Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is an impressive example of gender identification addressing the roles of men or women and what they should be. The author not only challenges the stereotypical understanding of masculinity behavior but also explores situations where gender characteristics are transfigured or evolved. Furthermore, Woolf implies that gender is a choice or an act limited by society and era.
Orlando’s first meeting with Sasha is a bright example that opposes the idea of traditional gender identity. Freud remarked that the first impression when a person meets another person is the gender. But that is not the case with Sasha. Orlando is fascinated by “[…] a figure, which, whether boy’s or woman’s, […], filled him with the highest curiosity.”(p. 28). Sasha’s skating skills are unseen among men and that makes her gender identity even more confusing and doubtful (Lee, p. 152).
According to Freud, individuals decide whether a person is a male or female based on gender distinction (Freud, p. 577). However, we could be mistaken, because gender assumptions are made instinctively and subjectively. An example that contradicts the certainty of gender identity is the 1999 American independent drama film, based on a true story, Boys Don’t Cry. The main character, Teena, manages to conceal her gender to the point where she has a consuming relationship with the same gender partner. Summing up, the idea of accepted notions on gender identity seems more ambiguous and doubtful.
Virginia Woolf challenges the understanding of uncertain gender identity at the very beginning of her novel. Although the author describes Orlando as an individual who “[…] could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it” (Freud 11), Orlando’s gentle nature and shifting moods suggest the presence of a feminine character. The same could be said for Teena who was regarded as a “ladies man” because she still possessed feminine characters in her masculine outlook (Lee, p. 153).
Spending good time with Sasha: skating and shearing stories about previous relationships doesn’t make Orlando immune to his ambiguous nature. “[…] suddenly Orlando would fall into one of his moods of melancholy; the sight of an old woman hobbling over the ice might be the cause of it or nothing;” (Kimberly, p. 67). This behavior is more likely to be described as nonmasculine. The gender of certainty expects from a male, especially in a female’s company, to be the leading one, with agenda and control. Orlando has no pattern to follow. He sees something and reacts impulsively and this foreshadows the questionable nature of his gender identity. Orlando is not a product of his society. His perception of sexuality and behavior is a result of his feelings and emotions. The traditional measurements of what’s right or wrong do not apply to him and that finalizes his unique gender identity (Lee, p. 154).
Further debate analyzes the dilemma of whether gender affects the identity of a person. The transformation of Orlando’s gender into a female person brings out this crisis between gender and identity. The biggest dilemma in gender identification from this observation nevertheless exists in whether the physical change affected Orlando’s identity or not. Woolf’s works in this regard can be compared to John Locke’s essay that gives an insight into human reasoning (Lee, p. 154). Simply, even the use of the title “Oaktree” in Woolf’s works is a symbol of the relation between his works and Locke’s. The ideology behind Locke’s analysis is that identity doesn’t change with physical or environmental modification. Locke refers to the growth of an oak tree because he argues that an oak tree is still the same even though it grows from a plant, tree and eventually a Lopp’d (Lee, p. 155). A manifestation of this principle in the novel is essentially depicted when Orlando comes back to England and no one recognizes his change in identity. Reference is also made to the dogs and deer because they were able to instantly identify the difference even though it took humans sometime before realizing it. This analysis exposes the mediocrity we, as humans put in segregating the identity of men and women because Orlando was able to build the same identity even though he changed his gender.
The same conclusion cannot be made in the film Boys don’t cry. From the movie, it is clear that gender affects the identity of a person because as soon as Teena was discovered as a woman, her whole identity changed. As a result, she was taken to an empty loft and raped. It was difficult for her male friends to accept her homosexual relationship with Lena and committed one of the most severe physical hurt to her (rape). This ripped Teena’s free will as a woman and robbed her dignity as well (Lee, p. 156).
Literary scholars analyze this incident as a forced identity on Teena. Moreover, John and Tom’s blatant refusal of accepting Teena’s identity is shared with the police officers who are mandated to arrest them. The police officers failed to arrest them because they almost showed sympathy for the two. This is just a manifestation of the perception of society regarding gender identification. Considering Teena was a female, her identity changed almost simultaneously and expectations also changed in the same regard. This led to her death and condemnation for her lies.
