Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Conflicting Oppressions?

I recently reread "Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin, and I remembered a paper I wrote about it a while ago. I remembered it because the issues stay the same. In the current wave of legal battles over same-sex marriage across the states, I kept expecting to see a wave of support from the underrepresented groups bonding together, but instead, there still exists a great divide exists between transpeople and the glb community (though this isn't the focus of this post...). I thought I'd start by going back and pointing out the same lack of mutual support between gays and women during the first and second waves of feminism. So...here it is in the form of:

A Critical Analysis of the Views on Women in Giovanni’s Room

There is complexity in movement. Often, when it would seem be beneficial for movements of oppressed peoples to work together towards one goal of justice and equity, cooperation is not apparent to the forerunners of the movement. James Baldwin portrays women as desperate and flighty, biologically driven1, and elements of life that are not necessary. Why would Baldwin choose to portray women in this manner? To a strictly feminist audience his views may appear unenlightened and useless to a movement of human rights and equality; the bigger questions and answers lie within Baldwin’s intent for the novel, and what it achieved as far as being part of a movement. Is this novel even part of a movement for equality? Should all authors of gay literature be sensitive to movement and the preservation of a movement’s image? Firstly, it is important to note that one cannot distinctly know an author’s intent, however, we can exonerate an author from responsibility for his intent. In other words, a piece of art, be it literature, painting, or a garden, has no responsibility to anyone unless its creator claims it. Therefore, whatever effect Giovanni’s Room had on the gay movement, or detriment it was to the feminist movement is not his responsibility. That being said, it is still crucial to look closely and analyze, from a modern standpoint, how exactly women are viewed by what appears to be a majority of gay men. These views of women tackle the broader issue of helping to elucidate the cause of dissonance between men and women at this time.

There are no women in Giovanni’s room2, yet many women dip in and out of existence in Giovanni’s Room. As one walks carefully through Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, noting when and where women appear, a sort of call and response between the character David and women in general is evident. David, either by monologue, or with the help of Giovanni, lays out an opinion of women, and he later has the women reinforce these opinions in their own words. The first impression of women in the novel pertains to women in general, and paints a picture of female vanity that makes women seem pathetic. David is in the train station, pondering the inevitability of the presence of a girl who will wonder why he is not flirting with her, which is a very vain thought for himself because it shows that he expects flirtatious behavior. This statement also shows the girl as vain and expectant of finding a mate, because she is waiting for a man to complete her.

It is important to note that this girl in the train station is the first impression given of women; it sets the tone for all other encounters with women by saying that all women will expect something from men, and do so in vanity. It is also interesting that the first feminine presence noticed in the novel is not an actual woman, but an impression of women in general; this creates a distance between David and women. The first actual woman to actually appear, outside the concept of the girl in the trainstation is David’s “girl3” Hella; he describes her in the exact same way as the typical train station girl. He met her in a bar with the same look on her face as he describes the potential/general female in the train station; laughing, hoping that someone will notice her. The comparison David brings from the typical girl to Hella is an example of the call and response type of rhetoric Baldwin has set up concerning women in this novel; he states that women are vain, and the response is Hella, a concrete example of vanity(Baldwin, p.4).

Character development has a lot to do with the reasoning behind Baldwin’s portrayal of women. He characterizes David as being motherless; she died when he was young, and his aunt Ellen (who admittedly had little sway over his life) was the one who had the most contact with him in his youth. These facts lead to many conclusions concerning David’s current views. David was not only deprived of the maternal care that encourages men to accept women, but he was only exposed to women of the courting world. This means that the feeblemindedness and vanity that David expects from women in general comes from the way women may have acted during his courting years; in general, when people are searching for a mate, they behave differently and with more vanity and desperation.

