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Out of the 40 characters to whom Jennifer Egan has given a name in A Visit from the Goon Squad, three are non-white. Two men are black and only one of them (Bix) has a speaking role. Bennie Salazar’s Hispanic ethnicity is never fully confirmed, but his skin colour is described so often as to make the attempt at writing ethnically diverse characters seem forced and insincere. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 12.6% of Americans described themselves to be of black and 16.3% of Hispanic origin. In the book, this comes down to 0.05% and 0.025% respectively. There are no Asian, Native American or Pacific characters (5.9% total). Furthermore, A Visit from the Goon Squad shows a blatant lack of biracial or foreign (non-American, the only exception being Lulu’s mute fiancé from Congo) characters. Keeping in mind that the narrated time spans about sixty years – including between fifteen and twenty years into the future (from 2010) – the lack of cultural diversity is startling.
What ought to be even more shocking, however, is to find not one openly gay, trans, bisexual, genderfluid, intersex or asexual character in the 379-page book. Members of the LGBTQ+ have often been misrepresented or fully omitted in history, politics and culture – literature is no exception. Nevertheless, the conductors of several surveys in 2010 estimated the number of LGB Americans to be around 3.5% (e.g. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys). Six years later, 12% of U.S. citizens identified as LGBTQ+. In this time of globalisation and open web access, hetero- and cisnormative literature has no place in a modern, sexually and gender-diverse society, where it not only represents the existing inequality, but perpetuates it, as well.
First, a clarification of some terms which will be used throughout the essay. LGBTQ+: all non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, or both, persons. Queer: used as a “slang” alternative to LGB, unless explicitly stated, or part of a quote. Transgender: “umbrella term that describes many people who transcend ‘normative’ embodiments of masculine and feminine, including …, crossdressers, drag queens and kings, genderqueers, and other gender variant people”. Trans: transgender and transsexual (pre-, mid- or post-transition) persons taken together. Heteronormativity: “the suite of cultural, legal, and institutional practices that maintain normative assumptions that there are two and only two genders, that gender reflects biological sex, and that only sexual attraction between these ‘opposite’ genders is natural or acceptable”; Stevi Jackson adds to this that “institutionalised, normative heterosexuality regulates those kept within its boundaries as well as marginalising and sanctioning those outside them”. Heterosexism: “ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community”. Cisgender: “a person who by nature or by choice conforms to gender/sex based expectations of society”. Cissexism: “the belief that gender is authentic only when it neatly aligns with sex”.
According to Laurie Barth Walczak, “when homophobia is an inevitability in stories, when anti-queer words and actions stand as a sign of realism in young adult literature, oppressive binaries threaten to remain in place in the genre”. The same goes for all other literature, as well. Be it picture books for children (inevitably written by adults who are part of the society and system), young adult or adult literature, recent writing is usually a reflection of a certain reality – and a mirror of it for the readers. And examining heteronormativity, homophobia and stereotypes in various narratives can help to recognise and eventually combat the “hegemonic forces or ideological apparatuses at play”.
The only possibly closeted gay or bisexual character in Egan’s novel, Robert Freeman Jr., is the focus point of chapter ten, “Out of Body;” yet at the very onset, his prospect seems grim. The chapter is written from a second-person point of view, and together with the title, hints at a certain disassociation between Rob’s body and mind. Reading on, it is revealed that Rob is a depressed, suicidal youth, currently without a purpose. Whenever a mention of his sexuality is made, the accompanying terms are negative: his “pop,” who is a football coach, puts great emphasis on masculinity (e.g. Bobby is a “girl’s name after the age of ten”), his sexual encounter with a football teammate, James, is not described in any kind of detail, and he finishes the tale with a denial of his possible homosexuality. The next paragraph shows a strong feeling of guilt and disgust: “It wasn’t you in the car with James. You were somewhere else, looking down, thinking, That fag is fooling around with another guy. How can he do that? How can he want it? How can he live with himself?”.
