We Used to be Tomboys:

And the Search for other Androgynous Narratives and Gender Ambiguity in Contemporary Western Literature.

Unless we know how our language, identities, and culture are based upon a gendered binary, we can’t write genderqueer or gender-ambiguous narratives that challenge the status quo. 

I want to share with you some of my discoveries and observations that came from the first year as a doctoral researcher on this topic. I had to let go of the program because of financial issues but the focus on writing non-conforming characters lingers. I read too much where the author changed the pronoun but little else when they could embody the experience of being outside the gender expectations of our Western culture. That then is the motivation. What will follow is a series of posts/chapters to share what I found. There will be lists in places, academic articles, personal stories and more.

ABSTRACT:  Overview of whole project. My first focus is to analyze gender-ambiguous characters and literature; my other goal is to provide writers with the guidance to craft their own.

Section One


Introduction: On the Importance to me, to writers, and to readers. Belonging/fitting in. Representation. Health. Mental health. Validation. Permission. The MFA thesis and my developing understanding on how a lack of representation has affected my life, health, and career. Oh, and my discomfort with using labels will be discussed in this context of the research focus. 


Chapter One: Where Have all the Tomboys Gone?

In this chapter, I review the literature and context of androgyny in western Lit, from 1800s when Tomboys became a socially sanctioned new concept to the recent increase in gender fluid narratives of contemporary authors. Building upon the original thesis, I highlight  Winterson, Eugenides, and others from the 1990s, how they created androgynous narratives, and how reviewers, academics, and readers reacted to those novels. I look to a range of genres within a framework of gender and power theories as presented by the critical work of Judith Butler and Foccault and others in that decade. I then present an overview of the recent cultural shifts towards gender in the West. 


Section Two: Title TBD

In this section, I present my findings on how others have written gender ambiguous narratives since the 1990s. I will discuss gender markers, gender and genre, studies into gendered language, and frame these within queer identity politics in the 21st century. I am still trying to understand why we, as humans, demand labels to create a sense of identity and self. 

•           Overview: a recent societal changes, tems, references, publications.

(Would it be best if the following were sections or separate chapters? Each one will bring up a new focus and use a wide variety of primary sources and secondary key texts on that topic. Literature reviews of recently published creative works within a discussion of recent critical studies.)

•           Internal Worlds: In this section, I look at the emotions, concerns, self-talk, dreams, goals, and the notion of agency, the choices the non-conforming gendered protagonists make as far as what they want to achieve and how they’d like to live. 

•           External: The influence of culture both micro and macro, the political, economic religious, race and class issues facing androgynous and non-conforming gendered narrators. The landscape of town versus city, east or west, desert or forest each has an affect on what roles each gender is expected to follow. I will present studies on fashion, pop culture, colonialism and patriachy as reflected within the lens of gender and literature. 

•           Language: I will discuss studies into how gendered our use of the English language is beyond the obvious pronouns and deconstructing speech patterns/dialogue according to the gender binary, adjectives/ descriptors that depend on context of who is speaking and to whom, and the development of different terms and labels. 

•           On Belonging: In this section, I will consider the role of validation, representation, belonging versus fitting in, family, friends, community, strangers. How does an androgynous narrator create a sense of safety? How do others react to the protagonist? How do authors subvert expectations through the interplay of belonging or not? 

•           In this last section, I will look at difference between books published with gender ambiguous narrators and/or author’s self-identity? (#ownvoices versus allies?) Insider perspective/outsider. Eg Sara Taylor, a cisgendered white middle class educated woman published with a big name publisher. Her protagonist is ungendered/agender. Yet which agender writers are published by such international mainstream presses? Any? 


Section Three: The Craft

In this last section, I will break down concepts, expectations, how to subvert them by (mis)using gender markers in other ways. I’ll present themes and writing prompts for each of the main ideas discussed above. This is the basis of a module for a six week class as presented in the Constellation series of writing workshops.  


Works Cited

Bibliographies (Primary and Secondary Sources)

Glossary of terms

Suggested Reading Lists of non-binary authors’ books 

Suggested Reading Lists of books with non-binary narrators 

Suggested Reading List, a very short one, of androgynous narrators

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