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Web Event 1: Finding Gender in The Doll's House

EmmaBE's picture

We all read Kathy Acker’s essay “Seeing Gender”, which breaks down the essence of meaning (especially of gender) by questioning the process of mimesis in patriarchal language. In it she searches Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass for gender – but finds “only the reiterations, the mimesis of patriarchy, or my inability to be.” After reading it, I wondered – did she expect anything but a reflection, looking into a mirror? Carroll’s novel is a good example text to display the problems with patriarchal representations of gender, but I wondered if there was a text that addressed and/or transcended these problems.

Then we read Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Doll’s House, which offers a different way to look at gender – rather than in a mirror, through a dream. The Dream House, Morpheus’s realm, is a place of possibilities as infinite as our imaginations unlimited by social rules – some darker than we might expect. Gaiman’s dreams help us to see our psyche in a way that offers new insight on our anxiety about the roles in which we find ourselves in the waking world. They portray a self separate from social expectations of gender: a body, as Acker describes it.

Gaiman’s text allows us to ‘see’ gender: first, as it is a graphic novel, it allows us to experience gender as we do in our waking lives – by noticing physical traits (signs) and attributing (signifying) a gender for them. Second, by delving beyond the physical and into the realm of the subconscious, it causes us to consider a gender separate from this signification – just as Acker claims Wonderland is “a landscape whose perceptual objects keep shifting”, so are dreams a place where body is immaterial, a self rather than a sign.

In “Seeing Gender”, Acker argues that Alice, after going through the looking glass, is given five texts that “try to teach her who she is”; help her find gender. Rose, Gaiman’s main character, is presented with dreams for a similar purpose. I, the reader, sink into Rose’s dream-world to answer Acker’s question, “Has anybody seen gender?”

The first dream: Maiden, mother, crone.

While in Unity Kinkaid’s nursing home, Rose hallucinates three women in a broom closet – one a pretty young lady, the other a matronly figure with a monocle, and the last an old woman in a standard witches’ costume. These three women embody the archetypal representations of women in patriarchal media and society: maiden, a young woman meant to be objectified (sexually or generally as a prize of some kind); mother, the vessel and caretaker of male creation; crone, an outcast or deviant from patriarchy, a danger or corrupting influence for the norm.

These archetypes are subsets of the label of ‘female’ which Acker says “acts to erase the presence of women.” She adds, “When I was a girl, I wanted to do anything but be a girl, for both girl and woman were names of nothing.” In other words, the label of ‘female’ comes with connotations and assumptions that erase each woman’s individual identity and personhood. It is a box in which a human cannot possibly fit. If I tell you I am a woman, you may assume I am maiden, mother, or crone, but you may not consider that I am a person at once separate and a part of all of these identities.

The maiden goes on to warn Rose, “Be satisfied with the trinity you have. …We can only caution you, sister. We can’t protect you.” These archetypes warn Rose, and me, of the inevitability of being misrepresented in the waking world. We may or may not create identities separate from social archetypes, but we will always be placed in them. In this way, Gaiman addresses the problems with representation of women in patriarchal literature.

The new nightmare: the skinheads.

 Morpheus creates a new nightmare – three bodies with bloody, brain-spattered caverns for faces. On the next page, Rose encounters three skinheads who also appear as shadowy, practically faceless male/neuter figures. Morpheus’ new nightmare is the fear of patriarchal power being wielded to desecrate the feminine – Gilbert suggests that the skinheads are there to steal Rose’s “honor”. In this case, “honor” is equated with virginity – which is an interesting but standard take on the dynamic between masculinity and femininity; that the interaction of the heavily repressed/socialized feminine with the base, instinctive masculine causes a dirtying or impurification of the feminine.

In the face of this danger, Rose takes on the ‘maiden’ role. She is both a sex object and an object to be saved – in other words, a goal or prize. Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green, who assumes a traditionally male body despite his true status as a neuter figure, exerts the power of this body and rescues her. She takes agency where she finds it – Gilbert offers her the choice of kicking her would-be muggers/rapists, and she chooses not to. In this way Gaiman is challenging the archetype of the maiden by showing that the reason a maiden is powerless is not because of a lack of her own strength or will, but because the patriarchy strips her power from her – either because of male figures actively trying to oppress her or because of male figures who insist that she lack agency so that they can accomplish what they presume to be her goals for her.

The red hood.

The next dream also takes place on the plane of the waking life – it is Gilbert’s disturbing rendition of “Little Red Riding Hood”. The little girl in the story eats what the disguised wolf offers her, which turns out to be her grandmother’s flesh and blood. She is called a slut for doing so and then punished by being eaten. This story could be seen as a homily which portrays how the maiden archetype comes about and how it affects female readers. The wolf can be patriarchal representations of women: it offers a girl expectations of her behavior based on the degradation of women before her disguised as the real female experience, and when she consumes (internalizes) them, she is degraded in the same way. She may question the machine degrading her, but is offered stock answers. And as punishment for her fall from girlish innocence, she is consumed by patriarchal expectations.

