Sunday, May 31, 2009

Gender and Sexual Politics in Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman

With the onset of World War II, conservative societal conventions of sexuality and gender that had long persisted as essentially de facto tenets of mainstream American culture began to undergo an unprecedented metamorphosis. The tremendous surge of professional opportunities for women stateside and the development of the women’s military organizations aided in bringing lesbian women in particular to the forefront of the American consciousness. When World War II finally came to an end, mainstream American culture regressed back into a paradigm of perpetuating conservative conventions of sexuality, gender and family. Images of the nuclear family (the industrious, perfectly coiffed housewife; the tall, dark and handsome, bread winning husband; the happy, obedient son and daughter) were disseminated through many mediums and ingrained once again within the American psyche. As lesbian women became more public about their sexual orientation and their desire for coexistence in a vehemently biased hetero-normative culture, the contemporary powers saw this as a clear act of defiance against conservative conventions of sexuality and gender.

The greatest impediment that has prevented and continues to prevent LGBT people from fully realizing their inherent human right to life, liberty and happiness is that which is undeniably a product of condemnation and marginalization at the hands of our dominant patriarchal, heterosexist culture and is one that has evolved over time into an internal conflict. Within the souls of LGBT people, so long as they are condemned for who they are, there will always exist a conflict of two equally powerful and opposing desires; the desire to assimilate into, to find validation within the dominant heterosexist culture that largely condemns them and the desire to find validation within themselves, amongst individuals who share their experience, to develop a sense of pride through their marginalization.

From this condemnation and marginalization, a vast body of literature has sprung forth. Stemming from both a conscious and unconscious effort of LGBT people, this literature seeks to enlighten those unlike themselves, to find a place within the dominant patriarchal, heterosexist cultural framework and to communicate their experience with those like themselves so that those others will know they are not alone, to give themselves and others a voice where before they lived in silence. Within the grand scope of what is now termed as LGBT literature there exists a sub-genre known as lesbian pulp fiction. Quite ironically, it was during the tumultuous, McCarthyist, post-World War II era that lesbian pulp fiction planted a strong foothold and flourished in the face of zealous hetero-normative antagonism aimed at homosexuality.
What is immediately striking about this genre is its designation as “pulp.” It is a very curious choice for prior to one even experiencing the substance of a publication within this genre they are met with a negative qualification. “Pulp” denotes sensational or deplorable subjects. A great deal of criticism lesbian pulp fiction has received centers upon the argument that lesbian pulp fiction merely capitalizes upon the desires of voyeuristic heterosexual men and that because such publications offer stereotypical representations of homosexuality and gender and employ homophobic, sexist language, they actually perpetuate rather than dispel conventions of homophobia and sexism.

What must be stressed is that contrary to modernist work such as Imre by Edward Prime-Stevenson or The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, works of lesbian pulp fiction neither codify homosexuality nor attempt to cower beneath symbolism, metaphor or classical allusions. Lesbian pulp fiction, Suzanna Walters claims, “insists on uncoded lesbian sexuality, devoid of…elaborate codings…or the tedious use of nature metaphors to describe female to female sex” (Walters 86). Instead they offer earnest, raw emotion and physicality. It is because they hide nothing and reveal everything that they are qualified as being of a lesser value to society. With concern for the lesbian pulp novel entitled I Am a Woman in particular, it has been argued that author Ann Bannon offers representations of homosexuality within a heterosexual, homophobic, sexist framework. The following examination of I Am a Woman aims to counter this claim by revealing the true liberating, revolutionary intent of various aspects of the novel which have been deemed to be sexist or homophobic.

