All done and submitted. Now I have to start reading for my Shakespeare final (due Wednesday). I'll start typing tomorrow.
Lesbian Identity in Chica Lit
I remember when I first told a friend I met on Blogger that I believe myself to be asexual. He accepted me and did some research and concluded that, “I read that it can sometimes be harder being an asexual person than an LGBT person, mainly because asexuals receive little prominence in society whereas gays, lesbians and bisexuals receive a lot by comparison.” For those of you who aren’t sure what asexuality is, it’s someone who isn’t really interested in sex or has sexual feelings. It is different from celibacy because a celibate person has interest in sex and feelings about it, but they either choose not to have it or haven't had the chance to have sex. It’s still in a gray area of being included in the LGBT community and many advocate for asexuality to be included. Since the prominence is low, it’s not really known. Sometimes illnesses are said to play into this; I have a thyroid disorder and some people believe it is that since the key feature of hypothyroidism is little interest in sex.
When I first told my grandma that I was not interested in guys in a sexual way, her reaction was “you’re not into girls, are you?” I replied, “No. I’m not really into anyone sexually.” Her reply was simply, “well, that’s strange, but you’ve been single for a year and it might be that.” I went through two bad relationships that lasted four months each and both ended badly, but I knew in those relationships I wasn’t interested and never would be (that was the main cause of the breakups and cheating). I was raised Catholic and getting married is a sacrament in the religion that resulted in my grandma’s fear that I wasn’t going to have “normal” relationships that might result in marriage and children. Even when I practiced Islam for several months, I learned that not having any type of male/female relationship that didn’t end in marriage and children was looked at as a sin. I just remember when my Islamic mentor said to me, “you don’t have a boyfriend? That’s odd. You might want to get on it.” Fortunately, the few relatives still practicing Catholicism don’t pester me like that anymore. I have learned that Islam and Catholicism were closely linked in that matter and was the reason why I left both faiths. I have struggled with my identity and haven’t really come out to many people because of the reaction of “it’s just a phase” or “it’s your medication or thyroid” might come up, even though I don’t believe it is that. It is usually hard to find characters in novels I can relate to, but as soon as I read Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez’s 2003 novel, The Dirty Girl Social Club, I could relate to the lesbian character, Elizabeth. The readers instantly see in the novel that Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez captures the queer narratives that became popular in young adult literature in the late 1960s, add a lesbian aesthetic to the novel to show us how the heterosexual relationships from family and religious communities are forced onto Elizabeth and the other friends leading to the breakdown of relationships in The Dirty Girls Social Club.
Upper Merion Township Library added The Dirty Girls Social Club into their collection in June 2003 and I was curious to see what was going on that year regarding the LGBT movement. I decided to look at what was going on and how it ties into what Rodriguez is trying to write about. On June 10, The United States Department of Justice reverses an earlier decision banning the annual employee gay pride event. Interestingly on June 26, 2003, in Lawrence vs. Texas sodomy laws were struck down. In the 6-3 ruling, the law invalidated sodomy laws in Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia and made same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory (US Supreme Court Center). Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Since the novel is set in Boston, Massachusetts, I found that these laws were struck down in 1974; Rodriguez probably just used this location for prominence, but it does add to the debate.
The Dirty Girls Social Club follows the lives of six Latinas that call themselves sucias (Spanish for “dirty girl”) and have been best friends since college. Elizabeth is the lesbian and she is afraid to come out to the sucias because she fears what they will think of her. My friend might have said it is easier being gay than asexual and that is true in a lot of communities, but in some religious and traditional communities being anything but straight is difficult. Elizabeth, the lesbian Latina, is learning that the hard way and has an identity crisis. She is introduced by Lauren as a “cohost for a network morning show in Boston, current finalist for a prestigious national co-anchor position, former runway model, born-again Christian (former Catholic), and a national spokeswoman for the Christ for Kids organization” (Rodriguez 12). With Lauren’s description of Elizabeth, we’re not aware, just like the group of friends isn’t aware of Elizabeth’s lesbian identity. When Elizabeth confesses to us that she is a lesbian, she is ashamed because she “grew up tall and narrow with a mother who did not talk about these types of things” and in Columbia there is no word for lesbian: men are supposed to love woman, not man and man or woman and woman (65). Sexuality appears to be rigid in Columbia and other Latin American countries. As soon as Elizabeth’s part comes up the reader begins to see that Elizabeth character is a lie because of her shame and fear. When Elizabeth is at the poetry house, she stated she started coming here to find herself and
People know who I am here. They know me. They think they know me. They eat eggs and drink coffee and stare at their televisions and see my face behind all that makeup. They send their children to the bus stop and rustle their newspapers while I read them the news of the day with my perky smile. They tell me to grow my hair, to cut my hair, to gain weight, to lose weight, to speak more clearly, to be proud of my accent, to change my name, to revel in my Spanish surname.
