rushthatspeaks: (altarwise)
rushthatspeaks ([personal profile] rushthatspeaks) wrote in [personal profile] melannen 2017-04-01 04:13 am (UTC)

It's a little hard for me to talk to you about this book, because we've had such different experiences of it, but I'd like to try.

A small thing: the reason Joanna is the intercultural ambassador is because Janet landed on her when she crossed dimensions. Janet picked her to stay with because Joanna is her alternate self. Joanna dislikes this intensely, but does not have a choice in putting up with it because the powers-that-be (politicians, scientists) are interested in Janet getting what she wants; they want her dimensional-crossing technology. Which Janet is never going to give them, because men. Janet's cause is locating and assisting her alt-selves in whatever ways are possible. She's also trying to keep their home dimensions from being dangerous to Whileaway-- given Whileawayan culture this and her more personal quest are just as important as one another in the eyes of both Janet and her homeworld.

A larger thing: no, Joanna's telling the exact truth in the section about how on that day, we will be free, and I do literally congratulate you on your freedom.

This book saved my life.

It's still the only feminist novel I know which deals with the internalized consequences of the specific shitty gender system I grew up in. The key things about this specific shitty gender system, which it took me years to figure out (it's taken me many more years to even begin to cope with the damage this system has done in my life) are as follows:

1) Gender is not something with which one identifies, necessarily, or at least one's self-identification is irrelevant. Gender is imposed entirely from outside the self, and is a construct of the social environment. Everybody around you will pick what gender you are, usually but not always based on your genitalia, and then treat you according to the role of that gender, with no attention paid whatsoever to you as an individual and your preferences and choices.

2) Once the polity has selected a gender role for you, it is immutable and unchangeable until and after death. What you say about it does not matter. In order for your gender role to change, everyone's perceptions of you would have to change, and-- this is important-- changing your body will not change their perceptions. If I went on hormones, got surgery, etc., and went back to the town I was born in, everyone would treat me like a man precisely until they found out my original name and remembered who I was, at which point I would irrevocably be a woman again, just one to be treated as an outcast and freak.

3) No one wants the gender role 'woman', because everything about it sucks, and there's a lot of gendered work associated with it which nobody wants to do. It is expected that you complain a lot about womanhood, say you don't feel like a woman, etc., because womanhood sucks and women are considered tainted. But you don't get to make the choice. That's why you don't get to make the choice-- because no one in their right mind would choose it.

That's the environment I was raised in, that's the environment Joanna was raised in. In that environment, the way the book works is that everyone you know wants you to be Jeannine, you want to be Janet, you end up being Joanna, and society thinks that if they let you do anything at all with your own agency ever then you'll wind up as Jael. As a genderqueer trans man growing up in that morass, Joanna was the first character I ever read about who could convince me that other people also had my issues. Because the culture around me was so invidious and pervasive and thorough that I thought it was just that I was totally nuts and broken, incapable of being what I was supposed to be or doing what I was supposed to do, and consequently totally undeserving of happiness or of being treated like a human being.

(The people I grew up around really do think that if they treat you like a human being you'll go off the rails and Attack All Men Forever. They actually do.)

Joanna provided, for me, the first vital step towards understanding the concept of transgender at all. We didn't have that concept. I never heard the words for it, I never heard of the existence of body-changing hormones and surgeries, until college, which was long past the crisis point. In high school, Joanna said to me, yes, here is what they say I am, and I cannot change it, but I will also force them to accept what I say I am, with violence if necessary, because I am allowed that as a human being who takes up space and that is the minimum necessary for me to live. The phrase 'female man' is as close as you can get in the culture I grew up in to transmasculine, not just linguistically but conceptually.

So of course the book is shit at transfemininity, because not only is Jael, through whose eyes we see that part, the screaming harpy raving straw feminist of an evangelical's nightmare, she's just as gender-essentialist as Jeannine, in her way. And Joanna has to make up the concept of identifying with a gender yourself instead of the other people around you doing it for you, and forge that concept out of blood and fire, and no one else in the book even gets that far.

But it was far enough to allow me to survive until I got somewhere that allowed me to go farther. It was the bridge between that world and the larger, outer world.

So things like wishing Jeannine could meet up with thirties queer culture, or that Joanna could have some solidarity with the other women around-- it's nice, these are nice dreams. They aren't possible, because it's literally unthinkable for Jeannine to do anything that massive social expectation does not tell her to do, ever-- she cannot think of it, it will never go through her mind-- and Joanna is behaving against her gender role expectations just as hard as she can and the people all around her are only sending the signal freak, freak, freak. (You know, in these circumstances, when somebody else is anything like you. I once hitchhiked halfway across a city, as a young, female-presenting person, in rough neighborhoods, after dark, to exchange four words with somebody I thought might be a lesbian. Joanna would see it if it was there to be seen. For years at a time, it isn't.)

A lot of Joanna's problems are because they tell you when you're little that if you're a genius, if you're good enough, you can be An Exception and not be A Girl, and this particular lie is one I also spent a lot of time struggling with, because it is a pernicious lie but what if you're just not good enough yet? She has to insist that no, they'd treat her this way if she were motherfucking Shakespeare, they wouldn't even notice she was motherfucking Shakespeare. She was the first person I ever encountered to see through that lie.

So she's telling the exact truth in that end monologue, if the book doesn't hit you it is because you are free from an extremely particular set of prisons. Mine was eighties and nineties rural Ohio; at one point we lived ten miles from where Leelah Alcorn would eventually kill herself, so I don't think things have changed there one damn bit.

I will always be grateful to Russ for helping me get the hell out. This book was the light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if it still would be, for anybody nowadays, but I have a sneaking feeling we're not as progressive everywhere as all that, so.

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