Maria Torres-Quevedo grew up between the UK and Spain. She has carried out her studies at the University of Seville, Cornell University, and the University of Edinburgh. Currently she is a first year PhD candidate researching contemporary American narratives of identity construction through the lens of postmodern feminism. She co-runs a fortnightly reading group on American Television. Maria’s Twitter handle is @mariaelenactq.
What does it mean to be a dangerous woman? I have thought a lot about this question since I became aware of the Dangerous Women project. It is particularly interesting to me because I spend a great deal of time thinking and writing about women who have made significant creative attempts to undermine systems that marginalise them. My interest lies specifically with female coming-of-age stories. These are stories that are ostensibly about the formation of an individual’s identity, but they are also inevitably a comment on the society in and by which that identity is formed. While gender is at the forefront of my exploration of the genre, it is only one of the numerous and intersecting identity categories which complicate the assumption of the role of the genre’s protagonist. Due to the fact that the coming-of-age story voices the experience of its protagonist, focusing on anyone outside of the dominant social group (white, heterosexual, male) entails a degree of complication. It is a claiming of authority by marginalised subjects, generated in and by the culture in which they live, whose experiences have not been instrumental in the structuring of said culture, and is therefore a powerful site for questioning and undermining those structures and the assumptions on which they lay.
Coming-of-age narratives have an ostensibly revolutionary tone: they have often been used as a vehicle for social protest, using the innocent gaze of the adolescent to expose the corrupt social values of an adult world they have not yet internalised. Think Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), or The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Interestingly, however, the genre has a history of being particularly unaccommodating to female protagonists. Perhaps this is due to the way its rhetoric is tied to particular ideas about independence, mobility, and adolescence; women are expected to be people-oriented, they are typically much less safe in public spaces, which problematises narratives of “lighting out for the territory,” and historically, women’s experience of adolescence was not considered important or universal enough to warrant the same attention as the male narrative. Esther Kleinbord Labovitz notices this tendency, affirming that the rebellion of a male hero “asserts his manhood [and spurs] his movement towards self development” (252) while any female rebellion is read as an “assail on her womanhood” (252) and cannot result in any kind of teleological confirmation.
There are a number of texts that we can consider female coming-of-age stories; however, these show significant variation. Some depict development happening later in life to adult women via or resulting in marriage, such as in Pride and Prejudice (1813); in these narratives, it is only in attaching herself to a man who can act as her guide and take her out of her previous life that a female protagonist can undergo the personal development found in the Bildungsroman. Another variation is that which shows initiation into adult society as having disastrous consequences, as seen in much of the work of Carson McCullers, for example in The Member of the Wedding (1946), where the adolescent protagonist has to renounce her identity in order to be accepted. Often these two variations have come together, for example in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), in which the protagonist loses her mind due to the pressures of motherhood. Most accounts of women who attempt to define their own identity and resist initiation, in much the same way as male protagonists do, also end in tragedy. Unlike her male counterparts who are able to make a relevant social protest, the female protagonist of the coming-of-age story is too often forced to conform or symbolically punished by death. Taking into consideration the interaction between power and representation, the marginalisation of narratives depicting the experiences of women and ethnic minorities within the discourse that constitutes successful initiation reinforces their marginalisation.
How then, can these narratives be appropriated by women in a way that poses a danger to the social and literary structures that have proved so oppressive? And why would women want to use a genre that has contributed to their marginalisation? Undeniably, stories shape the way we understand the world, and as such, they are an exercise of power. In this light, the importance of a plurivocal literary milieu cannot be overstated. It undermines claims to universality and works to denaturalise culturally produced “knowledge.” This kind of knowledge is self-perpetuating, and enables the powerful to construct and enforce their “truth” over a given culture. Indeed, a representation that embraces the complexity and indeterminacy of women’s identities is what many feminists have advocated for. It is not enough to just force a female protagonist to take on all the character and narrative trappings that we have seen in male stories. This would not expand our understanding of human experience and existence; it would, at best, merely widen the kinds of people represented in the same way. Denaturalising and deconstructing the discourses that prescribe identity categories avoids the trap that merely redefining identity entails.
The novels I write about portray the somewhat problematic coming-of-age of their protagonists, and explore the identity politics that problematise their gendered initiation into society. The protagonists navigate liminal positions between various social categories, with each novel exploring different aspects of women’s experience. These include novels such as Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998), Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (2005) Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Karen Russel’s Swamplandia! (2011), Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped (2013), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), all of which are examples of contemporary coming-of-age stories that interrogate generic conventions and their relationship to gender, race, sexuality, class, and mainstream ideology, creatively questioning and pushing the boundaries and representation of all of the above.
One example of such texts is Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1984), the coming-of-age story of a young chicana girl named Esperanza. Esperanza’s coming-of-age is a kind of coming to generic consciousness, to a point where she decides that she does not want to go down the paths that her antecedents, both familiar and literary, have left for her. What Esperanza creates is not just her own path but her narrative creation, The House on Mango Street, “a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong” (109). Esperanza’s desire for a house and her desire for freedom from the burden of generic history become coterminous when she imagines “a house as quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (109), a poem that, presumably, she will be the one to write. It is eventually her experimentation with and rejections of the narratives of femininity that her culture offers her that leads her to the creation of her own narrative—that of being a story teller: “I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head […] I make a story for my life” (109). Throughout the novel she uses her creative abilities to explore her identity until those creative abilities become an integral part of her identity. She uses those abilities to challenge the power structures that oppress the people that Mango Street represents, advocating “For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (110). With The House on Mango Street, Esperanza, and Cisneros, question their narrative history and call for new stories that represent the heterogenous reality of contemporary American life, in particular the life of Chicana women; the particular types of oppression they face; and the way mainstream American narratives of development fail to represent them or provide useful models for them.
Through novels like The House on Mango Street, women provide a commentary on the aesthetic, political, and ideological history of the coming-of-age story with a feminist agenda, using the genre itself to do so. These novels do not only reject that the developmental paths that are available to men are not available to women: they question those paths and their ends entirely, not just in terms of their particularities but in terms of the entire teleological schema in which they are couched. The concept of an achievable coherent identity and the teleology and definitiveness to which it is tied are disturbed by protagonists whose identities are ambivalent and resistant to fixity. In other words, they do not attempt to replace one telos with another, or to expand the white male telos to other subjects, but to reject the concept of telos altogether. The way that the genre of the coming-of-age (re)enforces ideas about sex, gender, race, class, and sexuality is critiqued by the novels’ evidencing of experiences and existences that defy the confines of the genre and the ideological bases from which it is derived and which it reflects back to mainstream culture. If the ideology of the genre is inextricable from that of the society in which it is constructed, then these women authors disturb and expand the latter through their appropriation of the former, and that, I believe, makes them exceptionally dangerous.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, Random House Inc, 1984. Print.
Labovitz, Esther Kleinbord. The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century: Dorothy Richardson, Simone De Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Christa Wolf. New York: P. Lang, 1986. Print.