Gaiman is breaking down this storytelling trope. He is displaying it to me, the reader, so that I may see it elsewhere and recognize its fallacies. I can now locate myself in what Acker calls “texts of fear,” where “the terror of the world the [text] is mirroring is no longer separate from the world outside the [text].” Rose is horrified by this story; horrified to discover her place in the wolf’s stomach and that she has both consumed and exists as the flesh and blood of her grandmother.

The true Rose.

Like Alice’s final text, Rose’s final dream is the only story she gets to tell by herself. In it, “Everything seems so real, so vivid, more true and more vital than the waking world. Her sense of identity has never been so certain. She can feel her sleeping body on the bed below her. It’s no part of her; the essential her, the true Rose.” Rose has found a dream that transcends any expectations of the waking world. It has nothing to do with her physical body (and so is non-mimetic), but the body that Acker so wants to see “which exists outside its patriarchal definitions.” Acker explains this body: “When I dream, my body is the site, not only of the dream, but also of the dreaming and the dreamer. …in this language, I cannot separate subject from object, much less from the acts of perception.” This appears to be the language of dream that Rose experiences. Gaiman’s dreams appear to be one of the languages of the body that Acker goes in search of to find gender: “languages which I cannot make up, which I cannot create or even create in”. In her dream, Rose merely exists. She explores her new body, which is one she has always had, but never been able to fully experience or perform because of the way she is bound by patriarchal expectations in the waking world.

Rose has found gender. In the waking world she is provided dreams of the patriarchy, which offer only expectations of her behavior based on the label “female” which was assigned her. But when she finally slips out of consciousness (performance, binary, oppression, anxiety) she finds “the essential her, the true Rose.”

In this instance, Gaiman transcends traditional ideas of storytelling and gender. His wonderland is a site of play – with identities, with self, with body. He has created a place for gender: for us to observe ourselves outside and in spite of our waking lives. We cannot create, but we can exist.

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. "Seeing Gender." Critical Quarterly 37.4 (n.d.): 78-86. Print.

Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: The Doll's House. New York: DC Comics, 2010. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

"On the inevitability of being misrepresented"

this is a fine project: to read Neil Gaiman's The Doll's House through the lens provided by Kathy Acker's invitation to "see gender," a project invited by Gaiman and Acker's friendship, by his portrayal of her in the Sandman series, and by the intersection of the ways in which they both portray, and invite the imagination, of gender.

There's much here for us to talk further about. My first question is whether the dream world is as free of the structures of the everyday as you claim--"a place of possibilities as infinite as our imaginations, a self separate from social expectations." The limits of the waking life may not operate in our dream worlds, but surely they are composed of the same elements--the things we desire and fear, what we long for and run from. How many times, in my dreams, have I gone to the wrong classroom, to take a test I haven't prepared for? How often have I gone to the hospital, and come home without the baby? How often have I been in the driver's seat, how often trying to tell others how to drive? These are all fragmented versions of my waking fears, jumbled nightmarish fragments of life as I know it during the day.

My second, deeper, question has to do with what you mean, throughout, by gender. You begin with "physical traits (signs) and attributing (signifying) a gender for them." You move to invite consideration of "gender separate from this signification"--puzzling to me--with the body "immaterial, a self rather than a sign." I'm not sure I understand this: gender, as you are using it here, does not signal something beyond itself; when "Rose has found gender," she has found “the essential her, the true Rose"--not a stand-in for anything else.

So, yeah, I don't quite get this. Why substitute gender (as signification) for gender (as essence)? Is there something, um, essentialist about this move? (I'm not saying Gaiman doesn't give you good reason for doing this; in A Dream of You, another book in the Sandman series, there are clearly gender alignments with the universe, women responsive to the moon in the way men are not/can never be...this is not exactly postmodernity!). Why do you think the essential self is gendered?

Polly's picture

Your statement that, "These

Your statement that, "These archetypes warn Rose, and me, of the inevitability of being misrepresented in the waking world." made me think about the level of (mis)representation in different worlds or realms. If people are misrepresented in the waking world, but in dreams gender and representation are more abstract, then perhaps books and pictures are the most strictly representational realm. We could be most free in the dream world, the world that can go beyond reality, and then represented by ourselves but also by others in the real world, and lastly permanently and very rigidly represented in art (Writing, photographs, drawings, etc.) Celeste discussed how she felt that her first anti self portrait, the literal, narrative one, was leaving out her feelings, and her "actual" self. In the children's book illustrations I looked at, there were rules about what sex and gender looked like. But in The Doll's House, we can't pin down Morpheus, Desire, and Delirium as being specific genders because they are constantly changing.