Gender Norms in Giovanni’s Room: A Reference Not a Rule

On Monday, our class had a discussion on Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, where we talked about Hella’s judgmental remarks after her return from Spain.  My classmates Alana and Anisa provided ample evidence from the text showing when Hella protected judgement onto other characters.  Even though it was clear their claim was true, I persisted in asking them: “Why does this matter? How does this add complexity to the plot? How does this impact our understanding of the novel?”. 

People are more likely to cast negative thoughts towards those who they are envious of.  In the novel, Hella casted her judgement at a character like Giovanni who was clearly very content with the person he was.  He wasn’t afraid of his sexuality and desires, in fact he openly expressed them.  Much to the contrary, Hella had very negative experiences with her gender identity.  She allowed gender norms to dictate what her actions and appearance would look like, which caused her to hate being a woman and all the things that apparently came with being one.  This is exactly where the downfall of American’s interpretation of gender norms are.  There is no right way to be a woman.  Being a woman shouldn’t mean you are confined to a certain set of appearances, sexualities, and life goals like Hella thought.

There are numerous similarities between Hella and David’s identities and actions that show how America’s strict interpretations of gender norms hurt both men and women.  David was very troubled with the person he was, as he was constantly fighting an internal battle to resist his homosexual desires.  All of these reservations proved to be very damaging to David mentally as he tried to stop himself from actions that were valid and irresistible.  He admittedly says that his reservations are due to the American society he was raised in. It is no coincidence that both Hella and David are from the United States and are the only ones in the story who have gender identity problems.

Despite these apparent problems, gender norms are not inherently bad.  They help men and women understand their gender by showing them examples on how they can relate to people of the same gender.  The issue lies in how strictly we interpret gender norms as Americans.  We view gender norms as two concrete boxes: men and women that you must totally fit in. This interpretation of gender norms is very problematic as it gives men and women the sense that if they don’t fit into those boxes there is something wrong with them.  We as a class can start by viewing gender norms as more of reference and less of a rule, so we don’t cause more people in our Blake community to feel restricted by their gender.

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