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Zoie Magann (3161297) ENGL3013

Essay 2 Topic 3
Discuss the representation(s) of gender relations in two or three of the works we have
Judith Butler asserts that whether gender or sex is fixed or free is a function of a

discourse (9) an idea that is explored in the womens literature novels My Brilliant Career

by Miles Franklin (1901) and Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson (1989). Both novels

present gender (and thus identity) as fluid concepts which challenge the hegemonic discourse

of heteronormativity. This is achieved through the depiction of character relationships with

themselves (intrapersonal) and their relationships with others (interpersonal). Within these

contexts characters perform both traditional masculinity and femininity and construct their

identity accordingly. In order to exemplify this notion of performative gender and fluidity,

this essay will complete character studies on the protagonists of each text: Sybylla (My

Brilliant Career), Dog-Woman (Sexing the Cherry), and Jordan (Sexing the Cherry). The

characters understanding of themselves, and the world around them will be explored and

how these concepts relate to heteronormativity will be discussed.

The context in which My Brilliant Career was first published (1901) is of great

significance to how it is read as it was a period of considerable social revolution in Australia

(Garton 347). Sybylla can be appreciated as an agent of this revolution based on her

performance of gender and identity. Butler describes gender as a part of an identity which is

created over time through the repetition of acts also known as a performance (140).

Sybyllas performance troubled earlier readers (and may continue to do so) as she refuses to

endorse any stable and unified model of identity, most crucially, with regard to her gender

(Henderson n.p). The novel is thus situated in a discourse of ambivalence, where Sybyllas

gender, her feelings about other characters (namely Harold Beecham), her desires and even

appearance are all questionable (Garton 346). This makes for Sybylla a difficult narrator to

trust at times. Sybylla notices that this ambivalence sets her apart in her society and that she

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is different to her female peers, saying they were not only in their world, they were of it; I

was not (Franklin 27). The world being described here can be assumed to be the world of

femininity and all it encompasses. This quote thus shows that Sybylla is aware that she exists

beyond the boundaries of traditional femininity and opposes dominant discourses of

heteronormativity. Sybyllas aunt Helen is a significant character who is presented in a

similar shade. Sybylla notes how Helen was left by her husband for another woman and as

such he turned her adrift, neither a wife, widow, nor maid (Franklin 35). The terms used

here (wife, widow, maid) are the three roles reserved for women of this time and are

designated based on the females relation to men. This means that like Sybylla, Helen exists

beyond the boundaries of heteronormativity as she occupies none of these roles. Interestingly,

contrary to Sybyllas self-ascribed unattractiveness (Franklin 26) she remains the subject of

male attention. Garton argues that the sustained interest of male characters in Sybylla

provides a basis for her rejection of them as suiters as she feels they cannot be worthy if they

find her appealing as a wife. These self-perceived short-comings as a woman allow Sybylla

to escape the expectation of marriage and thus free her from a discourse of heteronormativity


The ambivalence surrounding gender in the novel further manifests itself in the

fluidity of the genre of Sybyllas narrative and whether it is female romance, or male

realism. As Sybylla performs different gender constructs, the narrative weaves between the

two genres, constantly being interrupted by the other (Henderson n.p). The romance genre

prevails when Sybylla is happy and financially secure, and the realism genre is dominant

when she feels unhappy and constrained. Location is a key factor of this, and epitomizes the

significance of place in the novel. Sybylla feels immense happiness at Caddagat, Joy! Joy!"

(Franklin 90), a place which is described using romantic language (Franklin 29), and

conversely struggles at Possum Gully, Weariness! Weariness! (Franklin 18). This dual

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perspective reflects back to the binary structure that heteronormativity and gender occupies

(Butler 7), and further symbolises Sybyllas drifting between two states.

Nineteenth century womens literature explored oppositions to the traditional status

and role of women in society and the complexity of choosing between marriage and a career

was a common theme (Garton 337). This is apparent when it comes to Sybylla, who believes

marriage is an unfavourable option for women. Sybylla equates marriage to enslavement due

to the restrictive and unfair circumstances she believes it entraps women within and thus

decides such a construct is not for her and favours the pursuit of employment (Franklin 25,

50). This condemnation of marriage as the leading social role for colonial women is

indicative of the feminist thread that runs through the novel (Garton 338). For Sybylla, the

best relationship between a man and woman is one founded on companionship (Franklin 48;

Garton 341; Magarey 392), however she makes the observation that a man does not want his

wife to be a companion (Franklin 81). This is a point which relates back to issues of

equality. Sybyllas desire to be both in control and controlled in a relationship is one of the

most apparent examples of the aforementioned ambivalence in the novel and is cited as a

possible reason for her rejection of Harold Beecham (Magarey 397). However men are also

given somewhat caricature qualities to aid Sybyllas desire for a career over marriage (Garton

338). Magarey notes that Sybylla would not have been the only young woman of Franklins

era to rebel against heteronormativity as both marriage and birth rates in Australia plummeted

between the 1880s and the start of World War I (392-393).

Sexing the Cherry is a perfect embodiment of the complexity of gender and the notion

that totality is impossible (Butler 16). Totality here meaning an individuals sole occupation

of one prescribed gender. This is particularly relevant when considering the tales of Dog-

Woman and Jordan, who move between and among gender and sexual identifications

(Jordan), or simply exceed them (Dog-Woman) (Lisa Moore in Lazar 176). Using these

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characters and others in the text, Winterson explores alternative genders and the manner in

which normative genders can be grafted (Kintzele 2) a notion which is symbolised through

the title of the novel. Further symbolism takes place in the fruit icons which head Dog-

Woman, Jordan and their modern counterparts text sections: a banana for Dog-Woman and a

pineapple for Jordan (Genca 23). The phallic nature of the banana and flowering, round

appearance of the pineapple provide sex associations to each passage of the text and their

narrators. This essay will now look to Dog-Woman and Jordan individually to examine how

they construct, or deconstruct gender roles and heteronormativity.

