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Constructions of Masculinity: you can’t train yr daughter like you train yr horse

Sunshine's picture

Constructions of Masculinity: you can’t train yr daughter like you train yr horse


in a book about a daughter looking to dig up her mother in order to prevent becoming a mother herself, it makes sense that we focused on feminine characters in class discussions. but masculinity makes a strong appearance with a character who kinda identifies as a man but kinda doesn’t in a way that fits with the gender binary. it is not for us to decide how this character identifies, but we can pick up clues from their interactions with other characters about how masculinity is embodied and accepted. there are motifs as to what makes a man. money, respect, honesty, women, space. yet falling in line with those themes does not guarantee acceptance into a gender. external validation does not follow internal validation. external validation comes from a conscious choice that the external subject makes during every interaction. it must be decided if they will accept the internal validation, because that acceptance affects their identity too. if they allow a queering of one person’s gender, then they too must queer the concept of their own gender.


in only one instance does dill say "i am a man," that is when they are drunk (parks 244). while sober, we only see dill refer to themselves through others. dill understands that people use terms such as bulldagger, dyke, and lezzy to identify them. and they know that they cannot push too many normative boundaries (parks 34). the scene of dill in the barber shops illuminates a moment where dill feels self conscious of pastor people, because they realize that speaking of his relationship with willa mae is not acceptable (parks 88). so they mostly keep quiet when people identify them as a woman. but we can see through the text that they feel positively when people identify them as male, and negatively when they do not. dill smiles to themself when joe north calls them a father figure (parks 90). and they are upset when willa mae tells everyone in town that they are not a man (parks 191). but they found a way to come to terms with that in their head, and thinks, "all men in the world have been called non-men at some time or another by their woman" (parks 89). there are just different ways to be a man.  


spaces that dill is allowed to occupy is very telling for acknowledging masculinity. the most prevalent space is the barber shop. the barber shop is not a unisex place. it is practical but also social. men hang around barber shops, so to be in a barber shop is to be among men. the beauty salon is it's counterpart, and you find women at beauty shops. so it is significant that dill gets their hair done at the barbershop (parks 84-85). they therefore have access to masculine conversation. another example of this is when roosevelt recalls discussing with dill the smallness of his boss' penis (parks 235). the space between dill and roosevelt during those conversations is one of acceptance. and dill is not allowed in the space of a bed with another man. willa mae had to betray dill in order to support son. because for the two to be in the same bed, one of them couldn't be a man (parks 191).


roosevelt has a quiet acceptance of dill. roosevelt thinks that dill is the most honest person he knows, "even if she is nothing but a bulldagger" (parks 20). the structure of this sentence suggests that honesty is a masculine trait. a true man is honest. and though he still calls dill a bulldagger, it is in a way that still acknowledges and affirms dill's masculine traits. dill names some other traits that allow the townspeople to accept them as a man. the way they carry themself, the work that they do, the clothes they own and money are all named as things that divert questions (parks 89). they allow the townspeople to choose not to question dill too much. it allows roosevelt to not question dill as they fiddle with their privates, as a man does (parks 46). and it allows him to offer dill a bit of snuff, which he doesn't offer to billy or june, without question (parks 43). these are quiet forms of acceptance.  


laz provides more overt acceptance. laz makes it very clear that they accept dill as a man because they have had two women (parks 155). asking dill about that experience is more active than the type of acceptance roosevelt provides, because it is not just tolerance of dill in men's spaces. he actively ascribes dill to the status of "man," as we see also when even jokes that dill is not a man (parks 216). and he makes clear succinct observations of dill's masculine qualities. "she pees standing up" deserved it's own chapter because it was an intentional observation (parks 192). it would be a less powerful observation if it was in between other sentences in a paragraph, as roosevelt's were.  


and there is overt rejection of dill's masculinity. homer provides a good example of this. acknowledging that he took dill for a man, immediately emasculates them by calling them a bulldagger and a lezzy (parks 228-9). he does not entertain the idea of dill as a man. even june is a bit more flexible, using "miss he-she-it" in her head (parks 42, 45). while this is not accepting, it still acknowledges that dill is not a woman, even if she is not willing to call dill a man.


candy's acceptance of dill's masculinity tells the most interesting story. referring to dill a a sister and as delilah, she does not accept dill's masculinity (parks 211, 230). however, once she finds an opportune moment for manipulation, she takes advantage of dill's identity. by calling dill "mr. dill smiles" and asking if they married a woman, she brings to light the fact that these characters are all choosing to identify dill as either a man or a bulldagger, but are basing their choice on self interest (parks 241). perhaps laz has nothing to lose from identifying dill as a man. he is already looked down upon in his community. he does not gain any respect and has not been with any women (parks 146). whereas homer may be feeling insecure about his masculinity because he has to become the man of the house and provide for his mother (parks 146-7). so it could be useful for him to deny dill masculinity because it made him feel better about his own status as a man. even willa mae chose to emasculate dill only because it benefitted her relationship.  


something i want to point out in case it wasn't overt for some are the racialized markers of gender. i am concluding this paper, and i don't want anyone to leave thinking that this is only a paper on gender. identities intersect, so the things dill might do to get people to accept them as a man will be different from what a white person might do. and different from what a rich person might do. or a religious person. these identities are going to change what we expect from men and women and whether we choose to accept someone's identity. because that choice affects our identity as well.



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


Anne Dalke's picture

In your last paper, addressed to “dear bell hooks,” in which you tried replacing the “pedestal of righteous indignation” with a new “horizon of expectation,” you wrote,

“i see black men resurrected through the women who love them and the babies we have despite their genocide. there is so much pain.”

In this paper, you re-focus Getting Mother’s Body (in which, as you say, we focused on “a daughter looking to dig up her mother in order to prevent becoming a mother herself") to explore the construction of masculinity, by Dill Smiles. You identify the motifs that “make a man”: “money, respect, honesty, women, space”; show us the pleasure Dill takes in being identified as male/masculine, the “quiet forms of acceptance” which satisfy him. There are a number of especially nice moments, including your focus on the barber shop as a site where masculinity gets re-lined.

Two bits I’d question: your decision not to use capitalization (made lotsa sense when writing bell; what’s the logic of that choice here?) and your choice of “they and them” pronouns (to me, these jar in this context. How would Dill hear them? How would Dill like to be “written,” do you think? There’s such an insistent drive to masculinization here that I suspect he might be offended….?)

Reading your essay, I’m remembering one we used to use in the core course on gender studies: Michael Kimmel, “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame and Silence in theConstruction of Gender Identity." Privilege: A Reader. Ed. Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003. 51-74. The argument here was that to be a man was to refuse gayness. How might that play out in this novel?

You end by mentioning “racialized markers of gender”—which made me end wishing you’d done more with that form of intersectionality. Being “made” a man will differ, depending on the man’s race. (Am thinking now of another text we used to use in Gender Studies, Jackson Katz’s "Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity." And yet another, which a student used, Christopher Forth’s Masculinity in the Modern West, which defines masculinizing as defining oneself as “not the other.” How would that conception play out for any black man? For Dill in particular?)

When you come to your writing conference (this week or next?) let’s of course talk through some of this. Might you want to dig into the construction of black masculinity for your current independent study? Looking @ some sociological texts on this topic, along with Getting Mother’s Body? And/or Between the World and Me? Looking toward a lovely conversation--