The presence of Ellen in Giovanni’s Room indicates how women are generally pushed aside; more of an element to get over, rather than individuals with which to exist and interact with. There are concrete examples of this notion, beginning with David’s father’s dismissal of Ellen after her accusation of alcoholism; “ ‘Do you really think,’ she asked, ‘that you’re the kind of man he ought to be when he grows up?’…’Go to bed, Ellen,’ said my father, sounding weary” (Baldwin, p. 14). Generally, the tone of his father at this point could be taken as a sign of admission of guilt, but later when David is talking about his accident, they both refer back to Ellen and how she has no sway on his life; “ ‘Your Aunt Ellen says it’s my fault,’ he said. ‘She says I never raised you right…You got nothing against me, have you? Tell me if you have?’ ‘No,” I said, “no. Nothing. Honest’ ” (Baldwin, p.19). Within this short exchange, it is made clear that the accusations and input that Aunt Ellen has given are null and void, given that both David and his father ignore her opinion. There is a male bond that is made, despite the heterosexuality of David’s father. This is very interesting to note, because it means that Giovanni’s Room is not necessarily rejecting heterosexuality, but it is indeed rejecting feminine heterosexuality and females in general.

Later in the novel, David shows again his disdain and dismissal of maternal figures when he moves out of his apartment in order to move in with Giovanni, and speaks to the Italian housekeeper before his departure. After a myriad of questions about his life, his health, his fiancé, and his plans for the future, this woman (who David refers to as someone who reminds him of what he would expect Giovanni’s mother to be) brings out emotions that David would rather not deal with; “It is terrible how naked she makes me feel, like a half-grown boy, naked before his mother” (Baldwin, p.70). This is a somewhat contradictory notion of women within the text, because so far, David has said that women do not have any effect on him. Despite this contradiction, this statement is still a negative statement about women, therefore keeping with the tradition of anti-female that Baldwin has created within the novel.

As the novel progresses, it is made clear that other characters feel the same way as David does about women in terms of how unimportant and uninteresting they are. In one of the conversations at the bar with Giovanni, it is revealed that many of the men at the predominantly gay bar may have women at home, who are either unaware or unwilling to comment on the lifestyle that they are taking part in at night; “ ‘All of these men,’ [Jacques] gasped, ‘and so few women. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?’ ‘Ah,’ said Giovanni, ‘no doubt the women are waiting at home’” (Baldwin, p. 29). This statement works toward proving the inherent absence of women from Giovanni’s room by explaining that yes, women exist and are in the world, but that they are not part of this life, and they wait in the shadows with no possibility of their opinion being heard. In the bigger picture, Giovanni further emphasizes that David, at this point in his life, was more experiencing a gay life than a life with heterosexual women.

The next occurrence of women in Giovanni’s Room very neatly follows the last example of women not appearing in David’s life. The next woman he encounters is when he and Giovanni and Jacques go to a café after their first night out together, they find a kind of woman that David does not and will not understand; “Behind the counter sat one of those absolutely inimitable and indomitable ladies, produced only in the city of Paris” (Baldwin, p.50). Though this seems to be an esoteric category of women, Baldwin has chosen this moment to distance David from women even further.

Despite the interminable dismissal of women that occurs in the novel, women remain inescapable. This paradox is captured perfectly within Giovanni’s monologue concerning women:

Oh, women! There is no need, thank heaven, to have an opinion about women. Women are like water. They are tempting like that and they can be that treacherous, and they can seem to be that bottomless, you know?—and they can be that shallow, and that dirty (Baldwin, p. 79-80).

This statement is rich with descriptive yet vague words about women. Giovanni says that there is no need to discuss women, because they are as omnipresent as water. At the same time, he contradicts himself by having an opinion and saying that they are treacherous. This contradiction shows the paradoxical nature of the relationship between gay men and women: women are undesired yet inescapable. In this specific portrait, gay men did not want to get to know women or to understand them; their treachery and shallowness is ever-present. In essence, a distance was created and maintained which did not benefit either of these oppressed groups.

The arrival of Hella in Paris provides an interesting segue from the aforementioned disinterest in women. The build up of female characters in this novel concerns how the men don’t need women, and don’t value their opinions; but then something happens: Giovanni likens them to water, the element essential to life, and Hella shows up. It is important to the themes of the novel, that though women cannot be avoided, the impression of women has not changed. Hella initially writes a vague letter describing how lonely she is in Spain, and how she doesn’t know what she is doing there. She speaks of the topical notions of Spain, such as food and castanets, and then she parenthetically divulges her desires as a woman, “(I wish I had a family)” (Baldwin, p. 93). This letter serves the function of describing that a woman cannot escape her “destiny,” as it were. Hella is a worldly traveler, and a seemingly independent individual, yet she comes back to the same desires as American women of that time were impressed upon to have.

