The Politics of Sex and Gender in Middlemarch, “The Goblin Market” and “A Castaway”

The Politics of Sex and Gender in Middlemarch, “The Goblin Market” and “A Castaway”
By Morgan Pinder

Discourse regarding gender in Victorian literature has its foundation in an entrenched, and for the most part unchallenged binary. Coming out of the Georgian and Regency eras the societal expectations placed upon a woman were very clearly those of subservience and benignity, whereas the man was able to execute a level of agency that, while limited by class restrictions, was far more liberal than that of their wives, mothers and daughters. Men had control over family wealth and power, whereas everything a woman had at her disposal was within her own person, that is her virtue, morality, intelligence and drive to survive or nurture. It would be all too easy to paint men as the oppressors, as the enemy of women, but the Victorian depiction of the relationship and the power dynamic between the genders is often complex. In this essay I will explore the primary texts Middlemarch (Eliot, 2015), “The Goblin Market” (Rossetti, 2017) and “A Castaway” (Webster, 2017) and how each depicts the complex interplay of gender relations and power.

Christina Rossetti

Central to Rosetti’s depiction of femininity is the idea of sisterhood and the relationships between women, particularly, but not exclusively those who are biologically related (Casey, 64). The sisters, Laura and Lizzie, live a very simple existence but derive strength comfort and warmth from their relationship with each other. As there is no mention of any other people in their home lives they seem to lead an isolated, but happy and safe existence (Rossetti, 184-198). It is only through the strength of their bond, and Lizzie’s sacrifice for her sister that they are able to overcome the goblins and their curse. The action Lizzie takes to save her sister from temptation and ruin makes her a Christ like figure in an era when men were commonly the redeemers. Lizzie as the figure of sisterly redemption echoes the notion of sisterhood that was gaining increasing traction, not only through religion but also through the more secular practice of nursing made prominent in the contemporary public consciousness (Casey, 64).

The projected image of masculinity in “The Goblin Market” is presented as a dichotomy of sorts; there are the goblins who would steal the morality and virtue of the sisters, and their eventual husbands with whom they are happily married in the conclusion (Rossetti, 544). The husbands and the situation of being married do not seem oppressive, or destructive as the Goblins did, providing evidence to suggest that Rossetti is not using the masculine as the enemy of the feminine, but rather that men have the potential to operate via trickery and vice can be deployed to enslave young women and girls (Casey, 67). In the end the weakness of the Goblin men is exposed by the redemptive sisterly love that Lizzie exhibits for her sister.

The potential toxicity of masculine is also explored in Webster’s “A Castaway”. Webster also presents us with two visions of masculinity; the men who have cast aside Eulalie and her clients. She asserts that she “hate[s] men” (Webster, 271) when expressing her need for a female redeemer rather than a male. She has fallen victim to a society that only affords men the privilege of education, adventure, and autonomy. As a result of being punished for not abiding by the rules of her preassigned role she has become resentful of the males whom the system directly benefits. She speaks of her brother who was given all the chances she lacked and from whom she has since become estranged. Unlike her brother she has been offered limited ways by which to ensure her survival, many of which are not guaranteed and force her to relinquish her autonomy (Webster, 264-269), whilst men who are more immoral than her are revered (Webster, 86-103).

Augusta Webster

Eulalie in “A Castaway” problematizes the othering of the fallen woman or prostitute in Victorian society. Unlike the sisterhood of the “Goblin Market”, the wives and other, reputable women stand in judgement of Eulalie treating her as a completely different creature from themselves (Sutphin, 520). She regards their disapproval and condemnation with disdain (Webster, 137-140), and thus this mutual resentment sets up a combative and vicious relationship between women as they scramble to make their way in a world where they are all subservient to men in some way. The othering of Eulalie is particularly difficult as she does not conform to the general image of the prostitute of the time; she is from a good family, she dresses well and does not make a spectacle of herself as other, less privileged and refined women do (Sutphin, 527). She is more like them than the society women and men would like to admit, and if they acknowledged this they would not be able to treat her as they do. The reader however is being forced into acknowledging her problematic status and as a result, Eulalie becomes a sympathetic and confronting figure of Victorian womanhood (Sutphin, 527).

Unlike the men in Eulalie’s story the men of Middlemarch are more nuanced in their good nature and villainy. Many powerful men in the text lose their power through their own machinations. The pious Mr. Casaubon wreaks havoc on his wife Dorethea from beyond the grave, judging her without cause. He not only implies Dorethea has feelings for Will, but his accusation sets in motion the events that he was trying to prevent in the first place (Eliot, 1141-1148). Similarly, Mr. Featherstone’s desire for power over his benefactors leads him to create two wills and then be deprived of the choice of which is executed by the principled Mary Garth who refuses to burn the most recent and vindictive will (Eliot,739-748). In this way the powerless servant girl Mary is suddenly put in a position of tremendous power despite the money and influence of the man who has been, until the final moments of his existence, dominant of her.

Young Fred’s form of weakness on the other hand is one of little thought and obligation. He is silly and frivolous as he has never had to be otherwise as a young man of means. The women around him and those who support him are left to deal with the fallout of his actions. Unlike the pride of Mr. Casaubon and Mr. Featherstone, whose devastation is wreaked when they are deceased, Fred is redeemable and it is through the hardship and forgiveness of Mary and her family that he begins to understand the impact his actions may have (Eliot, 581). The implication of the text seems to be that men of means who are not held accountable can be a destructive force that reverberates throughout their community, whereas a man who is held accountable, whether by others or his own morality and strength of character can be a force for good or at the least benignity. 

George Eliot

Women are ultimately reliant on men for survival in Middlemarch but the form their dependent relationship takes varies. Dorethea, Rosamond and Celia are aware of the need for them to marry well in order to be respectable prosperous women. Their beauty and refinement are emphasized as they are the key assets in ensuring they can maintain their luxurious lifestyle (Waddle 19). However, the “dreadful plain” Mary Garth (Eliot, 240) defies this convention, choosing, of her own volition instead to marry Fred who is not the best match available to her (Waddle 22). Dorethea in her marriage is entirely subservient to Mr. Casaubon and Rosamond is completely infantilized, whereas Mary and Fred have a much more equal dynamic as demonstrated by her ability to admonish him without fear and their mutual respect for one another (Waddle, 21). The only power available to many of the women in Middlemarch is wielded through influencing their husbands. The women, often have limited impact outside the domestic sphere and as a result are often confined to it. It is the men of Middlemarch who are the ones who are held in high esteem for their works and are able to avoid obligation should they choose. The contribution of women is less valued and they are heavily restricted by social constructs and domestic obligation.

These texts highlight the degree to which women are often utterly without independent power in Victorian society. Whether she is a woman of means or poor she is able to escape the limitations faced by her within society. Unlike men she has limited established protections and is often unable to defend herself against injustice. However, she is demonstrated as being in every part the equal of a man within her character and if banded together in sisterhood with other women may overcome men that wish to enslave her. She has the potential to save, condemn, manipulate and do great good on the occasion that she is afforded the opportunity. The downfall of the woman is her lack of power within social structures designed to further the ambitions of men and protect them from their own weakness. The men of these texts are diverse but all share reasonable access to power and autonomy. The entirety of the male gender is not painted as monstrous, rather these texts show examples that prove the male gender to be just as corruptible, redeemable, well-meaning and fallible as the female. 

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Casey, Janet Galligani. “The Potential of Sisterhood: Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market.’” Victorian Poetry, vol. 29, no. 1, 1991, pp. 63–78. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Eliot, G. (2015). Middlemarch. 2nd ed. [ebook] Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Available at: [Accessed 1 Sep. 2017].

Rossetti, Christina. “The Goblin Market” Course Reader, 2017, ENGX314 iLearn site.  

Sutphin, Christine. “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 38, no. 4, 2000, pp. 511–532. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Waddle, Keith A. “Mary Garth, The Wollstonecraftian Feminist of ‘Middlemarch.’ “George Eliot – George Henry Lewes Studies, no. 28/29, 1995, pp. 16–29.JSTOR, JSTOR, 

Webster, Augusta. “A Castaway” Course Reader, 2017, ENGX314 iLearn site.


How do Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in A Room Of One’s Own and The Yellow Wallpaper, use physical space to examine the position of women within society?

The issue of the personal and physical space of women looms large in A Room Of One’s Own (Woolf, 2014) and The Yellow Wallpaper (Gilman, 2013). Woolf emphasises the need for seclusion, whilst Gilman rallies against it when it is enforced. The key to this issue of space in these texts is the notion of control and autonomy; the relationship between the space accessible by the narrator’s in these texts is symptomatic of the social, legislative and economic structures that confine and prescribe their movement throughout their environment, and the kind of environments to which they are permitted access.

To establish the relationship between space and societal positioning in The Yellow Wallpaper and A Room of One’s Own it is important to highlight the social controls that can be directly linked to the use of space within these texts. Patriarchal control of education and finances relies on the isolation of women from places which would allow them to procure the means to self sufficiency and by result self determination.

