Gender Matters in Autobiography: A Comparative Analysis

William Peña

In reading Jackson's My Body, I found a striking difference with my own work in hypertext semi-autobiography, and I think that investigating where that difference lies leads us to gender differences on the construction of identity. My hypertext work from EL19, Voices in My Head, is a fictional account riffing on autobiography, much Like Jackson's My Body; they both seem to be based on real-life observation but stretched and exaggerated to create a sense of a new identity. I didn't kiss my brother, and Jackson didn't pull a couch from a department store with her vagina, but we understand that these anecdotes play a role within the author's narrative.

Where I find the interesting distinction is the almost dialectical opposition that starts with the titles and pervades through the writing: "Body" vs. "Head," woman vs. man, image vs. character, reclaiming identity vs. constructing it. Reading My Body incredibly enlightening for me as a recognition of what the left-wing female experience towards personal identity could be. I found how in intricate detail the obsession with nuances over her body and it's relationship to how she is viewed and how she views herself, with the compelling struggle to reclaim her body and it's sociocultural implications could be so strikingly different to my own experience, and I can attribute it mostly to the American gender divide. In my own experience, my focus on identity revolves around issues of sexuality in terms of queer identity, romantic relationships, etc.., but never did I embody "maleness" (as opposed to masculinity, the performative aspect and social construction of being male) as a liability, whereas for Jackson, "the arrival of breasts was traumatic." Could it be that this distinction was so easy, so polar, as man vs. woman = mind vs. body?

Well, a conversation with Laura Lee about my essay ideas provided me with a very good insight. Laura told me that men just aren't supposed to think about their bodies; they aren't supposed to be talk about what they look like, but still concern themselves with it; they are supposed to be self-assured about the rigidity of their own masculinity and the power it provides. And she was right. Gender examination for men seems to be an almost non-issue in the public sphere, and yet it is intensely important privately. Men can be bulemic as well, but gender insecurity isn't just about pathology, it's about figuring out that homosexuality must be repressed - men can't really hug, and if they do, they must beat each other in the back, men can't be intimate with each other unless they already engaged in a hypermasculine activity like football, which I used to play - that masculinity is an asset that must be preserved, that certain orifices are inviolate, etc.

In this sense, My Body can also serve as a wake-up call for men who are willing to take Jackson's writing and apply it to their own experience to examine their personal relationship with their too-frequently ignored bodies. While Voices in My Head was an attempt to dissolve the polarities that too often define this man's life, sane vs insane, gay vs. straight, brilliant vs. mediocre, success vs. failure, My Body integrates all aspects without resorting to polarities at all. Perhaps this in itself is a root of the gendered experience of identity, the imposition of oppositions vs. the networked experience.

Jackson's work raises as many questions as anecdotes, and it does so without beating you over the head with them. The writing is wry, honest, and touching, but it leaves an intellectual residue that implores the reader to take her work an extend the lexias to include their own lives.

Discussion of Patchwork
Girl Overview Screen
for Website Body and
Self Theory