The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review│The New Woman:  Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and the Trans Feminine Allegory

The New Woman:  Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and the Trans Feminine Allegory.  By Emma Heaney.  Northwestern University Press, 2017.  345 pp.  $39.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Jennifer P. Nesbitt, Penn State—York


It is not possible for a person with a penis to be a woman.  The presumptions, investments, and negations embedded in that statement motivate Emma Heaney’s study The New Woman, an extraction of any vestiges of “biology is destiny” from theoretical and cultural constructions of gender.  Heaney claims that the trans feminine allegory is an asymptotic figure for femininity installed in discourses about sexual identification that allows experts of many stripes to preserve, as factual, a biological line between men and women.  This line persists despite considerable experimentation with the boundary, growing scientific evidence that genital sex is not determinate, and testimony from trans women that contradicts sexological models.  Tracing the trans feminine allegory in literature and theory, Heaney proposes a revised model for analyzing gender, materialist trans feminism.  This model focuses on the material conditions and experiences of living as a woman in institutionally misogynist cultures.  In the process of historicizing trans femininity, Heaney offers some compelling readings of well-known modernist texts (Ulysses, Nightwood) and unweaves theoretical works by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Lee Edelman.  Most importantly, Heaney takes at their word the testimony of trans women, real and fictional, about their experiences as women.        

The study divides into two parts, the first focused on the early twentieth century and the second on the emergence of queer theory in the 1990s.  Heaney posits the instantiation of the trans feminine allegory during the first period and then traces its reification in key theoretical texts for queer theory. In each section, Heaney consolidates the critique of theoretical models with evidence from life writing by trans women. Thus, Heaney claims, despite evidence showing great variety in self-perception among trans women, trans feminine experience “has taken on the status of an explanatory figure in stories about the general relation between bodily structures and sex identity” (5) and that relation is inversion (“a woman trapped in a man’s body”).  Allegorizing a trans feminine, Heaney contends, preserves woman as an abject term from which the New Woman and the homosexual free themselves (Part I). Later in the century, a trans feminine allegory destabilizes both the terms of and the relationship between gender and sex, enabling the emergence of queerness as an empowered critical and political stance also distinct from the category woman (Part II).  

For Heaney, this formation reifies the abjection of woman as a social category, with two important consequences.  First, those who share material conditions as women remain politically divided and, second, interpretive models unnecessarily limit readings of feminine experience.  In politics, for example, Heaney argues that the imputation of “women’s work as a preference that expresses gender rather than a necessity of living as a woman” leaves unchanged the presumption that sex and gender are aligned (26).  A literary example arises when, according to Heaney, literary critics follow James Joyce’s lead in Ulysses.  Joyce’s presentation of Leopold Bloom’s sex changes are metaphorical rather than literal:  “Joyce engages the idea that a man could be made into a woman in order to figure the relation between men and power, but stops short of engaging the reality that some women have penises” (97).  Following suit, literary critics endorse the naturalization of suffering as a condition of womanhood. 

Heaney’s analysis of Ulysses highlights the interpretive richness of her model—a relatively simple observation mandates a rethinking of gender in literary analysis.  In general, (re)readings of both literary and theoretical texts are tightly focused and convincing, if occasionally prolonged.  Thus, the inconsistencies in Heaney’s chapter on Djuna Barnes stand out despite the solid work in a section on Matthew O’Connor, the trans feminine character in Nightwood.  The Ryder section includes superficially explicated block quotations and some sloppily handled secondary source references.  Explications of poems from The Book of Repulsive Women, notably “From Fifth Avenue Up” and “To a Cabaret Dancer,” rely on implied analysis rather than substantial engagement with language.  The rushed feeling of this chapter seems an injustice to The New Woman and to an author Heaney admires.    

By contrast, Heaney’s discussions of trans women’s life writing (chapter 4 and 6)—which Heaney defines broadly to include material presented in sexology texts, court transcripts, and more traditional published work—collect and analyze disparate material to show how the trans feminine allegory distorts our understanding of personal narratives. These narratives refute theoretical models:   “Trans women had a variety of understandings of their bodies that often did not conform to the sexological metaphor of entrapment and desire for change” (154).  Moreover, Heaney includes accounts that illustrate the imbrication of class and femininity in trans experience, racialize trans feminine experience, and assess trans femininity in narratives of colonization.  In discussing the paucity of evidence, Heaney recounts the burning of the archives of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in 1933:  perhaps “lost to history in a day” were many documents about trans feminine life (197).  This destruction of records highlights the importance of preserving trans feminine testimony and participation in the feminist and Gay Rights movements, where a similar narrative of marginalization has ignited debates about who can speak safely for whom.  (I’ve borrowed this phrasing from Jane Marcus’s Hearts of Darkness.  See Evan Urquhart’s Slate October 13, 2017 column on two recent documentaries about activist Marsha P. Johnson).  The resonance of these events with A Room of One’s Own affirms Heaney’s observation that erasure from history is a shared material condition for all those who live as women.

Accomplished as this study is, The New Woman reads sluggishly due to organizational and stylistic problems.  In the introduction, Heaney understates her range by announcing that she will trace “an allegorical strain in British Modernism” (9, italics added); she applies her model to materials that range across the US, Europe, and beyond.  Heaney might also have eased readers into her argument by presenting life writing first because the relatively straightforward analysis there supports the intricate deconstructive maneuvers Heaney later uses for literary and theoretical texts.  Similarly, Heaney’s prose sometimes gets in her way, alternating between convoluted over-explication and redundant exposition.  Elegance and economy is within Heaney’s range, but quotable lines like “woman has never been a cis category” (20) coexist with clunkers like “He [Joyce] offers an aesthetic and conceptual investigation of the way sensation produces gendered meaning that rhymes with trans feminine understandings of sex in the period that we’ll encounter in chapter 4” (71).  The New Woman could have been shorter and more compelling with additional revision and editing.  

The concluding chapter of The New Woman posits a materialist trans feminism that “reinstalls women and the feminine as vital categories for feminist theory and political activity with none of the universalizing (and thus cis sexist, racist, and bourgeois) baggage that made us turn away from those categories to begin with” (297).  A whiff of the master signifier might attach here, but Heaney attends throughout to a plurality inherent in a trans feminine understanding of “women and the feminine.”  The study rests on listening to, hearing, and caring about women’s diversity and women’s commonality.  Heaney brings to The New Woman a personal commitment to trans women past and present, a vocabulary that enables us to speak truths about personal experience with generosity, and a politics of legibility that counters cis rhetorics of deliberate ignorance. Heaney forwards the scholarly and political projects of inclusivity by demonstrating that there are no lines to cross except the ones we make, unmake, and remake in the interests of patriarchal cis dominance. 



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