Fiction as Gender: Historicising the intersections between creative writing, gender portrayal, and gender identity
“I want to question the separation between gender performance and gender performativity, pondering what opportunities would arise if there was an expansion in what is accepted as valid gender acts, regardless of their proximity to the body or Self.…”
Oscar Davis is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. Majoring in Literary Studies and Astrophysics at Monash University in 2017, Oscar went on to undertake an Honours Course in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne in 2019. His PhD thesis involves writing an exegesis with an accompanying novel, Static Sun, Phantom Breath, which implements and explores a post-structuralist analysis of practice-led research and the relationships between theory and practice, and culture and nature. Oscar also works as a Lead Facilitator at Elephant Ed, an organising that teachers progressive and inclusive sex education.
If I were to write a narrator that portrays a different gender to my own, why would this be seen as less an expression of my identity than if I were to behave in a similar way outside of writing? To break down this question, this article aims to historicise and map the discourse around the relationship between creative expression, gender portrayal, and gender expression. Briefly summarising the current debate around whether a writer’s identity should or should not align with the identity of the characters they produce, I explore the development of the writing mode écriture feminine by the French feminists Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. Identifying their attitudes towards men writing écriture feminine, I draw on the works of Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida to further nuance the distinction between gender performance and gender performativity. Rather than attempting to find an answer to the original question regarding (a character’s) gender portrayal and (a writer’s) gender identity, I instead show the shifts, biases and complexities of the terms used, trying to further our understanding of how the membranes between written expression and gender expression function and fluctuate.
Fiction; gender ; creative writing; narratology; performativity
I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. (Joyce 2000, 932-933)
Instead of looking at James Joyce’s passage above as a masculine author writing a feminine narrator (i.e. Molly Bloom), I want to ask whether this can be seen as a male author expressing femininity. Can written expression be considered gender expression? What does it mean for a writer to write a narrator who expresses gender differently to them? And, more personally, if I were to write a feminine narrator, why would that be seen as less an expression of my identity than if I expressed myself in feminine ways outside of writing? The aim of this paper is to not necessarily attempt to answer these questions, but rather to play at the edges, nuancing the contemporary discourse around representation, identity, and creative writing. By drawing on the works of Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida, I want to question the separation between gender performance and gender performativity, pondering what opportunities would arise if there was an expansion in what is accepted as valid gender acts, regardless of their proximity to the body or Self.
Currently, there is a polarising debate occurring between those who support a writer’s freedom to portray any identity, and those who want writers to acknowledge and resist harmful representations of characters from marginalised groups, as well as give people from those groups a voice to tell their own stories. Emblematic of the former category is US writer and journalist Lionel Shriver, who famously denounced “culture police” and “identity politics” at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2016, stating that “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros” (Shriver 2016). In retaliation to Shriver and her followers, many writers and academics have pointed out that Shriver is unaware of her privilege, that writing is a political act, and that many people of marginalised groups have not had the freedom to write as they like, as Shriver advocates (Kon-yu and Gandolfo 2018; Birch 2019). This is why writers like Corinne Duyvis assert that books about characters from underrepresented or marginalised groups should only be written by authors who share the same identity; a movement more commonly known as #OwnVoices (Duyvis).
Even though this paper attempts to nuance the relationship between the writer’s identity and the narrators or characters they create, in no way should this excuse or foreclose a self-reflective practice in which a writer attempts to understand and defuse writing acts that uphold dangerous power dynamics, particularly in relation to gender, race, culture, class, sexual orientation, and ability. Rather, if gender expressions were expanded to include written representations of gender, this may in fact lead to a further acceptance of otherness, including the Other part of one’s Self.
Écriture Feminine: An Example of the Enmeshed Relationship between Gender and Writing
The theories and discussions that occurred from the so-called French Feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, namely from Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, appear to be relevant but forgotten from the recent debate. In a similar tone to Corinne Duyvis, Cixous, in her earlier renowned text, The Laugh of the Medusa, states:
Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. (Cixous 1976, 875)
In advocating for women to write and tell their own story, Cixous, alongside Irigaray, discuss a form of female or feminine writing – écriture feminine. While Cixous claims it cannot be defined (Cixous 1976, 883), écriture feminine as a writing mode intends to simultaneously bring women to authorship and destabilise hegemonic phallocentricism within language. In the works that followed The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous’ idea of écriture feminine shifted slightly away from the distinctions between man/woman and masculine/feminine, and more towards an engagement with poetic writings and its possibility to allow for otherness (Conley 1991, xii). This latter approach is similar to what Kristeva encouraged: a play of the semiotic (the feminine, rhythmic, and poetic aspect of language), within the symbolic (the masculine, rule-governed aspect of language) (Lechte 2012, 5-6, 75, 129). Often these writing modes are said to be closely expressed through jouissance – the feminine libidinal and semiotic drive of the writer, which has been normally repressed by the masculine symbolic aspect of language (Chandler and Munday 2020; Jones 1981, 248, 249, 261-262).
