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Fluidity

Please humor me with a thought experiment.

Imagine introducing T. S. Eliot and “The Waste Land” (1922) to your class with some of the bare biographical details: T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis but, like other modernist poets, made a career abroad. Ezra Pound, whom Eliot met in London in 1914, helped get “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in Poetry magazine and edited the first drafts of “The Waste Land.” Perhaps you had already introduced Pound’s editorial relationships with and advocacy for other young poets by telling the story of how Pound launched H. D.’s career by editing early poems, scrawling “H.D. Imagiste” at the bottom, and sending them to Harriet Monroe for Poetry. Your students might assume that, regardless of T. S. Eliot’s sex at birth, the initials T. S. were intended to be as gender-neutral as H. D.[1] Many of your students grew up reading J. K. Rowling, who was convinced by a publisher that Harry Potter would sell better without the feminine name of Joanna (no middle name) Rowling. T. S. Eliot as a gender-neutral name undoubtedly sounds a bit ludicrous to modernists who cut their teeth and their teaching on Eliot’s famous and infamously difficult long poem. It is far more plausible to our students, many of whom are engaged in an evolving terrain of categories and possibilities related to gender and sexuality. Making space for a gender-neutral approach to Eliot and “The Waste Land,” while acknowledging that such an approach was not accurate to Eliot’s historical moment, has given some of my students a purchase on the poem. These students have taught me about new conceptions of gender and their relevance to readings of “The Waste Land.”

You might have noticed that I avoided using gendered pronouns in the first paragraph of this piece. I have been proactively teaching with the gender-neutral pronouns, vey, ve, and vy, since 2012, as a (failing) attempt to recognize the tremendous power of speech to shape relationships and ignite unconscious bias. I refer students to research showing that faculty rated applications with a male name as more competent and hireable than the identical application with a female name—and recommended that the “he” should get a higher starting salary than “she.” I also give them studies showing the gender bias in student evaluations of their professors. As I teach with gender-neutral language, I ask students to correct me when I invariably make mistakes, and I invite but do not require them to join my language experiment. Many undergraduates have readily embraced the challenge, and I have even gotten entire term papers with gender-neutral pronouns. But not all students have responded enthusiastically. Last year, I received an expletive-laced anonymous comment on my website, presumably from a student, complaining that I was using “a try-on persona for hipster cred in a classroom.” I don’t see anything “hip” in my blundering attempts to teach without gendered pronouns. In addition to the risk of offending those of almost any political persuasion, another disadvantage to my approach is that it fails to acknowledge the personal preferences of both students and the writers we discuss. I tell students that I am happy to honor preferred gendered pronouns in personal relationships, but that as a professor evaluating their performance or teaching them about writers and critical thinkers, I prefer to avoid the gender bias that pronouns can invoke. I find that the discomfort of gender-neutral teaching makes me feel more aware of everything I say; it is exhausting, as if I am working to reprogram my brain. Many students over the past six years have reflected on what they learned from the experience in their (biased) evaluations of my courses.

Gender-Neutral Reading

Just as I would never claim that gender-neutral teaching is the right choice for every instructor, I have reservations that my choice to focus on gender fluidity in this piece is misguided in relation to both terms of our cluster: “reading ‘The Waste Land,’” and “the #MeToo Generation.” Yet, a gender-neutral vocabulary can help students read with and through the infamously shifting voices and unattributed quotations that compose the poem’s stylistic innovations. Gender-neutral pronouns can partially alleviate the need to know a speaker’s identity so as to use the correct pronoun when discussing or writing about ve. Many critics have pointed to gender fluidity and ambiguity in “The Waste Land,” particularly in the repeated self-introduction of Tiresias: “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see” and “I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs” (line 218–219, 228).[2] In keeping with Nancy Gish’s encouragement to contextualize allusions with the full story, it is helpful to remember that the Theban prophet Tiresias was transformed into a woman for a time, so the gods asked ve whether men or women had more pleasure in sex. Vey answered “women.” Transformation from one category to another certainly does not convey gender neutrality, but Eliot’s description gives Tiresias features of both an old man and a woman and suggests that vey is “throbbing between.” Eliot’s notes present Tiresias as “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. . . . the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem” (n218, emphasis in original). As Michelle Taylor discusses more thoroughly, Tiresias collapses into the typist who will endure “assault” when Tiresias claims not only to have “perceived the scene” of the assault but also “awaited the expected guest” (line 230).

“The Burial of the Dead” associates the “hyacinth girl” with “the drowned Phoenician Sailor” via Shakespeare’s Tempest “Those are pearls that were his eyes” and ultimately with the Greek legend of Hyacinthus, a beautiful young man loved and accidentally killed by Apollo (line 36, 48). The flower hyacinthos grew from vy blood, a precedent for the “corpse” that was “planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? (line 71–72). As Janine Utell points out in this cluster, readers interpret a male speaker into the “hyacinth girl” episode in the absence of a male pronoun, because they assume a relation of dominance. In this sense, Eliot manipulates readers’ assumptions, even as vey makes room for ambiguity, even fluidity of gender and other aspects of identity. I would not go so far as to claim that Eliot anticipated contemporary versions of gender-fluidity or non-binary lives, but “The Waste Land” is particularly interested in combinations and transformations of gender that were all the more non-normative in 1922.