The use of domestic space and room furnishings or decor as a focal point for the protagonists psychosis in The Yellow Wallpaper enter the realm of domestic coding in women’s literature (Radner and Lanser, 414) which follows in the tradition of women in literature being acutely aware of their domestic space due to the cultural conventions and roles they are expected to fulfil. It is a secret knowledge of the domestic that subverts the patriarchal control of information and power. In the case of The Yellow Wallpaper, Gilman’s narrator has an acute, painful and maddening obsession with the pattern in the wallpaper of her domestic prison, and whilst this obsession takes a delusional turn her initial dislike of the wallpaper is firmly rooted in the domestic, with the discussion of aesthetics and practicalities, but combined with her confinement grows into something much darker. Gilman reveals this progression gradually through the increasingly agitated reflections of the narrator; 

It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw-not beautiful ones like buttercups but old foul, bad yellow things.

Gilman, 18

On the other hand Woolf’s insight into this preoccupation with the physical and domestic sphere allows her to reflect on the familial and household considerations that lie between women and academic or creative endeavours in a way that the student, Shakespeare and the gentlemen at the university can never properly fathom due to their limited exposure and negligible responsibilities in this field at this time. 

Woolf goes into great detail about the importance of personal space for expression (Neely, 318) when any individual is endeavouring to create, most famously positing that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf, 11).

But the dominion that men hold over financial matters, both in Woolf’s time and, in particular, the times of her mother and her maternal ancestors (Woolf, 24) means that they also control access to space, making it near impossible for a woman to carve out a space for herself without the sanction or patronage of male benefactors. The academic and literary space that Woolf craves for women is expressed through the imagery of the simple room, she does not demand a luxurious space but a space free from the domestic subjugation of her foremothers and from the patronizing, sensational judgement of her gender by the scores of male authors whose works she notes in the library (Woolf, 31). Woolf in her perusal of these library shelves finds and absence of space for women; the judgement of women by men was well represented, but women authors had not even been allowed a small space upon a shelf purporting to be full of the most pertinent information about them. The male academic construction of woman as domestic, exotic or dangerous is made evident through the disappointing results of the narrator’s research and places women in society in roles entirely defined by the male perception of them. Masculine constructed views of women dominate the shelf space, in this library as they do outside it’s walls (Rosenman, 645).

This masculine control of space is also evident in The Yellow Wallpaper in which the husband controls the space his wife may inhabit, even within the boundaries of her own home (Ford, 309). John, her husband controls her physical space and her contact with the outside world, confining her to extended and enforced bedrest, despite her instincts to and desires that drive her, at least initially, to seek out life beyond her room;

I sometimes fancy that in my condition, if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus…

– Gilman, 5

Gilman’s narrator experiences a world full of barriers and segmentation in which people are divided inextricably into their allowed spaces, excepting white men of means who are able to come and go as they please, noted by John’s continued absence (Gilman, 11) and symbolic view the narrator has of the outside world;

There are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people

– Gilman, 5

In this passage she observes the segregation of gender and class that allows those in positions of power to maintain their superior status. 

The use of the nursery in The Yellow Wallpaper as the place of the narrators confinement points to the infantilization of women in society, with her husband restricting her and enforcing rules in a parental fashion (MacPike, 287). She is also imprisoned using bars, not dissimilar to the bars she begins to see restraining the women in the patterns of the wallpaper. Her room is also symptomatic of her complete lack of control in the face of her husband’s authority; She does not choose the room and she does not choose her space in life (MacPike, 288). She expresses her desire to leave, she expresses her desire to be away from the wallpaper, but her simple request is greeted with a patronizing rejection and a reminder that she has to defer to her more educated and authoritative doctor husband (Gilman, 15).

Woolf also explores the infantilizing of women as she is shoed off the grass by the bursar and the confining of women to the home and domesticity. It is also a theme that is evident as she theorises about what will happen if the power imbalance is rectified and women are no longer shielded like children; “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.” (Woolf, 40)

By placing women in the home and likening them to children, they are denied adult autonomy and sexuality. The fear and fetish that lies at the heart of the masculine construction of women found in A Room of One’s Own, with the scholarly works she touches on “[enshrining] male prejudices against women” using their sexuality as weapons against them or denying feminine sexuality almost entirely (Rosenman, 645).

The protection and infantilization of women also extends to access to information and education. Woolf demonstrates the of the denial of education, particularly higher education (Wall, 189) to women in the barring of Woolf’s framing narrator to the space within the university. The lack of access to coveted and traditionally male domains in the framing narrative of A Room of One’s Own reflects the rejection of women from places and positions of power and access to important resources that would allow an meaningful feminine impact on society, art and culture. To emphasize these barriers Woolf invokes imagery of locked doors; a motif that also appears in Gilman’s text. 

Gilman’s narrator, as the narrative progresses and her psychological break begins to reveal itself, not only begins to see women trapped beneath the wallpaper as she is in the room but eventually recognises herself as being one of the women trapped in the wallpaper, making a space for herself and other trapped women in a space where she is confined unwillingly;

I don’t like to look out of the windows even–there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast.

I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did? 

Gilman, 23

The relationship between the access the women of these texts have to space is tied to the methods of control used to keep women out of the establishments and dominions of men, whether on a conscious or subconscious level. The results of the suppression of feminine influences outside the home is detailed within these texts; from the mediocrity of Mrs Seton and the disappointments of Mary Shakespeare in Woolf’s essay, to the imprisonment and psychotic meltdown of the narrator in   Gilman’s short story. The limiting and restricting of feminine space in these texts allows a glimpse into the importance of both literary and real world space in the maintenance of masculine power and social control. 

 Written by Morgan Pinder


Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, 1985, pp. 309–314.,

Gilman, C. (2013). The Yellow Wallpaper. 1st ed. London: Harper Collins.

MacPike, Loralee. “Environment as Psychopathological Symbolism in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, vol. 8, no. 3, 1975, pp. 286–288.,

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Alternative Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, 1985, pp. 315–322.,

Radner, Joan N., and Susan S. Lanser. “The Feminist Voice: Strategies of Coding in Folklore and Literature.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 100, no. 398, 1987, pp. 412–425.,

Rosenman, Ellen Bayuk. “Sexual Identity and ‘A Room of One’s Own’: ‘Secret Economies’ in Virginia Woolf’s Feminist Discourse.” Signs, vol. 14, no. 3, 1989, pp. 634–650.,

Wall, Kathleen. “Frame Narratives and Unresolved Contradictions in Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own.’”Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 29, no. 2, 1999, pp. 184–207.,

Woolf, V. (2014). A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. 1st ed. London: Harper Collins UK, pp.10-99.

​How do Sarah Scott and Mary Wollstonecraft represent marriage in Millenium Hall and Maria, and how might this representation relate to their broader political concerns?

Millenium Hall (Wollstonecraft, 2011) and Maria (Scott, 1767) are texts that show marriage as the ultimate or inevitable goal of the conventional lives of women at this time. The female character either “Marries happily or dies tragically” (Rabb, 8) in the typically accepted narratives of the 1700s, and both Scott and Wollstonecraft critique this narrow view of womanhood through their very different explorations of the feminine experience. Whilst Wollstonecraft lays bare the injustices made possible by marriage, Scott envisions a place free of marriage and masculine control.
Maria is forced in to increasingly constrained circumstances by the cruelty of her husband, who was able to deceive Maria and those around her due to the legal and social constructs of marriage. Wollstonecraft’s bleak and inhumane depiction of the ills that could befall a woman who enters into marriage is not only a critique of the institution of marriage itself but also serves as a wider condemnation of the servitude in which women were forced into, granted to varying degrees based on class, due to the inherent patriarchal hegemony built almost inextricably into every aspect of a women’s life (Mackenzie, 36). Wollstonecraft is vocal in both Maria and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft, 2010) about the importance of education in the process of liberation and empowerment, positing that women are doomed to uneducated servitude through a lack of access to academic opportunities and condemnation of those women who pursue them.  

The withholding of education and money from women, with men as the initial gatekeepers to these means of independence in both texts, serves as a method of control, effectively indenturing women to men. Maria in particular paints a picture of men being the trustees of these means, not by virtue of their superior judgement but by virtue of their gender alone with Maria’s husband squandering their money and making other poor choices, whilst all she can do is watch helplessly a solicit assistance from her uncle.

Men as the arbitrary fiscal gatekeepers is also explored in Millenium Hall, in which the women are more that capable of managing their own affairs but a masculine benefactor is still the catalyst for Scott’s feminist utopia. The lack of autonomy afforded the women outside the bounds of Millenium Hall is demonstrated through the lens of marriage, for example Sarah’s potential marriage is viewed in purely financial terms by her father (Scott, 21) and is frequently represented as a transaction with the woman used as a bargaining chip between a male relative and a potential suitor. Marriage is also presented as an obstacle to education and enlightenment with those who are married distracted by domestic concerns, whilst those who are not are free to develop their own minds. 

