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Knowing the Body
2004 First Web Report
On Serendip

Redefining the Boundaries of Queer: Jimmy Corrigan as a Sexual Outsider

Gilda Rodriguez

The words "gay" and "queer" have become near synonyms in our daily discourse. As Carolyn Dinshaw pointed out in her lecture, in the name of the TV show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the word "queer" is interchangeable with "gay," since it describes the protagonists' flamboyant, stereotypical homosexuality. However, many scholars and activists, such as Dinshaw, see "queer" as an "edgier" term that speaks to the fringe, outsider nature of those sexualities not part of the heterosexual norm. Queer is considered to be a more inclusive, less restraining label than others like gay, lesbian, or transsexual, but it is interpreted in different ways. In our online discussions, Deb Sosower defined it as: "a way in which all the disparate peoples who are not heterosexual can identify with a positive group of acceptance without further labels." (1) Sosower went on to group "straight allies" under the category of queer, which gives a place to heterosexuals in a concept typically associated solely with gay people. The boundaries of the concept queer are hard to define precisely because there is not one absolute definition of the word queer. In fact, these boundaries can be made flexible enough to accommodate some who would never fit under the label "homosexual," but are nevertheless outside the heterosexual norm.

In her essay "Inside/Out," Diana Fuss defines a strict binary opposition between heterosexuality and homosexuality, where the heterosexual norm is the inside and homosexuality is outside. However, Fuss herself asks: "[W]hat gets left out of the inside/outside, heterosexual/homosexual opposition?" (2) In other words: what is outside of both the inside and the outside? Queer can become the term that attempts to include all (or, at least, more) of what is not homosexual but is not the heterosexual norm, either.

The inside/heterosexual norm views the outside as those who derive sexual pleasure from practices that diverge from said norm. These divergent behaviors are considered deviant or perverse. But Samuel Delany says that all the sexualizing of people and/or objects "work[s] essentially by the same mechanism;" therefore all sexual desires are perversions in a way—only some are "socially prescribed," while others are outside the social norm (3). Delany cites the pleasure heterosexual men get from looking at female movie stars as an example of a socially prescribed perversion (and therefore "not perverse" in the eyes of the norm), while a male deriving pleasure from, say, a drag queen impersonating a movie star in a ball, like in the "subculture" (by definition, outside the norm) depicted in Paris Is Burning (4), is just a plain old perversion. Those perversions that are not socially prescribed, but are not categorized as homosexual either, get lost in the outside of the outside.

Eve Sedgwick argues for a use of the word queer that is not simply the synonym of gay it has become, but that encompasses "the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made or can't be made to signify monolithically." (5) This definition of queer does not limit itself what it is outside of the inside/heterosexual norm, but goes beyond to contain all those perversions that are not socially prescribed. It is broad enough to include even its most unlikely participant, a heterosexual male—Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (6).

Jimmy, the antithesis of the comic book hero, is an adult white man with dismal social skills, which he compensates with an overactive imagination. Not only is he not the stereotypical aggressive straight male, but he also doesn't engage in the perversions that are "socially prescribed" to heterosexual males. His inability to interact with women makes him unable to establish any sort of sexual relationship with the object of his desire—and it is pretty clear that Jimmy is attracted to women, from the way he thinks about them and the images of women's bodies and even close-ups of breasts throughout the book. So instead of, to use Delany's words, "getting off" to having sex with a woman, or masturbating to/fantasizing about "female movie stars", his perversion, or his way of obtaining pleasure, is to imagine quiet evenings at home, in front of the fireplace, with his co-worker Peggy. In reality, Jimmy has barely any contact with Peggy, who is also verbally abusive, but she is still the only woman, other than his mother, that he knows.

Jimmy's sexual behavior, or to some (but clearly not to Delany), lack thereof, puts him outside the heterosexual norm, where men perform their identity by interacting with women in certain ways and having sex with them. Since Jimmy cannot have that interaction (or rather, practically any kind of interaction), because he is so socially awkward, he gets pleasure from his apparently non-sexual fantasies. Then again, Delany tells us that everything can be sexualized, anything can be a fetish, including a quiet evening by the fire. Jimmy is a sexual being, and a man attracted to women, but his personality renders him unable to belong to the inside, but his desire for women denies his categorization as homosexual.

As Jimmy's story progresses, his fantasies become somewhat more "sexual." At one point, when Jimmy is in the hospital, he spills a jar full of his own urine. The nurse that comes in to pick it up is sympathetic to Jimmy when she realizes what has happened. Jimmy, arguably turned on by her kindness, imagines the nurse unzipping his pants and touching him. The fantasy continues as the nurse leads Jimmy out of the hospital and takes him home, where a fire is burning. Following that are images of her cooking him breakfast, of Jimmy and the nurse holding each other and exchanging rings, and of what is presumably the happy couple's home. Any sort of explicit (traditionally-)sexual act is omitted from the sequence. In a different comic, it might have been a deliberate choice of the artist to "skip over" the sex scenes. However, considering that Chris Ware does not shy way from sexually charged moments in the rest of the book, it appears as if the focus of Jimmy's fantasy, what he lusts after, is not sex with the nurse, but rather a functional relationship with a woman. In both this fantasy and in Jimmy's dream about sitting in front of a fire with Peggy, it is the women who take control: Peggy sits on a chair as she caresses his head, while Jimmy is on the floor, restrained by her legs; and it is the nurse who takes charge and makes him leave the hospital. This further illustrates Jimmy's queer nature, because in the heterosexual norm, it is the men who are dominant and the woman who are passive.

If queer really purports to be, as Sedgwick wants, inclusive of all those who do not fit the heterosexual norm, of everyone that is "outside", then there must be room for behavior not generally considered as "queer"—room for Jimmy Corrigan, even if at first glance he appears to belong to the norm, and room for others like the "heterosexual straight (sic) white woman [who] may consider herself [queer] because she is only having missionary sex with her husband" that Anne Dalke mentioned in class and Claire Pomeroy commented on in her postings (7).

A pioneer in debunking myths about the abnormality of homosexuality, Alfred C. Kinsey said "there are only three kinds of sexual abnormalities: abstinence, celibacy and delayed marriage." (8) For Kinsey, Jimmy Corrigan, a heterosexual middle-aged virgin, seemingly harmless to the norm, would be the biggest pervert.


1. Sosower, Deb. "queer vs gay" in Knowing the Body: Knowing the World Forum. Sept. 23, 2004.

2. Fuss, Diana. "Inside/Out." Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 234.

3. Delany, Samuel. "Aversion/Perversion/Diversion." Longer Views: Extended Essays. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1996. 141.

4. Paris Is Burning. Dir. Jennie Livingston. Videocassette. Miramax, 1992. 76 minutes.

5. Sedgwick, Eve. "Queer and Now." Tendecies. Durham, NC: Duke UP. 1993. 8.

6. Chris Ware. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000.

7. Pomeroy, Claire. "What is queer?" in Knowing the Body: Knowing the World Forum. Sept. 23, 2004.

8. Crain, Caleb. "Alfred Kinsey: Liberator or Pervert? in The New York Times. Oct. 3, 2004.

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