Though some works of lesbian pulp fiction were created by men using female pen names, they were by and large authored by lesbians for a lesbian audience. Lesbian authored pulp fiction, Suzanna Walters claims, diverges from those of a male authorship that used “lesbian sexuality” for “traditional voyeuristic titillation” as they reached lesbians who not only perceived them as pleasurable but as recognition of a shared experience (Walters 84). Due to the demands publishers faced from censors, narratives often culminated with either reform (the dissolution of a lesbian relationship and the entrance into a heterosexual one) or punishment (the mental breakdown and/or death of a lesbian character) even when written by lesbian authors (Nealon 745). Were lesbian protagonists to be granted a fairytale ending and walk off together into the sunset, there would be a great probability that the narratives could be construed as lurid content. Conversely, if the narratives were to end in tragedy it was more likely that censors would overlook what could have been deemed as obscenity and publication was thus permitted.
This conflict that arose between authorial desire to offer portrayals of successful, happy lesbian relationships and the necessity to reform or punish lesbian sexuality in order for narratives to achieve publication is perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of lesbian pulp fiction and is one that many critics have labeled as compromising authorial integrity and a betrayal of lesbian solidarity. In response to this criticism Sherrie Inness has argued that pulps implied “lesbians were driven to insanity or death because of the society around them that condemned them as abnormal, not because they were inherently psychologically disturbed” (Inness 2005). In other words, the pathologizing of lesbian sexuality represented in pulps is, in truth, the effect of hetero-normative bigotry rather than homosexuality itself.

Though it is undeniable that a significant source of motivation to write lesbian pulp fiction came from the ability to make a profit off of the voyeuristic desires of heterosexual men, publication was also owed to the common perception of these novels as cautionary tales for young women of the tragedy that befalls lesbian sexuality. Regardless of this fact, lesbian pulp fiction acknowledged lesbian sexuality as a reality when it was otherwise dismissed as ridiculous because without a penis entered into the equation sex was impossible and was therefore read voraciously by many lesbians of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Not only was lesbian sexuality largely dismissed, it was also against the law and often considered a symptom of mental instability. Women could be put in prison or a mental institution. As Carol Seajay has conveyed in her article “Pulp and Circumstance,” these novels are testaments to the “courage it took in the fifties and pre-feminist sixties to pursue a life with women, and how utterly thrilling it could be to discover these secret, underground worlds” (Seajay 2006).

Unlike pulps whose lesbian sexuality resulted in reform or punishment for lesbian protagonists, the ending of I Am a Woman bestows upon Laura Landon and Beebo Brinker the successful, happy relationship that had been so often denied homosexuals in literature. This ending was absolutely paramount in producing the “double effect” of Bannon’s narrative as it went against the contemporary conventional belief that homosexual love must end in tragedy. Laura seeks out Beebo at the Cellar, a frequent haunt for the two lovers, and at first Beebo is callous. Laura has hurt her and acts as if she wants nothing to do with her. Beebo leaves Laura at the bar on the verge of tears and just when we are led to believe that we are being presented with the stereotypical dissolution of yet another lesbian relationship, Laura follows Beebo outside and finally reveals her true feelings. “I love you Beebo. Darling, I love you” (Bannon 232). Beebo replies “I can’t hate you anymore…I’ve given up. There’s nothing left but love” (Bannon 232). With these words the two women embrace, kissing each other passionately and eventually walk off down the street together in loving reconciliation. The decision of the publisher not to alter this ending was risky business and certainly a political act.

Cover art was another aspect of lesbian pulp fiction over which authors had no control and typically adhered to stereotypical depictions of butch-femme roles. Butches were illustrated as brooding, masculine presences with short hair, wearing pants while Femmes were portrayed as exceedingly feminine figures with long flowing hair and scantily clad. Such is the case with the cover art for I Am a Woman. The femme figure dominates the frame. She has long flowing hair and sports a halter top that is beginning to slip off of her shoulders, revealing a tantalizing pair of large, full breasts. Even her facial expression is sexually suggestive as she appears to be in a state of ecstasy, her head tilted back and eyes barely open. The butch figure stands at a distance with a stoic expression, arms straight at her side and appears to have locked the femme figure in her crosshairs. She has short curly hair and is wearing a far less revealing shirt as well as pants. Now these images may seem to be merely endorsing the stereotypical butch-femme role distinction but in actuality they follow very closely to the descriptions given of Laura Landon and Beebo Brinker in the text.

