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

You are here

Tolerance and Acceptance

amanda.simone's picture

For a masculine-presenting biological female in rural Texas in the 1960s, Dill Smiles appears to receive a surprising level of acceptance from the other characters in Suzan Lori Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body. Despite confusion or uncertainty about his gender identity, the townsfolk of Lincoln, Texas generally allow him to live as man and respect him as a person, as a friend, and as a good hog farmer. The persecution we would expect a character like Dill to face as a twenty first century audience does not play out in accordance with our historical knowledge of the time, and I for one was glad. But as good as things may seem for Dill, I want to explore how Park weaves in the threads of Dill’s struggle.  I want to make the distinction that Dill is not actually accepted for his trans identity but in spite of it.

In the novel, a major reason for Dill’s acceptance is his stability, both financially and in his identity. The other citizens of Lincoln respect him because at present, he is a solid guy. Teddy Beede, for one, enjoys his company and respects him for his work ethic and business success. People accept him for being a good pig farmer, for working hard, for being a good hunter, for barbershop banter. Dill even says, “The way I carry myself and the work I do and the clothes I got and the money I earn keeps their respects (89). These are the admirable characteristics of Dill Smiles, and the fact that his gender presentation or sexuality is atypical can sometimes be overlooked. Yet other times, this is not the case. At Little Walter Little’s barbershop, a mention of Dill’s relationship with Willa Mae is enough to remind the Pastor that Dill is still other because part of his identity is not traditionally accepted. “Pastor Peoples thicks up his face. He will stand for me living in his town and sitting in this barber shop but that’s about it,” Dill narrates (88). It is these instances that remind the reader, and remind Dill himself, that some of his characteristics are greatly  appreciated, but his identity as a whole is not always tolerated. The slurs “bulldagger, dyke, lezzy, what have you” indicate that Dill is attacked specifically for his deviance from cis-heteronormativity, while he appears to be embraced in other aspects of his identity (34). Because of this, his social acceptance is actually quite precarious.

Furthermore, Dill’s acceptance is only possible because of the constancy of his gender expression. He has the fortune of passing successfully as a man unless, or until, people uncover his secret. His friends at the barbershop did not know he was passing as a man until they started picking up on some subtle behaviors and figured it out: “Over the years, they put two and two together. But it remains unspoken” (89). Willa Mae also perceives of Dill as a cis-man until she discovers otherwise, saying  “I found out what kind of man Dill was by feeling around in the dark. I found out but I didn’t tell nobody for a long time” (225). In both of these cases, Dill is spared, at least originally, from a dramatic exposure. Even after Willa Mae reveals Dill’s biological truth to the whole town, Dill is able to recover from this aggression because people previously trusted him as a man and so it was “a woman’s word against a man’s word. Her word against mine” (89).  Although exposure is unarguably a painful attack on a trans person's identity, I believe Dill’s prior consistent and convincing gender presentation allowed him to maintain respect in the community. The fact that the people of Lincoln did not know him as feminine is vital. We do not know how “little Delilah” became Dill but I do not believe Dill would receive the same acceptance if he were in the process of questioning, experimenting, or transitioning from one gender to another (240).

Dill’s acceptance hinges upon the fact that people did not know him presenting any other way and that other facets of his character and values are respectable enough to outweigh concerns about his gender. And he knows this, which is why he must also present himself as fortunate and stoic, burying his pain and hardships. Dill explains how he wants to be perceived as deservedly fortunate after outlasting his challenges, but that is not how he actually feels:

When Teddy Beede looks at me, he sees what I want him to see: Dill Smiles and Dill Smile’s luck, which, to Teddy’s mind springs from the bounty of Dill Smile’s fairness, which in turn, springs out of a long swamp of unlucky years that hardworking Dill Smiles has bravely lived longer than. To Teddy, because I’ve lived longer than my bad luck did, I’m now allowed to enjoy thirteen healthy piglets and a shiny new looking truck. But it ain’t that way at all. (37)

In actuality, Dill still struggles economically (selling the pearl when in need) and is still hurting from the loss of Willa Mae. However he cannot show these vulnerabilities for risk of losing the respect he has managed to garner.

In a way, Dill’s situation is the best it could be for the time period. He is not excluded or ostracized and is generally accepted as masculine-passing despite constant misgendering. On the surface, this looks like acceptance, but it is merely acceptance for the persona that Dill so carefully puts forward. The characters’ reactions to Dill may or may not be anachronistic, but the extent to which Dill’s social standing hangs in the balance seems accurate for gender-nonconforming people of the past and today.

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



Anne Dalke's picture

I’m really appreciating your decision to go back and revisit our discussion of how “accepted” Dill is in his community, your careful attention to textual details to demonstrate that “Dill is not actually accepted for his trans identity but in spite of it.”

Central to your argument is that whatever level of acceptance Dill experiences is predicated on his “consistent and convincing gender presentation,” the “ masculine-passing” “persona that Dill so carefully puts forward.” And central to this presentation, as you show, is his refusal to show any vulnerability (much less the “process of questioning, experimenting, or transitioning”), which is of course the classic characteristic of being a man in this country.

Which means that the larger tragedy that seems to underlie your analysis of Dill’s character is that of normative gender performance; for me, the most poignant line you quote is Dill’s dismissal of “a woman’s word against a man’s word. Her word against mine.” Assuming a man’s role, Dill assumes (mostly successfully) the prerogatives of a man, including an authority that outweighs that of any woman. (Though of course, as we know, and as Madame President demonstrates-- /oneworld/changing-our-story-2016/one-soft-spot --he’s got a “hole” that is his longing for a woman.) And assuming such a form of strong masculinity is also cross-cut with matters of racial difference, the long history of how black men in this country have been subjected to gendered racism, characterized as criminals and absent fathers.

So where can you go from here? You’ll see that I directed AntoniaAC to the history of black trans people: /oneworld/comment/29110#comment-29110 . Is there some research you might also conduct that could complexify your argument, or place Dill in a larger context? In a quick look @ Transgender Studies Quarterly just now, for instance, I turned up this piece on “Perspectives from the Margins of Gender and Race in Jim Crow America”:

Looking forward to seeing where you might go with this,