Performative Gender in The Coquette and The Female Marine


Final Project for English 341--American Lit. to 1865: Gender and Sexuality, Megan Barrett, 11 May 1998
Methodological Introduction

Photos of Classic Gender Performances

In society, constructs of correctness have been formed on the basis of expected, gendered behavior. Individuals have traditional roles that they play which are based on the historical performance of their gender. Although very rigid, these traditional roles are frequently transferred, resulting in an altered and undefinable identity that exists beyond the boundaries of gender. These transgressions into the neuter role are characterized by a departure from the normal roles of society which, if successful, complete the gender transference and allow the individual to live within a new set of boundaries. The Female Marine, or the Adventures of Lucy Brewer is the fictional autobiography of a woman who recounts her experiences in the navy and life as a cross-dressed male. Throughout her narratives, Lucy is able to successfully leap back and forth between gender roles without repercussion. On the other hand, Hannah W. Foster's The Coquette is a sentimental seduction tale that narrates the tragic demise of a young woman who attempts to exceed acceptable behavioral boundaries by establishing herself as a virile, independent individual, a role established by Simone de Beauvoir to be associated with the male (Beauvoir 405). Because of the similarity in the situations of these women there lies a need for an examination of their narrative purpose. The differing results of success with these women are found in the author's reflection of their audience's narrative expectations that deal with the social outcome of women who attempt to move beyond gender-identified behavioral roles.

In her essay "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," Judith Butler discusses these gender roles in terms of performance and feminist criticism. Her essay deals with the conceptual presence of gender within society that functions as the primary element in expected behavioral roles. Drawing upon previous philosophic and psychoanalytic thought, Butler espouses a theory rooted in the concept of social agents that "constitute social reality through language, gesture, and all matter of symbolic social sign." (Butler 270) Butler asserts that gender is not based on an internal identity or self-definition, but rather on perceptory, reflective notions of performances. Gender itself, in its unstable temporality, is defined by Butler to be "an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts"--an ephemeral performance from which social constructs are formed. (Butler 270) In this analysis, Butler establishes the notion of gender as an abstracted, mass perception which is rendered concrete by the fact of its common acceptance. It is a shared reality of the public, it's existence is a consequence of society's mutual acknowledgment. In this light, Butler describes the concept as being purely temporal--the appearance and perception of gender constitutes its reality. As a result, the examination of gender construction is the examination of its performative, perception-based manifestation. Upon breaching the collective assumption of the actuality of gender, its mutual acceptability is undermined, rendered unstable, and therefore, non-existent.

Butler illustrates the malleability of gender by comparing it to a dramatized or theatrical character role. The performed gender is one of definite character, whose acts create its interior. But more specifically, these definitive character "acts" must also adhere to assigned roles themselves. Within each gender performance, there are attributed proper societal roles and behaviors associated with the individual's gender. These roles are used to understand and justify the actions of an individual. With each gender character, societal perception attaches expected frames of reference upon them which determine their value systems and proper behavior. Each genderfied individual is viewed within this specific frame of reference--one which both creates and designates their proper actions. As Butler writes:

Performing one's gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all. (Butler 279)

In other words, Butler asserts that when an individual adheres to the constructs of gender, they are rewarded with the comfort and mental security of acting within the means of their gender's frame of reference. When they deviate, they are faced with a dissonance resulting from a disparity between their expected roles, and the roles that they performed. Because of this dissonance, the only path to a complete gender transgression is in the total embrace of the individual character roles for the assumed gender.

Lucy Brewer's successful gender transgressions are found in her complete embodiment of these roles. The collective assumption of gender established by Butler necessarily facilitates a complete performance within it's specific roles in order for the concept to remain stable and believable. As Lucy moves through her life she maintains a purity of gender characteristics that render each of her identities as almost one-dimensional. Writing of her time as a prostitute on Boston's "Negro Hill" Brewer boasts: "I...became perfected in those fascinating powers which seldom fail to decoy the amorous youth to practise vices perhaps before unthought of." (Cohen 68) But while she is dressed as a man and serves as a marine Lucy speaks of her exploits gallantly, declaring: "It is frequently observed by those who have been in battle, that at the commencement of an engagement, the most resolute feel daunted, in some degree: but I can solemnly declare, that I never felt more composed...I felt an extreme desire to render myself conspicuous." (Cohen 72) And finally, as Lucy writes of her new life as a "penitent" she speaks with the tone of the newly righteous:

If a prodigal could ever return penitent to her friends, I so returned to my afflicted parents, sincerely repenting of the evil of my ways;--let the doubts of all uch therefore be removed, and as prevention is ever of more value than the most perfect cure, let them rather consider this as an affectionate effort to preserve the honour of those who yet possess it, to serve the honest fame of those who enjoy a good reputation, and to secure the peace of mind of all those who are yet unconscious of offence. (Cohen 93)

Between the different identities there can be found no recognition--in the portrayal of each character Lucy becomes it, transforming her own mentality along with how she is perceived. It is this monogamy in Lucy's performed gender roles that enable her to alter her identities so easily. She is a complete in each character--safe within the societal boundaries of expectation for each identity. The collective assumption of gender roles remains stable, and therefore, so does her identity.