Central to the aim of this paper are the moments when these theorists discuss men and their capability of writing something like écriture féminine. According to Ann Rosaland Jones, Irigaray insisted that écriture féminine needs to be constructed amongst women alone because it is too closely linked with the physical body and sexual desires of women (Jones 1981, 249-250, 252). Kristeva, on the other hand, claims that men can explore jouissance and in turn, resist phallocentric writing, citing James Joyce, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Antonin Artaud (Jones 1981, 248-249; Kristeva 1982, 20, 23). Cixous’ opinions on the matter appear slightly more complex and contradictory. In her early text, The Laugh of the Medusa, Cixous upholds the distinction that “woman must write woman. And man, man” (Cixous 1976, 877), and yet, this position of Cixous’ is complicated by her claim that writers like Heinrick von Kleist “expend himself in his yearning for the existence of sister-lovers, maternal daughters, mother-sisters, who never hung their heads in shame” (Cixous 1976, 879); that Jean Genet is a man who “isn’t afraid of femininity” (Cixous 1976, 885); and that James Joyce, such as in Molly’s monologue quoted above, exemplifies écriture féminine (Cixous 1976, 884), as well as an opposition to authority (Cixous 1991, 3). Cixous’ examples of men engaging with écriture feminine are representative of the nuanced positions she comes to develop in later works.
Following the 1970s, there was a shift in attitude towards écriture féminine. According to Toril Moi, poststructuralist literary theory opposing authorial presence, as well as feminist theories subverting essentialist assumptions of gender, ultimately fuelled écriture féminine’s unpopularity. There was a theoretical clash in which “one half of the brain continues to read women writers while the other continues to think that the author is dead, and that the very word ‘woman’ is theoretically dodgy”, according to Moi (Moi 2009, 5). However, there are some who argue against Moi’s summation. Pamela Banting challenged Moi’s belief that Cixous’ works are essentialising, instead claiming that
Cixous’s recourse to the body is not a return to a natural, speechless or prelinguistic body but rather to a signifying body continually networking with its own flesh and the surfaces and particularities of the world. (Moi 2009, 229)
Similarly, Ruth Salvaggio argues that Cixous challenges the stable concept of women’s body, advocating for “the generation of multiple possibilities” that move beyond “settled significations” (Salvaggio 1999, 66). These anti-essentialist readings of Cixous seem further exemplified in the above discussion that suggest male writers can also engage with écriture feminine.
The arguments for and against the practice of écriture feminine seem to echo a similar tone to that of the debate illustrated at the start of this paper. Just as critiques of écriture feminine have overlooked the anti-essentialist notion that men can engage with such a writing mode, so too does the contemporary debate around representation and creative expression fail to acknowledge the discrepancy regarding who can express what, even within the discourse of feminist narratology.
The developments of écriture feminine exemplify a movement and a writing practice that actively engage with the intersections between gender expression and written expression. Reflecting on the discourse of écriture feminine can help generate questions relevant to the current and related debate regarding identity, gender representation, and creative writing. Cixous’ very notion that there is a gatekeeping of certain gender identities and expressions, which can be reinforced or subverted through creative writing acts, begs the question: what other cultural mechanisms foreclose alternative understandings of gender expression, and how can new understandings emerge from/against such mechanisms?
Performance and/or Performativity?
As I have demonstrated, the politics of writing the body and the gendered identity of the author are not easily divisible. While the discourse around écriture feminine implies the interconnected relationship between the gendered body and the fictive subject, Judith Butler’s theory of performativity helps to further expand such a relationship beyond the practice of écriture feminine, posing a more general way to subvert dominant forms of gender intelligibility. In relation to the question: can written expressions be considered gender expressions, this section of my paper explores
- How, historically, both creativity and gender have come to be naturalised and internalised in similar ways;
- How Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity can assist in troubling the relationship between an artist and their creative expressions; and
- How the displacement between a writer and the written gender expressions they perform via other fictional characters can further expand Butler’s theories of gender performativity.
