, after her surgery.

In the final scene of the film, when Bree’s son shows up at her house, we see a more confident and settled Bree, quietly indicated by her clothing.  Bree wears pink, like the first scene of the film, but this outfit is very different.  Compared to the boxy pale pink outfit from the beginning, this pink is vibrant, and accentuates Bree’s feminine form.  It is sleeveless and fitted around the breasts, and as opposed to the earlier turtleneck, it is a V neck, exposing part of her chest.  The colors in the room are warm, which give Bree’s skin a healthy glow, as compared to the pallid shine from the first scene.  While it may seem that Bree is trying to conform to the gender expectations for women, I would instead argue that she now feels more comfortable with herself and her body, and wants to accentuate it and show it off.

It is valuable to note that her nails are painted in the exact same pink from the very first scene of the film, which may seem like an inconsequential detail, but I think it is very representative of the message of the film; even though Bree has undergone so many changes, the core of who she is remains the same – Bree says several times with her mother that she has long felt like a woman.  Though there may be other problematic areas of the film, the external representation of the internal (and partially external) shift that is happening in Bree is handled well and relatively subtly, so that it visually reinforces the theme of the transition through the spectrum of gender identity in the film.

It is important to note that many of the external ways in which Bree changes over the course of the film work to bring her towards a fairly stereotypical representation of what it means to be a woman.  Though the change that happens in Bree is much deeper than surface level, many of the changes that happen in the film (which I have discussed above) do not seem to be the choice of a distinct individual, but a sort of mimicry of what the average or stereotypical female is like.  The overwhelming use of pink motifs in the film, as well as the tighter clothing, speak to stereotypical and often untrue common perceptions about women.  What makes a woman ‘womanly’ differs from woman to woman, and I think the film does the conversation on gender norms a disservice by sticking to such stereotypical representations.  On the converse, the film could be calling out that these are stereotypes, and that Bree imitates them because they are largely identified with being a woman — but then the emphasis would be on the public perception of Bree, and not the satisfaction of her internal desires.  I would prefer that the film catered to the non-stereotypical, more individualized conception of femininity.

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Masturbation and Rachilde’s Sadomasochism

Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus revisits the Pygmalion and Galatea myth with Raoule playing the role of Pygmalion and crafting the identity of Jacques. It goes further than the myth, however, which ends with the animation of Galatea, and explores the aftermath of the metamorphosis, showing the difficulty of living alongside a creation. In terms of the novel’s sadomasochistic content, the use of this myth seems to present an argument about the masturbatory nature of the sadomasochistic relationship between Raoule and Jacques.

The mutuality of Jacques and Raoule’s relationship is presented ambiguously throughout the novel. when Raoule is initially moulding Jacques, he does not seem particularly comfortable, being able to accept it only by small increments and seeming often to be uncomfortable with his dwindling masculinity. Later, showing the success of this moulding, Jacques refuses Raoule when she commands him to take back his liberty, saying “… when you want me I shall still be your slave, he whom you call: my wife!”* This is not, to say the least, a modern understanding of a “consensual” relationship. Instead of entering into this all-consuming relationship with his own identity, Jacques enters into it and is made (by Raoule) to love Raoule. In this way, Raoule, the craftsman of the relationship and of Jacques himself, does not love another person (i.e., in the traditional sense, where the other person is a separate individual), but rather an object that she has made for herself, adding a masturbatory aspect to what seems, in these instances, to be her relationship.

Rachilde complicates this image, however, with the description of the Raoule and Jacques’ dance. During this dance, the two are described as Plato’s primordial, hermaphroditic human, presenting them as both possessing “true,” traditional and divine love and equality within their relationship. By presenting the sexual deviants as the two most beautifully impressive members of the cast of “good society,” Rachilde indicates that the two have a more genuine love than could possibly be created under the constraints of society’s artifice. However, the interaction seems highly out of character. For the two to fuse in this way, Raoule descends from her position of master and Jacques ascends from his position as slave, undermining the nature of their relationship entirely and seeming to condemn its inequality.

But what I mostly have in mind with the argument that this text presents the masturbatory nature of sadomasochistic relationships is the end of the novel, when Raoule has continued to have sex with Jacques’ body after his death. Though Jacques is in a lifeless state, Raoule is still able to make him satisfy her sexual needs. This casts the events of the novel in a suddenly new light. Though earlier depictions of Raoule and Jacques’ love presented its mutuality ambiguously, this last use of Jacques seems to imply that, at the end of the day, the relationship had been primarily to Raoule’s benefit.



* I’m not sure how to cite this; it’s location 859 on the Kindle version of Monsieur Vénus, 1884 translated by Liz Heron.


