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Women and Transgressive Literature

Who we are as Transgressive Writers who happened to be a woman? We are the representations of a variety of "bad girls" in media: women who challenge, refuse, or transgress the patriarchal limits. Perhaps the first introduction of women into the Western cultural narrative was actually an introduction of transgressive women. But what is our place when it comes to Transgressive Fiction?

One of the first books that I've read and it cultivated the idea of Transgression against norms was Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. But little I knew there are novels and short stories written by her such as L’Invitée, Les Mandarins, Les Belles Images, and La Femme rompue. Holland in her book "Excess and Transgression in Simone de Beauvoir's Fiction" shows well that de Beauvoir's novels and short stories are frequently neglected. Holland shows that excess and transgression are intrinsic qualities of the texts, and argues that Beauvoir’s textual strategies duplicate madness in her fiction. After I read JANE by Riya Anne Polcastro, I realized that I don't read enough books by women writers myself (shame!). In fact, I can't name hardly any that I've drawn to read. So that's why I thought we need to talk about women writers in this genre...

Men vs. Women Transgressive Writers

As mentioned in my previous articles, Transgressive fiction mostly focuses on taboos, anything that can be against social norms and etiquettes. So I asked myself, does this put women more under the pressure of judgments than men? Taking a look at Goodread's "Best Transgressive Fiction" list, you can find only 9 women among the writers listed above. I created an excel sheet just in case.

And to embarrass myself, I summarize my knowledge of the mentioned writers in one chart:

Why there's masculine dominance in Transgressive Fiction?

Well, why is that? This is the question I'm looking to answer through research. Maybe men tend to write more? Maybe our unconscious bias impacts our choices on who we would want to read more as well as research shows, listeners tend to have a bias against female voices, even when they’re saying the same thing as a man. Could it be the possibility for such a difference? Is it because women self-censor more than men? If they do, why?

To answer such questions, I had to do some research on Gender-related Transgression. According to research, human activity is determined to a great extent by not only biological sex but also gender. I try to study gender by the Bem sex role inventory (BSRI) method. To simply explain, the BSRI is a measure of masculinity and femininity and is used to research gender roles. (source) What I found is that on the transgression scale, masculine women (Androgynous) achieved the highest and feminine men (Effeminacy) the lowest scores. The balance between the psychological dimension of femininity and the psychological dimension of masculinity is important for studying transgressive tendencies, especially in women.

For example, Tsirigot in his research, "Transgression and Gender" shows that "in women, the masculinity scale positively correlated with the transgression scale, whereas the femininity scale did not significantly correlate with transgression, although the coefficient was negative." This research summarize that "androgynous women showed rather the adaptive aspect of transgression."

It's true that predicting what will be like the sexual differences in the future is impossible but it's a fact that men and women are stuck in a web of traditional cultural determinations and norms that are almost unanalyzable in their complexity. As Helen Cixous(1986) mentions we can't speak of woman and man without being trapped in an ideological box where "the proliferation of representations, images, reflections, myths, identifications transform, deform let us imagine a real liberation of sexuality, that is to say, a transformation of each one’s relationship to her body, an approximation of the vast, material, organic, sensuous universe that we are. This cannot be accomplished, of course, without political transformations that are equally radical … What today appears to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ would no longer amount to the same thing … But we are still floundering—with few exceptions—in Ancient History." (source)

Self-censorship and gender

A PWN study shows that 88% of women have set themselves ambitions, but 77% see those ambitions as taboo. It means that they're very eager to achieve something but feel uncomfortable with the idea of telling people about it and putting themselves in a position to make it happen. The 2017 Hays report on diversity backs up the hypothesis that women self-censor more than men but also undermines the perception that there is a very large gap in self-censorship between men and women. The finding also mentions that women are more likely to talk about self-censorship especially because they are asked about self-censorship more often than men. But is it only about gender?

Self-censorship and social norms

The Carnegie Mellon University in research confirms that self-censorship is not a psychological weakness but it's rooted in normal human interaction. in the Asch study (check Solomon Asch), two forces impacted self-censorship: submission to authority and peer pressure.

Additionally, Milgram’s experiment proves that this issue isn’t about gender as the women in his experiment acted no more or less vindictively than the men. He shows that when a rule is set, everyone grapples with the fear of subverting authority and what the consequences of that subversion may be.

Once we understand what effects are there on freedom of speech or action in terms of the social expectations for women and men, then possibly we can answer why there are more Transgressive male writers than female. According to Carnegie Mellon's study, I learned that men are more self-conscious when they're with other men. On the other hand, where there is a place with female predominance, people feeling confident when speaking or taking initiative, and that applies to both women and men.

Olivia Gazalé's "The ideology of virility" lists a set of beliefs about the male ideal, how are society is organized and how cultural values are formed, which encourages everyone to self-censor. These findings question the benefits of traditionally masculine norms. Women, no matter which region, field, or context they are in, are no strangers to self-censorship.