Possibilities of Gender Fluidity in a New Generation

My focus on fluidity might also seem misguided for the second term of the cluster “the #MeToo Generation.” This powerful and inspiring movement has provoked a national and even worldwide conversation about sexual misconduct and harassment. Gender fluidity might seem askew the main purpose of the #MeToo phenomenon, a tag that appeared on Twitter more than five million times in the last three months of 2017 and more than two million times in the three-month period between May and August 2018. #MeToo has made its impact by focusing attention on the sheer numbers of women, mostly cis-gender women, who have experienced sexual abuse. Non-binary and trans people, who are more likely than cis-gender women and men to experience sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, have not been included in the meme to the same extent. Time’s remarkable “Person of the Year” story about the #MeToo Silence Breakers included a couple of women of color and mentioned that 47 percent of trans people report experiencing sexual violence. But the featured stories and photographs all appeared to present cis-gender individuals. While the #MeToo movement has recently worked to be more inclusive and more in line with the insights of intersectional feminism, any movement based on the power of numbers will appear to ignore the smaller population of gender fluid, nonbinary, and trans people—as well as other minorities.

Chart from “Accelerating Acceptance 2017: A Harris Poll Survey of Americans’ Acceptance of LGBTQ People,” GLAAD, 4.
Fig. 1. Chart from “Accelerating Acceptance 2017: A Harris Poll Survey of Americans’ Acceptance of LGBTQ People,” GLAAD, 4.

The seeming erasure of non-cis survivors is particularly problematic for the generation that includes our students.[3] Adults ages 18–34 (millennials) were far more likely than previous generations to identify outside the traditional gender binaries in a 2017 survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of GLAAD. Twelve percent of millenials identify as nonbinary, a category that includes six different gender identities: agender (3%), gender fluid (3%), transgender (2%), bigender (2%), and genderqueer (1%). In contrast, only 6% of adults ages 35–51 and just 3% of the older age groups identified as nonbinary.

I expect that breaking the age groups into smaller categories would show that an even greater percentage of college students, roughly ages 18–22, identify as non-binary. As Ria Banerjee reminds us in vy important discussion of teaching “The Waste Land” to community college students, an intersectional approach would need to consider the specific populations of students at different institutions, as well as generational, racial, ethnic, and other differences. Still, young people are changing the way we understand gender and sexuality, envisioning and living far more possibilities than most of their professors. I find this nuanced transformation tremendously exciting and sophisticated as well as confusing.

The Phenomenon of Preferred Pronouns

I am confused, for example, by my response to the burgeoning practice of including preferred gender pronouns in email signature files. Every time I see these pronouns, I warmly feel that the writer has identified as a progressive ally. But I have not listed my pronouns beneath my departmental and program affiliations—as of yet. When a meeting or class opens with everyone stating their gender pronouns, I celebrate the way institutions are evolving. But, I also feel frustrated by the amount of time the practice takes away from the main goal of most meetings, and I feel uncomfortable when I get to claim the pronouns everyone would assume from my appearance. Claiming “ve” as my gender pronoun does not feel like a viable option, which makes me worry that the practice forces nonbinary and transgender folks to repeatedly “come out,” even as “he,” “she,” and “they” still prevail to reduce all the finer gradations indicated by the GLAAD survey’s inclusion of seven different and still-inadequate gender categories. I similarly worry that #MeToo requires survivors to come out on social media if they wish to participate in the movement, as Nancy Gish mentions in vy reflection on the “demand for a story.”

It would be impossible for any movement to fully transform our oppressive gender regime, so we must negotiate thoughtfully. I have not yet listed my pronouns in my email, and I have continued to attempt to use gender-neutral language when I teach. I do not intend these choices to be a rejection of #MeToo or any of the more-than-seven gender possibilities. I hope we can all claim our gender pronouns adamantly and with great pleasure in our personal lives. But, I find that the continuing dominance of “he” and “she” as I teach a text like “The Waste Land” and its critical conversation to be heavy, even determinative of the way we consider and evaluate Eliot and the writers who contribute to the conversation. I like to entertain the possibility that some of my students could read “The Waste Land” and its critics without making the assumptions immediately generated by gendered pronouns. I hope the fluidity of figures like Tiresias and Hyacinth[us] might become generative in a classroom that avoids gender pronouns as much as possible. I hope my own failure to keep those pronouns from slipping into my speech is all the more instructive to my students. And with full recognition that not everyone will or should share my hopes or find my gender-neutral language experiment useful, I look forward to the ways I might revisit all of my choices as my students continue to teach me in the era of #MeToo.;


Notes

 

[1] See Robert Crawford’s entertaining biography Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). Crawford reveals that “Tom became T. S. Eliot” at the young age of ten while creating the magazine Fireside in January and February 1899: “Its front page announces it not only as ‘Edited by T. S. Eliot’ but also as a production of ‘The T. S. Eliot Co., St. Louis’.” Yet Eliot, still apparently searching for a poetic identity, signed the first self-published poem “Eliot S. Thomas” (42, 43).

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and other Poems, ed. Helen Vendler (New York: Signet, 1998).

[3] Anna North describes recent surveys that demonstrate the inaccuracy of early reports that #MeToo revealed a widespread generational divide with women older than 35 finding the movement less relevant and appealing than younger women.

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