Chris Coffman’s “Woolf’s Orlando and the Resonances of Trans Studies” is a dense examination of feminist, queer, and gender studies that engages Woolf’s novel. Coffman offers a concise history of gender studies (and this is a broad term here) that makes this article a bit difficult to get through if you do not have a strong theoretical background. However, the points that Coffman gives about Orlando are exciting and have a strong relevance considering my research project for this semester.
The first four paragraphs of Coffman’s article rely heavily on the history of feminist studies and queer theory, and by doing so, Coffman sets the reader up with a bit of background before introducing Woolf’s novel to her article. Coffman’s primary argument is that Orlando, despite earlier, previous notions of the novel within the fields of feminist and queer theories, can be valuable for transgender studies.
Coffman also discusses Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and inversion theory, though she differentiates between Hall’s novel and inversion and Woolf’s novel and transgender studies. In this, Coffman demonstrates how Hall employed realism, and therefore, is a viable literary work when examining gender identity, and goes on to say that Woolf’s use of the fantastic (rather than realism) does not detract from Orlando’s importance in gender studies, though the novel has previously been posited as not being viable due to the fantastic qualities it possesses.
Whereas there have been other literary texts which subordinate either male or female, Coffman reveals that Orlando shows an “interlocking” of gender studies and gender politics. This is a crucial point when considering Orlando’s importance in transgender studies. As Coffman points out, Orlando “exceed[s] identity categories and [sustains] multiple interpretations,” and by doing so, interacts and participates in numerous conversations and debates about (trans) gender studies, engaging a variety of critical approaches and critics (par. 27).
In the various ways Orlando’s genders are represented and dealt with in Woolf’s novel, Coffman advances the idea that Woolf is speaking back to the structure of a patriarchal society. This kind of interaction with patriarchy harkens back to other critical articles, such as those written by Jane Marcus and Annette Oxindine (responses to these articles are in previous blog posts). As Coffman effectively notes, “Orlando explores the effects that sexist cultural norms have on its protagonist’s gender and desire as s/he lives in both male and female bodies and in several periods of English history” (par. 28). Woolf’s use of the fantastic (in terms of gender transformation without sex reassignment surgery and the fact that Orlando lives for approximately three hundred years), thus, supports an extremely diverse and, perhaps, unusual approach to gender/sexuality issues. In this, Woolf is able to expound upon the institutions of a patriarchal society over periods of history through the biographical account of Orlando, who lives both as a man and as a woman. The narrator of the novel makes use of what Judith Butler has termed gender performance through the exclamations of gender being represented by costume. What, then, occurs within the Woolf’s text is the sharp embodiment of an examination of gender and sexuality under the thumb of patriarchy: as Coffman notes, Orlando’s sexual activities as a male differ in some regards from his/her sexual activities as a woman, though as a woman, Orlando dresses in men’s clothing in order to pursue sexual liaisons with other women.
Coffman also brings English law into play in her article by discussing the drastic difference between Orlando’s legal status as a man and after he transforms into a woman. Though time has passed, it is not enough time (especially since during Woolf’s own time, women’s rights were still restricted and quite limited), and Orlando must contend with the legal issues of not holding property in her name. Here, Coffman raises the issues of feminist politics and closely knots them with gender studies, re-offering/repositioning the idea of interlocking disciplines. Perhaps the most telling statement in Coffman’s article is when she writes, “Woolf’s feminist critique of sexism informs the novel’s treatment both of the restrictions that Orlando experiences upon transformation into a woman and of the homophobia that leaves h/er queer desires latent while a man [i.e. when Orlando first spies Sasha skating on the frozen River Thames]…[W]e might instead read Orlando’s interrogation of desire, gender, and embodiment as productively aligned with contemporary feminist and transgender politics” (par. 35).
Coffman, Chris. “Woolf’s Orlando and the Resonances of Trans Studies.” Genders 51 (2010). Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Oct. 2010.