DIG 340 Shrout
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels. The trouble makers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.” – Steve Jobs
If we are to believe Steve Job’s mantra that misfits make the world go round, then perhaps the once-popular, now-spurned “Great Man” theory of history ought to be replaced by a “Great Deviant” one. A number of feminist historians have already taken up this mantle, choosing to pen what gender theorist Barbara Caine calls “heroic accounts of great and unusual women” (259). Caine is critical of such works for their privileging of a narrow set of perspectives, and calls for a new approach that, in the case of women’s history, might illuminate how “the life-histories of individual women can provide insight into the general situation of women” (250). Whether in response to Caine’s own entreaty or to other mounting pressures within the field, historians of gender and sexuality have indeed begun to re-evaluate their approach to documenting the lives of individuals whose behaviors or identity were considered in some way atypical for the standards of gender and sexuality of their time. In this analysis, I will review a selection of works that move beyond merely championing their subjects’ achievements or fetishizing their oddness, and instead consider how and why these individuals’ deviancies affect not just the subject him/herself, but those who witnessed their behaviors.
A suitable starting point for such an investigation, however, might be a work that embodies many of Caine’s complaints. At the opposite pole from Caine’s proposal that historians position exceptional or unusual individuals within larger systems of gender and society are those works that instead focus on and in many cases exaggerate their subject’s idiosyncrasies. An excellent, if somewhat unconventional example of this pattern is the 1996 biopic of Alan Turing titled Breaking the Code. The film places Turing’s awkwardness and homosexuality at its narrative center, with nearly every scene focusing on how his deviancies from social norms limited him both from reaching his greatest potential and, for many years, from garnering much public recognition, as the final shot of the small memorial sign at Alan Turing Way seems to suggest (1:29:40). Meanwhile, the film largely ignores Turing’s actual work on the Enigma code and its significance on the outcome of World War II, as well as the contributions made by his male and female teammates at Bletchley Park. The overall effect is one that perhaps should be expected of a film designed for popular consumption: by the end of the movie, the viewer is expected to both sympathize deeply with Turing’s inner struggles and to buy into the film’s premise that Turing was the most peculiar, if not also the most important scientist working at Bletchley Park in the 1940s. However, it is precisely because of its explicit focus on Turing’s sexual and societal deviancy that Breaking the Code is worth including in an examination of scholarly writings, for the film highlights a narrative trope that exists across multiple media forms: that of invoking the viewer’s or reader’s sympathy and interest in individuals who could not receive the same during their own time.
To be sure, historians’ tendency to focus on deviant individuals is not solely the product of an affection for an underdog narrative. As Barbara Caine keenly points out, historians write about prominent individuals because they are often the easiest to write about: they leave behind “collections of letters, diaries, and even autobiographies” (251). Still, in studying socially deviant individuals, even primary source documents can prove problematic for scholarly use. In her essay “Theorizing Deviant Historiography,” Jennifer Terry explains the difficulty of writing on those people she dubs “deviant subjects”:
“A practical problem of having little ‘raw material’ or authentic ‘experience’ that is not already configured in pejorative medical, psychiatric, penal, or religious discourses leads to a theoretical problem highlighted in queer history which Foucault summed up in a question: ‘How can the truth of the sick subject be told?’” (281)
Clearly, there is no obvious answer to Foucault’s query, but historians have since adopted a number of strategies for writing on the “sick subject,” a term I will expand to match Terry’s more inclusive and less pejorative category, the “deviant subject.” One such approach can be found in Alison Winter’s essay on the social context and implications of Victorian mathematician and scientist Ada Lovelace’s near-constant physical ailments. Winter establishes early on in her piece that while perpetual sickliness was common amongst Victorian women, Lovelace nonetheless differed wildly from her contemporaries, in that her incredible intellect and high social standing afforded her opportunities that most women in her time lacked (202-203). But rather than treat Lovelace like Breaking the Code treated Turing and argue that her oddness is interesting for its own sake, Winter posits that Lovelace’s differences from her peers can be used to illuminate larger questions regarding Victorian expectations of masculinity and femininity, and their relation to scientific work (204). Lovelace’s indefatigable passion for learning and scientific research, for example, directly challenged Victorian conceptions of womanhood and placed her within a small group of “intellectual women [who] became the focus of cultural debate.” (204) Winter further interprets Lovelace’s physical frailty and confinement to her home – considered abnormal by modern standards even if not by her own – as granting her not only ample time to pursue her research, but also the impetus for her eventual decision to turn her scientific focus inward, toward her own body (229-230).