Elizabeth is not sure who she is and it shows when people tell her she should do whatever they want her to do. Elizabeth wants to write poetry, but fears that “after ten years of bilingual life, I don’t know where all my words have gone” (Rodriguez 63). Elizabeth is demonstrating to readers that in this double life, she’s not sure of her life and what she represents since she can’t find the words.
According to the essay “Better Than Ice Cream: Lesbian YA Literature” by Beth Younger, lesbian based themes existed in young adult fiction since the late 1960s (although gay male characters outnumber lesbian characters in novels). Younger insists that new lesbian young adult novels examine sexual orientation and since the topic has become more openly discussed, literary characters have become more overt as well (Younger 51). In earlier novels, which I believe Rodriguez is writing from for Elizabeth’s character, mediated narratives were mostly the norm. In the mediated narratives, the perspective of the antagonist performs an important function because others learn about what it means to be a lesbian through the antagonist’s coming out. This technique subtly introduces the topic of lesbianism in a less confrontational tone because the protagonist is just learning about this as well. It also shows lesbianism is too controversial to talk about (Younger 51). Since Elizabeth hasn’t come out yet to society, we still see the controversy in being gay, especially when she takes off her sunglasses at Selwyn’s poetry reading and someone from her Christian entertainment job spots Elizabeth and writes about her lesbian identity. We also see firsthand this fear and how delicate she is since her identity is built on fear and a lie.
Beth Younger claims that these gay young adult novels have two binaries: blame and gay pride. I see it when we are first introduced to Selwyn and Elizabeth. Elizabeth describes Selwyn’s upbringing as Selwyn’s parents were “liberal[s] who loved her no matter what and knew from kindergarten that she would love women” (Rodriguez 65). In this quote we can see both binaries: Elizabeth is blaming her parents for their limited world view, but gay pride among Selwyn’s parents (or the assumption that they accept their daughter’s sexuality) that almost seems to make Elizabeth jealous. Selwyn embodies gay pride, which Elizabeth tries to run away from because she can’t accept herself yet. Since Elizabeth works for the media and Christian organizations, she is ousted. Churches, conservative organizations and people descend upon her harassing her. Even 60 Minutes wanted to do an interview, but she said no because she’s paranoid and “used to look forward to the spring in Boston, for walks through the greening Common with all its gardens. Now I avoid public places. I keep the curtains closed. I work, but I hurry home and hide” (Rodriguez 174). Even the barista at the local coffee shop, Lorraine, doesn’t talk to her and makes Elizabeth feel isolated. Her coworkers don’t talk about it, but her boss has he back, though it’s awkward. In their conversation her boss asks if it’s true and “anger washes over me. Under me. Washes all around me. I want to float away. I need Selwyn here. She would know what to say. She would not hurt like this” (Rodriguez 177). Elizabeth wishes she was stronger and uses Selwyn for her self-esteem.
Elizabeth is losing a lot of people in her life after the article was published. She talks about how right wing crazies want to destroy her, but her “colleagues don’t speak of it. They don’t ask if I’m okay. They pretend nothing has changed. But they are uncomfortable. I can feel it in the way they avoid looking at me in the elevator (Rodriguez 175). Roberto, Sarah’s husband is also uncomfortable and calls her a “pervert” and doesn’t want Sara to contact her. Roberto puffs up his chest on page 100, but on page 180 Elizabeth calls Sara anyway and goes over against better judgment, but Sara just says “okay, you can come here. But only for a little while. Until we figure out what to do. But you can’t be here when Roberto gets home. He’d kill me” (Rodiguez 181). Sara doesn’t understand why Roberto is so against Elizabeth, especially since she’s the boys’ godmother, but there is a technique in Young Adult literature that I believe Rodriguez is using to add to the heartstrings of readers to make the topic of gay rights still at the forefront.
