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Figuring It Out: Web Event 1

Cat's picture

Trigger warning: sexual assault

In Neil Gaiman’s The Doll House, women are cats. Women are a lot of things in this graphic novel: protagonists, foils, stupid, smart, slut-shamed, and presented as tropes. Amongst the same old nonsense, though, Gaiman uses metonymy to describe women, while I, reading the book, was also using something to symbolize something about myself, also a woman.

Throughout The Doll House, Gaiman has a lot of people “playing” with women. The book is scattered with references to women as things that someone can play with; toying with them like playing with a cat. The women are props in his book to play out a larger story, and within the big, sweeping narrative of dreaming and waking, the women are played with even more. They are made into sex objects to be manipulated with like they are as inhuman as cats (pausing only to make the connection between “pussies” and “cats”). When serial killers in Part V of the novel meet and talk about their experiences, one goes on about starting off with “pussies” and cutting off their heads—a description that could easily reference cats or vulvas.

Gaiman draws on symbolism to make his novel more detailed on the micro-level. It fleshes out dialogue and character interaction with a running pun that references patriarchal oppression and modern day conflict. Gaiman, the author, uses symbolism in his writing. I, a student, signal sometimes explicit details about myself.

My nickname is Mouse, but I’m hiding behind the opposite. I have adopted “Cat” as my username, not a name that I go by. This username stands in for me because part of myself is (maybe) queerness, something I signify in a lot of ways, but not yet quite so explicitly to my parents.

When I first came to Bryn Mawr, I identified as straight. Within the first month, I was questioning that. In a classic move, I broke up with my boyfriend over winter break and then refused to tell anyone what exactly was going on. Mostly, I read all of the “hip” (read: queer) blogs that upperclassmen kept telling me to read. Essentially, I spent most of December reading Effing Dykes and Autostraddle and becoming more and more convinced that gentlemen were not the only people I was attracted to.

Back at Bryn Mawr second semester, I tried doing things a bit differently. I cut my hair short again, for one thing. I did not do it because I wanted to “look queer,” but that actually did a lot to help me out in that department.  I acted differently around the people who had heard me say that I was straight and the people who had not. Around people I had never met, I started referencing queer websites and dropping in references to crafts I had seen on Autostraddle or articles about cute ladies that I had read. I was ambiguous about my sexuality, nodding when someone else chimed in with an opinion, but talking about how cute I thought Zoe Saldana was right before I actually told people about my (maybe) queerness. I started dressing more and more like the pretty people on the internet, employing strategic amounts of red lipstick, rectangular glasses, and mussed cropped hair to try to drive the point home. Somehow, in the face of it all, most of my good friends managed to “respect [my] straightness (as long as it lasted),” but there were signs, and they noticed.

At home in the Midwest, the (maybe) queerness is definitely toned down. But, what is read as queer at Bryn Mawr actually signals something else in my corner of Middle America (my parents are not just desperately grasping at straws). The aforementioned red lipstick that I use to try to convey some sort of hip, femme, queer style is taken by my family to be an emulation of my grandmothers’ chic makeup and the glasses are just me being too lazy to put my contacts Eventually, I will tell “the guys” that cardigans are just my twist on queer layering techniques, and my parents will find out that my interest in J. Crew catalogs has a lot more with me admiring Jenna Lyons than wanting to summer in Nantucket. For now, though, I am very much in, and not even my (maybe) queerness has drawn eyebrows.

In the college town I live in when I spend time in the Heartland, I am not visibly queer. My lack of both flannel and sports skills lands me in the “straight” categorization at home (Wilchins, 26). The way I like to “do queer” is a lot more subtle to a Midwestern eye (which maybe has something to do with the resources I am drawing on) because I fall on the more femme side of the spectrum. If anyone in my family or high school friend group thinks I am queer, it is probably because I talked about feminism and, in their minds, feminists are equated with lesbians (Even though that is still not my identity). They do not label me as queer because I am not so visible that I cannot hide (Wilchins, 14).

Now, I’m (maybe) queer and trying to figure a few things out. I am considering acquiring some flannel and also trying to hide the constant blushing when I’m around all of the cute Mawrtyrs. My (maybe) queerness is still not very mimetic around most people, and it is still something that sounds new and fun to say out loud. I am still trying to signal queerness with presentation, but now that I am saying it (at Bryn Mawr, anyway), and not having to face the idea of denying it, there have been a lot more queer signals. Like asking out girls. But, also, more dressing like the hip kids on the Internet (blazers! Birkenstocks! Oh my!), and trying to figure out what and when I am going to tell my parents.