Throughout creative discourse, Western artists and scholars have repeatedly referenced their artistic expressions coming from an internal, stable, and natural core. Paul Dawson in Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2005) suggests that the Romanticists viewed creativity as something that “sprang from the unique personality of the artist in the form of his passion” (Dawson 2005, 32), like an “internalisation of divinity” (Dawson 2005, 26). In more recent times, Dawson believes that the idea of artistic creativity has been democratised and is now considered a “latent faculty in everyone and applicable to any ﬁeld of human endeavour” (Dawson 2005, 45). Within academia, the same rhetoric is also present amongst artist-researchers who have sought to include creative research methodologies within higher research degrees and institutions; something better known as practice-led research in Australia. For example, artist-researchers Nelson Zagalo and Pedro Branco state, “the creation process is enclosed within us, and because of that has always existed since we exist” (Zagalo and Branco 2015, 5). In other words, there is an intrinsic and pre-discursive link between an artist’s identity and the creative processes that seemingly come from within the artist. Zagalo and Branco’s quote exemplify Dawson’s findings which suggest that creative expressions are tied closely to an artist’s humanity and identity. Importantly, this is not an isolated example, but rather representative of a dominating and naturalising discourse that has been present amongst artists and scholars for several centuries (Davis and West 2022).
The notion that creative expressions come from a stable and pre-discursive subject (i.e. the artist) is closely related to the same essentialising mechanisms that assume there is a stable gender identity behind gender expressions. In their seminal text, Gender Trouble, Judith Butler proposes that gendered acts, gestures, and enactments
are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. […] In other words, acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organizing gender core, an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality. (Butler 2007, 185-186)
Put simply, there is no doer behind the deed, but rather, according to Butler, gendered acts and gestures come to be normalised via citing a set of expressions and attributes that are retroactively considered to be gender norms. The sense that something is natural or a “norm” conceals how citations form those norms. In this way, I argue that a similar illusion of an “interior and organizing” core can be applied to an artist’s creative expressions. Via a discourse that repeatedly refers to creative expressions coming from within the artist, as a pre-discursive Subject, conceals the very performative aspects of that subjectification.
While Butler warns against drawing a one-to-one analogy between gender performativity and other identity markers, such as race (xvi-xvii), both the rhetoric behind gender identity and artistic identity are driven by hegemonies that privilege substance, stability, nature, and presence over that which is seen as differed, culturally imposed, or removed from the origin. I argue that these hegemonies – which Butler would label as the metaphysics of substance, and Jacques Derrida as the metaphysics of presence – are the same mechanisms that have sought to conceal the performative qualities of gender and creative expression.
However, it would be naïve to say that many artists, and specifically writers in my case, do not often make deliberate decisions throughout their work, even if the dominating rhetoric is that one’s initial intuitive moment originates from within the artist. Therefore, it’s important to have a closer look at the original question at hand:
If I were to write a narrator that portrays a different gender to my own, why would this be seen as less an expression of my own identity than if I were to behave in a similar way outside of writing?
Within this question are several emerging oppositions that highlight the difference between the performativity of gender, which is related to the writer’s identity, and the performance of gender, which is the gendered acts portrayed by the fictional characters or narrators written by the writer:
|Bodily expression||Written expression|
|Concealed pastiche||Deliberate pastiche|
Importantly, while I am focusing on when a writer writes a character whose gender identity does not align with their own, this discussion can be expanded to include any gender portrayals, regardless of whether they align with the writer’s identity or not.
For a moment, let us assume that writing a gendered character is a performance, which is different to the performative qualities of the writer’s gender identity. Hence, to answer my original provocation, a written character differs from their author because the gender of the character portrayed is a conscious performance of pastiche, rather than something that has become naturalised and internalised via performative repetitions and citations. In this case, writing as another gender can be seen as equivalent to a drag performance.
