Academic journal article ARIEL

"You Ain No Real-Real Bajan Man": Patriarchal Performance and Feminist Discourse in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones

Academic journal article ARIEL

"You Ain No Real-Real Bajan Man": Patriarchal Performance and Feminist Discourse in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones

Article excerpt

As the titles of many of her writings (Brown Girl, Brownstones, Praisesong for the Widow, Daughters) might suggest, Paule Marshall's career has been preoccupied with the concerns and difficulties that women, particularly non-white women, face in American society. Her books have been published by The Feminist Press, lauded in feminist and postcolonial journals, and she has rightly taken her place among the important voices in the fiction of African-American and Caribbean-American women. (1) By her own admission, her work is "interested in discovering and unearthing what was [and is] positive and inspiring about [the] experience" of marginalized peoples, and in pursuing "the unique opportunity to create, to reinvent" ("Interview" 5) cultural and individual understandings of those peoples. As such, her first and most famous work, Brown Girl, Brownstones, has been praised for constructing black female characters who are "unquestionably strong, capable, independent, assertive" (Denniston 16) and who embody a "determination to resist" (Christol 150) homogenized cultural formations.

In a basic sense, such assessments of Brown Girl are valid. The novel frequently focuses on a kind of gendered struggle that demands a certain amount of wilfulness and drive. The protagonist's mother, Silla Boyce, is undeniably strong and capable, yet the suggestion that the novel depicts a "determination to resist" stereotypical ideas of racial and gender identity is tough to swallow. Most of the novel's characters (with Silla as their leading example) relentlessly pursue property and money in a way that mimics rather than analyzes Western capitalist and masculinist ideas of value. The novel itself, I think, critiques such acquisitiveness, yet most criticism of the novel fails to contend with the conflicted relationship between "resistance" and "struggle" that Marshall presents. Mary Helen Washington's idea that Silla acts as "the avatar of the community's deepest values and needs" (315), for example, fails to recognize the degree to which Silla is in fact an agent of the community's desire for cultural self-destruction. Further, what is important is the degree to which her desires and ideals work to undercut notions of identity that depart from white masculinist norms.

Here, I would like to consider how Marshall, a writer usually considered exclusively in terms of feminist thought, handles the concept of masculinity. I will also illustrate some significant, and frequently disturbing, connections between certain types of feminist discourse and some of the more destructive aspects of hegemonic masculinity. (2) Bluntly, I would like to examine feminist treatments of Brown Girl, Brownstones in light of emerging discourses on masculinities and to suggest that many versions of the "unquestionably strong, capable, independent, assertive" (Denniston 16) woman might in fact be subtle re-articulations of conventional masculine norms. The struggle Marshall depicts in Brown Girl might not be a struggle to resist, but rather a struggle to dissolve racial and sexual difference into something very like the universalized male experience feminist discourse generally seeks to deconstruct. The result is a dubious kind of feminist victory whereby Marshall's women are considered strong, powerful and good only insofar as they conform to the dictates of a visibly performed hegemonic masculinity.

In most contemporary studies of masculinities, hegemonic masculinity is conceived in terms of an emphasis on external factors and a suppression of interior signals. In Manhood in the Making, David Gilmore imagines a "quasi-global" notion of hegemonic masculinity in terms of an identity focused on "visible, concrete accomplishments" (36), an identity formation aimed at attaining "approbation and admiration in the judgmental eyes of others" (37). (3) As such, the discourse of "the Real Man" marginalizes feelings and thoughts, and feminizes what Roger Horrocks calls "inner space" (40). …

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