The stereotypical butch-femme role distinction, both in fictional literature and in real world lesbian communities, has had many feminists and homophile organizations up in arms since lesbian sexuality became a topic of public debate. Feminists and homophile organizations have claimed that such a distinction adheres to the hetero-normative system of binary gender. By relying solely upon this argument one might be misled by certain aspects of particular lesbians’ gender presentation and categorize them as either masculine or feminine, butch or femme. According to Judith Butler, gender is not an innate, unalterable aspect of one’s being but rather a continual process of “performative acts” that are merely influenced by societal conventions (Butler 270). In other words, there is no normative body, no essential gender that exists prior to one’s social existence. Butler does not subscribe to the system of binary genders which insists upon categorizing individuals as either feminine or masculine. One’s gender presentation, whether or not it is influenced by societal conventions, is ultimately the decision of the individual.
The first instance of what could be construed as homophobic language that readers are presented with comes when Laura begins to feel an attraction towards her roommate Marcie. It is implied that she has been with a woman before and that the relationship failed. Marcie reminds Laura of a former girlfriend. She insists to herself that she must not fall for Marcie. “That happened a million years ago. I’m not the same Laura anymore. I can’t – I won’t love like that again. I’ll work, I’ll read, I’ll travel. Some people aren’t made for love. Even when they find it, it’s wrong. I’m one of those” (Bannon 19). By the omission of a fairytale ending the reader is lead to believe that LGBT people are incapable of finding love because their attraction to people of the same sex is merely animalistic and sexual with no deeper spiritual basis. Critics may argue that Bannon is perpetuating the belief that homosexual love cannot have a happy ending. However, Laura’s words sound like those of a woman who has had her heart broken and not necessarily one who believes her physical attraction to women is something to deny and be ashamed of. Even if one could prove that Laura is internalizing this homophobic belief, that fact alone does not betray authoritative position on the matter. Of course, as a lesbian herself, it is quite possible that Ann Bannon is drawing upon the emotions of her own experience. Despite that possibility, it is fair to say that when an individual or group of individuals is endlessly subjected to condemnation and marginalization by the majority, they begin to experience self-doubt and develop a sense of resignation with regard to their station in life. Bannon is simply representing a realistic account of what people go through, heterosexual and LGBT alike, when subjected to oppression. It does not mean she herself subscribes to this belief. What it does is subvert censorship and allows the kind of narratives Bannon writes to be accepted by the mainstream culture.

When Laura, Marcie, Burr and Jack go for drinks at The Cellar, Burr speaks condescendingly about the presumably lesbian patrons and readers are once again presented with homophobic, sexist language. “All those gals need is a real man. That’d put them on the right track in a hurry…Any girl who doesn’t like men is either a virgin or else some bastard scared the hell out of her. She needs gentling” (Bannon 34). Now this is clearly language deeply steeped in prejudice. Burr is of the school of thought that lesbianism is caused by a woman’s experience with men or her lack thereof. What must also be taken into account is Laura’s response to Burr. “We’re human beings…We have no right to sit here and laugh at them for something they can’t help” (Bannon 34). As homophobic and sexist as Burr’s beliefs may be his attack against the lesbians in the bar provides Laura with the opportunity to defend homosexuality. Laura seizes this opportunity and nearly risks revealing her own homosexuality when she claims “You talk about us as if we were horses” (Bannon 34).

What is also very interesting and deserves attention is when Laura poses the hypothetical scenario of a father being the cause of a girl’s lesbianism. “What if the bastard is her father...And he scares the hell out of her when she’s five years old?” (Bannon 34) This belief can be traced back to Freudian psychology which claimed that women who experience trauma in childhood at the hands of a male figure, namely their fathers, are more prone to becoming lesbian. Now this is once again clearly an androcentric belief as the female’s sexual destiny is subject to her experience with her father or another man. In I Am a Woman, Laura’s tumultuous relationship with her father alludes to the contemporary school of thought that homosexuality was possibly the result of childhood trauma. In other words, the emotional abandonment and physical abuse Laura experienced with her father following the death of her mother and brother has driven her away from the society of men and into the arms of women.