Right now, I do not have a lot of political problems. I probably will when I grow up and ask for more concrete things (like permanent employment), but I have missed a lot of horrible things. (Halberstam, 2). If I turn out to not just be (maybe) queer, but very queer, I simply will not have had to deal with a lot of things. Right now, I am at Bryn Mawr, and that provides a nice bubble to the outside world, which does not know about this part of my identity.

The anti-self-portrait that I made for class did not talk about this bit of my identity because I was scared and did not want to talk about it. Instead, I talked about where I was from and how the places I had grown up in had shaped me as a person in ways that most people probably would not expect given their expectations of those locations. Now, I am voyaging off into the world of “queer space,” and that is quite a lot more confusing and scary, but is also a heck of a lot more fun.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil. The Doll's House. The Sandman, Volume 2. DC Comics: 1999. Print.

Halberstam, Jack. “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York, New York University Press: 2005.  1-21. Print.

Wilchins, Riki. Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Los Angeles, Alyson Books: 2004.


samuel.terry's picture

So the connecting thread I

So the connecting thread I found between our essays revolve around this idea of mimesis. Anne wrote "when you begin to play with your own queerness—not sure you are, quite, but signaling that you are in part to find out if you are (if I signal queer, and the signal is read aright, then I am queer, right?)" I write about this in my essay in regards to passing. Signaling successfully-- in being read correctly by others does seem to affirm the authenticity of the identity to the self. It's difficult terrain to understand that even in queered communities entrance is baised on normative and banal acts. I question the idea that "doing queer" is anything as simple short hair and flannel. In this i find a connection to nia.pikes struggle with rebellion. Queer to me is all about subversion, but how does one embody that at all, and assuming it is possible how can one still be intelligible?

Anne Dalke's picture


I’ve spent a little time puzzling over the relationship between the first part of your essay—the evocative description of women as cats in The Doll’s House—and the second, which explores your own play with queer signaling, asking who you are, and—as you explore this question--how you might make that known to others.

The key words linking the two parts, I finally realized, are two terms you reference oh-so briefly: “metonymic” and “mimetic.” In a 1956 essay entitled "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances," Roman Jakobson described the metaphoric and metonymic poles of a continuum of severe language disorders known collectively as aphasia. Jakobson interpreted these extremes in relation to two distinct forms of semantic association: one topic may lead to another either metaphorically, through similarity, or metonymically, through contiguity. The two kinds of language behaviors, Jakobson suggested, might be the result of the disturbance of two different sets of cognitive processes.

Jakobson's usage has long historical roots and is generally still followed, with metaphor being understood as "categorization" and metonymy as " contiguity." The classic demonstration of the difference between the two hinges on the associations evoked when we hear the word "cat." If we think "dog," we are operating metaphorically (the relation is one between categories); if we think "claw," our response is metonymic (the relation is "neighborly"; in this case, between a whole and one of its parts).

So: when women in The Doll’s House—manipulated, abused, tortured—are represented as cats, are “played with” like cats, Gaiman is using (as you say, so briefly, not elaborating) metonym. When you begin to play with your own queerness—not sure you are, quite, but signaling that you are in part to find out if you are (if I signal queer, and the signal is read aright, then I am queer, right?)—you are asking for a “straighter,” more transparent reading: not contiguous, allusive, but identical, mimetic--as in “My (maybe) queerness is still not very mimetic around most people.”

What interests me here in both these cases is the slippage. I wrote to nia.pike that she might attend more to the slippage which interests Judith Butler, the ambivalence of being socially constituted: How can you occupy the interpellation in order to resignify it? Play with the chains of signification? Signal queerly, not "straight"?

nia.pike's picture

Response to web event #1

I relate a lot to Cat's web event. I began to come out in high school, but did not feel secure doing so in the conservative South. I did have a girlfriend during high school, yet we were in a relationship in secret: simply friends in public, more than friends in private, hiding our true feelings when others were around because we were afraid of the consequences. The societal consequences are real.

In the South, "acting" queer is automatically addressed as being queer, which results in harsh judgment and in some cases ostracization.  It is because of this social construct that I dread the pending confrontation between myself and my mother when I will have to admit her that I am not the perfect straight daughter she desires. I sympathize with the struggles you face "trying to figure out what and when I am going to tell my parents." I have determined that this confrontation will not occur until I am financially independent because my mother banished my step-brother because he is gay. And I unfortunately depend upon the well wishes of my mother to pay for my education. Therefore, as a result, when I return home, I must hide who I really am.

I also made an anti-self portrait that was not very personal to me, because I live in perpetual fear that news of my not-straight self will reach my home community. I changed my avatar name to further ensure this fear will not come true. Societal pressures with all their consequences are alive and well in my conservative, traditional, Southern community. I do not enjoy being afraid. But unfortunately this situation is my reality. I live a double life, one on the East Coast where I try to be my true self, and one in Texas where I conform to other's desires for, expectations of, and pressures towards me.