By Anja Ende
Rubyfruit Jungle is Rita Mae Brown’s first novel, originally published in 1973. The main character, Molly Bolt, is gay. Early on she has to learn, through meanspirited remarks, that this makes her different. But no matter how mean those comments, such as “You’re sick and you don’t belong [here]” (p. 109) or suggestions of seeing a therapist to cure her unhealthy sexual desires (p. 112), Molly always manages to laugh them off or get a comeback. Only after moving to New York does she discover the vivid LGBTQIA+ scene. Molly learns that among the lesbian scene, there are butches and femmes, and she feels pressured to pick a side, which she rejects. Molly believes that “the whole point of being gay is because you love women” (p. 130).
In essence, she thinks that the idea of one woman appearing as masculine and one woman appearing as feminine in a lesbian relationship defies the purpose of being gay, that is simply being a woman who loves another woman. Not conforming to typical gender roles in the first place, Molly refuses to take on either role.
In her novel, Rita Mae Brown points out the binary gender construct, which is not only reflected in society’s expectation towards individuals but also relationships. The idea that a romantic relationship requires a male and a female part is based on a heteronormative, binary understanding of relations and biological gender. This idea, from today’s point of view, is considered conservative and proven wrong. In 2000, Anne Fausto-Sterling had great impact on gender studies, when she published Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. In her work, Fausto-Sterling draws attention to intersex people, which are people who were born neither XX female or XY male, or who have other syndromes alternating their gender, like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. She urges that intersex is common and further emphasises the need to reconsider the binary gender construct. As Fausto-Sterling observes, intersex people often experience mutilation as infants to give their genitalia either male or female appearance, in order to make them suitable for society. Of course, the discussion opened by Fausto-Sterling about a binary gender understanding isn’t limited to intersex people, but anyone not adjusting to their biological sex. Brown, having reproached this binary understanding and gender-conformity almost 20 years earlier, received harsh criticism from within the gay scene. The critics called Brown out for rejecting the concept of butches and femmes, alleging her to not be an ally. In Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown merely points out how those binary labels are in fact discriminatory within the gay scene towards non-conformist individuals, thus making space for questioning the understanding of gender generally.
But not only are binary constructs in gay romances mentioned, Brown also questions general gender roles in her novel, which give a decisive basis for the discussion touched upon in the previous paragraph. For one, there is Leroy, Molly’s cousin. Not being as progressive as Molly, Leroy does not like that Molly will not comply to being a traditional woman. He states “If you’re doing what you please, out there riding around on motorcycles, then what am I supposed to do? I mean how do I know how to act if you act the same way?” (p. 56). The fact that Molly acts, in Leroy’s opinion, like a man, wearing trousers and riding motorbikes, confuses him because he does not know how he is supposed to act around her. In making this comment, Leroy urges Molly to just be like any other woman at her time because he does not know how to deal with emancipated women that do not fall into the heteronormative category of dress-wearing, childbearing, obedient housewives. The feelings Leroy describes are still widely shared in today’s society where gender non-conforming people are still not as accepted as gay relationships, like discussed previously. Especially men appear to struggle with non-binarity as they often are victims of toxic masculinity. The critique on her appearance is shared by other significant people in Molly’s life, most of whom have grown up in the conservative South. Early in Rubyfruit Jungle, the reader is introduced to Leota B. Bisland, Molly’s classmate. The two girls start dating and end up sleeping together the night before Molly moves to Florida. They lose touch, but Molly visits Leota several years later. This time, Molly isn’t greeted with joy – Leota is married and has children of her own. She feels repelled by Molly still being openly lesbian, and moreover, has no understanding as to why Molly wouldn’t get married and settle down. Leota even demeans Molly’s appearance, asking, with regard to the main character’s homosexuality, “You must have stayed that way. Is that why you’re walking around in jeans and a pullover? You one of those sickies?” (p. 191) In other words, Leota is repulsed by Molly’s epicene appearance and open sexuality. Even Molly’s adoptive Mother, Carrie, cannot accept her daughter’s sexuality. The two women regularly have arguments about how Molly goes about her life. It’s no secret that Molly’s been adopted, as Carrie brings this up when they have an argument. She’s harsh on Molly, calling her a “heathen” (p.28) in response to which Molly locks Carrie in the basement, wherefore Molly gets a beating. Over the course of several years, mother and daughter grow to dislike each other more and more. Molly leaves for Uni after Carrie said she wasn’t her child and doesn’t see Carrie until she’s in her final year. For her senior project in film school, Molly decides to interview Carrie about her life. Carrie, who’s gotten old and tranquil, seems to have changed her mind about Molly, affirming “You misunderstood me. […] You know I’d never say a thing like that. Why I love you. You’re all I got left in this world.” (p. 200f) It is questionable if Carrie at this point accepts her adoptive daughter or if she has simply gotten senile. Either way, both women seem to have made peace with one another towards the end of Rubyfruit Jungle, symbolising that Molly can close this chapter and continue her life knowing the most important person in her life loves her as she is.
I believe that the struggles Rita Mae Brown addresses in her novel are very real and still relevant today. We live in a society that heavily relies on binary labels. One could assume that amongst minority groups like homosexual people, such prejudices are not shared because they can be counterproductive. Brown however shows that even within the gay community, binary labels based on heteronormative understanding of relationships are common and end up discriminating allies. Binary gender is as old as time, making it a lot harder for us to take a step back and question this reality. But this is not reality, as Fausto-Sterling and others have revealed. Since Rubyfruit Jungle was published, many things have changed for the better for LGBTQIA+ people. I’m hoping we continue this path, making way for more inclusive societies and better realities.