Fast forward to Chapter 14 of the novel when Laura finally comes face to face with her father after over a year of estrangement and admits to him that she is a lesbian. He responds by asking, “Did I do that to you, Laura?” (Bannon 206). Although she confirms his inquiry, it is very interesting and important to point out that from the narrator’s relating of Laura’s inner thoughts we learn that she is not quite certain that her father is the cause of her homosexuality. She responds “without certain knowledge” and merely “the urge to hurt him” (Bannon 206). This small bit of narration is an authorial hint that Bannon does not subscribe to Merrill Landon’s androcentric point of view but hides it well enough that censors would have passed over it.
Another example of Bannon’s use of language that could be construed as homophobic is when Laura and Beebo Brinker have sex for the first time. The passage that begins with “Laura felt such a wave of passion” through the paragraph that begins with “No, no, no, no,” is significant to the novel as a whole because the language used to describe Laura and Beebo’s passion can be construed as representing the nature of homosexuality as instinctual, animalistic sexual desire, which would be one of many aspects of lesbian pulp fiction that would cause censors in the 1950’s to allow publications such as Ann Bannon’s novels to exist.

However, this passage can also be read in another way. We learn earlier on in the novel that it has been over a year that Laura parted with her former girlfriend Beth and that for over a year Laura has remained sexually abstinent. For a grown woman who has already experienced the profound pleasure that sex can bring a person, a year is quite a long time to go without sexual gratification. Without a doubt Laura’s libido is going to be raging, begging to be satiated. Perhaps she does not love Beebo and the sex that the two women engage in with one another is purely physical for Laura, at least in beginning. When heterosexual partners engage in sex purely for the physical gratification they may be condemned by certain religious zealots but certainly not by society at large. What Bannon is subversively revealing here is heterosexist hypocrisy. She is trying to convey with this scene that homosexuals have just as much right as heterosexuals to have sex for fun.

Though publications of lesbian pulp fiction employed stereotypical cover art in order to attract heterosexual male readers, have been edited in order to circumvent the watchful eyes of McCarthy era censors, and their narratives have been interpreted by ignorant critics as homophobic, sexist denunciations of lesbian desire, fledging and veteran lesbians alike were profoundly influenced by publications like Ann Bannon’s I Am a Woman. Not only did they inform lonely and closeted women that others like them existed in the world but also overtly and covertly challenged societal and political conventions of sexuality and gender. Undoubtedly, American culture has since evolved into one of greater tolerance and understanding since the days when lesbian pulp fiction was new and unchartered territory. Be that as it may, while pseudonymous male authors purveyed lesbian sexuality to voyeuristic male readers in which lesbian relationships resulted in reform or punishment, lesbian authors like Ann Bannon with their courage and optimism were influential in lesbians seeking out one another and forming communities. Despite sexual and gender oppression that lesbian women continue to face to this day, lesbians of the post World War II era experienced a radical evolution in their collective consciousness which has led to an enduring sense of both pride and community.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith, and Sue Ellen Case. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1990. 270-82.

Inness, Sherrie A. "Novel: Lesbian." GLBTQ gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer encyclopedia. 15 Apr. 2009

Nealon, Christopher S. "Invert History: The Ambivalence of Lesbian Pulp Fiction." New Literary History 31 (200): 745-64.

Seajay, Carol. "Pulp and Circumstance." Women's Review of Books 23 (2006): 18-19.

Walters, Suzanna D. "As Her Hand Slowly Crept Up Her Thigh: Ann Bannon and the Politics of Pulp." Social Text 23 (1989): 83-101.

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Gender and Sexual Politics in Ann Bannon's I Am a Woman by Joshua Alan Blodgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
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