Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Paper #7

Kismet's picture

The 1960’s were a time of change in American society.  Due to the Civil Rights Movement, which was led by Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. and supported by President John F. Kennedy, society’s treatment of black Americans was changing for the better.  This was a time of growing acceptance of the differences between us as individuals.  However, many differences remained taboo - specifically, homosexuality and refusing to fit gender roles.  In Suzan-Lori Parks’ novel, “Getting Mother’s Body,” the character Dill Smiles shows how these taboos were viewed by others at this moment in time.  Dill, who is widely believed to be a hyper-masculine lesbian, endures a lot of hatred and scorn from others upon their realization that they are not a heterosexual man.  In a time when it was socially unacceptable to be anything besides heterosexual and cisgender, Dill and others who knew them seem somewhat unsure of their gender.  Throughout the novel they are described as both male and female, and although Dill doesn’t seem bothered by female pronouns, they seem to prefer the male pronouns.  Given the time period, it makes sense that Dill did not outwardly announce this preference.  I believe that if the novel were to take place in this day and age, Dill would identify as a transgender man.

This is clear based on the way that Dill’s physical presentation of their gender.  Many characters mention Dill’s masculine appearance.  They are six feet tall and lean.  As Teddy Beade puts it, there’s “nothing ladylike on her at all.”  (Parks 48)  They are almost always dressed in overalls and work boots, and on the occasion that they met Willa Mae, they were wearing a suit and tie and hanging around the barbershop with their friends.  Billy Beade recounts that, “Mother said that Dill, even though she weren’t really a man, was the most handsome man she’d ever met.”  (Parks 112)  Willa Mae even explains that for the first few months that she and Dill were together, she thought that Dill, “was a man in the most regular sense of the word which is to say I thought she had a man’s privates.”  (Parks 225)  Dill knew that from then on Willa Mae knew that they didn’t have a penis.  This complex misunderstanding raised a lot of insecurities within Dill that affected their relationship with Willa Mae.  

In modern times, Dill would probably have gotten genital reassignment surgery, which may have quelled some of their insecurities about their body.  It seems that although Dill truly loved Willa Mae, they felt that they could not satisfy her sexual appetite because of their lack of a penis.  Dill attempted to prevent Willa Mae from leaving them by allowing her to have sex with Son Walker as she pleased, under the condition that she only do so in Dill’s bed.  This possessiveness is arguably another masculine behavior of Dill’s.  Unfortunately, it also led to a lot of pain and heartache for Dill.  Apparently some people around town had been gossipping about Willa Mae and her two lovers.  Son Walker, fearing that people would question his sexuality due to his proximity to Dill, had Willa Mae tell everyone in town that Dill is a woman.  This broke Dill’s heart.  In the novel they recount, “Willa Mae.  She went and told whoever would listen, North and Little and them, that I weren’t a man.  She didn’t mean to… Cause if Son was in bed with Willa, and Dill weren’t no man, then Son weren’t no sissy.  Shit.  He left her anyway.”  (Parks 191)  By telling this to all of the town, including Dill’s friends at the barbershop, Willa Mae had betrayed Dill in favor of Son.  Up until then, everyone accepted Dill’s identity as they presented it.  This incident warped the way others perceived Dill, subjecting them to hate and potentially violence.  

Prior to the betrayal, almost all of the characters in the novel accepted Dill’s masculinity.  The only two people who hadn’t accepted it are Dill’s mother and sister, Candy and Even.  Candy says that “Dill’s been funny all her life.”  (Parks 209)  At one point, Even laughs while saying to Laz, “‘Mister Dill… But she ain’t no real man.’”  to which Laz internally muses that Dill “is more of a man” than he is.  (Parks 216)  While they are driving to Candy’s motel, Laz even asks Dill what it’s like “being a man.”  (Parks 155)  Along the way, Laz even notices that Dill urinates while standing up, like a man.  Despite Dill’s obviously masculine behaviors, their family is slow to accept their identity.  From a young age, this upset Dill.  When Candy remarks that Dill has always been stubborn, Dill tells her, “That’s cause you thought you could train yr daughter like you trained yr damn horse.”  (Parks 243)  Clearly Candy had tried to break Dill of their identity, but Dill did not give in.  Their unhealthy relationship caused Dill’s hostility toward her mother that we see in the novel.  When Dill goes to the motel to guard Willa Mae’s grave, her relationship with Candy changes.  Candy offers Dill liquor to relax them, and as they talk, Candy thinks to herself that Dill’s distressed voice sounds “like her little Delilah,” but she doesn’t say this out loud.  Instead, she validates Dill’s identity, saying, “Here’s to Mr. Dill Smiles.”  (Parks 240)  This pleases Dill, so they oblige and drink with their mother.

Throughout the novel, we see how Dill struggles with the differences between how they identify and how others view them.  Part of these differences are due to the lack of vocabulary that individuals could use to identify themselves.  Because being transgender was almost entirely unheard of in this time period, that wasn’t really an option for Dill, so they endured the labels that others gave to them.  The separation between their identity and how others perceived them caused a lot of heartache for Dill that is more easily avoided in modern times.  If “Getting Mother’s Body” was set in the present, Dill would probably identify as a transgender man.


Parks, Suzan-Lori.  “Getting Mother’s Body.”  Random House.  2003.