The most crucial part of the representation of women comes when Hella unveils her intentions to marry David; “You know, I’m not the emancipated girl I try to be at all. I guess I just want a man to come home to me every night…Hell, I want to be knocked up…In a way it’s all I’m really good for” (Baldwin, p.123). It has already been established that there has been somewhat of a call and response between David and women in this novel, and this last response from a female does not contradict any of the negative ideas about women.

After closely inspecting what each interaction with women in this novel meant, it is important to take a step back and look at how or why these negative images have been created. It is unlikely that James Baldwin wrote this novel with the intent of enraging feminists or bringing down the emerging feminist movement of the time. However enraging these comments might be, they show very clearly the dynamic between men and women and how men actually saw women of this time; it even shows how hard it might have been for men to stand behind women in the feminist movement, and that women are not taken seriously. Women are explicitly stated as not being taken seriously when Hella and David are discussing a future, and David says to her; “You’re adorable, I don’t understand you at all,” (Baldwin, p. 126). If men truly saw women as vain creatures who collapsed under the weight of independence and who only wanted the safety of creating a family, the attempt of freedom from “the problem that has no name” as Betty Freidan would later write about would not have been taken seriously.

The negative views of women may be overwhelming and infuriating, but for so thorough a rejection of females and femininity, Baldwin must have had some reasoning behind it. Therefore, it is important to examine these types of negative portrayals carefully. The first thing to remember before judging Baldwin for his views on white women, is that he comes from a background that is as far from a white heterosexual female as you can be, as he is a black gay male. Now, understandable differences aside, he even has reason to potentially resent the females in his life. His character David speaks about the inevitability of his relationship with Giovanni coming to an end; and the ending is inextricably linked with Hella’s return. This means that women, to David and possibly Baldwin, were merely detrimental interruptions to his true desires (Degout).

If one explores more closely into the potential resentment of women, and couples it with James Baldwin’s positionality4 , the answer to the question why he would portray such negativity is clear. Robert Reid-Pharr, a writer on African American gay male theory quotes Diana Fuss, a feminist author from Princeton on the negativity complex used by gay males; “Those inhabiting the inside…can only comprehend the outside through incorporation of a negative image. This process of negative interiorization involves turning homosexuality inside out” (Reid-Pharr). Reid-Pharr goes on to talk about how it might even be necessary to use the idea of a negative representation of heterosexuals in order to show the difference between the normalcy and chaos that represent heterosexuality and homosexuality. In other words, the negative representation of women in Giovanni’s Room serves the function of turning the tables in order to say that though homophobic heterosexuals see the homosexual life as negative, so too do the homosexuals of the heterosexuals. It is not a cry for war, but it appears to be a plea for a truce, as both sides have the same complaints—peace should come of this.

It is easy to delve into a novel and extract several, even contradictory meanings. What we encounter with Giovanni’s Room is a story that contains underlying complexities pertaining to movements of justice. It is complex because it details the opinions of certain gay males on straight females, and in doing so becomes somewhat derogatory. It is complex because these derogatory and negative terms used to identify females can be seen as true in many ways for the women of dating age in the 1950’s, and these truths are not easily accepted. It is complex because, despite all these elements of homosexual male dislikes for heterosexual females, it is a simple novel about one man’s struggle with identity in a world that does not accept identities outside the simply drawn male and female pairings. The representation of women in Giovanni’s Room ultimately reveals the reasons behind the dissonance between gay males and females before and during their respective movements for equality. These dissonances cannot be blamed on Baldwin, and given that this novel is clearly about a man’s struggle, it is not a novel hell-bent on destroying the image of females. In this respect, one must learn to look closely at both content, and intent of novels of sensitive natures, or the meaning might be lost on all.

1 ‘Biologically Driven’ in this context means driven to reproduce.

2 I have not italicized this, or capitalized it because it refers to the absence of women within the physical space of Giovanni’s rented room.

3 I have put “girl” within quotation marks because David calls her “my girl” which is a diminutive term towards Hella, as she is a grown woman.

4 ‘Positionality’ refers to James Baldwin’s position in the world, meaning that he is a gay black male. This term is becoming more widely used in reference to one’s place in society.

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