Scott and Wollstonecraft both point to the indentured servitude of the wife as an obstacle to the financial, legal and intellectual freedom of women. Marriage in these texts is indicative of the greater imbalances in power at work in society. The state of gender politics within this domestic setting lays bare the way that women at this time were utterly dependent, willingly or unwillingly, on men both in their immediate family sphere and in society at large.


MacKenzie, Catriona. “Reason and Sensibility: The Ideal of Women’s Self-Governance in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia, vol. 8, no. 4, 1993, pp. 35–55.,

Rabb, Melinda Alliker. “Making and Rethinking the Canon: General Introduction and the Case of ‘Millenium Hall.’” Modern Language Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1988, pp. 3–16.,

Scott, Sarah. A Description Of Millenium Hall … By A Gentleman On His Travels [Or Rather By Sarah Scott]. The Third Edition. 1st ed., J. Newbery, London, 1767. 

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria, Or The Wrongs Of Woman. 1st ed., Hamburg, Tredition, Project Gutenburg, 2011.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman. 1st ed., [Auckland, N.Z.], Floating Press, 2010,.

The Renaissance Religious Experience in Poetry

Examine portrayals of religious experience by three authors whose work you have studied in this unit: what do you see as their main similarities?
The religious poetry of Renaissance England is at once both ferocious in its devotion and deeply conflicted. As a time of tremendous religious turmoil, the Renaissance period saw a great number of poets garner inspiration from spiritual and religious sources. The constant struggle between Anglican and Catholic faiths meant that faith was both a source of identity and conflict, making it a perfect subject for emotive poetry. In order to tie together common religious ideas in the poetry of this era this essay will examine the works of George Herbert as a potentially Protestant poet, John Donne as a formerly Catholic poet who became a Protestant convert, and Richard Crashaw who converted to Catholicism in adulthood. This diversity of religious perspectives, at least across the Catholic-Protestant spectrum, will both challenge and confirm religious motifs that cross dogmatic religious and political lines. In problematizing a Catholic-Protestant poetry dichotomy the aim is then to present a view of personal Christian devotional poetry in Renaissance England as represented by the works of the three select poets who, while writing nonsynchronous to each other, have both distinctive differences and similarities in the way they portray the religious experience.

The earliest of the three poets, and perhaps the most conflicted and vocal in his exploration of Christian faith is John Donne, whose mix of Catholic upbringing and Protestant conversion, in conjunction with his move from sensuous love poetry to holy  sonnet, makes his poetry riddled with contradiction and filled with strikingly passionate exclamations. Donne’s style and experience as a poet prior to The Holy Sonnets  (Donne, p.331-340) was lustful love poems that delved deep into the indulgence of sexual appetites or the desire for another. That lustful desire is transformed into devotional poetry, meaning that Donne’s poetry draws a parallel between human desire and religious devotion. The intensity of religious fervour is as powerful as the jealous love expressed in The Apparition (Donne, p.47-48). In Holy Sonnet 14 (Donne, p.328) Donne expresses his desire to be violently overwhelmed by the presence of God, in a manner that is almost sexual, beseeching his God to take him by force. He uses marriage as a motif to express his ties to evil; “But am betroth’d unto your enemie: Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,” (Donne, p.328, Holy Sonnet 14, line 10-11). The interchangeability of lust and devotion in Donne’s poetry makes the divine into the other in his Holy Sonnets but unlike in his love poetry the other in these sonnets is immovable and impervious, with the Donne narrator unable to exert control. 

Donne also emphasizes the need for a manifestation of God to the devoted in Holy Sonnet 14 (Donne, p.328) with violent verbs such as “breake”, “blowe”, “force” and “burn” (Donne, p.328, Holy Sonnet 14, line 4) in his requests for divine intervention. Donne’s God is one who could deploy such violence with ease but may remain steadfast and illusive. This violence and passion of devotion is characteristic of all three poets examined in this essay. Despite his Catholic roots, post conversion Donne comes to perceive the Roman catholic church and its constructs as heretical and corrupt (Donne, p.442) as they deal in earthly concerns and the worship of the Virgin Mary (Marotti, p.359) Donne’s Protestant ideology is one of direct access to God, but only as god permits. There are no intermediaries, rather he is at the direct mercy of God in the struggle to achieve true devotion, a struggle which is ultimately in vain unless his God deems him worthy;

Oh I shall soone despaire, when I doe see

That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt’not chuse me,

And Satan hates mee, yet is loth to lose mee.

Donne, p.322, Holy Sonnet 2, lines 12-14

In Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10  he explores how the eternal life that continues after death is free of the woes of the mortal realm, so that death is at once rendered impotent and a gateway to salvation. He rejoices in the ineffectiveness of death in the face of everlasting life by addressing piteously the Anthropomorphic spectre of death “Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.” (Donne, p.326, Holy Sonnet 10, line 4)

George Herbert presents a more genial version of God. He is still creator and sits in judgement of man, but he is there to pick select a chosen few out from their humble beginnings, and through his divinity console and rescue humans from their own impious natures and the pain of everyday mortal existence. Herbert, following Donne’s lead, writes as a metaphysical poet about the abstract religious experience, whilst also anthropomorphising concepts such as Death and Love.

As a Protestant poet Herbert rejoices in the knowledge of the word of God and sees God as the only window to true beauty; without faith in God as a lens the world appears dark and joyless. The mortal realm hold very little but pain for Herbert with true hope lying in the idea of life everlasting. His preoccupation with life after death is similar to that of Donne with death presenting no threat after the poet discovers life after death through god. His fear of death has been so extinguished by faith that he proclaims “[Death] art grown fair and full of grace,” (Herbert, p.180, Death, line 15) as death now affords him passage into the afterlife. It is through his exultations and exclamations of the peace that comes through reframing the world in the context of his faith that he paints secularism as a poor imitation of the divine.

Herbert is diplomatic and vague in his deployment of identifiable ideological indicators is an example how religious ideologies in Renaissance England need to be understood along a spectrum. Herbert despite the puritan rejection of the excesses of the Catholic church shows his perceived need for sacrament even in protestant faith. Even the Eucharistic sacraments can be incorporated provided all perceived catholic superstition can be removed and those who receive the sacrament are not necessarily blessed by virtue of the sacrament (Whalen, p.1276).

Herbert also expresses the common Christian motif of mankind as inherently sinful and only redeemed through acceptance of God. Herbert sees people as corrupted and of an earth that is not divine but full of pain and suffering. He shows the struggle against human nature in order to embrace the love of God in this passage from Love III :

 “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back 

Guilty of dust and sin.” (Herbert, p.183, Love III lines 1-2)

The “Love” of Herbert’s  Love III is Anthropomorphic divine love that has a tangible presence and agency: “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply”(Herbert, p.183, Love III, line 11). This anthropomorphising of love suggests a being that is possible to interact with and engage with. This is in line with Herbert granting personhood to death (Herbert, p.180, Death) and suggests an attempt to translate the metaphysical into easily understood physical, human terms. Herbert’s depiction of sin and redemption as an inescapable cycle that can only end in death or ultimately the day of judgement is inline with Donne’s view of the fallibility of mankind and redemptive power of god. Herbert’s expression of the  eventual endpoint of the cycle as the final relief and salvation of mankind is clear;

As at Doomsday; 

When souls shall wear their new array, 

And all thy bones with beauty shall be clad.

Herbert, p.180, Death, lines 18-20

Following the lead of Herbert and Donne into metaphysical devotional poetry, Richard Crashaw deals primarily with the personal religious experience but unlike Herbert and Donne, he takes his imagery from Catholic source material, such as saints and angels. The saint is the intermediary between man and his creator, so as a means of access  to God, Saint Teresa is both praised by Crashaw for her piety and purity but is also praised for her relationship with God. From the outset Saint Teresa is associated with the “seraphim” (Crashaw, p.152 The Flaming Heart, line 5), the Seraphim who have a direct line to god and further intermediaries between man and God.

Crashaw raises his objections to the soft femininity of the artists portrayal of the saint as she is strong and has a powerful agency as an intermediary of god. He objects to the inaccuracy of the portrait on the basis that words, not images can depict religious truth (Mebust, p.84)  but that they often fall short and are just a poor imitation of the divine. His critique of symbology and icons is less in line with Catholicism than the protestant aversion to what they considered idolatry. This has lead to a critique of Crashaw’s work as conforming to Protestant ideologies and beliefs (Teller, p.239) but the poet clearly views Saint Teresa as not just an example of devotion but also as a potent intermediary with agency to be a conduit to God. He gives her divine flame and power that does not conform to the puritanism associated with Protestant beliefs and though he condemns and parodies the sensationalist imagery of the Catholic portrait he revels in his own revision of the image.

