Gender as Perceived by Others

One of the most prevalent themes in these first four stories (and most relevant to our previous class discussions) is that of gender as performance.  One moment stuck out to me in particular: 

And as I stepped out of the car I was suddenly some very small thing, by which I mean I was suddenly a woman to this guy, absorbing these names reserved for women, standing there in the downpour, reduced to something snail small and just as tightly coiled. (8)

This passage reflects the performative qualities of gender, but more importantly, it comments on how gender is just as much determined by how one is perceived by others as it is by performance.  In this story (and in the others as well), the main character/narrator’s gender is ambiguous, and this passage is the moment where it becomes clear that she is in fact a woman.  It’s not her performance that indicates to the reader whether she is male or female, but it is the way this man treats her and thinks of her that enlightens us.  She feels, with his eyes on her, that she becomes “some very small thing,” not just to him but to herself.  She feels her own transformation, and she moves from ambiguity to clarity – she becomes a woman.  

Gender is accompanied, then, by things outside of oneself, things outside of the performative realm.  The “names reserved for women” that she absorbs, the negative ones, are assigned to her – there is a lack of choice involved.  Later in the story, she absorbs the positive “names reserved for women, certain other names I’d been called before and would be called again” (9) – also without choice.  Regardless of positive or negative connotations, these names reduce her – like “something snail small and just as tightly coiled.”  Words associated with a gender say nothing about the person, and they limit the person, in this case a woman, to the (oversimplified) qualities of that gender.  

She becomes “suddenly a woman to this guy,” and her ambiguity is gone, and her desire to be a guy is unattainable.  Because this guy sees her as a woman, she is a woman.  According to this passage (and these stories in general), it seems that gender reduces and ambiguity enhances.


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