In 1973, homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; twenty years later (Bill Clinton’s election for presidency), heterosexism is still an essential part of family- and school-life for Rob. So much so, in fact, that he regrets not having had sex with Sacha because it could have made him “normal” – a strong indication of the dichotomy between heterosexuality being the norm, and everything else being “abnormal” (which is, after all, the original meaning of queer). This description echoes many others of its kind: for example, Junot Díaz’s short story “Drown,” in which the narrator is worried he will become “abnormal, a fucking pato” because he let his best friend give him a hand job (1672). Back to the present, the narrator admits: “If you could see Drew naked, even just once, it would ease a deep, awful pressure inside you”. Between Rob’s attraction to Drew and his deep love and lust for Sacha lies the contradiction: if he gives in to his homosexual desires, he will become an abomination (from a heteronormative point of view, clearly instilled in him by the society and his family); yet he can no longer try anything with Sacha, because she is in a relationship with someone else.
The ending of the story is, again, a recurring trope in literature with LGB characters: the possibly gay and sexually confused Robert Freeman Jr. dies. Of course, he is not the only character in the book to die young, yet he is the only one who is a clear outsider – at least to himself – and has had a brush with death before. This ending connects homosexuality and death – an “equation which haunted the early history of gay and lesbian literature”. A note needs to be made here, however. While there are clear indications that at least Rob’s pop has homophobic principles and ideas, which, in turn, are toxically internalised by his son, there are no mentions of anti-queer violence in the story. Perhaps in this one respect Egan has stepped away from the typical queer narrative, and as small as it is, it is a step forward.
There are other heteronormative indicators throughout the book which are never countered. For example, when Bennie Salazar visits the Stop/Go sisters, he is thinking that, if the band is to play on stage and his son Chris is to participate, “Chris and Olivia would have to switch instruments. A boy on a tambourine… author’s ellipsis”. In another chapter, Lulu’s room is described thus: “Everything was in color. A pink shade encircled the overhead lamp. Pink gauzy fabric hung from the ceiling. Pink winged princesses were stencilled onto the walls …”. The girl’s relationship with her friends sounds more like the relationship between a queen bee and her underlings – again, a typically female arrangement. There is no clear indication if either of these heteronormative comments or thoughts are meant to be ironic or controversial, and without conscious analysis, they hardly register – which is also the way with real-life heterosexist and homophobic slurs. Unless this way of thinking is explicitly addressed, it cannot be weeded out. Sumara and Davis’ research’s ultimate goal seems to be to disperse with sexual and gender-labels altogether, but for this approach to be possible, the labels – and their various definitions and attributes – need to be acknowledged first. Since Egan has not done so, this line of thinking will not be further pursued here.
On to cisnormativity, which is in no way, shape or form even addressed, let alone challenged, by Jenniger Egan. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, between 2008 and 2016, 146 trans people were murdered in the U.S. The only two countries with a higher rate are Mexico and Brasil – both by all accounts less developed than their northern neighbour. A large number of scholars writing about transphobia propose education about trans persons and their personal lived experiences as a partial solution to the problem. The Human Rights Campaign also puts a strong emphasis on education. The correlation between ignorance and hatred has often been proven. An example of this correlation can be found in the work of Daryl Davis, an African-American who engaged in dialogue with members of the Ku Klux Klan, many of whom have since given up their cross-burning ways. Davis proves that, if there is hope for the heavily brainwashed KKK-members to learn to empathise with the people they were taught to hate, there is hope for trans-inclusion, too. Wentling, Schilt, Windsor, and Lucal advocate the inclusion of transgender topics in sociological curriculum, and a variety of other courses. R.G. Johnson stresses the importance of trans education in public affairs graduate programs, both as a way to further social acceptance of non-cisgendered individuals, and to counter workplace discrimination. He explains that, since the students are on their way to become public servants, it is necessary for their “cultural competence” to be familiar and comfortable with diversity in genders and gender identities, and sexual orientations. Traci B. Abbott contends that even students whose chosen career path is very far away from the social or public domains could benefit from knowledge about trans persons: “courses which challenge traditional binaries of gender and sexual orientation play a key role in reducing discrimination and promoting empathy”.