Virgin mother and the female saint as a key component of spirituality is not something which is as heavily explored within Anglican devotional poetry as it is in Catholic poetry. This can be attributed to the construction of the divine hierarchy in the respective religions, where Catholicism places special emphasis on the Virgin Mary. Crashaw’s preoccupation, with the feminine and maternal in the divine is evident in The Flaming Heart (Crashaw, p.152) in which he examines and praises a religious portrait of Saint Teresa in lyrical and passionate terms. She is depicted as virginal, and it is from this virginal purity and her association with the seraphim, as an order of angels closely allied with fire, that she draws her fiery power. Feminine divinity in the form of Saint Teresa is represented by both a furious and loving fire. She is described as bringing forth “happy fire-works” and “mistresse flame” (Crashaw, p .153, The Flaming Heart, lines 17-18) The purity of the burning love between man, the saint, Christ and God. The imagery of the holy wound and the burning flame adds an intensity to the devotion that the poet feels for the Catholic God.

Crashaw draws out the inventive and purifying energy of god leading to the refinement and purification of humanities creative endeavours when he beseeches that divine forces “Resume and rectify thy rude design” (Crashaw, p.153, The Flaming Heart, line 39). He shows that man is weak and strengthened through devotion to, and by, the grace of god. Crashaw’s humanity is born as  “dark Sons of Dust and Sorrow” (Crashaw, p.39,The Name Above Every Name, The Name of Iesvs, line 96) and can only achieve true peace and salvation in life after death “Let this immortal life, where’er it comes,” (Crashaw, The Flaming Heart, p.153, lines 81)

Herbert, Crashaw and Donne agree in key Christian ideals such as man as inherently corrupt and whether by pre-determinism or redemptive action salvation can only be achieved through the judgement of God. Whilst the means to this salvation differ the role of God as the deciding factor is clear and absolute. There is also an agreement that it is through faith in God that a person can see and appreciate true beauty. The emphasis on the afterlife is also a common thread, with life after death being the focal point of all faithful and devotional actions. The striking use of violent language to convey the strength and potency of religious fervour is recurrent throughout many of the texts with Donne using impact verbs to describe his desire for spiritual awakening, Crashaw using fiery imagery to posit an alternate portrait of Saint Teresa and Herbert beckons “Doomsday” (p.180, line 9) when those not chosen will meet their reckoning. 

The unworthiness of mankind is noted with Herbert (p.183, line 2) and Crashaw (p.39, line 96) both referring to humanity as made of dust and unworthy, and Herbert and Donne noting the base human impulse to turn away from God. The base and earthly state of humanity and the divine is problematic for these metaphysical poets as the try to grapple with the abstract and intangible, leading to the anthropomorphising of “Love” and “Death” as in Herbert and Donne’s works and the embodiment of certain aspirational qualities in a human form as with Crashaw’s Saint Teresa. This humanising of the abstract allows the poet to interact with the divine and to exert some level of agency over their own salvation.

All poets fluidly move between Catholic and Protestant ideologies and even Donne in his strong condemnation of aspects of the Catholic church and faith does incorporate Catholic ideology in his works and bemoans a lack of unity (Marotti, p.361). Herbert is ambiguous in ideological allusions in his poems, favouring more generic explorations of the Christian religious experience and Crashaw, whilst evoking Catholic imagery also dismisses their ability to capture the divine as effectively as the written word, a decidedly Protestant viewpoint. This movement between ideologies ties these poets together and breaks down any possible dichotomy that can be drawn between Catholic and Protestant devotional poetry of this era.

In understanding the fluidity of ideologies in these texts it is important to understand the difference between the impact of sanctioned faith as opposed personal opinion (Gates, p.1) which by its very nature may transgress factional lines of Christianity. The deeply personal, first hand accounts of the religious experience detailed in the poems are the very reason that their religious conformity can only be understood on a continuum. It is personal not factional devotion that is at the core of these poems, for each poet has a unique take on spirituality and their place within it that is informed by both Protestant and Catholic factions.

While the ideological labels of Protestant and Catholic are potent and useful to determine the reasoning and origins of the methods and imagery used to depict and understand the religious experience of these poets, it is not a final, hard, fast or all encompassing definition. Understanding Catholic and Protestant devotional poetry as a dichotomy is deeply problematic as all of the writers of the poetic texts examined transgress or conceal their professed faith in one manner or another. Not only to we find transgressions but common threads throughout the religious experiences they depict , creating a collective portrait of the religiously devoted poet as being enamoured, joyous and conflicted, struggling, from humble earthbound beginnings, to achieve true spiritual alignment with God.

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Crashaw, Richard. The Complete Works of Richard Crashaw, Volume I (of 2). 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2015., Web. 18th Nov. 2016.

Donne, John. The Poems Of John Donne [2 Vols.] Volume I & Volume II. 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2015., Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Gates, Daniel. “Faith and Faction: Religious Heterodoxy in Renaissance England.” Religion &Amp; Literature, vol. 32, no. 2, 2000, pp. 1–10.

Herbert, George. The temple. Sacred poems, and private ejaculations. By Mr. George Herbert, Late Orator of the University of Cambridge. Together with his life. The twelfth edition corrected, with the addition of an alphabetical table. London,  1703. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Macquarie University Library. 18 Nov. 2016 

Marotti, Arthur F. “John Donne’s Conflicted Anti-Catholicism.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 101, no. 3, 2002, pp. 358–379.

Mebust, Erik. “Words and Icons in Crashaw’s” The Flaming Heart”.” The Proceedings of GREAT Day (2016).

Teller, Joseph R. “Why Crashaw was Not Catholic: The Passion and Popular Protestant Devotion.”English Literary Renaissance 43.2 (2013): 239-267.

Whalen, Robert. “George Herbert’s Sacramental Puritanism.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 4, 2001, pp. 1273–1307.

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The night was muggy; hot, with the tantalizing idea of rain in the air. The quiet of the forest was punctuated by frog calls and the faint trickle of a nearby creek. The air smelled of musty earth and the surrounding  eucalypts whose spindly branches rustled occasionally in the slight breeze. By dawn  the clearing would be abuzz with activity and birdsong as the local wildlife ventured out for their early morning sabbaticals. Magpies would warble, cockatoos would fuzz and wrens would titter and carry out elaborate dances, but for now the space was still, apart from the occasional wombat or possum casually going about their evening. 
Suddenly the tranquillity was broken by the rustling undergrowth and snapping of twigs that signified human footsteps fast approaching the clearing.

Twigs caught in his bootlaces as he ran. Branches dragged across his ankles and legs, scratching and drawing blood. He felt nothing. Terror and survival pushed him onwards.  Looking over his shoulder every few steps, nearly stumbling as he did so. The moon barely shone, smothered by clouds. The sky was almost totally obscured by the slight outline of the trees. The forest seemed to stretch on forever without relief.  

He could hear his own breathing, raspy and panicked. He swallowed trying to calm himself. His heartbeat pulsed in his ears. He continued to run as fast as his legs would carry him, they felt limp and useless as he dragged himself along. His chest was on fire. He couldn’t run anymore.

He came to a clearing and stopped, whirling around, shining his ineffective torch into the scrub. He stopped spinning and tried to breathe more slowly, but his body wouldn’t let him. He bent over, his free hand resting on his knee, letting his guard down for a moment, when a crunching sound came from just outside the clearing.

He fumbled, dropping his torch, it smacked against a rock and went out. He dropped to the ground, scrambling at the dusty earth until he found it. Carefully touching the familiar barrel and running his finger along the plastic thread he tried to work out if it was fixable. Relief washed over him, it had just come apart. Vainly looking around the blackness of his surroundings he managed to screw it back together. The light flickered back on and he frantically moved torchlight along the tree line. He backed towards a sturdy looking tree, staring intently at the direction from which he had come. Slumping against the thick trunk he took another gulp of air. His mind raced as he tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do next. As he scanned the horizon his breathing began to slow and his heart rate began to gradually return to normal. Time passed, it seemed like hours. He couldn’t tell if it was getting closer to dawn or if his eyesight was just adjusting to the dark, but he could see the trees outside of the torch light. There was no sign of his pursuer. His eyelids drooped and he finally allowed his eyes to close.

He awoke to the bright noon sunlight blasting down upon him, the surrounding trees had shaded him from the early rays of the sun and it was just starting to heat up to the point of being uncomfortable. The torch had rolled out of his hand, the battery long since dead. He squinted into the light, and tested his limbs, assessing the damage. His legs hurt, they felt like they had been cut to ribbons and they were caked in blood and dirt. His arms ached He felt the back of his head for the wound, it was bloody and more swollen than he had anticipated, the realisation of the severity of the injury made his stomach lurch. He felt faint and had a slight flash of recollection of the night before. His stomach lurched and changed his train of thought. He scratched at one of the many insect bites that dotted his body. Mosquito bite maybe, hopefully not a spider, possibly ants. There were a few small ants determinedly making their way over the leaves beside his left foot, completely uninterested in this huge interloper, they carried on their day as planned. In fact for the most part the forest seemed completely underwhelmed by the presence of this obvious outsider. A magpie examined him for a few minutes before summarily dismissing is presence as a less than interesting anomaly and hopping away.  

