On Discovery detailed a forceful and brutal transformation from man to woman in an older Chinese style. In this piece, an over-confident male explorer discovers the Land of Women. He is captured by the women, imprisoned, and subjected to physical modifications to become a woman. Over time, he accepts this change and it becomes his gender identity. Through this short tale, author Maxine Hong Kingston is relating how gender is developed over time into one’s identity, and representing a way in which oppression has been used to maintain a gender power dynamic.
The way in which Tang Ao adapted to his newly forced gender identity was through conditioning. It was framed in a way which was more condensed and drastic than the conditioning one experiences in society. Through media and our respective prevailing cultures, the characteristics which define men and women are ingrained into the developing mind. Cultural norms do not leave much room for one to diverge from these paths. When Tang initially arrived at the Land of Women, he paid no mind to the threat of being captured. “The women immediately captured him, not on guard against ladies” (Kingston, 12). This reflected both his conception of his masculinity and of his captors’ femininity. He assumed that, rather than being captured, he was on his way to the fulfillment of a sexual fantasy. “…if he had had male companions, he would’ve winked over his shoulder” (Kingston, 12).
I recall, just a handful of years ago, thinking the notion of gender as a spectrum or as something which diverges from sex in meaning was silly. It wasn’t until, in a discussion on the subject when I was prompted that my understanding of gender was misguided, that I began to explore the topic more deeply. I read literature on gender dysphoria, talked to friends in the LGBT community, and explored my own gender as an aspect of myself separate from my sex. I came to learn a great deal more on a personal level even more recently when a close friend came out as discovering her gender dysphoria and began transitioning to a woman.
I’ve always framed my gender in the context of my sex. This has been the framework of how that tale has woven itself over the years. Removing the gender-sex tie and framing the gender aspect to the development of my own identity told a new and interesting story to myself. While there were no great hidden changes waiting for me to take a fresh perspective of myself, I do feel I’ve come to understand my personal identity more fundamentally since.
I think that Kingston used the brutal methods of Chinese culture (like foot binding) to shock the reader to attention. This approach is contrary to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where it is suggested that guiding one to a more enlightened idea should be done gradually, rather than abruptly, as that may cause one to instead more strongly oppose the idea, preferring their original understanding. “‘And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he’s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.’ ‘Not all in a moment,’ he said. ‘He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world'” (Plato, para. 10). However, the process Kingston placed Tang through also brings to light the brutal standards that existed in the culture she adapted. Femininity was firmly established in these practices through extreme body modification and painfully rigorous protocol. We saw similar, though less extreme, treatments of women in Victorian England through corsets. I recall an episode of WBUR’s OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook recently where Victorian life was discussed with British historian Ruth Goodman, and a portion of the show mentioned corsets and the ideas surrounding them. They purported that women did not have sufficient muscle to properly hold her abdominal organs, being the weaker sex. This myth perpetuated itself, however, as prolonged corset use weakened those very muscles (Ashbrook, 9:38). Even short of these extreme examples, the gender roles are laid out before us from birth and it isn’t until later, if we are lucky, that we discover our genders are not ordained by our sex, but by the identities we develop. “If being a woman is one cultural interpretation of being female, and if that interpretation is in no way necessitated by being female, then it appears that the female body is the arbitrary locus of the gender ‘woman’, and there is no reason to preclude the possibility of that body becoming the locus of other constructions of gender” (Butler, 35). In this way, Butler stripped away an appeal to nature logical fallacy and laid out developed gender in clear and precise logical reasoning.
On Discovery effectively drives home a crucial point on gender identities, perceptions, and oppression. Kingston wraps into one succinct experience tropes of weaker sex concepts, gender oppression, undeniably brutal practices, and the development of identity. If I am interpreting Kingston correctly, I can be found in full agreement with her.
Ashbrook, Tom. “How To Live Like A Victorian, Right Now.” On Point with Tom Ashbrook. 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/01/26/how-to-be-a-victorian>.
Butler, Judith. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beavoir’s Second Sex.” Yale French Studies No. 72, Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century (1986): p. 35. Web. 16 Jan. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2930225>
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “On Discovery.” Inquiry: Questioning, Reading, Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2004. 12-14. Print.
Plato. “The Republic.” The Internet Classics Archive. MIT. Web. 1 Feb. 2015. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.8.vii.html>.