I have often had cause throughout my academic career to consider how my peers and I are approached in ways that clearly highlight our gender. I reflect on how I have adopted feminist theories in my research, classrooms, and work, only to be confronted by situations that remind me how urgent it is that universities still teach and incorporate its various tenets and how often we are yet compelled to live in contradiction of them. The literature I teach, specifically, provides me with complicated, albeit useful, templates for how to navigate with greater care the contradictions and demands of gender—in my life as an academic, as a colleague and a friend, and as a citizen of Canada, Turtle Island, and the world.
If we study the evolution of gender and sexuality as represented in literature in Canada, it becomes apparent that gender and sexuality are also sites of contestation on a national scale, whereby those on the conveyer belt of citizenship sometimes find ways to step off, change the process, or bring it to a halt. It is logical, therefore, that recent civic debates about how identities are represented in public spaces inform and engage with state policies. From definitions of what constitutes feminism, to what counts as masculine, to how transgender, Two-Spirit, or gender-nonconforming persons refuse discrete binary structures—these are just a few of the many discussions that inform political structures and decisions, determining policy outcomes that affect academic and other workplaces and, eventually, literature itself. The relationship is, however, mutually constitutive, since literature also has an impact on the contours of gender and sexuality. Those manifestations are shaped by negotiations with or refusals of determined markers of identity, that is, resistance to social systems that authorize and arrange a limited number of gender possibilities. The production of gender and sexuality may at times run counter to the very models or templates to which the state holds fast. Ultimately, gender and sexuality, even as they are at times expressed through literature, may also therefore come to serve as tools of empire and nation-state.
If gender and sexuality are seen as such, we must also consider Canada’s past status as a colony of Britain. Gender and sexuality were borrowed from and modelled after British categories of identity as a way of highlighting English Canada’s imperial connections and denouncing attachment to the US or, for that matter, to racialized or gender-nonbinary identities. Such a sense of subjectivity was tied to rhetorical appeals to decency and civility and popular notions about race and class—as it also helped to secure a national identity that was yet unstable because of its new context as a colony.
As an instructor of Indigenous and Canadian literature/studies and of gender theory, I am mindful of this history—and I consider how feminism is implicated with and has had repercussions for all genders and sexualities. We cannot see feminism as an isolated area of study, precisely because of such repercussions. One example to consider in view of contemporary scholarly currents of gender and sexuality revolves around Indigenous men and masculinities. These topics have increasingly come under critical scrutiny, beginning in the 1970s, when masculinity was conceptualized as a social construct, rendered visible for its hold on power, rather than understood as a manifestation of biological facticity. Indigenous men and masculinities have thus come to the fore in critical inquiry in recent decades.
Most critics focus on the dearth of scholarship related to the unique features of Indigenous masculinities. In Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, and Regeneration, for example, editors Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson argue that feminist and masculinity studies have often been treated as opposites. They argue that there has been “little activism or political will to address Indigenous men’s issues, and as a result there are very few policies or social programs designed for Indigenous men” (3). They urge scholars to assume a wider view. As roles for women and femininities have expanded and gained traction over the last several decades, scholarship must explore men and masculinities and, in particular, consider how “Indigenous men are more often viewed as victimizers, not as victims,” a function of a “hegemonic masculinity that is perpetuated through white supremacist patriarchy” (9). As the goalposts continue to change for women, feminism, and femininity, in other words, these shifts must have implications for the study of men and masculinities, especially Indigenous ones.
One writer who has worked productively against singular and violent notions of manhood and their repercussions for women is the Dene writer Richard Van Camp. Van Camp is from the Tłı̨chǫ Dene Nation from Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories, which is also the setting for his short story collection The Moon of Letting Go. One of his stories from The Moon of Letting Go, “Show Me Yours,” offers a clear example of how Van Camp explores vulnerability as essential to practising a sustainable form of masculinity—and this vulnerability’s significant repercussions for women and feminism. At the outset of “Show Me Yours,” the narrator recounts how two characters that search for and bully him are startled to find a necklace with his baby picture hanging from it—one that replaces the image of a saint, an implicit reference to the legacies of the Catholic Residential School system. The discovery brings them to a halt—the token of vulnerability not only confounds them, but also disrupts the violence of the encounter. They release the narrator and enjoin him contemptuously to “[g]o home” because he’s “not a man anymore” (4)—they believe that wearing his baby picture has undone his manhood. The narrator, incidentally also named Richard, has indeed experienced a change. His response to his attackers in that moment—“I’m trying to be!”—communicates his desire to be different from the person they once recognized, one that challenges and undermines his bullies (4).
By the story’s end, Shawna, a woman Richard has loved for some time, visits him later in his life; his earlier practice of masculinity had impeded his connection with her. The story culminates in the flourishing of their romantic heterosexual relationship, where, as Richard relates, Shawna takes “her beautiful baby Cree picture and [holds] it up and I put mine facing hers and we kiss” (7). Here, the practice of being vulnerable also serves as a prototype for all manner of relationships and bonds featured throughout the rest of the short story cycle. Richard the narrator and Richard Van Camp the author, in other words, “show us theirs” in this story, demonstrating that vulnerability takes courage, that vulnerability produces real intimacy—and that vulnerability may be offered as a way of recalibrating our understanding of gender as a whole.
Innes, Robert Alexander, and Kim Anderson, editors. Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, and Regeneration. U of Manitoba P, 2015.
Van Camp, Richard. The Moon of Letting Go. Enfield & Wizenty, 2009.
Linda Morra is Full Professor of Canadian Literature/Canadian Studies at Bishop’s University.
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