He struggled to his feet and tried to gauge how far he was from the nearest road. How far had he run? It felt like forever, but the forest was a finite space, less than 50kms in diameter, so surely a road had to be less than 25kms in one direction or another. He had spent some time here as a kid but he never went in this far. Hopefully he would stumble across something familiar, a rocky outcrop he’d  traversed as a kid or a bike trail. He used to blaze along the bumpy tracks in his old dirt bike. He and Ryan would cut school, stock up on supplies and race through the trees until school was over then head back looking suspiciously scruffy for kids who had been at school all day. Ryan? Shit he hadn’t thought about him in years, he was probably his first real crush, and most gentle and ultimately crushing rejection. He smiled sadly as he recalled  afternoon spent poking bull ant nests and nearly running over hikers. One particularly disgruntled hiker who was nearly flattened by the boy’s bikes while following a shared trail made signs warning “Bike Riders GIVE WAY TO HIKERS” out of ply wood nailed to trees. Signs that the boys spent a gloriously sunny afternoon defacing with thick permanent marker.

What he wouldn’t give to see one of those signs right now.

He shielded his face and squinted in the direction of the sun, he wished he’d paid more attention to the basic stuff, the stuff that would have aided his survival. He knew that the placid magpies near the entrance to the forest wouldn’t swoop because they had been fed by regular visitors and that the point where the two creeks met was the best place for finding frogs but he couldn’t even remember which direction the sun set in relation to the forest. He patted his pockets vainly, he wasn’t sure what he expected to find, but the content were still disappointing; all he found was a receipt, a phone card a substantial quantity of pocket lint. Useless. At least he could call someone if he reached a payphone.

He decided to set out in the opposite direction to the sun, so that he could at least see where he was going, flawed logic, he knew that, but he was grasping at any semblance of strategy he could think of.  Tightening and retying the laces on his boots he briefly examined the wounds on his legs, they weren’t too bad, he could still walk at a reasonable pace, but he would definitely need to go to a hospital or see a doctor. A doctor? Oh no, a sudden wave of recollection and regret washed over him. He was supposed to meet Henry last night. He would be worried or worse angry. Henry would believe him, he would have to, he could show him the scrapes and scratches. Maybe even get him to have a look at his head. If he could convince the young doctor to meet him again, which might be easier said than done, especially if Henry thought this was just another lame excuse. 

At least work would be fine, he could file a police report and that documentation would be enough. He tried to arrange the events of the night before into a comprehendible storyline. He knew he drove home from work, or at least he started to. So how did he end up here and where the fuck was his car? He had pulled over, he remembered that much, something happened. He had hit something, or something hit him. The rest was a dizzying blur. He wasn’t sure who, or what had attacked him, a man, he thought. There was the vague memory of a white four wheel drive and a gravelly voice on the edge of his consciousness but he wasn’t sure what was real and what was his traumatized memory filling in the blanks. He had run for ages but surely he couldn’t be that far away from the rest area he had stopped in, if he could just find a road or trail he was sure he could find his way out, hopefully before nightfall.

He vainly tried to wipe some of the grime off his forehead and began to trudge between the close growing gum trees towards to gradually growing sound of trickling water, if he found the creek he could follow it, and maybe splash some water on his face. He was pretty sure it would lead to a road in either direction, though it could be quite a trek. As he walked past a thick gum tree laden with deep red oozing sap he was too distracted to notice the figure leaning against it. 

From behind him a familiar gravelly voice boomed “Sleep well?”

He spun around just in time to see the dark metal of the shovel come down on his head.


Kit homes and hard plastic playgrounds had popped up like mushrooms along the peaks and ridges of the valley. A battered and contorted creek ran into a manufactured lake, with cheaply constructed viewing platforms that had little view to offer. Fat contented ducks paddled listlessly through the reeds awaiting the next unsuspecting picnic or enthusiastic toddler with an old loaf of bread. A deliberately rustic path, lined with strips of metal lest the dirt mingle with the lawn, wound through the park. The compacted trail was impossible for scooters and bikes during the muddy winters but luckily for the local kids the summer heat had solidified the path into a smooth , albeit inconsistent  surface on which determined children could achieve a satisfyingly terrifying amount of speed.

 Stevie and Kate flew past benches awaiting graffiti on scooters that were well worn and well loved, they rattled and squeaked as they bumped over rocks and crevices. Stevie’s scooter was new at Christmas and it was already covered in scratches and stickers. The hastily assembled plastic had gone through it’s share of punishment, but Stevie was unrelenting, testing the very limits of the safety warnings. As they approached Kate’s house their scuffed shoes dragged along the steep curb almost in unison, coming to an abrupt halt just beyond the brick pillar mailbox of the toy strewn yard. 

“See you tomorrow” Kate yelled over her shoulder as she walked  her scooter up the driveway. Stevie waved and nodded, walking her own scooter past the scaffolding that signalled the impending urbanization of the forest that remained past the estate. Her house was on the very edge of the forest, in fact it had still been forest when her mum and dad bought it. Stevie and her much older brother had collected stick insects and climbed the trees on the block before the foundation had been laid. He was the one who had taught her how to carve worlds into logs and where to find the most interesting bugs. He was her rock, her hero. But now her brother had left her for uni, left her to deal with the full focus of her parents on her own and only a few lonely trees remained. She stopped and walked her scooter across her rocky, dusty backyard. Earlier that week the excavator had dragged away the grassy top soil to flatten out the backyard and the dirt was in piles waiting to be dragged away.

Stevie kicked through the rubble, her mum would flip if she knew she was out here messing around near the tiles and building supplies. She grinned a gap tooth grin, she’d been busting to check out the debris and climb the dirt mounds. As she traversed the lumpy dunes and slid down the steep inclines, coating her school shorts in thick red dirt, a flash of colour caught her eye. She attempted to dust off her hands on the front of her shirt and stooped to pick up the faded plastic artefact. Stevie examined the flaky red plastic, smoothed down through years of weathering, she ran her finger across the slight ripple of where the thread used to be. A tube maybe? Like a container or something, She shook it a corroded battery slid slowly out. 

Unbeknownst to the grubby school kid with skun knees her mother had caught sight of her from the laundry window and was not pleased with what she saw. Little did she know how unimpressed she was soon to be when, a few hours from now the local police and forensic services would descend on their already torn apart yard  She waited for a moment, intently watching Stevie fumble with whatever gross scavenged item she had found this time. The mother sighed deeply, It was great that the girl was curious and fearless but a slight sense of self preservation would be nice. She reluctantly open the screen door and bellowed in her best mum voice “Stevie put that down and get in here NOW!” 

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​What do pop culture representations of transgender individuals tell us about current understandings of transgenderism?

​”What do pop culture representations of transgender individuals tell us about current understandings of transgenderism?”

Disclaimer: I wrote this for my university unit about the way societal norms assign “otherness” to certain groups who “transgress” those physical “norms”.

I don’t profess to be an expert in any of the issues discussed and I truly hope that this is not a totally ill-informed piece of B.S. I realise this is a highly emotive subject for a lot of people whose lives are touched by these issues and I hope I’ve been sensitive to that.

Thanks for reading 

Love your guts

~ Morgan

The growing representation of LGBTQ individuals in the media and the public sphere has been largely focused on lesbian, gay and bisexual narratives and discourse, but transgender representation in pop culture has undergone a slow, often independent transformation, from a pathology to an aspect of individual identity. The interaction between transgender narratives and societal norms is fraught and problematic with factors that include but are not limited to; ideas of deception and honesty, language, casting and representation, and user created content. The purpose of this essay is to explore the aforementioned issues in transgender representation in pop culture and how these factors effect and reflect societal attitudes using cultural and cinematic examples which demonstrate turning points or key signpost indicating attitudes to transgender identification.
I have made the choice to use the term “cisgender” where possible instead of “straight” as it is less problematic as it does not imply that being transgender is abnormal. Oxford English Dictionary defines cisgender as “Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (Oxford Dictionaries, English, 2017). This is not a widely accepted term as it is a term defined through transgender discourse and many people choose to still identify as straight, but, as transgender representation is the subject of this essay I felt that normative terms would be counterproductive. The idea of transgenderism as inherently violent or deceitful and therefore threatening to a safe stable society is reinforced through the straight and “other” dichotomy, and the language that surrounds it, hence my choice to avoid the term straight, rejecting the idea of the “other” as being a force of corruption or deceit (Barker-Plummer, 2013).