Woolf gets his inspiration from the definition of gender as a hesitant imperfection in the description of the various constructions the society creates of the two roles. His inspiration in gender definition seems to result from the observed tendency of men and women taking positions on symbolism and positions that are polarized instead of considering the grain of multifarious and probable two-fold perceptions of both genders (Brym, p. 56).
Gender Roles and the Society
Society draws a thin line to the division of both genders with rigid insistence. Such perceptions are observed from the film Boys don’t cry where the rigid insistence depicted in Orlando is manifested. When Teena gains a new look she adjusts her physical appearance to suit that of a man. She gives an insight into how society perceives the male gender through her adjustment to seem tough, rugged, and immune to pain. This is a clear confirmation of societal norms of the male gender (Lee, p. 157).
Her quest to be male is her biggest motivation to acquire masculine traits even though she was born male. Her actions however portray her as transgendered, which is a breakaway from contemporary perceptions of both male and female genders. Transgenders feel they are in the wrong body and so physically, they look different from what they feel inside (Lee). The changing of Teena’s name from Teena Brandon to Brandon Teena is just one of the ways she uses to acquire her new male identity. This, therefore, stretches our analysis from the perception of males and females out of physical and personal analysis to unrelated attributes like the naming.
The protagonist in Orlando lives a rich male lifestyle even though he is female; this is probably contrary to the quest for Teena to be male. However, the similarity between the two characters comes out of their individuality. In both situations, both individuals are referred to as tender and handsome (Lee, p. 159). This is depicted by the queen’s reference to Orlando as “a handsome, tender man”. When the Polish war dawns on England, the queen requests Orlando to join her because she couldn’t stand it if he was rolled up in the dust; considering his good looks (Whitworth, p. 244). Teena on the other hand is referred to as a “ladies man” because of her feminine qualities that depict her tenderness. This shows the resultant appraisal of transgenders in society without known gender affiliation.
Orlando’s transformation into a male lifestyle is ordinarily smooth as compared to Teena’s metamorphosis into male-hood. This probably exposes different gender connotations regarding male and female expectations and perceptions. Orlando lives a quiet life as a male and even has female lovers without condemnation. The laxity of the male gender to have relationships with the opposite sex goes unnoticed even though Orlando was not perfectly male. However, Teena finds a hard time being accepted as male when she falls in love with Lana. Her arrest was the start of this controversy because she emerged as a female, contrary to what most people thought of her. This warranted a lot of condemnation for her relationship with Lana. John and Tom felt disgusted by Teena’s actions (because of the way society programmed them to perceive gender relationships). The notion of a woman and a woman getting romantically involved with each other was the major issue of conflict. However, what is depicted is the level of condemnation and scrutiny Teena goes through as a female as opposed to Orlando’s unnoticeable relationships with other women. Moreover, Orlando can host gatherings and even rise to the position of ambassador. This shows the attribution of the male gender to unlimited heights of success. Teena doesn’t experience these privileges but even if she strived to do so, she wouldn’t have done it as easily as Orlando did (Lee, p. 155). This only goes to show the identification and expectations of male and female roles.
In other words, males are expressed from Orlando’s analogy as synonymous to success out of the lavish life Orlando lives as a man and at the same time the attribution of success as a male person (Lee 154). Teena is however portrayed as living a modest life characterized by relationship controversies. When she turned female, it was hard for her male peers to look at her beyond her female form. This eventually culminates in her rape and death.
Clothing Influences and Conventions in Writing
Further analysis can be made to the role of physical dressing to denote gender affiliation. The best analysis can be made concerning Orlando because practically the entire novel refers to his dressing. Initially, in the first opening scenes, Orlando is depicted to wear clothes that are associated with both genders (unisex). It is further observed that the clothing worn at the time, hid people’s gender. However, as the plot progressed, Orlando’s role as an ambassador is characterized by noble dressing to depict his stature. He, therefore, passes as a reputable man of high social standing but his return to England is physically represented otherwise. The adoption of women’s dress code is what exposes him to the whole feminist experience (Goldman, p. 128).
