Ungendered Narrator in Written on the Body

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Within Jeanette Wintersin’s text Written on the body the role of the ungendered narrator is a highly subversive narrative strategy that serves to challenges traditional gender binarisms that exist as a perversive element within the phallogocentric ideologies of the West. I shall explore how Winterson engages with this task by positing ‘gender’ as unimportant in the construction of individual subjectivity. Secondly, the ungendered narrator challenges the phallogocentric assumption of heteronormativity through a range of characters whose gender and sexuality are constructed as fluid and multiple within the world of the text. In this way, the ungendered narrator implicitly highlights the fact that within contemporary dominant discourses, gender is not only important to lovers, it is what constitutes desire and sexual object choice. Readers are therefore incited to imagine a world, different from our own, in which desire has been dislodged from these regulatory regimes.

Judith Butler's theories of gender provide insight into the subversive status of the ungendered narrator. According to Butler, gendering, or assuming sex, is part of a complex process that constitutes subjects, ushering them into the symbolic and allowing the appropriation of the "speaking I'" (Bodies 3). Butler goes on to explain that the formation of the subject simultaneously produces a “domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects’, but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (3). Butler uses the term “abject” to describe the “unlivable and uninhabitable zones of social life” populated by those “who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of the ‘unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject.” She claims that this zone functions as a “site of dreaded identification against which, and by virtue of which, the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claims to autonomy and life” (Bodies 3). If assuming sex is part of a complex process that constitutes subjects, then Winterson's ungendered narrator would belong to the category of abject, unlivable bodies. Even the language available to describe the narrator excludes the possibility of an ungendered person's existence. I am forced to use "s/he" or "him/her" since calling the narrator "it," reinforces the idea that such a person could not exist as a subject, but only as an abject, unlivable body. However, using "s/he" and "him/her" also seems to be inappropriate since they too reinforce, through language, the binary understanding of gender. The narrator is not part "she," part "he," but rather is something other, which perhaps could be described as the slash between "she" and "he" rather than as the words on either side.

In contrast to Butler's formulation, the ungendered narrator in Winterson's text is a subject, a "speaking I." The narrator is not positioned in the text as a "site of dreaded identification," but instead is shown to be a person who attracts and is attracted to many types of people. S/he describes him/herself as a Lothario, a traditionally privileged subject position akin to the Don Juan character type. However, because it is theoretically impossible within current hegemonic discourses for an ungendered person, who necessarily stands outside the domain of the subject, to occupy this narrative position, the ungendered "Lothario" can only exist within the realm of fantasy. According to Laura Doan’s analysis, to state that Written on the Body is a fantastic or utopic text in no way robs it of its importance and subversive potential. Rather, the fantastic and utopian tendencies of Winterson's text are subversive because they imagine alternative possibilities that have been denied by oppressive discourses. Winterson imagines a character who is ungendered and a world in which the ungendered body matters.

This subversive strategy also challenges the heterosexual imperative because gender is not what...
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