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Gender: A Complex Trait to Inherit

Porkchop's picture

Vivian O’Bannon

Jody Cohen

Emily Balch Seminar: Changing Our Story

October 28, 2016

Gender: A Complex Trait to Inherit

People always say that I got my father’s nose, mother’s face, father’s anger, mother’s softness.  I inherited many traits from my parents, physical and mental.  Some are not seen as traits, like how I got my mother’s body.  I inherited the body of a female, and this is a body that I am comfortable with.  However, not all people feel this way about their body.  Though many women are happy with their born sex, they also face many challenges because of it.  In media, at school, in the workplace, on the street; they view and suffer from constant sexualization of their body.  Some people are born into a female body, but do not feel that this aligns societally with their preferred gender.  In her novelGetting Mother’s Body, Suzan-Lori Parks uses her fictional characters’ stories to exemplify the many issues associated with having a female body.

As one of the many struggles associated with having female anatomy, women are sexualized and often used as objects for men’s sexual pleasure.  The opening chapter of Parks’ novel perfectly models this issue: Billy and Snipes’ have sex in the back of his car, but Billy’s narrative portrays the sex in a disturbing way, not pleasurable for both parties involved.  The second line of the book shows the way that Billy interprets sex and the way that, unfortunately, a lot of people interpret sex.  Parks exposes the issue that heterosexual intercourse is often one-sided.  When Billy narrates in the beginning of the chapter, she tells the audience that “Snipes doesn’t like to talk when he’s in the middle of it” (Parks 3).  Instead of referring to their consensual sex as a collaborative act, she refers to it as Snipes having sex, that’s all.  The way that he just “pulls himself out of [her] and gets out the car” when he is finished perfectly describes this issue, that sex is only pleasure for men and that women’s bodies are the vessel that takes them there.  The female body is nothing but a means of pleasing men, and Billy’s attitude in the first chapter reveals how she blindly accepts this.

Towards the end of the story, Parks writes from Dill’s perspective, describing an interaction between Dill and Laz.  This exemplifies another objectification of women for sexual pleasure.  After Laz and Dill’s sister Even had sex, Dill asks about it.  Laz tells Dill that “she was a lot better than [his] hand” (Parks 227), furthering the belief that women’s sexual existence is solely for men’s pleasure.  Through this comparison, Laz does not acknowledge her validity as a human being with her own wants and needs.  To Laz, Even is just a body.  This encounter illustrates one final struggle of “getting mother’s body” – that the female body is often disrespected, objectified, and divested.  However, this interaction holds more truth about Laz’s experience than just what Dill heard.  When Laz and Even had sexual interactions, Even invited Laz into her room and initiated the action.  She told Laz what to do and how to do it, and they had a very balanced sexual experience with what seemed like more balance than the interaction between Snipes and Billy.  But once it was over, Laz believed he had taken advantage of her.  He wanted to make up for it by asking her to marry him, claiming that this was his responsibility.  Even turned Laz down, saying that she “had fun but [he] don’t got to go to town with it” (217).  Even took control of the situation in a way that removed Laz’s sense of masculinity: the societal construct that looms over cisgender men, influencing them to act and feel certain ways.  Because of a loss of “manly” power, Laz recreated the story when telling Dill, objectifying Even and removing her sense of control, despite the fact that she was the one who mainly controlled the situation.  Laz felt pressured to perpetuate masculinity with Dill, even though Laz refers to Dill with she/her pronouns.  Dill does not reprimand Laz for the way he speaks about Even, although Laz’s behavior proves that Dill has an influence of masculinity.  Dill most likely feels a tug in multiple directions, knowing that Laz is sexualizing the female body.  Dill inhabits this body, but they are also aware that if they try to call out Laz, they will be reminded of their true gender.  This could cause Dill to lose the respect and influence that they have with Laz to be able to bond over similar experiences.

In the 1960’s, it was more difficult to identify as gender fluid or transgender.  Suzan-Lori Parks attempts to illustrate this particular struggle in Getting Mother’s Body.  The title itself can be interpreted in many ways – to me, the title signifies the associations attached to one’s born sex, specifically the struggles and confines of gender.  This interpretation resonates most with me because it connects very well with the inter and intrapersonal struggles of the androgynous character, Dill Smiles.  Throughout the novel, the characters refer to Dill with the gender that they feel is most appropriate, since Dill never genders themselves outright.  This discrepancy creates issues for Dill and their interpersonal relationships, but it is hard for Dill to identify as a specific gender, because transgenderism was a taboo subject in the 1960’s, especially in rural areas.  Through Dill’s story, Suzan-Lori Parks’ title “Getting Mother’s Body” highlights the constrictive nature of being born into a body with attached gender stereotypes. 

The title Getting Mother’s Body not only highlights the issues of living as a woman with female sex organs; it points out the issues of living in a body that doesn’t match one’s preferred gender.  When someone does not identify with the gender identity that matches their biological sex, they face many challenges, not just with others but within themselves.  Dill was born female, but passed as a man for most of their life.  Willa Mae and Dill were together for a while before Willa Mae found out that Dill was not a man, and the only way she found out was by touching Dill and realizing that Dill did not have a penis.  Because Dill was not born male, the relationship did not work out with Willa Mae, even though she perceived Dill to be male for the first part of their relationship.  She was unfaithful and slept with men while still living with Dill.  This shows the type of challenges Dill faces pertaining to their love life; although things may have worked out with Willa Mae, their relationship failed because Willa Mae expected Dill to be biologically male.

Getting Mother’s Body shows the struggles of being female in different aspects, like being female with cisgender identity, and being female without identifying as such.  The novel elaborates on the different challenges that people face because of their female sex, and how it relates to gender and sexuality.  Two problems that arise because of gender - objectification of women and societal constructs of gender - have changed since the 1960’s, but we still face many of the same problems regarding women’s sexuality and the way that men view women as sexual objects. 


Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother’s Body: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.