There are two key approaches taken in popular media culture when engaging in transgender discourse, being  the “Wrong body” approach and “genderqueer” approach (Barker-Plummer, 2013). These approaches vary considerably in their depictions of transgender individuals with “wrong body” approach explaining transgender experience in terms that still exist within a binary understanding of gender and is less troubling to the pre-existing heteronormative culture and discourse than the “genderqueer” approach which disrupts this gender binary and opens up societal understandings of gender by disassociating gender from sexuality, as the process of transitioning gender is not always linked to any change in sexual desire (Barker-Plummer, 2013) which is important when discussing media depictions because “wrong body” discourse often depicts the transgender individual as sexually deceptive, linking gender transition to dishonesty in a way that is not helpful or accurate. 

Queer representation as a whole has come along in leaps and bounds in the past few decades with series’ such as Queer as Folk (Queer as Folk Season 1-5, 2009) and The L word (L Word, The – The Complete Series, 2004) gaining an extensive and varied pop culture following. But by contrast Transgender has been relegated to being the  “other” in the queer communities with transgender identities being marginalised. Even within these queer communities, sometimes transgenderism is seen as embarrassing and not quite fitting into the LGBTQ community historically (Mills, 2006). The place of transgenderism in queer media is a relatively recent development by comparison.

Prior to the 1990s the dominant popular culture view of transgenderism was represented by extremely undesirable characters such as the murderous Norman Bates, based on the deeply troubled killer Ed Gein in Psycho (1960), diabolical serial killer Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs (1991) and even the raunchy musical Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) which has often been reclaimed by transgender communities, features Dr. Frank-N-Furter as a sexually predatory mad scientist. Both of these aforementioned characters are vastly different, but are both linked to violence and deception, a common trope in transgender narratives to this day. The pathologizing of transgender identification in the media links transgenderism to deception, mental illness and often sexual violence.

Comedy depictions of transgender characters tend to render the transgression of socially accepted binary gender roles ridiculous and comedic. Examples of these cinematic depictions, especially prevalent in the 1970s to the present, are Tootsie (1982), The Birdcage (1996) and Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). Unlike the pathological treatment of transgender  narratives these lighter modes of cinematic discourse often reject the violence at play in the criminal transgender narrative, and whilst these films often poke fun at transgender people, they also deliver heart felt moments which can make transgender individuals more relatable without compromising their identity (Priscilla Queen of the Desert,1994). However these heartfelt moments are often borne out of the individual redefining themselves to fit within the gender binary, implying that it is because of their rejection of a transgender identity that they achieve humanity or redemption (Tootsie, 1982). Then with the advent of Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) the new trope of the tragic transgender figure emerged, this was a character who was a victim, rather than a perpetrator of sexual violence, often committed by homophobic and transphobic males.

In Boys Don’t Cry the story of Brandon Teena is depicted in heartbreaking detail, and as this was based on a true story Brandon became the iconic tragic transgender hero (Rigney, 2003) for a movement towards more sympathetic depictions of transgender individuals. Stories like this are brutal, devastating and crucial to societal understandings of the transgender experience, but it does not paint the whole picture. In order to be represented accurately the transgender community needed to not just be sympathetic but these characters need to be given agency in a variety of narratives. The lack of agency often afforded to transgender characters denies them equal importance by virtue of their non binary gender identification.

The tropes of commercially produced transgender narratives i.e.; the psychopath, the comedic figure and the tragic hero, are giving way to a new kind of transgender narrative, one in which the transgender individual is the self determining protagonist, in which the transgenderism is not uniformly a point of derision, revulsion or pity. In these narratives, such as Girl Meets Boy (2014) the transgender person is afforded an agency and power that is usually only given to cisgender characters. This move towards a less marginalised view of transgenderism is partially a result of greater acceptance of transgender identification and partially as a result of greater representation of transgender people in the media industries. This move towards the less binary “genderqueer” approach allows for a much greater societal understanding of the issues faced by individuals and communities that identify as transgender. 

A common approach to depicting transgender characters is using the “coming out” storyline as the point of focus. This is a useful dialogue in that it engages in discourse surrounding societal gender norms. This process of coming out means that an individual expresses their queer identity to those around them. The media often depicts a negative fallout from this situation with the implication that the person coming out has been keeping the truth from their loved ones, further implying deception and malice rather than a process of discovery and divulging the discovery to trusted parties. This idea of secrecy and deception surrounding the transgender identity is echoed and reinforced by even some of the most earnest and well meaning transgender narratives. The process of linking honesty to coming out is apparent in the narrative and title of the recent series Transparent (2016). By linking coming out to honesty in the title implies that before the character “came out” they were being dishonest, and Maura’s adult children react in a variety of ways but a common thread is that their father was being dishonest by changing the way she identified her gender (Funk and Funk, 2016). Treating transgender identification as deceptive attaches a variety of negative connotations to the transitioning or gender exploration process which can have lasting repercussions on popular perceptions of transgenderism (Barker-Plummer, 2013).

In order to assess the level of transgender representation in produced media it is important to address issues of casting. Popular cinema has a history of casting cisgender individuals to play transgender roles. This suggests an unwillingness to display the transgender body, implying that it is undesirable and inappropriate for public viewing. Even in queer produced media such as “Boys Don’t Cry”, a breakthrough piece of transgender cinema, featured cisgender actor Hilary Swank as the transgender protagonist, Brandon Teena. In more recent times Amazon series Transparent has a male cisgender actor, Jeffery Tambor playing a female transgender protagonist, with transgender actors playing supporting roles. Greater representation is gradually being given to transgender actors in transgender roles with Laverne Cox playing prominent transgender roles in Orange is the New Black (2013) and the 2016 Rocky Horror reboot, and transgender actor Michelle Hendley starring in the 2014 movie Girl Meets Boy. This increased representation is still only a sliver of the commercially produced and distributed media however, it is indicative of changing views towards transgender bodies and a greater acceptance of genderqueer narratives in both audiences and media industries. 

Online media, unlike previously discussed cinema and television media modes, has the ability to immediately reflect and react to changing perception of gender in society due to the increased accessibility to means of self publishing or production. As a result of this user generated content online social media platforms have a far greater level of transgender representation on formats such as YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress and Facebook (McInroy and Craig, 2015). YouTube in particular showcases positive transition stories, transgender information and has the ability to foster positive niche communities, with their own celebrities and figureheads that better represent their “genderqueer” identification. However not all of these online movements are organic, with social activism and advocacy finding a strong voice and online presence. The It Gets Better campaign, which asks prominent and everyday individuals to share messages of affirmation and hope with LGBTQ young people. This movement engages with “queer worldmaking activities” (West et al, 2013) creating a safe space for transgender identification, and making a conscious and concerted effort to carve out a positive outlook and hopefully future for transgender youths who have a statistically higher rate of suicide than those identifying as “straight” or cisgender (West et al, 2013)

Despite the growing acceptance of “genderqueer” thinking and transgender identification mainstream media still holds tight to most of the tropes that marginalized and pathologized transgenderism in the media. The creation of positive transition narratives and queer world building is falling to new media that is reliant on user generated content, allowing it to operate outside the gender politics of the traditional media and cultural structures and industries. The less filtered immediacy of social and user generated media allows previously marginalised groups access to communities they might never have reached otherwise. Whilst this form of DIY media allows transgender individuals to exchange and share information, form online relationships and form communities it can also be a source of disinformation if each contribution is not able to be vetted effectively by the reader, viewer or listener (Fox and Ralston, 2016).

The spectrum of popular culture is so vast that  the narrow focus of this essay, that is television, cinema and user generated online content, whilst indicative of the current views of transgender identity, neglects some of the elements of popular culture such as music, visual arts, books and graphic novels which have often more quickly adopted “genderqueer” approaches. By not including an in depth look at these media modes I am not seeking to deny their importance, but rather address more widely consumed media modes. 

The move away from the “wrong body” approach and transgender tropes, to honest “genderqueer” narratives that explore transgender issues with the same respect and depth as cisgender issues receive has been slow moving and sometimes reluctant in its progress but is being pushed on by a wave of support and representation from user driven content. The result of this push for more accurate transgender representation is a greater knowledge of gender issues in society at large, a greater acceptance of transgender individuals and the creation of safe spaces in online media for transgender people to interact and support each other. Societal attitudes towards transgenderism still tend towards marginalisation but there is potentially change on the horizon as levels of understanding and more open gender discourse filter through various subsections and branches of society.

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Barker-Plummer, Bernadette (2013) Fixing Gwen, Feminist Media Studies, 13:4, 710-724, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2012.679289

“Boys Don’t Cry”, director. Kimberley Peirce, 1999,.

“Cisgender – Definition Of Cisgender In English | Oxford Dictionaries”.Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017,

Fox, Jesse, and Rachel Ralston. “Queer identity online: Informal learning and teaching experiences of LGBTQ individuals on social media.”Computers in Human Behavior 65 (2016): 635-642.

Funk, Steven, and Jaydi Funk. “Transgender Dispossession in Transparent: Coming Out as a Euphemism for Honesty.” Sexuality & Culture 20.4 (2016): 879-905.

“Girl Meets Boy”, director. Eric Schaeffer, 2014,.

“Hedwig And The Angry Inch”, director. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001,.