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Description of Femininity in Monsieur Venus

          Rachilde’s initial description of Raoule and they way in which he describes her femininity, particularly given the ending of the novel, and the ambiguity of the gender with which Raoule identifies, gives us an idea of the concepts of gender which dominate the novel.

             Rachilde’s description of Raoule begins, “Neither beautiful nor pretty in the accepted sense of those words…” (19).  This statement frames our perception of the description that follows because it declares that she does not conform to the traditional standards of beauty.  The description continues to elaborate on these elements: “…her face, with its rather hard expression, did not seduce.  Though beautifully drawn, her eyebrows had a marked tendency to meet in the imperious pucker of an uncompromising will” (19).  The similarity between the two sentences seems to be a sense of power and strength in the woman that is deemed unfeminine.  The use of the word ‘hard’ combined with the disclaimer that it ‘did not seduce’ largely implies that it is a sense of softness in a woman that is attractive, and that once a woman gains too much power, intensity, or resolve, that she becomes unattractive.  Furthermore, the syntactical construction of the final sentence I have excerpted demonstrates that uncompromising will is also an undesirable quality.  Since the sentence begins, ‘though beautifully drawn…’ it implies that whatever follows is not beautiful because of the word ‘though.’  Therefore, because ‘uncompromising will’ is what follows, it asserts that is not a beautiful quality; this in turn implies that the opposite of an uncompromising will, which is to say, a sense of yielding or softness in the woman, is what is considered as attractive.  While society has made a bit of progress since this was written, this is unfortunately not far off from the reality of common gender perception today.  In my experience, while women certainly have the ability to have power and be powerful without negative repercussions in today’s society, there are certainly still negative stereotypes that are associated with strong and outspoken women.  There was a Forbes article that I read last year that spoke on this exact point — — that strong women are often perceived as threatening and ‘bitchy’ in a way that men would not be if they acted exactly the same.

               Furthermore, the comparison of Raoule’s eyes to fire gives even the traditionally beautiful and innocent symbol of eyes a negative connotation of aggression and intensity.  Rachilde writes, “Very black with metallic glints under long curled eyelashes, her eyes, two burning coals when lit up by passion, gave at certain moments the impression of two pinpoints of fire…” (20).  Though the description may initially seem complimentary due to the inclusion of the words ‘long curled eyelashes’ and ‘passion,’ the overwhelming fire imagery (glints, burning coals, pinpoints of fire) creates an image that is too intense, particularly given the descriptions on the previous page.  Here, the images of fire conjure an image of strength, but instead of it being a positive strength, it is one that undesirably burns and singes.  [508]     


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Form and Content in Cherie Moraga’s Writing

             Having Cherie Moraga come to class was most valuable to me because of what she said about language and rhythms.  It is a fairly widely used practice, particularly for poets or writers who have come from poetry, to play with the form of their writing, but I’ve never really seen it done in the way that Moraga did it — specifically with the oscillation because ‘cuz’ and ‘because’ within the very same piece.  I was initially confused as to why she would use both in the same piece of writing, but it made much more sense to me when she said that it indicated different rhythms and waves of feeling within the piece.  This brings me to the core question of this post; if every writer wrote with his or her own specific sense of vocabulary and rhythm, as Moraga did, would we have a more accurate cultural and social understanding of many groups, as opposed to the white heterosexual voice which seems most dominant, or at least common, in American literature? 

              The most overt example of this is in Moraga’s initial disclaimer of her use of the word ‘MeXicano’ and ‘Xicano.’  Moraga uses the very opening of her piece to explain her use of these spellings and the significance of it, and the placement of this segment is very significant.  Often, explanations of a literary choice that the author is going to make or clarifications of a term will appear either in a footnote, or at the very beginning of the piece but demarcated with the title of ‘preface’ or ‘a note on the work.’  Admittedly, I have many a time skipped reading a footnote or a preface because it seems less important than the body of the work; these disclaimers of placement and titling come, for me at least, with the implication that it is of secondary importance to the body of the work itself.  Moraga does not wish to disclaim her choice in any of these ways, or assert that it is secondary in any way.  The inclusion of this section with it’s own title (‘A Xicana Lexicon’) indicated to me that it was of equal weight to the Chapter One: Existo Yo that follows it.  In ‘A Xicana Lexicon,’ Moraga makes several clarifications that at first glance may seem technical, but upon further investigation allow us to more clearly understand the culture, values, and vocabulary with which the group that Moraga represents speaks with.  For example, when she says, “I continue to capitalize and do not hyphenate people-of-color identities…The writing style was an act of racial and cultural identity-affirmation, intended to distinguish us from the assimilationist agenda of mainstream America” (xxii).  The capitalization (or lack thereof) of people-of-color identities is a small detail that can be easily overlooked within a text, and sometimes seems like an arbitrary decision made by the author.  However, because Moraga takes the time to explain to us her reasoning, we not only understand the significance of the choice, but we are subtly reminded of it each time it appears; to me, this appears to be the perfect way to infuse form with content and meaning.  This explanation gives us a cultural understanding of a group that may be different than our own, and therefore infuses the work with additional layers of meaning that enhance the project of the piece.  To answer my initial question, if every writer (and not just minority writers) wrote like Moraga did, I think that it is indisputable that we would have a more accurate, balanced, and complete social and cultural understanding of many groups, and that it would enhance the social value of creative writing.  If creative writing (that is, writing that deviates from the form of traditional academic writing) were a space where authors commonly made these types of choices and explanations as a section of the body of the piece itself, I think it would add tremendous value to our culture and elevate creative writing to a higher place in the social consciousness.   [669]

