Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Sex Change and Media Change: From Woolf's to Potter's 'Orlando'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Sex Change and Media Change: From Woolf's to Potter's 'Orlando'

Article excerpt

Comparing the treatment of gender identity and feminist politics in Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Sally Potter's film, this essay examines how differences between the two media enable Woolf to embrace a performative conception of gender that makes her treatment of feminist concerns more radical than Potter's.

The diversity of contemporary feminist theory results from the proliferation of answers to two key questions: how to explain gender identity, and how to define political goals. For most theorists, these questions also have a necessary order: i.e., a position on gender identity must be established before political action can be taken. Thus in the case of feminists who regard gender identity as androgynous - who argue that as human beings we are very similar, that we all share qualities understood culturally as masculine or feminine, and that we are socialized into expressing the traits deemed appropriate to a given sex - what is advocated are social changes designed to discourage gender stereotyping. Similarly, for those who conversely regard gender identity as essentially related to biological sex - who argue that each sex has unique experiences inaccessible by the other sex - what is needed are programs that acknowledge difference. Trying to establish a "watertight" theory of gender identity before proceeding to political practice, however, can be very difficult, and for recent critics it can also be self-defeating insofar as such a procedure precludes the recognition that the whole notion of gender in itself must be questioned and understood as a kind of politic/political performance.

For a variety of reasons, Virgina Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando (based on Woolf's lover, Vita Sackville-West) and Sally Potter's 1992 film adaptation provide an especially instructive site for furthering explorations of this kind. First, of course, there is the fact that the central subject of Woolf's novel - and subsequently Potter's film - is gender identity: the plot features an aristocratic protagonist, Orlando, who lives from the Elizabethan period to the 1920s, and who changes from male to female sex halfway through the narrative. In addition to subject matter, however, the importance of these works has to do with how responses to them reflect the way that critics tend to interpret and judge such works in terms of their own preconceptions about gender identity and feminist politics. With respect to Woolf's novel, for example, Pamela Caughie has observed: "the reason many feminists have appropriated Woolf's concept of androgyny... can be found in their desire for a definition that corresponds to their definition of feminism....They want to know who they are, to distinguish us from them" (80). Similarly, Leslie Hankins has noted the consequent disappointment of viewers of Potter's film with what they perceived as the "erasing of the lesbian narrative" (174), just as Eileen Barrett has noted the way the film has been seen as "a gay man's fantasy" (198).

Ultimately, however, what might be most provocative about these two works is the way that they call attention to how differences between the literary and film media can affect the presentation of feminist concerns. Indeed, both Woolf and Potter have themselves commented on the gendering of art forms. Thus long before Laura Mulvey theorized about the "male gaze," WooIf invoked a "male conquest" motif when in a 1926 essay on film/novel relationships she observed that "the cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim" ("The Cinema" 269). To the same effect, in her screenplay comments about the demands of the film medium, Potter also invoked a notion of masculine logic and forcefulness when she explained that"the narrative needed to be driven. Whereas the novel could withstand abstraction and arbitrariness (such as Orlando's change of sex) cinema is more pragmatic. There had to be reasons - however flimsy - to propel us along a journey based, itself, on a kind of suspension of disbelief" (x-xi). …

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