This stability, however, is only maintained when each gender performance is pure--with no attempt at breaching the boundaries of properness in which they are established. The gender identity embodied by Eliza Wharton in The Coquette is a combination of her virile independence, and her role as a virtuous woman. She begins the novel with a statement of her moral and emotional stability after the death of her husband:

I shall only add, on the subject, that if I have wisdom and prudence...I shall be happy indeed. The disposition of mind, which I now feel, I wish to cultivate. Calm, placid, and serene; thoughtful of my duty, and benevolent to all around me, I wish for no other connection than that of friendship." (Foster 6)

Yet despite these optimistic and enlightened phrases of her chastity and spirituality, Eliza speaks of her popularity in society with a triumphant, bragging tone: "I am certainly very much the taste of the other sex. Followed, flattered, and caressed; I have cards and compliments in profusion." (Foster 12) She revels in coquetry, her previous state of mind still present, but down-sized with the flippant remark to her friend: "You are not so morose, as to wish me to become a nun." (Foster 8) In these statements, Eliza establishes dual roles of existence, undermining the boundaries of identity perception. She is bringing together two conflicting frames of reference, disrupting the role-identified societal assumption of her behavior, and forcing her audience to re-establish her within a familiar role. When Eliza attempts to exceed the role boundaries of the virtuous woman by extending herself into the male sphere of virility and freedom she becomes undefinable, with the only recourse being to condemn her to the recognizable role of the fallen woman.

This condemnation to a familiar trope is the driving force behind the respective success and failure of Lucy Brewer and Eliza Wharton. As fictional characters in novels, the both women's narratives function as a vehicle to portray the moral messages of the texts. Just as gender identities have specific, expected roles, so do the narratives of the heroines lives. Both Lucy and Eliza must live out their destiny--and in each of these texts, their fate is determined by the societal expectations of morality in their stories.

According to Cohen, the readers of The Female Marine were the prostitutes, lower class, and juveniles of Boston--the very people who served as characters in the story, and the very people for whom the text's moral message was intended. (Cohen 5) Lucy Brewer's tale is one of triumphant ascendancy from depraved wickedness to righteous spirituality. She is transformed; a concerned citizen, a recovered sinner:

To the world I have declared that among these wretched creatures I even spent three years of my early life...and shall these three years of wretchedness profit me nothing? may not good come out of evil? Yes, if my youthful friends...are deterred from practising vices against which I warn them by the friendly advice I now give...then shall be satisfied that I have not erred for nought. (Cohen 119)

Despite the boundaries of her lowered class and disreputable past, she overcomes and conquers; she is rewarded with moral as well as social security. Her narrative success is due to her path of moral recovery--a path that could be looked upon as a model of behavior for all her readers. For the lower class that were enlisted as her audience, her transformed life could serve as an ideal scenario; a ray of hope for those who were morally destitute and socially denied. Lucy triumphed over moral corruptness and societal condemnations--her readers could only hope for the same.

In The Coquette, however, the audience hopes not for Eliza Wharton's success, but her downfall. Hannah Foster's readership was the mirror opposite of that of The Female Marine--her book was circulated amongst women and men of society who were shocked and titillated by the novel's true-to-life narrative. (Davidson [Foster] ix) Her scandalous descent into sin was disgraceful and outrageous; she was morally and spiritually corrupt, the epitomy of depravity. In order to soothe the dissonance created by the text's woeful heroine, Foster's readership expected punishment. Wharton's fall served as a "'moral lecture to young ladies,'" which served to strengthen the audience's convictions of virtue and create a security in their beliefs. (Davidson [Foster] viii) Without Wharton's narrative condemnation, the text would be morally empty, with no lesson learned, no wisdom gained. Neither Foster nor Wharton had any choice for her destiny--the narrative sin of Wharton could only be rectified by a fall, by the expected reproach and ominous warning to those who should follow her path.






By Megan Barrett, Reed College, 1998.