Teena on the other hand, was able to conceal her female self in her clothing till she was arrested. This, therefore, means the society was blinded by clothing because of the direct attribution of clothing styles to specific genders. The biography in Woolf’s work states that Orlando changed her dressing by how he wanted to be perceived (Lee, p. 154). Orlando, therefore, got intermingled in a society that dressed in a unisex way and hid his change of gender for a while before he went to England in women’s clothing.
On her way back to England Orlando manifests the pressure society projects on women regarding gender expectations because he ponders on how he expected women to behave while he was a man. It is at this point, Orlando changes her perception and thinking in accordance to his gender. From this point, she starts to perceive things from a woman’s point of view even though he was still the same person. This, therefore, reinforces the Boys don’t cry analogy that gender changes the identity of a person and even in psychological ways, despite the person being the same.
Orlando also makes a mockery of society’s strict attribution of a specific role to genders because he seems to enjoy all the benefits of both sexes after coming back to England. This was first noted with his interaction with the prostitute, Nell. He is depicted to change his clothes however he pleased and society wouldn’t notice. Later, he played the roles of both man and woman hence enjoying the benefits of both sexes. It is noted that his pleasures of life increased twofold and its experience multiplied to levels he couldn’t have enjoyed if he was affiliated to one gender (Lee, p. 154). Woolf further reinforces the mediocrity that exists in society by noting that each human being experiences cross-gender roles underneath the disguise of clothes that hide the true self.
As a mockery of society, Orlando decides to conform to society’s expectations of the female gender by marrying Shel. This is because, at the Victorian age, he noticed that the independence of women was quickly being handed over to men. This was therefore the most logical way he could enjoy these benefits as a woman. However, some literary scholars argue that his action to marry Shel was a result of his age conformity (Silver, p. 229).
Further reference is made again to his age in terms of dressing. His dressing depicts his gender in conformity with his age (Lee, p. 156). Through this analysis, it can be said that Woolf uses dressing metaphorically to depict gender conformity. The use of clothing is also used to depict gender conventions used in literary works. The analysis of clothing does not however end in the analysis of gender roles only but also stretches to a critic of conventions that exist about gender in literary writings.
Woolf portrays the level of hypocrisy that society holds in terms of myths regarding gender. The depiction of different gender identities with physical attribution is portrayed as a fallacy because the true person lies underneath physical appearance. He makes a mockery of this by depicting Orlando as a beneficiary of gender benefits without the knowledge of concerned individuals. The true message behind it, therefore, lies in the similarity between men and women in all aspects of society including writing. Both Teena in Boys don’t cry and Orlando in Orlando portray the same ability regardless of their gender affiliation. The problem however exists in the way society perceives both genders as can be witnessed through Teena’s rape. This ideology is also extensive in society as can be witnessed by the policemen’s failure to arrest Tom and John.
Nonetheless, Woolf’s works highlight three fundamental aspects of this study. Firstly, it shows the dilemma that exists between gender identity and personal identity as can be exhibited by Orlando’s experience as both a man and a woman; or Teena’s experience in treatment before and after her arrest. Secondly, Woolf highlights clothing influences on the roles of different genders as a mask of what lies underneath a person. Thirdly, Woolf makes a reference to gender conventions in writing. In essence, he highlights that both men and women possess the same qualities in literary works. Orlando is therefore a good literary piece for the analysis of gender roles and perceptions. The work is however still open to interpretation.
- Brym, Raul. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2005.
- Freud, Sigmund. Femininity: New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Toronto: Hogarth Press, 1993.
- Goldman, Jane. The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Kimberly, Peirce. Boys Don’t Cry (Video-cassette). BMG, 1999.
- Lee, Hermione. The Novels of Virginia Woolf. London: Taylor & Francis, 1977.
- Silver, Brenda. Virginia Woolf Icon. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
- Whitworth, Michael. Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.