I had planned to make this post a reflection on my last semester and writing an honors thesis, since most of you reading this blog are in the SAS Honors Program and may wind up writing a departmental thesis as a senior. However, I don’t feel quite “done” with my thesis, even though I handed it in last month, because I have not yet presented at the Honors English Symposium. The symposium will take place this Friday, April 29th at 3pm (cue panic mode!!!!).
So, instead of trying to offer you advice while I’m still working on an important component of my thesis, I will instead tell you about how this thesis changed my mindset and introduced me to a life-changing set of books.
I knew since last summer that I wanted to write about gender and sexuality in literature. An academic year is a long time to spend on one project, so your topic should definitely be something you are passionate about. It would have been very difficult, in hindsight, to fake interest in a topic for 40 pages of writing. So, I began to research and gather ideas for a thesis having to do with gender and sexuality, a specialization in literature which I had an individual interest in but had not delved into too deeply in any particular class.
After changing my mind and altering my ideas a number of times–a scary part of the process, but something that is to be expected–I set out to write about gender fluidity. For those of you who don’t know, gender is not the same as sex. While sex is biological, gender is constructed based upon our society’s ideas of the characteristics to be associated with our sex. For example, my sex is female and my gender identity is also female because I identify with being a woman. However, not everyone’s gender automatically aligns with their sex.
So, if we think of sex, gender, and sexuality as a spectrum, as pictured above, then fluidity describes one’s ability to move freely on the spectrum. (Click here for a really great, simple breakdown of gender, sex, and sexuality terms if you’d like more information).
The more research I did, the more fluid my thesis topic became. One of my primary texts was Orlando by Virginia Woolf, a genre-blending tale of Orlando who undergoes a magical transformation from biologically male to biologically female. Woolf uses fiction and magic as a way to discuss real issues of gender, identity, and privilege in 1928–issues we are still discussing in startlingly similar ways today. At first, I accepted most critics’ idea that Orlando represented a transgender identity.
However, I noticed moments where Orlando had to construct her gendered responses, or moments where the narrator of the story would become frustrated with the language available to describe Orlando. I started to feel that I could not determine Orlando’s identity because I did not think she could be concretely placed on either end of the gender identity spectrum. I felt that boxing Orlando in with a label would be unfair and do a disservice to Woolf’s progressive writing on gender. Orlando was still Orlando at her core, regardless of her sex OR gender, and this concept of “internal identity” seemed separate and potentially more crucial to one’s personhood than their gender identity.
Spending months and months with Orlando really opened my eyes to how long progressive thinkers have been grappling with the same issues and struggling to find words for identities that feel right.
Additionally, writing my thesis exposed me to the best book I read during my four years of college: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Around the time of Maggie Nelson’s reading on campus last fall semester, Professor Jurecic, the director of the honors thesis program, recommended that I read The Argonauts and potentially use it to frame my thesis. Little did I know that Nelson’s genre-blending book of memoir/criticism would represent my own identity and life better than any other book I’ve read. Seriously, if I could recommend one book for the entire world to read, it would be this one.
The Argonauts tells the story of Nelson’s relationship with her partner Harry Dodge, whose gender identity can be considered fluid, though he presents on the more masculine side of the spectrum. As Harry takes steps to change his body by using hormone replacement therapy and getting top surgery, Nelson progresses through her pregnancy, a markedly female experience.
Reading and considering The Argonauts in relation to Orlando was an incredibly eye-opening and hopeful experience. While Orlando had to be fiction and tell its story using magic as a way to disguise the real issues it brought up, The Argonauts was straight-forward, honest, beautiful–and best of all, real. While we’ve had progressive thinkers fighting to open society’s eyes for a long time, we now have people changing minds and opening eyes just by living open and happy lives, like Maggie Nelson in her memoir. Observing this shift through literature was certainly the highlight of my thesis experience because it made me hopeful for further progress in the future.
At the first meeting of students writing English theses last fall, Professor Jurecic told us that writing a thesis would be the most challenging and rewarding part of our undergraduate experience. I am so happy to say that she was right.