Degree: Master of Arts, English Literature
Hometown: Mount Juliet, Tennessee
Thesis Excerpt: “The protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s fifth novel, Orlando, has continually drawn the attention of feminist and queer theorists as a model for the subversive role androgyny and transsexuality can play regarding dominant heterosexual hierarchies of power. Many of these theorists valuably discuss Orlando’s transformation in terms of a heteronormative gender binary, viewing his/her transition as a single crossing from man to woman. I argue, however, that Woolf’s descriptions of Orlando, at times both masculine and feminine despite his/her designated sex, fit more accurately into contemporary discussions of transfeminism in which trans individuals embody a space “in between” or, rather, outside of a strict gender binary. Through a blending of masculine and feminine characteristics, seen in the character’s periodically presenting as both masculine and feminine after his/her transition, Orlando blurs the categories of male/female, masculine/feminine, and sex/gender which so many of the previous readings of the novel rely on. Examining the ways in which Orlando’s gender embodiment and Woolf’s unique presentation of temporality aligns with those described in transgender autobiographies and other trans texts, I attempt to reveal the truly subversive nature of Woolf’s work, as throughout the novel the main character often abandons the gender binary altogether and embodies a fluctuating and unique gender presentation. Further, Woolf’s entanglement of non-normative temporality and non-normative gender presentation works toward an expanding understanding of non-linear gender temporalities, particularly within narratives of gender transition.
Despite the valuable recognition of the text’s subversive feminist qualities, however, very little discussion of Orlando exists that goes beyond a recognition of such fluidity between sex, gender, and sexuality and fully engages transgender and transfeminist theory and narratives. To fully grasp the subversive potential of the text in terms of gender embodiment and its relation to nonnormative temporality, there remains connections to be made utilizing more contemporary theories.
Transfeminism combines transgender theory and feminist theory, recognizing the mutual efforts and goals of each to break down binaries and to challenge expectations of masculinity and femininity along with the continued push against societal constructions of sex and gender…Emi Koyama (2001) describes transfeminism as “primarily a movement by and for trans women who view their liberation to be intrinsically linked to the liberation of all women and beyond.” The goal of the movement is to recognize the ways in which the link between the two areas “extends and advances feminism as a whole through our own liberation and coalition work with all others” (Koyama 2001).
Recognizing the existence of such fluid, non-binary embodiments in fiction, as in Orlando, allows not only for a deeper understanding of the relationship between nonnormative gender and temporality, but also provides a possible precedent to build a queer history of alternative embodiments. Transfeminism, itself, allows for a recognition of the feminist and subversive aspects of Woolf’s text while also pushing the boundaries of femininity, masculinity, and the gender binary in general. As an interdisciplinary endeavor, transfeminist theory provides room for the intersections of gender, sexuality, and embodiment in ways previously unexplored.”