Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Comment Upon Gender in "White Noise" and "Close Range"

In both Don Delillo's White Noise and Annie Proulx's collection of short stories Close Range, gender is perceived as being an objective construct rather than a subjective one. No characters in these texts utterly transgress the gender boundaries between being masculine and feminine. The closest either text comes to exploring this is in Close Range, where several female ranch hands, including Mrs Freeze, embody masculine qualities through their profession. However, Proulx always aligns them on the side femininity by alluding to the inconvenience of their female bodies, or their desire for feminine accessories such as makeup and fashionable clothing. The portrayal of women and men in the texts appears to differ because White Noise is set in a modern, urban environment, whilst Close Range is set in rural, conservative Wyoming.

Firstly, in both texts masculinity is ensconced in violence. In White Noise this is explored most explicitly towards the end of the text, at which point Jack shoots "Mr Gray". This reaffirms the sexist interpretation which Babette makes when she suggests that all men are inherently violent. There is no pragmatic need for Jack to kill Mr Gray: Babette and him are no longer engaging in their "capitalist transactions" as Babette puts it. This indicates that perhaps Babette's claim is correct - men see red and cannot control their need to be violent because their blood courses with male hormones. However, this is an unsavoury view of men as well as an extreme generalisation. It appears more likely that Jack feels the need to reaffirm his masculinity as it has been deconstructed through his wife's adultery. According to stereotypes, a man's ability to fight well to protect himself and his family, and his ability to pleasure a woman are the two key components of his masculinity. By having sex with Jack's wife, Mr Gray has emasculated him to some extent; the shooting may be a result of a subconscious need to prove his masculinity. There are other clear links between men and violence in this text as Heinrich's friend in prison is a man. Delillo's choice of gender for this inmate reaffirms the gender boundaries concerning violence. Moreover, the idea that acting in a bold way can make one more masculine is alluded to with Mercator's desire to sit in the cage of snakes. There is no rational reason for doing this, but he appears to feel the need to conquer death and fear in order to identify himself as a man. Indeed, when he fails, Heinrich loses all respect for him because he has been emasculated.

Similarly, in Close Range, nearly all of the male ranchers are explicitly violent. This is potently explored in Brokeback Mountain where it becomes clear to Ennis that Jack's homosexuality had become known - this was why he was killed with a tire iron to the face. Jack alludes to a similar story at one point. His father had taken him to see a dead rancher named Eddie who has been killed with a tire iron because it had become known that he was a homosexual. The men of Wyoming killed him because of his sexuality in an attempt to reaffirm their own masculinity. According to Freudian theory, often homophobes are the way they are because they recognise an aspect of the homosexuality within themselves and repress it onto somebody else. The violence here appears to have occurred as a result of this. Indeed, Proulx highlights Wyoming's insistence on maintaining a facade of complete masculinity throughout the short stories. In Pair a Spurs, Car's wife cheats on him and, much like Jack in White Noise, he responds violently by shooting at Wrench's truck. Car's wife had had the affair with Wrench. It is interesting that both men responded to their wives' adultery by shooting something. Again, this serves to reconstruct their masculinity: if the gun is understood to be a phallic symbol. then the act of shooting mirrors the act of reproduction. This paradoxically repeats the action which destroyed their masculinity in the first place.

Moreover, in both texts men are defined by lust. In White Noise Jack has several conflicting identities: father, lover, academic. He cannot appear to align them. Lust is a pure, natural emotion: Jack's attempts to control his mind through his academic studies appears to have impacted his lust. Him and Babette read erotic stories to become aroused in bed. Jack appears to therefore find his masculine identity in his academia. It empowers him. However, he continues to be driven by lust. Most descriptions of Babette include an erotically charged physical description and he appears unable to prevent himself from fondling and caressing her. Jack and Babette's sex life is evidently crucial to the construction of his identity, as when he realises that she has been having sex with another man his whole world comes crashing down: he can no longer function as "Jack".

Likewise, in Close Range, lust makes men masculine. The men in this collection of short stories metaphorically become the steamy bulls who impregnate a cow every time they are near one. In The Mud Below, Diamond enacts a cruel rape upon Londa, his rodeo partner's wife, because she insults his size. He claims that this action is like "fucking sandpaper" because her vagina has not created any discharge as a result of the unwanted and unpleasant nature of the sex she is being forced to have. This brutal scene reinforces his masculinity because it shows that he has control. In Close Range it becomes apparent that men need to be in control all of the time for their own masculine security. Moreover, no men are faithful in this text. Proulx portrays them as lust-filled creatures with little or no sense of sexual morality.

Furthermore, in White Noise and Close Range, a gender divide is constructed between men and women as being abusers and the abused. Although this is much more potent in Close Range, it does feature in White Noise. Babette has to have sex in order to receive the medication she wants from Mr Gray. Mr Gray occupies the narrative position of a symbol as he is in a moral gray area - he technically has consensual sex with this women, although it is somewhat contractual. Babette uses the sexual act to obtain Dylar, and in this way is a figure of modern prostitution. Moreover, their sexual transactions are a synecdoche for modern America itself in which women must use their bodies to get what they want or even need. This is an abuse of the female body both by men and they women themselves.

Similarly, in Close Range women are abused both physically and emotionally. In Pair a Spurs Car repeatedly attempts to rape Inez. Fearing for her safety, she seeks protection from her husband who offers her nothing and appears to care more about a dead sheep on the farm. This indicates that men in Wyoming were negligent of women because their lives held less value than cattle. Women must protect themselves, yet still not do anything that will displease men.

Finally, there are some examples of a re-affirmation of femininity and the power associated with that in both texts. In White Noise Babette uses her sexuality to get what she wants. She is powerful enough to retain her husband and stable family life even after having an affair. Moreover, the freedom of marriage and having sex with who one desires in highlighted as Babette and Jack's ex-wives have married multiple times. In Close Range women can become empowered. In The Governors of Wyoming Roany and Renti ridicule Wade Wells, thus emasculating him, and there are no negative consequences. There is also some equality in ranching: if women have the right build they can become as proficient as men. 

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