“L Word, The – The Complete Series”, studio. 20Th Century Fox, 2004,.

McInroy, Lauren B. And Craig, Shelley L. (2015) Transgender Representation in Offline and Online Media: LGBTQ Youth Perspectives, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 25:6, 606-617, DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2014.995392

Mills, Robert. “Queer Is Here? Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Histories and Public Culture.” History Workshop Journal, no. 62, 2006, pp. 253–263.

“Orange Is The New Black”, director. Jenji Kohan, 2013,.

“Psycho”, director. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960,.

“Queer As Folk Season 1-5”, studio. Warner Home Video, 2009,.

Rigney, Melissa. “Brandon Goes to Hollywood: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and the Transgender Body in Film.” Film Criticism, vol. 28, no. 2, 2003, pp. 4–23. 

“Rocky Horror Picture Show”, director. Jim Sharman, 1975,.

“Rocky Horror Picture Show; Let’s Do The Time Warp Again”, director. Kenny Ortega, 2016,.

“Silence Of The Lambs”, director. Jonathan Demme, 1991,.

“The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert”, director. Stephan Elliot, 1994,.

“The Birdcage”, director. Mike Nichols, 1992,.

“Tootsie”, director. Sidney Pollack, 1982,.

“Transparent”, director. Amazon, 2016,.

West, Isaac et al. “Queer Worldmaking in the ‘It Gets Better’ Campaign.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2013, pp. 49–86.

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​6 Ways You Should Not Open Your Writing Portfolio

As a writer it can be difficult to effectively showcase your work to prospective employers, educational institutions or for any other multitude of reasons. There is the dilemma of choosing which pieces to include and whether to write new material for the purpose. But in the digital age it is so important to make a good first impression and hold your readers attention. A strong opening piece can be the difference between landing an interview and going through the shredder. Whilst we cannot tell you exactly what to open with, we have compiled a list of common mistakes and faux pas many writers are guilty of regardless of their experience.
Don’t open your portfolio with:

1. A Musical Number

Regardless of the shininess of your jumpsuit , the innovative arrangement of David Bowie’s Life on Mars for a 40 piece orchestra, or the stunningly nimble backup dancers it will inevitably get lost in translation to the written word. Maybe save the money you would have spent on doves and the time spent on hand sewing sequins and put it to better use. Wipe off the sparkly face paint, turn off the smoke machine, buy yourself a new computer or a couple of hundred lattes and sit down and write something a little less, umm… audio visual. 

2. Xenophobia 

It’s just not helpful and it tends to alienate people. Save your bigotry for the employee lounge after you get the job. 

3. Hardcore Harry Potter Fan Erotica

Yes, we all see what you did with that wand euphemism, well done. Nobody outside of your niche forum needs to read that, you are just making everyone uncomfortable. Please keep all theories you have about Snape and Hermoine’s implied hidden romance to yourself. 

4. Personal insults

Whilst it can be humorous to lightly poke fun at your readers, it’s important not to go too far. Questioning their taste in reading your work might be self deprecating and amusing, however avoid statements like “What are you doing reading this steaming pile of rubbish you total wanker?”, this may put people off.

5. A Buzzfeed Style Clickbait List

Give your readers a bit of credit. Whether you are writing your portfolio to show potential employers, as part of an education program or to impress that barista you’ve been trying to chat up, it’s important to remember that the person reading this has seen every trope and writing cliché under the sun. Just churning out patronizing “content” is not going to cut it. It’s lazy, you’ll look like a jerk and undermine everything else in your portfolio.

6. Windings (or boxes if you haven’t installed the font yet)


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Overview/Review – “To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights” – Robin DeRosa

“To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights” – Robin DeRosa

The article “To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights”  by Robin DeRosa, is attempting to set up Wuthering Heights as a novel that engages in discourse about Sadomasochism and the fluctuating power balance that is intrinsic to our understanding of both Catherine and Heathcliff’s cruelty toward each other and the narrative arc of their tortured relationship. The article also posits that Heathcliff’s masochism correlates with his access to the common language of the household and Catherine’s sadism with her access to text, such as books. The catalyst for the change in the power dynamic between the two is cited as being Catherine’s impending death, reversing the role of Sadomasochism in the relationship. Not only are the roles of torturer and victim reversed but they are shown to coexist within the same entity, as Heathcliff is both cruel and self-destructive upon Catherine’s demise. The article also considers Lockwood and other characters as part of the sadomasochistic spectrum leaving Nelly as the empowered figure in a text riddled with entities struggling for and against a ‘death drive’ (DeRosa, 3) and mortality. The role of this book within the Victorian cultural and literary landscape is also examined, with the subversion  and convention to realism examined as the sadomasochistic impulses of Catherine and Heathcliff have the effect of distancing them as subjects from traditional romantic texts.

Psychological criticism is the foundational form of critical analysis with the sadomasochism of the key characters being the predominant preoccupation of the article. The theories of sadism and masochism as outlined by Freudian psychology are included as part of the argument. The article uses these Freudian theories to explain what is sighted as a “death drive” (DeRosa, 3) in Heathcliff and eventually Catherine. Also underpinning the argument is deconstructionist critical analysis in the form of pointing to sadomasochism as a way a deconstructing the characters to alter the typical way that the novel engages with realism, with the Victorian literary preoccupation with writing a novel that achieves accurate realism and the unachievable nature of this goal that us being strived for. DeRosa also uses historical critical analysis in the article as she engages in the discourse regarding Wuthering Heights and it’s place within the Victorian literary canon, pointing to some of the more controversial aspects of the text in contrast to it’s contemporaries.

DeRosa successfully outlined the ways in which the text demonstrated the sadomasochism of the early relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine but failed to make a persuasive correlation between the experience of text and language as the determining factor in the power balance in regards to Catherine as her sadism is not explicitly demonstrated through her use of text, and her relationship with text is relatively unchanging as her sadism diminishes. The article successfully argues that the subversive nature of Wuthering Heights and Brontë’s approach to romance and realism was directly playing with notions of repressive Victorian social conventions by outlining attitudes towards realism and sexuality in literary circles and mainstream social values. 

When writing my upcoming critical essay I could use this article to address the fourth topic offered for this assessment;

“Compare and contrast the ways in which Victorian texts conform to or subvert the central precepts of literary realism.”

The attention given to Victorian discourse on realism would allow me to argue that Wuthering Heights subverts precepts of reality by displacing the central characters roles as subject and object. The roles of torturer and tortured create a dichotomy that reflects the power dynamics at play within Victorian literature whilst reducing the ability of the characters to exercise self determination, rendering them impotent in the face of forces greater than themselves. The line between the supernatural and the very real human experience is blurred using self destructive and self preservation impulses of which the characters are at the mercy. This abstract force plays with realism constructs allowing Brontë to both engage in realism and the gothic in one narrative, creating a text that constantly weaves in and out of real human experience and the haunting ghostly spectre of damnation. Sadomasochism is almost hauntingly supernatural in its manifestation, allowing the narrative of Catherine and her hold on Heathcliff to continue from beyond the grave, sweeping up others such as Lockwood and Nelly in its wake.  


  • Brontë, Emily and Richard J Dunn. Wuthering Heights. New York: Norton, 2003. Print.
  • De Rosa, Robin. “To Save the Life of the Novel” Sadomasochism and Representation in “Wuthering Heights”, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 52, No. 1 (1998), pp. 27-43. JSTOR, Web. 1st October 2016.

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Female Desire in Donne and Shakespeare

Failed due to lateness. Poo. It’s not a wonderous essay by any stretch, but I said I would publish everything I could from my uni course…

So I present my take on female desire in Renaissance Poetry, such as it is…. warts and all….

How do Donne and Shakespeare differ in their representations of female desire, if at all? You should mention two poems by each poet (ie four sonnets in total).

Renaissance poetry and female desire have a troubled relationship which is unsurprising due to the overwhelmingly male proponents of the craft during this period. John Donne and William Shakespeare are two such poets who through their writings demonstrate a preoccupation with masculine notions of desire, but both of whom have a much less immersive approach to exploring female desire. Shakespearean sonnets appear to be much more deeply rooted in a realistic idea of female desire, until it is contrasted with the fantastical nature of masculine love in the earlier sonnets, creating a stark contrast between the treatment of genders in his works. Donne’s treatment of female desire is more sublime, but is more a matter of conquest than appreciation. If Shakespeare’s depiction of female desire is negative, or at the very least apathetic, Donne’s depiction is one of entitlement; female desire and females in general are there to be seduced or attained. 