Alison Winter thus approaches Ada Lovelace’s exceptional and abnormal privileges and characteristics in a way that opens inquiry far beyond the scope of the “deviant subject” herself. Winter’s argument thus falls in line with Jennifer Terry’s theorization of a so-called “history of difference,” which she defines as:
“[a broadening of] the critical scope of history … to look, not at women or gay people or African Americans per se, but at the analytic categories and social systems of race, gender, class, and sexuality, which, through dividing practices, construct these subjects as well as their heretofore unmarked opposites.” (277)
This shift from writing solely about deviant subjects to studying the very systems that create and define their deviancy, clearly present in Winter’s study of Lovelace, has already been adopted by a number of other historians of gender and sexuality. John Kasson, for example, argues that famed magician Harry Houdini’s public exhibitions of his nearly-nude body were particularly alluring to an audience for whom such displays of male physique – especially ones involving bondage – were considered taboo and un-masculine (116). Houdini’s implorations that his audience members come forward and search his imprisoned body (Kasson 116) were thus just as much an invitation for the public to question the constraints placed on their own bodies as they were an invitation to inspect the literal constraints on his. Read in this way, Kasson’s study of Houdini’s deviancy is less a biography of Houdini and more an ethnography of the populations he performed for, and an investigation of the systems that defined the modesty of the masses as “normal” and Houdini’s exhibitions as “abnormal.”
Valuable as they are in pushing biographies of deviant subjects toward histories of differences, Winter’s and Kasson’s works are still somewhat limited by their monolithic treatment of their subjects’ social and cultural importance. Shortly after defining “histories of difference,” Jennifer Terry warns against those studies that treat identity as a constant trait that historians can discover and restore from invisibility (277). Though I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Winter and Kasson merely play the role of loudspeaker for these individuals, I am slightly leery of their fairly unilateral treatment of their respective subjects’ identities. Specifically, Winter spends the bulk of her essay considering what Lovelace’s treatment of her abnormalities meant to her own identity, while Kasson takes a near-opposite approach, focusing instead on what Houdini’s meant to those who observed him. In both cases, discrepancies between the individual’s public and private identities are largely ignored.
Meanwhile, Mary Poovey’s study of the conflicting narratives and identities of Florence Nightingale addresses these discrepancies directly. Poovey corroborates Jennifer Terry’s claim that identities are multifaceted and often in disagreement, for she theorizes that Nightingale’s public image differed wildly from her own, private self and that the gap between the two only grew over time (198). In fact, Nightingale’s own social deviancy was in many ways entirely constructed by the public, as a wave of contradictory media coverage ultimately coalesced to form an unheard of portrait of womanhood that fused “a domestic narrative of maternal nurturing and self-sacrifice and a military narrative of individual assertion and will.” (169) Though Poovey’s articulation of the complex construction of Nightingale’s deviancy from norms of femininity is incredibly valuable on its own, I’d argue that her most important contribution comes at the end of her essay. Here, Poovey emphasizes that Nightingale’s agency over her public image quickly escaped her, and that narratives of her identity were “produced, marketed and consumed” (198) by groups that saw ways to use her image for their own benefit. Poovey pays greatest attention to feminists who used Nightingale’s work as testament to women’s rightful place within the public sphere, ironically (and depressingly) appropriating her name for “the feminist cause the woman herself refused to support.” (198) In explaining how feminists used Nightingale’s unorthodox work as a tool to close the gap between typical and atypical behaviors for women, Poovey’s analysis moves beyond just highlighting the importance of Nightingale’s deviancies and into a more nuanced investigation of how the categories of normal and abnormal are re-defined.
If Breaking the Code is held back by its nearly obsessive fascination with Turing’s idiosyncrasies and sexual deviance, then is the better alternative to minimize their abnormality, and to thus “normalize” the deviant subject? Some works do, in fact, take this approach: namely, the Associated Press’ obituary for astronaut Sally Ride limits any mention of her personal life to an implicit reference to her homosexuality in the final sentence – “she is survived by Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years” (Borenstein). Yet as this analysis of studies of three other “deviants” has shown, Ride’s sexuality – much like Houdini’s exhibitionism, Lovelace’s frailty, and Nightingale’s contradictory, media-dictated gender identities – differences deserve ample investigation. Ride’s homosexuality matters not just to our understanding of her, but to our evolving understandings of women’s role in science, women’s sexuality’s role in science, and to a stereotype of heroinism that will hopefully soon make room for non-heterosexual women. Perhaps Steve Job’s appraisal of misfits was a bit narrow, then, for not only do misfits change the world, but they also change how we see and understand it.
Borenstein, Seth. “Sally Ride Obituary.” The Associated Press, 2012. Web. 14 April 2016.
Breaking the Code. Dir. Herbert Wise. Perf. Derek Jacobi. YouTube. YouTube, 27 October 2011. Web. 14 April 2016.
Caine, Barbara. “Feminist Biography and Feminist History.” Women’s History Review 3.2 (1994): 247-261. Web. 14 April 2016.
Kasson, John F. “The Manly Art of Escape.” Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Print.
Poovey, Mary. “A Housewifely Woman: The Social Construction of Florence Nightingale.” Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. Web. 14 April 2016.
Terry, Jennifer. “Theorizing Deviant Historiography.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3.2 (1991): 55-74. Web. 14 April 2016.
Winter, Alison. “A Calculus of Suffering: Ada Lovelace and the Bodily Constraints on Women’s Knowledge in Early Victorian England.” Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (1998) 202-239. Web. 14 April 2016.