If you’re at all interested in film studies, gender studies, or both, I highly recommend taking a glance at Jack Halberstam’s article on The Silence of the Lambs. In the meantime, though, I’ll do my best to cut through the critical language and offer a (no doubt oversimplified) synopsis. “Skinflick” was written in part as a rebuttal to accusations of transphobia in The Silence of the Lambs’s depiction of Buffalo Bill. Halberstam argues that Buffalo Bill should not be read as transgendered, but rather as a kind of critique of the very notion of gender (or identity) as stable, internal, and unified:
Buffalo Bill kills for his clothes and emblematizes the ways in which gender is always posthuman, always a sewing job that stitches identity into a body bag. Skin, in this film, is identity itself rather than the surface of an interior identity. Buffalo Bill, in other words, is a limit case for gender, for identity, for humanness. He does not understand gender as inherent, innate; he reads it only as a surface effect, a representation, an external attribute engineered into identity (176)
(In fairness to Halberstam, I should mention at this juncture that the article takes great care not to hold up Buffalo Bill as some kind of ideal, but simply argues that his actions—for all their horror—get at something about the nature of identity).
In any case, it was this article that I thought of immediately after finishing Boy, Snow, Bird—or rather, it was this article that I thought of once I tamped down my immediate feeling of unease. Because Boy, Snow, Bird, like The Silence of the Lambs, seems to offer its readers a vision of transgenderism as monstrosity, only to ultimately shift its focus to the instability of identity itself. Whether it is successful in this shift is what I intend to discuss.
In the final pages of the novel, we learn that Boy’s father, Frank Novak, was at one point known as Frances Novak. Frances was a promising graduate student doing advanced research in psychology when she was raped by an acquaintance, at which point she abandoned her work and began to live as a man. Unfortunately, Frances became pregnant as a result of the rape, and it is implied—though not stated outright—that it was in large part this confluence of circumstances that led to Frank’s brutal mistreatment of Boy. When Boy learns the details of her birth, she rounds up Snow and Bird and heads off for New York, determined to “break the spell” holding Frances captive and thus undo the damage she herself has wrought in her dealings with Snow and Bird.
Based on this brief synopsis, one might reach any or all of the following unfortunate conclusions:
- Transgenderism is the result of trauma.
- Transgenderism is something that can (and should) be “cured.”
- Being transgendered causes you to turn into an abusive sociopath and shove starving rats in your child’s face.
If, however, I can wade for a moment into the murky and contentious waters of authorial intent, I’d argue that—judging based on intent only—these are likely misreadings of the novel. Simply put, Boy, Snow, Bird does not present Frances/Frank as transgendered; it presents Frances and Frank as two entirely different people. Here’s what Boy’s friend Mia has to say on the subject:
As it stands right now he’s been Frank longer than he was Frances. It’s gone beyond alter egos. Boy, I’ve been reading medical monographs about people whose alleged alter egos have different blood types from theirs—one guy’s alter ego was diabetic, and he wasn’t—or he was the alter ego and the diabetic was the ‘true’ personality—who’s to say? When those kinds of biological facts start coming in, you have to ask if becoming someone else is more than some delusion or some dysfunction of the mind (296, emphasis mine)
Always bearing in mind that this explanation has been filtered through the perspective of a mid-twentieth century woman who may not hold the most enlightened beliefs about transgenderism (witness “delusion or dysfunction of the mind”), it seems fairly clear that the intent is to depict something like dissociative identity disorder (colloquially known as multiple personality disorder). Frank and Frances are radically different individuals in more than just gender identification.
The problem with this, though, is that authorial intent is not the only thing that matters when reading a book; in fact, a lot of literary theorists would argue that it matters very little, if at all. I’m reluctant to get too deeply into theory, both for fear of boring readers and for fear of misrepresenting something in my efforts to paraphrase, but while I’m (more or less) on the subject, I’ll quote briefly from Nikki Sullivan’s Critical Introduction to Queer Theory:
Lloyd’s critique of the figure of the transgressive gay male skinhead proceeds via a number of important questions. She asks who exactly it is that supposedly finds the image of the skinhead acceptable, and in what sense. Surely, she reasons, different people have different responses to this image depending on their own embodied history, their race, their class, gender, religion, political affiliations, and so on…What Lloyd’s analysis shows is that it is only possible to claim that a particular parodic performance is unambiguously and consistently transgressive if one decontextualizes it and ignores ‘the material and symbolic structures within which [such performance] is embedded (88)
The question that both Lloyd and Sullivan are raising is, roughly, whether parody counts as parody if it’s read as wholly and utterly univocal and sincere. More broadly, though, their point is that communication never occurs in a vacuum; every act of communication relies on signs and symbols that are already charged with historical and cultural significance, and for precisely that reason, no author can hope to control the proliferation of meanings in her writing. This is not, of course, an argument that is in any way restricted to queer theory in particular, but it is the first articulation that came to my mind while reading Boy, Snow, Bird, if only because Frank/Frances is so likely to be misread as transgender.
Or maybe not “misread.” To say that the problem with Boy, Snow, Bird’s ending lies in its tendency to promote misreadings is to suggest that the problem would be solved if only everyone could be trained to read the novel “correctly.” I’m not sure that that’s the case, precisely because of the way in which meaning tends to escape from the author’s grasp.
Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies notwithstanding, I’m not really an expert in queer theory; for one thing, I’m both straight and cisgendered. That said, I can see why someone in the LGBT community might take offense at what Oyeyemi does in these last few pages of the novel, even if one believes that the intent was not to equate transgenderism and monstrosity. First of all, both Frances and Frank read as (at least potentially) queer characters. In Frances’s case, there is little doubt; her only known romantic relationships were with women. Somewhat more speculatively, I would also argue that there is really no reason—other than that brief passage about alter egos—to think that Frank is anyone other than Frances: in other words, a transgendered man. True, Frances’s story does not conform to the narrative of transgenderism most of us are familiar with; prior to the rape, she seems to have identified as a woman rather than as a man “trapped in a woman’s body.” That particular experience of transgender identity is far from universal, though, and if Frances happened upon the identity later in life, we’re right back where we began: with transgenderism as the result of trauma. Lastly, and more broadly, it seems unlikely that the novel can draw on fairly widespread fears and misconceptions surrounding LGBT individuals without eliciting some kind of harmful response in its readers, even if Oyeyemi technically refutes those stereotypes.
I suppose this can all be boiled down to the question of what social responsibilities authors have, and how far those responsibilities extend. I have a difficult time believing that Oyeyemi intended to produce a work with an anti-transgender message; how far, then, should we hold her responsible for dealing in potentially inflammatory tropes surrounding transgenderism? I would certainly never go so far as to argue that authors have a responsibility not to offend; for one thing, there’s often something to be said for the value of in-your-face art. In any case, given how free-floating textual meaning is, it would be impossible for any writer to predict the many, many ways in which her work will be received. And then, of course, there are instances where the misreading of a work is so egregious that it would be nothing short of absurd to allow it to alter our opinions. All that said, I can’t shake the feeling that even unintentional stereotyping can have pernicious effects—I’m just not quite sure where to draw that line of authorial responsibility when I’m evaluating a work. I would, however, be interested to hear everyone else’s thoughts.
Halberstam, Jack. “Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.” Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 161-177.
Oyeyemi, Helen. Boy, Snow, Bird. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014.
Sullivan, Nikki. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
For my overall review of Boy, Snow, Bird, go here.