Compulsory heterosexuality is the last key technique of gay Young Adult literature according to Younger. I believe Rodriguez utilizes this with the Christian and other religious types and the male figures of the book acting out against Elizabeth. After the article is published, a truck driver shouts at Elizabeth, “what a waste. Look at ya. Good lookin’ nigger, too. What you need is a good man to set you straight” (Rodriguez 175). The man thinks she’s pretty and believes her sexuality is caused from a man that did her wrong, but believes he can set her straight by his manliness and sexiness. Younger argues that in compulsory heterosexuality, the lesbian(s) is (are) forced to have sex with a male figure that is angry over the lesbian identity because “in Western Culture, it is commonly accepted that sex equals heterosexual intercourse” (Younger 62). That is why teenagers are often confused when asked if they had sex based on the word “intercourse.” This is where the term “virgin” becomes important since virginity is a form of heterosexual control. That is why Elizabeth muses that “women are not thought to be sexual in Columbia. Sexual women are bad in Columbia. And even when they are called whores, everyone knows they are getting paid and do not enjoy it. They are virgins or whores and there is nothing else, nothing in between” (Rodriguez 66). If you’re gay, you can’t be a virgin or a whore in the traditional sense. The man’s comment to Elizabeth is angry because heterosexual sex is still a domination of the sexes where the male controls the female (Younger 68).
Also, the whole Christian community is calling for Elizabeth’s resignation because they believe it’s Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, God wanted it to be a male/female relationship, not male/male, female/female because of procreation. Elizabeth says she has not only lost Sara, but the cashier at Dunkin Donuts near the station. Lorraine, the cashier, is an older Haitian immigrant who was “very nice to [Elizabeth]” but “dumped [her] change on the counter instead of putting it in [her] hand, and clicked her tongue with disapproval. She didn’t say, as she often used to, that she wished [Elizabeth was] her child. She muttered “disgusting” and retreated to the back room” (Rodriguez 174). Elizabeth also has a feeling the news station doesn’t want her anymore because the national news station won’t return her calls. “You crazy dyke,” among other voice messages are being left to Elizabeth as well, and as she tries to ignore them she fears that they want her dead. Crime, according to Younger, is rarely reported because of fear that the police officers will side with the heterosexual and the homosexual had it coming.
Sadly, there is crime in the novel, but not to Elizabeth. Roberto kills Sara’s unborn daughter after he almost killed Sara after he learned Elizabeth was over the house visiting. Sara’s dad informs her that Roberto “killed Vilma, Sarita, she passed away yesterday. When the police went to pick Roberto up, he didn’t answer the door. They broke down the door and he was gone” (Rodriguez 259). Interestingly, it’s not the lesbian character that doesn’t know what to do regarding crime, but it’s the female straight character that is unsure. All the sucias, except Amber (who is the musician of the group and is touring) is there and all want Sara to press charges. Even Elizabeth tries to push her to press charges. Younger doesn’t explore this issue because I think it would be too mature for a young adult novel or too complicated for a younger reader, but I also believe the expediency in this is the fact that Sara is straight because not many people are willing to help Elizabeth in her crisis. However, I’m not sure if it’s in the same light, but Elizabeth’s predicament could have been life threatening. Regardless of what Rodriguez decided in The Dirty Girls Social Club, in this tragedy Sara and Elizabeth become closer.
When Sara wakes up, she sees Elizabeth with the social worker and describes Elizabeth’s reaction to the social worker as by the look on her face with the fake smile that she doesn’t want to talk to her. Elizabeth apologizes for going over, but the social worker interrupts, which I believe is the turning point in modern, adult literature trying to move away from blame, with “Liz was telling me the whole story of what happened. It’s not her fault. And it’s not your fault. None of this was anyone’s fault but the man who beat you. I want you both to understand that” (Rodriguez 260). Elizabeth and Sara begin to speak in Spanish and this is where the social worker leaves them alone—Sara asks if Elizabeth’s lesbian identity is true and if she slept with Roberto since he claimed they slept together. Elizabeth just replies with, “I have only slept with three males in my entire life, and he wasn’t one of them. I don’t exactly enjoy men” (Rodriguez 262). This statement shows how heterosexuals try to impose themselves on Elizabeth and her body image issues that come from it. Elizabeth ends up laying next to Sara in the hospital bed to keep her company; I believe it is in this moment that Elizabeth forgets about her body issues and just opens up with her nonsexual love for her friend.