As with My Brilliant Career, performativity comes in to play in Sexing the Cherry.

Dog-Woman performs femininity through acts such as wearing a ribbon in her hair

(Winterson 19) and eating fruit in a ladylike fashion (Winterson 17). However she also

engages in violent acts which are typically considered masculine, such as the killing of her

Puritan enemies (Winterson 23, 96-97). In addition to this, Dog-Woman uses language and a

style of story-telling which would more commonly be associated with masculinity (Lazar

174), such as a fascination with morbid and gruesome details (Winterson 72, 92). In doing

this she dismantles a patriarchal discourse by vividly describing her dismembering of a male

character during an intimate encounter (Winterson 40). Dog-Womans physical size and

strengths disrupts gender discourses of females being perceived as weak (Genca 25; Lazar

175). It also prohibits heterosexual intimacy as males quite literally cannot measure up to her.

Dog-Woman and her nameless future counterpart are both threats to the patriarchy

established by dominant discourses the former due to her strength and size and the latter

due to her intellect and ambition (Genca 27). Female identity is made fluid through the

absence of naming female characters, almost stripping them of an identity other than what

they perform (Genca 25). This is contrasted against the male characters of the novel who are

all named, even minor characters such as Dog-Womans neighbours. While Dog-Woman

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exists beyond the boundaries of traditional femininity, she is still conservative in nature,

shown by her repulsion of Jordans sexed cherry and its ambiguous gender origin (Winterson


Jordan is a postmodern agent in Sexing the Cherry who breaks down barriers between

the sexes, time, reality and lie (Lazar 177). This is made most obvious through his

presentation of a list of lies which address the uncertainty of the world (Winterson 89-90).

Such a postmodern perspective echoes Butlers assertion that genders can be neither true not

false, neither real nor apparent, neither original nor derived (141) a theme which seems to

take hold in Sexing the Cherry. Jordan and his future counterpart Nicholas both struggle with

the expectations society assigns males with and the masculinity that is demanded of them

(Genca 29-30). At one stage in the book, Jordan enters the world of women through

performance and dress. He lives amongst them and adapts to their ways of life. In doing so he

becomes aware of a feminine approach towards men and while shocked at first, finds it both

deserved and amusing (Lazar 175). Furthermore, Jordan is provided with a Womens rule

book which he is saddened to realise represents truth (Winterson 29-30). Despite Jordans

interaction with femininity he still pursues the seemingly innate colonial male dream of

conquering other spaces (Lazar 178). This desire is born when he first see a banana - which

Dog-Woman mistakes as a product of foreign manhood (Kintzele 5; Winterson 4-5). The

fluidity of Jordans character enables Sexing the Cherry to challenge the hegemonic discourse

of heteronormativity. Another aspect of the novel which disrupts heteronormativity is the tale

of The Twelve Dancing Princesses (an adaption of the Brothers Grimm tale The Dancing

Shoes), which Jordan shares after meeting with the sisters directly. Kintzele argues that this

inclusion of the adapted classic fairy tale is Wintersons most effective exploration of gender

roles as the sisters challenge gender roles and what constitutes happily ever after (8-9;

Genca 31). Upon being forced into a marriage, each of the sisters escapes their husband

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through a variety of means, some including death. By promoting Jordans proximity to these

tales, Winterson asserts his position as a progressive agent of gender and identity and

denouncer of heteronormativity.

To conclude, the protagonists of My Brilliant Career and Sexing the Cherry challenge

the hegemonic discourse of heteronormativity through their fluid performance of gender

roles. Sybylla, Dog-Woman and Jordan all show that gender is constructed and is thus able to

be deconstructed and reconstructed as required. Both Sybylla and Jordan are presented as

fluid agents of gender with an identity which is somewhat ambiguous, whereas Dog-Woman

remains quite conservative while still breaking through the boundaries of her sex and

prescribed gender. Despite the approach, all characters transcend and demolish traditional

gender roles an outcome which is arguably important when it comes to womens literature.

1833 words

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Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Great Britain:

Routledge, 1990. Print.

Franklin, Miles. My Brilliant Career. Australia: William Blackwood & Sons, 1901. EBook

Garton, Stephen. Contesting enslavement: Marriage, manhood and My Brilliant Career.

Australian Literary Studies 20.4 (Oct 2002): 336-349. Web.

Genca, Papatya Alkan. Fluid gender identities in Jeanette Wintersons Sexing the Cherry.

Journal of Social Sciences 13.3 (Sept 2015): 21-34. Web.

Henderson, Ian. Gender, genre, and Sybylla's performative identity in Miles Franklin's My

Brilliant Career. Australian Literary Studies 18.2 (Oct 1997): 165-173. Web.

Kintzele, Paul. Gender in Winterson's Sexing the Cherry. Comparative Literature and

Culture 12.3 (2010): 1-11. Web.

Lazar, Mihaela-Christina. Authorship, representation and gendered discourses in Jeanette

Wintersons Sexing the Cherry. Studies of Science and Culture 10.3 (Sept 2014):

173-180. Web.

Magarey, Susan. My Brilliant Career and Feminism. Australian Literary Studies 20.4

(Oct 2002): 389-398. Web.

Winterson, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1989.