Good girl vs. bad girl

The social construct of good girl is a Social Control of Women through a Value Construct. Such factor is visible in all types of media, education, books, etc. even written by women. This globally encourages submissive and compromising behavior from women, and this encourages self-censorship among them. Women, in both traditional or modern societies and environments, are censoring themselves, especially if their opinions are dissenting from the mainstream and norms as they try to fit in. In the traditional settings, self-censorship is a key "value", women at home and within their families are encouraged to censor their feelings to protect family harmony is drilled. Women who don’t complain, who don’t assert, who are not vocally in opposition of louder and more powerful voices.

Fox in his research "Nice Girl": Social Control of Women through a Value Construct proposes 3 control strategies to this self-censorship among women: Confinement, Protection, and Normative Restrictions. Normative Restriction is the most interesting factor for Transgressive fiction and gender-related questions. A normative Restriction is a form of control over the social behavior of women that is cultivated in such value constructs as good girl, lady, or nice girl. (whoever is out of these categories is a bitch, diva, queen bee) As a value construct this term includes virginity, gentleness, graciousness, ingenuousness, goodness, cleanness, kindness, virtuous, noncontroversial, and above suspicion and reproach. Rokeach's terminology can explain that the concept of nice girl is both an instrumental and a terminal value: both a standard for and goal of behavior. (source)

Thus, to connect these to writing and authorship, Media Matters for Democracy undertook research on self-censorship trends among journalists. This research showed that women journalists are socially conditioned to see value in self-censorship, "who are now practicing a profession within which there are external pressures to be quiet about matters of perceived sensitivity, women are in a doubly vulnerable position." (source)

Do this research and similar publications such as Surrendering to Silence that designed to map the presence of and elements related to self-censorship in professional and personal expression by journalists can show the reason for the lack of Female Transgressive Writers?

Conclusion: Female Identity

What I can say is that first thing first, screw society, right?! I agree this type of writing takes a lot out of you and men are braver, historically trained to be, to put themselves out there than women. Well for me it's that sense of internal self-censorship when I go back and read my stories and I am disturbed that I am harboring a lot of that darkness within me. It makes me ask myself, what my mother think? (well, tradition sucks!) what will my students think (the bloody social norms and 'teacher' etiquette) and what everyone who reads thinks about my sanity?

The word transgression clashed with contemporary gendered mores has rarely been used to expose the various ways of some women’s subjectivities and actions. Transgressive women can be found in literature throughout history, but as we move more toward modernity, transgressions become less impressive. Max Fincher claims that transgressive women in Gothic literature showed "certain gender characteristics to unsettle patriarchal order" (source). Females showing male characteristics such as lust and power "become a way authors such as Matthew Lewis and George Thompson can critique the imbalance of power in their societies." (source)

As a Transgressive Fiction writer, you can show your readers how female transgression begins to create a true female identity such as what the writers did by creating characters like Matilda in Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and Josephine Franklin in Thompson’s City Crimes (1849). Such texts help readers explore a new, alternate female identity that overthrows idealized stereotypes while also considering other functions of the transgressive female body.

Transgressive fiction can contribute to adding a new dimension to the history of distressed post-Great War attitudes to gender and morality and feminist history. As Bland successfully demonstrating that "the figure of the flapper was a personification of the upheavals of the time. She “carried” a series of fears and anxieties about modernity and the instabilities of gender, class, race and national identity" (Modern Women on Trial, p. 218). In this book, Bland through trials and the sensationalized reports, with all their projections, accidentally shows the hidden aspects of women’s private lives, such as their ignorance of menstruation and their interest in thrill-seeking.

This is where you can extend to political criticism of female positions in society and show the fear of female sexuality. Matilda and Josephine’s transgressive female bodies create a space for women who desire to live outside of the boundaries of heteronormative domestic culture as an alternate space. Transgressive writing, allow you to unsettle the social order and to question what is proper, and critique political order in reality. "Considering critical texts also reveals that through their transgression, Matilda and Josephine create an alternate space for the feminine body." (source) This allows women to develop a real identity in literature, "overthrowing sentimental, idealized, domestic stereotypes." (Ibid.) It's an option that offers women agency. By gaining agency, women can begin to aspire to be who they truly are.

Fun Fact

In undertaking the interview, de Beauvoir had understood that it would be broadcast on Canadian national television by Radio-Canada on 13th November 1959. However, the Canadian Catholic church pressured the television chain into censoring the material, which would otherwise be broadcasting de Beauvoir’s view that ‘le mariage équivaut à un esclavage’ (Société Radio-Canada, 2009), and other equally provoking opinions regarding sexual promiscuity which during this period were too risky for the chain to diffuse. Consequently, the interview was never fully broadcast on television, even after de Beauvoir’s death, and can only be found online in the archives of Radio-Canada. (source)

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