— W

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Questions for Cherríe Moraga

This is a page on which we gather questions we’d like to discuss with Cherríe Moraga on Wednesday.  Please add more!

Also, please check out Cherríe Moraga’s website to get an idea of the depth and breadth of her work in academia, theater, and as an activist. Here is her biography and some theater production photos.  And here is an interesting interview with her (from 2000).  In it, she says, “Both my essays and plays attempt to explore a political question or contradiction through the mind or the heart. By that I mean, both genres require analysis and a heart-felt honesty. But the essay is fundamentally one-voiced perspective, my own. Theater allows for contradiction to reside among the characters. They show themselves and in the showing the political issues regarding the oppressive aspects of the dominant culture or of our culture are exposed through the “living bodies” of the actors. The audience receives many perspectives through divergent characters. And although the playwright may try to direct the audience to her own perspective, she cannot thoroughly enforce their perception of it. Also, as August Wilson has said, plays are fundamentally generated by metaphor and story. My plays always start with an image that reflects the heart of the story to be told.”

  • What can you tell us about the style of “A XicanaDyke Codex of Changing Consciousness”—why did you write the essay in this way, and what are your influences (if any)? Does the style help you get the “changing consciousness” message across in some way?
  • Related to this question, can you explain your use of colloquialisms such as ‘cuz’ in your writing?  What do you gain and what do you think is lost (if anything) in the use of these?
  • Is there any recent work by queer studies academics, writers, or/and activists now that you feel particularly connected to?
  • In “A XicanaDyke Codex of Changing Consciousness,” you profess a certain estrangement from the LGBTQ movement. Since the essay was written, have things changed for you in this regard? Why or why not?
  • This quarter, we talked a lot about the idea of a queer family—what constitutes it, what makes it queer, what it shares and doesn’t share with heteropatriarchal ideas about family in Western culture. What role does “family” play for you, in the larger social (but maybe also personal) sense?  What about “home”?
  • There are certain recurring images and metaphors in your writing (in Giving up the Ghost, the river and the dream, for example). Can you tell us about some of your favorite ones?
  • Who is your ideal envisioned audience or audiences (for the different kinds of writing, speaking, and performing you do)?
  • We are only reading your play “Giving up the Ghost,” unfortunately, and not seeing it live. So what are we missing about the play that a stage performance can bring out?
  • You’re an eloquent proponent of the uses of fiction and the emotional truth it captures. When do you feel committed to facts, if ever, and what role do you see recourse to objectivty (“objectivity”) playing politically?
  • What kind of revolution can you imagine succeeding today? Do you think “feminism” is the banner under which revolution should fly? Is there some other “ism” you see ascending to a position of prominence?
  • I’m a white girl from New Mexico, so your fear of the loss of Nuevo Mexico to New York artists caught my eye. What role do you feel separatism plays in your politics?
  • On another personal note: my dad (who grew up very poor, and who still is) loved singing “The Prisoner’s Song,” which serves as your epigraph. It’s a bluegrass song, which calls to mind issues surrounding white classism and the misogyny it breeds. (How many bluegrass songs use women as narrative props? How many fetishize domestic violence? The speaker is almost always male.) Do you think much about white-on-white oppression and how its lessons might be useful in combating racism, sexism, etc?
  • Can you tell us how you got the idea for Giving Up the Ghost and what the heart of your idea was, for you?
  • There s a heartbreaking rape scene memory.  Why? What does it signify, how does it connect to the larger issues in the play, for you?
  • Do you have a favorite passage or moment in the play, one that embodies or expresses something very important?
  • This quarter we’ve discussed the idea of ‘queer time’.  How have you been able to reconcile the very queer structure of something like Giving up the Ghost with the very generational and ancestral Xicana politics in  some of your other works?

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