What is feminine writing? What marks a feminine (not to be confused with female which refers to the sex of a writer) text? Though some particularly loud voices in society have not checked their science, we are now mostly in an age that understands that sex and gender are much more complex than a simple binary between male and female.
Gender, distinct from biological sex, refers to the performance of certain characteristics often understood to be masculine or feminine. According to the World Health Organization, “Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed” (www.who.int/health-topics/gender). Gender is not attached to genitalia or chromosomes. Historically, many cultures have recognized the existence of a third gender and non-binary genders. Sex “refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences” (www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232363.php#sex-differences). Even sex is not limited to a strict male/female as males can be born with two or three x chromosomes and females can be born with a y chromosome. 1 in 1500 children are born intersex: those with both female and male genitalia. Sexual difference and gender differences continue to be important aspects of identity and culture in the 21st century, particularly as we adapt laws and policies to reflect the needs of a more gender-conscious society.
Though critical language and political movements may have been tardy in recognizing gender fluidity, the arts have not. Renaissance theater, of course, saw many young men playing the parts of the female ingenue, while Middleton and Dekker’s 1611 play “The Roaring Girl” featured the real life Moll Frith who was famous for dressing and behaving as a man. French fashion for men of the 18th century included extravagant wigs and painted on beauty marks. The sensitive, hyper- emotional Byronic hero, modeled on Byron himself, became the archetype of the desirable male lover present to this day in tween movies like Twilight. Even a farm boy from rural Scotland found himself writing about and identifying with the female experience. And, as discussed in the previous blog, his readers also identified the feminine within his writing. But what makes a text or a voice feminine?
An especially critical reviewer of Sunset Song for the Fife Herald and Journal wrote“judging from certain passages in the story, one is forced to conclude that the writer is a Mrs Gibbon.” They continue on to assert that “the coarse bits of the book are in italic type, just as a woman underlines her letters.” (-Anon, ‘Review of Sunset Song: A Novel. By Lewis Grassic Gibbon’, The Fife Herald and Journal, 21 September 1932). We might question the reviewer’s assumptions regarding both female letter-writing and its linkage to coarse content. In a rare response to the review, Gibbon points out another flaw: it is not the “coarse bits” that consistently appear in italics, but rather the direct speech. That the reviewer identified these as feminine, even for the wrong reasons, is interesting in itself as speech in vernacular, rather than the written world in official English, had long been linked to the female sex due to divisions of domestic and public labor and unequal access to education. While indeed, orality and “plain” or private language are indeed features of feminine text, Gibbon’s writing demonstrates a nearly prophetic understanding of the qualities that would define feminine writing nearly fifty years later.
In 1975, French writer and literary critic Hélène Cixous coined the term écriture féminine in her seminal feminist essay “the laugh of Medusa”. Working from the premise that language has traditionally functioned as a homogenizing, biased tool that maintains the (patriarchal) status quo and eradicates difference, écriture féminine or feminine writing is a form of revolution based on assigning high value to the formerly degraded associations with the feminine. It emphasizes experience over reason, pure expression over artificial construction. As an antithesis to “masculine language,” écriture féminine is often defined by its transgressive or defiant impulse. A text that rejects linear time and organization for a cyclical, interconnected, or divergent translation of experience may be described as feminine. Texts that emphasize the subjective, the personal, and the unauthorized also fall into this category. Primal excess, unfiltered emotion, and physical sensuality are often key features of feminine writing coming from, Cixous argues, the experience of the sexual female body. She writes:
I have been amazed more than once by a description a woman gave me of a world all her own which she had been secretly haunting since early childhood. A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity . . . accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic activity, each stage of rapture inscribing a resonant vision.The Laugh of the Medusa” in Signs 1967, 876
One of the key features that marks Gibbon’s writing, is its urgency of emotion tied to physicality. In his bitter criticisms of rural life, we hear a strident and painful empathy for the suffering of others. Often this suffering takes the form of physical, material pain: the sheer physical endurance required to squeeze a living out of boggy parks, the waste of the body through too many pregnancies and not enough nutrition, the freezing rain upon under-clothed skin. Through Chris, we experience an unnameable yearning for something more, for a lover to whom a third Chris might “give all and everything”. In Spartacus, we read of a hero driven beyond human endurance for the principles of fraternity and equality. In some of his letters, the emotional earnestness that is only barely disguised by irony in his published works shouts loudly. Combining an overflow of emotion with a precise awareness of physicality, Gibbon writes the following to Helen Cruickshank:
Yes, horrors do haunt me. That’s because I’m in love with humanity. Ancient Greece is never the Parthenon to me: it’s a slave being tortured in a dungeon of the Athenian law-courts; Ancient Egypt is never the Pyramids: it’s the blood and tears of Goshen; Ancient Scotland is never Mary Queen: it’s those serfs they kept chained in the Fifeshire mines a hundred years ago. And so on. . . I am so horrified by all our dirty little cruelties and bestialities that I would feel the lowest type of skunk if I didn’t shout the horror of them from the house-tops. Of course I shout too loudly. . . Apologia pro vita sua. How I have been pouring forth my soul abroad! Quite shy-making.Letter to Helen Cruickshank dated 18 November 1933, Mitchell Literary Estate.
Torture in a dungeon, blood and tears, chains in the mine– Gibbon’s phrasing of the horrors that haunt him consistently arise from and evoke a strong awareness of the body. And this airing of his soul, the superabundance of emotion tied to corporeal sensation, is a distinct trait of Cixous’ definition of écriture féminine. The feminization of the particular quality of writing and expression seems to have also been in Gibbon’s mind. Cruickshank had written to him to invite him to meet some friends of hers. Leslie replies that he would “love to meet anyone you think I should meet (I know you will guard my shy girlishness.)” (Letter dated 30 July 1934). Is this “shy girlishness” the pouring out of his soul that was “quite shy-making” from the previously mentioned letter?
Though he might have seemed a quiet and odd boy in his youth, preferring books over games with others, in his adulthood he did not strike others as an exceptionally shy man. Dorothy Tweed recalls that upon first impression he seemed “very nimble and thoroughly wide awake” and that when engaged in a subject of interest, “he would suddenly jump up and with an indescribable gesture, talk as if he was delivering an oration” (Recollections of the Author manuscript, Grassic Gibbon Centre). On his visit to her home, Cruickshank records that “we all found him modest and easy to get on with,” and he seemed to have made up a pleasant party with her guests (Octobiography 1987, 88). So, in their correspondence, if shy does not have the traditional associations, then perhaps he uses it in the second letter in a similar manner as the first: a euphemism for his earnest feelings, his soul pouring forth unchecked by irony. And this superabundance, this excess of emotion first experienced in the body and that manifested in text, is perhaps precisely what creates his “girlishness”. Like Cixous in the seventies, Gibbon seems to acknowledge that his biological sex did not necessarily determine the gender of his expression of thoughts and feeling. Forty years before Cixous would write of the écriture féminine, Gibbon was already engaging in a complicated interplay of gender, sex, language, and writing.