While Butler emphasises that drag is not precisely “an example of subversion” (xxiii), its imitative qualities can reveal the performative aspects of gender, as Butler states:
In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself — as well as its contingency. (Butler 2007, 187)
The point of this text [Gender Trouble] is not to celebrate drag as the expression of a true and model gender […] but to show that the naturalized knowledge of gender operates as a preemptive and violent circumscription of reality. (Butler 2007, xxiv)
Therefore, one useful outcome of seeing gender performances like creative writing as drag is that it can expose gender’s performative and citational structures, as well as trouble the naturalising and internalising rhetoric of gender.
Where characters in fiction differ from drag is that the performance is naturalised – to put simply, unlike drag, it is often narrated by author and reader as emerging from a natural essence. The line between performativity and performance is not so clearly defined, and creative expressions can expose a bias within Gender Trouble. As briefly mentioned earlier, the concept of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, or ‘logocentrism’, as deconstructed throughout the works of Jacques Derrida, highlight a tendency within Western societies to privilege presence, origin, essence, and nature over absence, displacement, difference, and culture (Derrida 1981, 29; Derrida 1988, 93). There is a logocentric rhetoric occurring within the assumptions around gender (both in its essentialist and performative understandings). Gendered acts that appear most closely to the body are seen as legitimate as they reinforce its naturalisation and connection to one’s biological sex as opposed to gendered acts that are either perceived temporally and/or spatially distant to the body, such as writing a fictitious narrator or drag. The logocentrism that validates gendered acts proximal to the body is indicative of a similar hegemony that Butler calls to subvert – one that attempts to conflate gender with biological sex, upholds distinct and naturalised binary categories of gender and sex, and punishes or renders invisible certain identities or behaviours that might trouble dominant matrices of intelligibility.
There is an opportunity in seeing certain written expressions as gendered expressions. Not only is the performativity of gender reinstated by including gender expressions that appear removed from the body or Self into the matrix of gender performativity, as was Butler’s task, but it also allows people to explore gender expressions that fail to repeat a dominating intelligibility. Put directly, if the feminine traits of a fictional character I wrote was seen as legitimate expressions of my own gender identity, this would at once problematise the logocentric assumptions that gender needs to be tied closely to the body or Self, but it also questions the ownership and legitimacy of certain gendered acts. Expanding the Self to include exterior and distant expressions, i.e. other expressions, problematises the rigid separation between Self and Other or otherness. This is especially true when considering the artistic rhetoric that suggests there is a deep affiliation and closeness to one’s writing, or in other words, a deep affiliation to the external; the other.
One productive way to see written gender expressions is as a “failed” gender act, rather than solely as a pastiche or drag performance. While this may be an extension of Butler’s theories, it aligns closely with their desire to expose the limits and regulatory aims of controlling hegemonies, as Butler state:
The possibilities of gender transformation are to be found precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmatic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction. (Butler 2007, 192)
Both Derrida and Butler assert that there is a need to deconstruct the hierarchy between absence and presence, and to problematise naturalising and internalising beliefs of gender identity. My aim for this paper was to do just ponder whether it is possible that written gender has been excluded from our notions of gender expression, and whether there are opportunities to trouble binary or hetero-centric assumptions of gender identity within writing. What opportunities would arise if we expanded the range of what constitutes a legitimate gender expression, regardless of its closeness or distance from the body or Self? Further, just as the logocentric intelligibility of gender must be questioned, so do artists need to question the long tradition within Western discourse that bolsters a stable artistic core and conceals the performative aspects of creativity. Ignoring the logocentric rhetoric regarding gender and creativity reinforces what is considered Self and what is constituted as Other; what is privileged for being natural and what is treated as false or foreign.
No matter what developments might come from this paper, I assert that writers need to still be aware of their positionality and to know whether their practice reinforces dangerous stereotypes, hierarchies, and power dynamics. Like drag, Butler reminds us that while it can deprive hegemonic culture of the claim that gender is natural or essential, it still can be seen to simultaneously reinstate misogynist ideals (Butler 2007, 187).
To end this paper, I would like to leave it with a quote from Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, whom Hélène Cixous praised as portraying a ‘feminine libidinal economy’ (Cixous 1991, 117). This quote is taken from her creative novel A Breath of Life and strongly highlights the complexities and multiplicities around gender, writing, and identity. The entire novel consists of a dialogue between a male author and his female character called Angela. The Author asks:
Is Angela my edge? Or am I the edge of Angela? Is Angela my mistake? Is Angela my variation? (Lispector 2014, 41)
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