Donne’s urge to conquer female desire and wrangle it to his will has the effect of not only giving his poetry a tinge of bitter disdain but also objectifies the women he desires (DiPasquale, 2012). He often denies his female characters agency and this denial of female agency in the poetry is also the result of placing the male as the protagonist. Donne casts himself or his narrator as the hero of the piece, therefore any parties acting contrary to his will are antagonists, but the woman who reciprocates his advances is evidence of his successes. When the female exercises her agency by rejecting the narrator she is deemed unworthy and potentially irreparable, to the point were he would not change her fate if he could; “I’had rather thou shouldst painfully repent, Than by my threat’nings rest still innocent.” (Donne, The Apparition, 47)

Donne’s apparent misogyny in the eyes of modern audiences is somewhat redeemed by the pains he takes to convey the woman as human, while he does objectify he does not treat them as subhuman as Shakespeare does. While it’s true that Donne’s narrator often considers women as lesser than men, he does at least credit them with a level of autonomy and a distinct voice (Coren, 2001) in certain poems such as Elegy 16 (Donne, 111) in which his lover concocts her own plan, in a show of a level of agency that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” fails to achieve.

Shakespeare carries out his own brand of objectification, whilst he does not deny his ‘Dark Lady’ agency, he breaks down the woman into a collection of physical attributes, she is not praised or beheld as a whole but is broken down into the required parts to create the appropriate figure of a Renaissance woman (Shakespeare, Sonnet 30). The Shakespearean woman is a domestic earthly creature, desirable but always less so than man. In his sonnets men are capable of more than women, in fact they are even better at being a woman than women;

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted

– (Shakespeare Sonnet 20).

The love triangle implied in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 is potentially the reason for his disdain of women and his unsympathetic depiction of female desire (Burnham, 1990). Female desire and heterosexual love appears to lead to the devastation of the narrators desire, leading to the dichotomy of men as divine and women as evil; “The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 144)

Both Donne and Shakespeare depict female desire as fickle and cruel, bemoaning it’s inconstancy and injustice. In The Apparition (Donne, 47) Donne, by denying the man his love the woman is considered a murderer; “When by thy scorn, O murd’ress, I am dead” (Donne, The Apparition, 47). Her rejection is seen as malicious and spiteful, rather than an exercise of free will. The scorned narrator Wails and gnashes his teeth as he talks of her cruelty and how he will exact his posthumous revenge. If female desire is fickle then it is necessarily toxic to the woman and the man involved. She is corrupted in The Apparition (Donne, 47), by her own inconstancy  and suffers both physically and psychologically as a result. When the female desire is not directed unwaveringly at the Donne narrator he considers it deceptive and cruel, positioning himself as the primary and rightful focal point of female desire. 

Shakespeare shows the inconstancy and fickleness of female desire in Sonnet 20, where Shakespeare beholds his androgynous love he shows, through the reaction of others the nature of gendered desire;

“Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.” (Shakespeare, sonnet 20) 

In this passage men merely turn their heads at the appearance of the man who looks like a woman, whereas women are deeply effected by the masquerade, perhaps jealous of the success and beauty of the illusion. This passage indicates not only the narrator’s worship of the man in the story but the extent to which women are more easily effected by shallow stimuli such as changed appearance.

Shakespeare’s dim view to female desire is perhaps best explained within the context of the masculine power hegemony of the time, to praise a man is natural, to praise a woman in such terms is scandalous (Matz, 2010). There is an inappropriateness in addressing the desire of women, whereas the exploration of male desire is less corrupting. Donne courts societal outrage by blatantly praising in detail the form of a woman and exploring her role in the passions of man (Coren, 2012) in a way that Shakespeare fails to do. If some of his more lavish praise was directed at a woman Shakespeare would run the risk of encountering the same level of outrage as Donne experienced.

Shakespeare tends to position himself somewhat differently; as in competition with and inherently suspicious of female desire. He does not flatter females as Donne does, they are not on pedestals, however the way their desire manifests appears to be inherently deceptive or malignant in their effects in the Shakespearean narrator’s own intimate sphere.

The nature of desire and its ability to change perceptions of reality is addressed by both poets, and whether the way that desire manifests this change is a deceptive or creative force is heavily gendered. The world building that occurs between two lovers is a reoccurring motif for Donne and Shakespeare, with the enamoured subjects carving out a metaphorical space for themselves and their mutual desire to inhabit. In Shakespeare this manifests as  room, Donne however carves out an extended world and alternate space for his lovers to safely inhabit. These visions of a safe place for desire to flourish a conjured up by masculine desire is explored by both poets but the context of this gendered creation of intimate space differ.

Donne uses masculine and feminine desire as a building block for an alternate reality, a world in which the two parties can exist without condemnation and fear, and indulge in their lust and desires. This somewhat insular attitude to desire puts the couple engaged in such world building at odds with the reality of the greater society. By contrast Shakespeare’s desire involving women is firmly rooted within social realities; he is keenly aware  and alludes to the reality of the human condition and lays bare the deception at work in the world view of those bewitched by desire towards women (Shakespeare, sonnet 130). Shakespeare does however explore world building in his depiction of homo masculine desire and the conditions which could allow this love to flourish without the need for pretence. 

There is a certain amount of antipathy towards desire of women in both poets bodies of work. Shakespeare in particular does not dwell on the emotions and desires of women, with the key allusions to the inner workings of the female being those of deception and ill-nature.  He paints a picture in his sonnets of female desire as a corrupting force which lays waste to true and pure love;

“Wooing his purity with her foul pride” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 144)

This corrupting force manifests in Sonnet 138 as deception, whether this deception is knowing or unknowing; “ I do believe her though I know she lies,” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 138) Here the Shakespearean narrator is convinced of knowing deception, but it is also possible that the lady so overwhelmed with the experience and emotions of love and desire that she believes what she says. However this lack for world building potential in the female desire is not true of the sonnets that deal with homoeroticism (Shakespeare, sonnet 112). Masculine homosexual desire is not as deeply rooted in the deceptive workings of everyday social constructs, enabling the world building such as the desire to which Donne’s poems alludes. Shakespeare heterosexual explorations of female desire are firmly placed within the domestic, whereas masculine desire has the potential to inhabit the sublime. The woman in Shakespeare’s sonnets is firmly positioned in the earthly sphere, she “treads upon the ground”, he is almost pragmatic in his description of her (Shakespeare, Sonnet 130) unlike his male love interest who is held in company off gods. Donne’s women, providing they are supplicant, are divine and desirable. 

The inherently masculine power hegemony in Elizabethan and Renaissance England meant that women were given limited power to exercise their will, particularly within the romantic sphere. Female desire, when it falls contrary to the will of the narrator of Donne’s poems is deeply problematic and prompts  a furious and irrational response. The Apparition (Donne, 47) shows a man struggling to regain power over a woman who by rejecting his advances is not under his power. 

Donne’s irrational female desire as exemplified in Elegy 16, (Donne, 111); “Which my words’ masculine persuasive force” (Donne, Elegy 16, 111) when he beseeches his love not to do anything foolish, he points out the folly of her potential plan. He even likens her ability to disguise herself as that of an ape. Desire has almost rendered her insensible, and it is up to the Donne narrator, the self proclaimed hero and rational mind of the piece to prevail upon her to behave in an appropriate manner to prevent dire consequences for them both.

By contrast Shakespeare is less enraged than despairing when the power balance is tipped in favour of female desire. When the lady of the final sonnets is triumphant in her desire it ultimately means that Shakespeare’s own desire is unattainable. Female desire in Shakespeare sonnets is primarily an obstacle to the happiness of the narrator preventing him from attaining his desires and destroying the world of mutual masculine desire he has constructed with his love.

Female desire is often problematic for the poets as it does not often line up exactly with their own agendas. Whether this problematic desire tales the form of direct rejection or competition it does not tend to yield sufficiently to create contentment and a satisfactory resolution for the poets, this leaves the ultimate mark of female desire as being one denoting frustration and disappointment. The masculine and feminine desires are set up in opposition to one another, but the feminine desire often is seen as being the antagonistic force that refuses to bend to the superiority or sensibility of masculine desire.

In their depictions of intimacy and relationships Donne and Shakespeare struggle to convey anything other than a male-centric view of desire, however their approaches that lead them to this outcome differ considerably. Shakespeare dissociates female desire from the divine nature of masculine desire, whilst Donne renders female desire sublime by association with the right man, that is the narrator. Shakespeare and Donne agree on the potential cruelty and inconstancy of female desire, meaning that women whose desire does not line up with the poets’ are ultimately problematic and destructive.

Burnham, Michelle. “Dark Lady and Fair Man”: The Love Triangle in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and” Ulysses.” Studies in the Novel 22.1 (1990): 43-56.

Coren, Pamela. “In the person of womankind: Female persona poems by Campion, Donne, Jonson.” Studies in Philology 98.2 (2001): 225-250.

DiPasquale, Theresa M. “Donne, women, and the spectre of misogyny.” (2011).

Donne, John. The Poems Of John Donne [2 Vols.] Volume I & Volume II. 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2015., Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Matz, Robert. “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Elh 77.2 (2010): 477-508.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 1st ed. Project Gutenberg, 2014., Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

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Photo courtesy  of Brice Stratford on Wiki commons. 

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