Sunday, January 6, 2013

Nick Can Stay Seated (until the facts are in): Response to the lesbian/gay/queer reading of "Gatsby"

For someone who claims to see the importance of historical context, Lois Tyson sure doesn't put much time into research of the relevant details. Her reading of "The Great Gatsby" through a lesbian/gay/queer lens suffers severely from this lack of information, and as usual seemed to focus on points which actually trend to weaken her argument. I found her reading lacking mostly in the historical context she fails to put it in and the misinterpretation of relationships.

The first is what much of the rest of her reading is predicated on, so I will begin by addressing the factual inaccuracies and fallacies upon which she bases her conclusions. Her reading of the gay and lesbian "signs" in Nick, Jordan and Gatsby are all dependent on a modern view of sexuality and stereotypes. The instance in which I first noticed this was in her discussion of Gatsby; she writes that "[Gatsby's] impeccable wardrobe features various shades of lavender and pink, two colors that have been long associated with gayness ... his pink suit is mentioned at least three times" (345). To see why this is inaccurate, we should first establish how much gender stereotypes have changed. The simplest way I can think of to establish that is through this picture:
Adorable, right? If you're wondering why I used a picture of some little girl from a hundred-and-some-odd years ago, that's understandable. I used it because it's actually of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a perfect representation of how gender expectations have changed; in this time period, this was perfectly normal for a male or female child to wear. But what about pink? To quote a 1918 editorial (it is worth noting that this article dates from right around the time "The Great Gatsby" was set):
“There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
This was not a briefly popular belief; the controversy over colors for genders continued through World War II. In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart to illustrate which rule retailers followed:
Clearly, Tyson is factually wrong about the "long" association with pink and femininity or homosexuality.

Color is not the only issue in which Tyson failed to do her homework. Her view of Jordan Baker as "a repository of lesbian signs" (349) is heavily dependent on her sportiness and apparently masculine characteristics; "She makes her living in the, then, male domain of professional golf" (346). But was this really seen as a lesbian sign? Apparently not. From the University of Michigan's page on lesbian history: "Other popular representations of the tomboy were critical, arguing that athletics damaged women’s reproductive organs and/or unleashed their heterosexual passions, preventing their future success as wives ... female athletes were interpreted as unruly heterosexuals rather than lesbians." Rather than a sign of lesbianism, female athletes were viewed as overly heterosexual, a view of her character backed up by the other primary indicator of lesbianism Tyson uses. Rather than appearing as suppressed homosexuality, her many and non-committal relationships with men appear to be in line with the contemporary view of her athleticism being a signal of promiscuity. Tyson acknowledges this, but skates around it, only briefly mentioning that 'Nick believes that Jordan is sexually promiscuous" (343).

Stripping away the conclusions drawn from falsely imposing modern views on gender on the novel clearly weakens Tyson's arguments. Based largely on these and similar misconceptions, Tyson draws even further-ranging conclusions. She uses the false warrant granted by what she sees as Nick and Jordan's "function as repositories of gay signs" (347) to conclude that their (straight; male-female) relationship as homosexual. "Nick's attachment to Jordan seems as much the product of homoerotic as heterosexual attraction because he sees her primarily as a young boy" (347). Her revisionist view of the many heterosexual relationships as actually being homosexual, besides its clear contradiction, rings hollower without the misleading 'evidence' upon which it depends. Her assertion that "Nick is denying his orientation is suggested not merely by his sexual affairs with women ... but by his self-presentation" (349). Again, having removed the factually inaccurate views she imposed on the novel, this statement must stand alone, and the idea that a man having sex with women and acting masculine are enough to conclude that he is secretly gay is patently ridiculous. There was no shortage of aspects of her reading I disagreed with, like the sexually transgressive nature of so much of the plot being indicative of homosexual undertones rather than a criticism of the corrupt Roaring Twenties; the assumption that Nick's obsession with Gatsby was homoerotic rather than merely homosocial (more evidence could possibly have convinced me); and the idea that Nick's expression of boredom with his old life after being a soldier is a concrete indication that he discovered a homosexual identity in the Army that was not accepted at home are all arguments I found weak at best.

Certainly, sexual experimentation was a part of this time period as well as "The Great Gatsby." But Lois Tyson's failure to actually understand the way that gender and sexual stereotypes and perception change (which she harps on so frequently), in addition to her bending the straight relationships presented in the book and generally misusing the actual facts of the plot all crippled a reading with vast potential. Exploring Fitzgerald's actual sexuality in more depth would also be an interesting pursuit; on that note, based on the anecdotes related at the end of the reading, do you think Fitzgerald was gay? And if so, is there a legitimate case to be made that he projected his sexuality onto Nick, his narrator?

Works Cited
Garrett, Emma, and Rachel Silveri. "Lesbian History: Cultural Issues." Lesbian History: Cultural Issues. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.
Jarrah. "The History of Pink for Girls and Blue for Boys." Gender Focus: A Canadian Feminist Blog. N.p., 23 Sept. 2010. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.
Maglaty, Jeanne. "When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?" Smithsonian Magazine. The Smithsonian, 08 Apr. 2011. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.

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