Georgia Cranko
...a beautifully volatile and disabled existence of raw humanity, art and activism...


Gender is Written on The Body

There are many ways of seeing and interpreting the human body, but in western cultures, it is compartmentalised and simplified into a binary of gender. From birth, it is labelled as being either male or female, and in that way, gender becomes a means for defining oneself, as well as others. Jeanette Winterson transcends this paradigm in her book, Written on the Body. She offers us an insight into a world where gender does not define the protagonist’s relationships. The protagonist is genderless, but their physicality morphs and changes depending on the social context they find themselves in. As such, there is an underlying fluidity of gender and sex, but there is also a suggestion that external forces keep trying to push the character into the gender binary based on their actions. The discourse around the “code” of sex and gender is summed up in the quote: ” Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights, the accumulations of a lifetime gathered there”. Through this example presented by Winterson (1992), we can see how both sex and gender are culturally constructed and they can be viewed as having left a mark on the skin, collected and stored like scars from life experiences.


Desire is a basic human instinct that is usually appropriated to different bodily attributes. However Foucault (1997) states it is a mistake to conflate sexuality with our gendered identity, rather he argues, we should “… use one's sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.” (p. 135). Winterson (1992) attempts to expand on this idea and separate the two physical experiences of sexuality and of being gendered. She achieves this by not discussing sex scenes with the narrator’s romantic obsession, Louise, in physical terms, yet the genderless protagonist is very much there. “...She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She keeps a starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my fingers around the rim…” (p. 73).  By implementing this literary technique, Winterson (1992) is able to deconstruct the link between sexual acts and the constructs of gender.  The passionate relationship between Louise and the narrator does not fit the mold of either a homosexual or a heterosexual affair.  Therefore, as Butler (1990) would argue there is no “masculine” physique that is “not permeable”, nor a female that is. Their sexual acts “…reinscribe the boundaries of the body along new cultural lines.” (p. 132) because what our culture indoctrinate us to believe about our physicalities and thus our sex and gender may not be fact (cited Foucault in Probyn, 1997, p. 134).



As the above quote implies, the physical body is seen differently in different “lights”. That being so, it follows that one’s gender is also malleable. This superficiality of gender and therefore sex, can be seen in the gender ambiguity that Winterson (1992) manages to maintain throughout the novel by simply manipulating language. Such is the way, that as a reader, I felt secure in concluding the narrator is female when they call themselves “Alice” from Alice in Wonderland (p. 10). This conclusion is challenged when the character is referred to as “Christopher Robin” (p. 61). It is therefore evident why Judith Butler (1990) argues it is the specific language we use to explain sex and gender that makes these concepts “socially real” (p. 115). Winterson (1992) omits all the conventional gendered pronouns, leaving us with the minute incidences and actions that we associate with either being masculine or feminine (Probyn, 1997, p. 137). Thus we begin to see the world of gender as being made up of performance and dynamics of power. These intangible personal interactions, movements and exchanges of power, begin to define and assume a specific gender (Butler, 1990, p. 24) and, mark and gather on the gender-neutral body.


This sexless character manifests themselves as a variety of gendered personas. They sometimes can be a heterosexual male, parading themselves as “a parody of the sporting colonel…” in one scene, “… fancying a glass of sherry and a little mental dalliance with Inge, Catherine, Bathseba, Judith, Estelle...” (p.77) Then they are an androgynous womaniser, who flirts with married women, who confesses “ (p. 13). I've been through a lot of marriages. Not down the aisle but always up the stairs.” In these two incidents, we are made to imagine the narrator’s body as being gendered. Itshows how certain circumstances create the substance of gender, how these interactions and movements cause the imagined body of the narrator to be “stylised” and therefore gendered (Butler, 1990, p. 33).  That specific conceptualised body elicits a certain power, it is not that power is located in the body, but rather a specific gendered body has certain cultural meanings (that make up “the secret code”) that have a powerful influence on the interaction with society.



To some extent, our physical body mediates our experience of the world, and thus our assigned gender becomes enmeshed in our interactions with others. It acts as an analytical tool that assists us to untangle the complex differences in personal encounters. We see this in the way that throughout the narrative the protagonist tries to inhabit the body of their female lover, Louise, in order to make their own experience somehow more concrete. The descriptive memory of Louise is transposed on a sexless body:  “When I look in the mirror it's not my own face I see. Your body is twice. Once you, once me. Can I be sure which is which?'(Winterson, 1992, p. 99).


The violates our understanding of social power, because as Butler (1990) argues, power is often understood within the heterosexual dynamic (p. 30). The narrator’s awareness of themself is interwoven with the physicality of Louise, constantly positioning themself in relation to her. So the usual relationship construction where one person dominates the other, does not apply. Yet the secret code of gender is defined by a lack of self, and a lack of physical description of the narrator’s body. The core of the narrative is absence. During reading, we are encouraged to identify the protagonist who is predominantly defined by what they are not.  So it follows that the frameworks in which gender is viewed (the “certain lights”) are arbitrary, and therefore flawed.  (Butler, 1990, p. 28)


Yet all past relationships have the capability of encrypting the code that is written on the body. After all, Butler (1990) says, “...the body gains meaning within discourse only in the context of power relations.” (p. 92). As I have mentioned, the narrator frequently refers to past lovers of both genders, such as ”Bathsheba”(Winterson, 1992, p. 16), “Inge” (p. 21) and“Crazy Frank” (p. 92), and recounts fond anecdotes of these relationships.  Butler (1990) also theorises that gendering the body places limits on “imaginative meanings [of the body]” and desire (p. 71). However our comprehension of love and lust is so connected with the gendered body, that it is hard to grasp sexual desire and a relationship that is not gendered. Thus we are left with only what Foucault (1997) would call a relationship of friendship, in that it resembles “a relationship that is still formless… that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure.”(p. 156).  The definition of formless, in this sense, is compounded by the fact that one physical body is missing from the love equation. I would argue Winterson (1992) wants to further challenge the boundaries of the sexualised body. Since Butler (1990) asserts that certain bodily parts (eg. Breasts, penis, vagina) are only sexualised on gendered bodies (p. 71).


The narrator does not like to be judged and defined by their appearance; they state “I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes.” (p. 89). However they write so readily about Louise’s physicality, it reinforces the fusion between self and other. It’s unclear whether it is gender similarity or difference that compels the narrator to inhabit Louise’s physicality. Winterson (1992) uses the analogy of chemical reaction to explain this compulsion and the dalliance with Louise. “There are many ways to fit molecules together but only a few juxtapositions that bring them close enough to bond... We touch one another, bond and break….' (p. 61-2). 


I have barely skimmed the surface of the discourse surrounding the gendering of physical bodies.  By examining the issues and social politics raised in Winterson’s  (1992) novel, it is clear that the concepts of gender and sex are vague, but also complex. The lack of definitive basis for being male or female, leaves our bodies t



Butler, J. (1990). The Trouble with Gender. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1997). Friendship as a way of life. In P. Rabinow (Ed.), Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (Essential Works of Foucault) (Vol. 1, pp. 135-140). New York: The New press.

Probyn, E. (1997). Michel Foucault and the Uses of Sexualiy. In A. Medhurst & S. R. Munt (Eds.), Lesbian and gay studies: a critical introduction. London: Cassell.

Winterson, J. (1992). Written on the Body. London: Jonathan Cape.




Georgia Cranko