The Passion of New Eve

July 16, 2011

I feel so sad writing this, but after reading this book, I’m striking Angela Carter from my queer pantheon/sheroes list. It breaks my heart. I have vague plans of setting up flying buttress altars in my bedroom with books from authors like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker on them, candles, dried herbs, and other relevant stuff, to remind me every morning and every night that there are good things in the world, and Angela Carter’s work was third on the list. Uh, the list was three people long.

She just did so many of the things that resonate with me: she took feminism very seriously, she had an absolute wingnut imagination, and she was confrontational with those things. She did a lot of work with fairytales. She didn’t tell you how smart she was, she showed you.

Here’s the thing. As allegory, it’s brutal and effective, in large part because of its bluntness: Evelyn is a jerk. He dehumanizes his partner and bails when she gets pregnant. Radical feminists turn him into a woman; part of the indoctrination to womanhood is Ludovico technique screening of the works of Tristessa St Ange. Once Evelyn becomes Eve, she’s kidnapped into a brutal, polygamous parody of a heterosexual relationship, in which she and seven other subservient women cater to every whim of an inarticulate primitivist poet. Eve experiences sexism/the other side of patriarchy firsthand. The inarticulate poet- Zero- decides to kill Tristessa, the movie star, but he and the seven of his wives who aren’t Eve die in the raid. We also find out during the raid that Tristessa is a trans woman. She’s brutally ungendered and then murdered. Eve- pregnant with Tristessa’s child- moves on, into California, into the Earth’s vagina, back to the beginning of time, then leaves America in a boat.

Tristessa is at the center of the novel. If we conceptualize her as the embodiment of patriarchal beauty culture, everything else works as allegory: Eve[lyn] has a soft spot for her from the beginning of the novel. Part of Eve’s training to be a woman is being indoctrination into patriarchal beauty culture; the poet, inarticulate as he is, understands on some level that he’s been made to feel insecure by the same patriarchal beauty culture. She also provides the seed for the baby that’ll eventually, I don’t know, complete Eve’s transition to womanhood, or something. On one level it works very well! It’s smartass satire, which is a pretty effective, indirect way of talking about women’s oppression; in this way, Angela Carter is ahead of the polemics that a lot of other feminists were writing in 1977: she’s saying, “this shit is complicated, so let’s sharpen it up and kill someone with it.”

But by making Tristessa a trans woman, and focusing on her as a product of this ultimate male narcissism- created and perpetuated as much by men in Hollywood, invested in their own culture and privilege and power, as by herself- Carter places at the center of her novel the same straw woman argument that gave us Michfest, Janice Raymond, Bitch, and the narrow definition of women’s liberation that continues to liberate a very few women. The scene in which it’s revealed that Tristessa is a trans woman- was The Reveal already a cliche at this point? I don’t know- leads to thirty pages of the most brutal ungendering, both in the world of the novel and in the text itself, that I think I have ever read. We find out about Tristessa’s junk and immediately Carter’s (or perhaps Eve’s; I tried to read the novel as Eve’s unsophisticated understanding of transsexuality, instead of Carter’s, but much like the racist language Eve uses early on in the novel, that analysis/loophole doesn’t lead anywhere that I can figure out. And I wanted it to) pronouns change. Tristessa is mocked, beaten, sexually assaulted twice in two different ways, her house and art are destroyed, she’s forced into a mock wedding, and then she’s literally ungendered- stripped, head shaven- and unceremoniously shot. In the world of an Angela Carter novel, this cartoonish level of violence is normal- sexual assault is rampant here, in the context of talking about the sexual assault many women experience- but the language, the speculation, the narrative discussion of Tristessa’s sex is so brutal, mean, and located in such an ungendering cultural position, that it just broke my heart. Like outside of the text. My actual heart in my actual ribcage; it fell, my mood deflated, and I had to admit that Angela Carter’s analysis is viciously acute about everything except me.

So in this novel Angela Carter explicitly excludes trans women from her feminism. The central plot, wherein Eve becomes a woman, doesn’t set off any alarms; as I said when I wrote about Trouble on Triton, men- people who are not trans women- becoming women, without having any investment in being women beyond, I don’t know, the superficial- I do think that’s an interesting thing to write about, and the kinds of entitlement that both Even and Bron feel are worth talkig about. I thought Samuel Delany did a good job with it, for the most part! But Carter, here, did not. The difference between Eve and Tristessa is basically that Tristessa felt on some level that she was a woman, whereas Eve did not; and as such, Eve is portrayed to be the real woman, and Tristessa as necessarily not. The only other difference I can think of is that Eve had access to bottom surgery and Tristessa did not; in fact, the surgeon who nonconsensually performed the “sex change” on Eve had previously refused to perform that operation consensually on Tristessa.

It just breaks down pretty hard if you’re looking for a reading that’s respectful of trans women.

And so I feel pretty hurt. I’m 32 years old and I’ve had my heart broken by so many people I thought I could look up to that I pretty much don’t look up to anybody I don’t know any more; most of the stories I write are, on some level, about a failed or failing search for a mentor. But I had thought Angela Carter, author of The Sadeian Woman, wingnut feminist genius with razor-sharp teeth who died young and was willing to confront pretty much everyone, had an analysis that included me. Turns out it doesn’t. It makes sense that this was written in 1977 since hating trans women was pretty popular among “feminists” at that time, but that’s not an excuse;

2 Responses to “The Passion of New Eve”

  1. wolfalice Says:

    I’m confused, why do you feel that Tristessa is a transwoman and Eve is not? I’ve always felt that Tristessa is specifically NOT a transwoman, that he is a man obsessed with a surface image of a woman and tries to embody a very unreal feminine identity. Eve is asked to do the same with her conditioning, but it fails. You say that Eve becomes a woman “without having any investment in being women beyond, I don’t know, the superficial”. But that’s perfectly the line that would describe Tristessa!


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