If this education is to be successful, there are certain guidelines to be taken into account to prevent damaging the image of trans persons further. First, it is important not to “lump together” all non-cisgendered people: “transgender communities and lives are as diverse and heterogeneous as any other population, and should be taught accordingly”. Secondly, the best way to learn about and understand a person’s experience is by listening (or reading) their own account. Thus, non-fiction and fiction by trans persons (scholars and “civilians” alike) should be the primary source of information. Especially because “literature’s subjectivity offers students an emotive bridge to broader theoretical and social concepts, hopefully complicating their own understanding of social categories in order to denaturalise social hierarchies”. Of course, it is not always easy – or even possible – to teach a course about LGB or TQ individuals. In the U.S. Bible belt, for example, religious beliefs will not make way for inclusion of sexual or gender “deviants” into the society, never mind the curriculum, anytime soon. Mainstream American literature could fill the gap. Children’s and young adult literature with (secondary) LGBTQ+ characters could be educational in the classroom without putting too much emphasis on their non-conformity. Not only could this visible diversity help students who struggle with their own sexual orientation or gender-identity, it will also prevent the ignorant youth of today becoming the bigoted adults of tomorrow. Again, the rules for correct representation should apply.
On the more practical side of things, an inclusion of trans activism in the vast field of feminist theory might prove to be mutually beneficial. Many feminists – mostly (cis)women, such as Janice Raymond – are against letting trans and genderqueer females participate in feminist activities or enter “safe spaces” designed for women, for the cissexist reason that “they were not born and educated female”. The irony of transphobia coming from members of a group which, in its various forms, has been combatting sexism for over a century is nearly unbearable. In holding on to such prejudices, the feminist movement not only belies its struggle to free all women from patriarchal oppression, it reinforces the hetero- and cisnormativity inherent in that patriarchy. Not to mention that trans and genderqueer women are just as vulnerable – if not more so – as cisgenders to oppression and violence. Krista Scott-Dixon poses that “distinguishing between trans and feminist issues and scholarship erases and silences individuals, ideas and struggles”.
Throughout the essay, several parallels have been drawn between ethnic and sexual/gender-minorities. On the one hand because all repressed groups have certain things in common – in this instance, being underrepresented in a novel – on the other, to draw attention to intersectionality between different “parts” or domains of a person’s identity, such as race, gender, class, etc. Most (though, luckily, not all) scholars are white, middle-class, able-bodied and cisgender, and so are the focus-groups of most feminist and queer theorists; the latter with the single exception of the gender category. Western societies, the United States chief among them, have been diverse for centuries: expats and refugees, disabled people and religious outcasts, rich and poor, gay and straight have all been thrown into one great melting pot and come out “American;” and yet, even now, minority (white, middle-class) privilege reigns supreme.
American society, politics and culture have come quite far. A hundred years ago today, women in most of the United States did not have suffrage. Half a century ago, homo- and bisexuals were considered mentally ill and treated accordingly. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. Today, many American films – like White Chicks and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective – ridicule and reject trans persons, effectively replacing the anti-homosexual propaganda films of the 60’s (e.g. Boys Beware). Very positive (along with very negative) news has come from Hollywood in 2017: a film about a black gay couple has won the Golden Globe for “Best Motion Picture,” the #MeToo movement has exposed many instances of sexism, harassment and sexual assault, both inside the film industry and outside of it, and tentative foundations have been laid for a hopefully more equal working environment. Yet old achievements should not be forgotten. Movies like American History X and Soldier’s Girl may not be manifold, but they are the kind of (real or invented) stories which make the audience think about race, gender and sexuality as a spectrum – a spectrum in which every segment deserves equal rights and a proper treatment.
The United States of America is still deemed to be one of the – if not the – most advanced countries in the world. Yet many of its citizens need to be reminded monthly, weekly, daily that black lives matter, that bisexuality exists and that rape is absolutely never pardonable. As long as modern American writers refuse to let go of the stereotypes and stigmas attached to non-heterosexual and non-cisgender members of society, and do not start including a representative and diverse number of non-white-straight-and-middle-class characters whose sexuality- or gender-struggles are not the only part of their identity, ignorance about and hatred of “otherness” are not going anywhere.
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