The last concept I am going to focus on is the concept of the body and the relationship it has to the sucias. Appearances play a big and important role in this book. Elizabeth’s boss says, “TV news isn’t about news, Liz. It’s about entertainment. It’s about sex appeal. If you’re gay, or lesbian, or whatever, they can’t fantasize the way they used to” (Rodriguez 179). It makes sense to why people are over reacting—earlier in Elizabeth’s account, she recalls a truck driver shouting, “what a waste. Look at ya. Good lookin’ nigger, too. What you need is a good man to set you straight” (Rodriguez 175). Roberto is just as guilty. It comes out that Roberto had a fling with Elizabeth, or wanted to have a fling with Elizabeth when they were in Cancun together. This bothers Sara and she asks Elizabeth, but she denies it. It might be why Roberto is so narrow minded when it comes to Elizabeth and his jealousy since if she didn’t want him, she might have wanted Sara. In Mary Ryan’s Ending the Silence: Representing Women’s Reproductive Lives in Irish Chick Lit, she argues that “feminists early focus on images of women was based around a description of the stereotypical representations of women and how these stereotypical limited women’s options and possibilities. This largely stems from the fact that, while women’s images may indeed be represented, women themselves have any say in how these representations are formed” (Ryan 210). This semester we were shied away from using the term “stereotype” because it’s so broad, but the way religious groups form their opinions of Elizabeth’s sexuality is very narrow minded and limiting to Elizabeth’s character.
Elizabeth’s appearances play into what Ryan describes as the beauty myth that was theorized in Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book titled The Beauty Myth. “The Beauty Myth is centered around how any woman who desires to be beautiful is trapped in the confines of the structured definition of what beauty should comprise. It comes into action as the façade between the outward visual presence and the inner destruction that is created by the acts women do to their bodies” (Ryan 211). When The Dirty Girls Social Club opens, we are introduced to appearances of the sucias and the people around them in the restaurant. Lauren in the opening describes when Usnavys, the really flashy sucia, arrives to the restaurant as
Oh, sweet Jesus. I should have known Usnavys would pull a stunt like this. Look at her. She just slid up to the curb out front in her silver BMW sedan (leased), driving super slow with Vivaldi or something like that blasting out of the slightly opened window so all those poor women with all those kids and shopping bags from the 99-cent store hunching away from the wind and snow at the bus stop could stare at her.
Even the way Elizabeth describes Sellwyn and her uncertainty of how the sucias would perceive her definitely show her uneasiness with the identity and how she’s going beyond a typical Columbian woman with her identity—she’s scared of the uncertainty and it shows in the shame of her body and of Sellwyn since she never wants to go out in public with her.
As it was shown in The Dirty Girls Social Club, it is still hard being anything other than straight in the twenty-first century. Although Rodriguez borrows heavily from the Young Adult homosexual narratives, she does put an adult spin on the plot and continues the discussion of the possibility of gay marriage and whether or not it should be welcomed in our country. Even in 2013, the debate is still raging and it might be for awhile. The Dirty Girls Social Club also explores the shallowness of characters and in the face of tragedy and adversity, they grow into a stronger group of friends and beyond the control of men (and other women). They move beyond what Mary Ryan states “men welcome the stereotype because it directs their taste into the commonly recognized areas of values” (Ryan 211), but as Sara states to the sucias at the end of the novel, “Be patient, damn” there is still a sequel to The Dirty Girls Social Club and that could change in the sequel.
Ryan, Mary. "Ending the Silence: Representing Women's Reproductive Lives in Irish Chick Lit." Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholaship 8.1 (2011): 209-24.
US Supreme Court Center. Lawrence v. Texas - 539 U.S. 558 (2003). < http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/539/558/case.html> May 2, 2013.
Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa. The Dirty Girls Social Club. St. Martin’s Press: New York. 2003.
Wikipedia. Lawrence v. Texas. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_v._Texas> May 2, 2013.
Younger, Beth. "Better Than Ice Cream: Lesbian YA Literature." Learning Curves: Body Image and Female Sexuality in Young Adult Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009. 49-72.