Molly Haskell

09.07.134:45 AM ET

'My Brother, My Sister’: Who Has It Better, Men or Women?

In her new book about her brother John’s decision to become a woman named Ellen at the age of 60, Molly Haskell explores the age-old question of which gender has an easier time of it.

"Which is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s? ... the pleasures of life were increased and its experiences multiplied. For the probity of breeches she exchanged the seductiveness of petticoats and enjoyed the love of both sexes equally."

—Virginia Woolf, Orlando.

As I comb the past for clues to my brother’s female leanings, this argument stands out, a bone of contention through the years. With the fervor of a tomboy, and later buttressed by feminist argument, I maintained that of course men had the advantage. The world was es­sentially organized hierarchically, around the idea of male suprem­acy. Women’s opportunities were few, their status borrowed, their vocation marriage. A deeply ingrained double standard was endemic, socially, sexually, professionally. Chevey, more controversially, ar­gued for women. They might work or not, but their place in society and even their self-esteem didn’t depend on it, while men were born into the burden of proving themselves, their professional success their identity. The pressure was enormous, and to him far outweighed the excitement of work, the lure of power and distinction. He appar­ently wanted the right not to be ambitious, not to compete. Was this because I so much wanted to? And the first person he didn’t want to compete with was me? At the time, I thought some of this might come from his childhood vision of male vulnerability. My father had contracted ALS when he was 53. I was 13 then, and Chevey 8. (In fact, it was about the time that he started poking around in my closet.) My little brother watched as this youthful man withered and died, while the women in his life survived and flour­ished. Hence, no doubt, the fury expressed in the aforementioned screed attacking me for not supporting myself, and, by implication, Mother for helping me out.

Still, I thought now—and said to him on the telephone—just you wait. See what kind of service you get when you call someone on a business matter, go to a hotel, deal with workmen, appear alone at a restaurant! And sex ... you’ll be at the mercy of some man’s taste or distaste, no longer the one who chooses and initiates.

Even before Orlando posed the question as to whose is the greater ecstasy, possibly the first known expert in these matters was the fabled Tiresias, who had lived both as man and woman. Jove and Juno were having a heated dispute as to which sex had more fun in bed, and called in Tiresias to settle the argument.

In Ovid’s version, Jove, like my brother, had argued for women, advancing a similar argument but in sexual terms. The wily and inde­fatigable god who never lost an opportunity to seduce, rape, and ravish had the gall to whine, “[W]omen have more joy / In making love than men; we do the work, / While you have all the fun.” Tiresias agreed and, in her fury, Juno struck him blind. Yet for all that supposed fe­male jouissance, Tiresias, when given the opportunity, chose to return to being male.

Many have evoked Tiresias to express the longing we all must feel at some moment to be the other sex. Christopher Hitchens alluded to the myth in his eloquent and sexually ambidextrous memoir Hitch-22. “I would seriously like to know what it was like to be a woman, but like blind Tiresias I would also like the option of remaining myself if I wished.” So we have the vicarious consolations of art and myth . . . and books and movies, and even movie stars, with whom we identify regardless of sex, or rather, precisely because of sex, since we can “be” both or either at the moment of watching.

Shape-shifting and the slipperiness of gender have never been more astutely and wittily explored than in Ovid, the renegade, the champion of women and pleasure against the stern patriotism of Virgil and the repressive hypervirility of Augustus Caesar. In one story, Jove, in order to seduce the lovely young Arcadian Callisto, disguises him­self as Diana, the girl’s idol. It works. Says Callisto: “Hail, goddess whose deep spell on me is greater / Than Jove’s himself.” And Jove’s disarming response: “Jove laughed at being preferred above himself” and gave her “tongue to tongue, a most immoderate kiss.”

Poor Callisto, no longer a virgin, is banished by Diana; then Juno, whose jealousy is “forever on the boil,” whose sex is sublimated into wrath, turns her into a bear. But the point is that for Callisto, Diana exerts a greater spell than Jove’s. Brandon Teena, according to the girl­friends [John Gregory] Dunne interviewed for his article, exerted the same feminine appeal. He was sensitive to their needs and able to play mother, sister, boyfriend, and father to these damaged souls.

Will we prefer Ellen-herself to John-himself? Isn’t there an even deeper lesson here: that the she-Jove is more attractive to women than the he-Jove? And wasn’t this what made my brother so lovable—all those she-qualities he possessed? If anything, the real clue to the se­cret he harbored was that he was too good to be true. Sensitive in ways foreign to most men. He was wonderful with Mother, had spoiled her when she was healthy and vital, acting as unpaid accountant and a great deal more, and then, when she grew ill and finally housebound with emphysema, he had been in constant attendance, arranging for caretakers, visiting, watching over her.

I ask him about this.

“When I would be walking along with a girlfriend or woman friend, whether you’re having a cup of coffee or enjoying a party or getting in and out of a car or having intercourse, you’re thinking you’re inside her mind, thinking what she’s feeling and understanding what she needs.”

“And women responded to you?”

“Yes, I think so, even if they didn’t understand why. But obviously I was more interested in who they were. I wasn’t treating them dismis­sively, like ‘Don’t talk to me till the game is over’ or seeing them as objects. I was interested in all aspects; it helped a lot in sex, but really in all aspects. Of course there are other men who are ‘into’ women that way, and I’m not saying I was perfect at it, but then every woman is different and you don’t have an automatic window where every­thing’s clear. But at least you realize different ways of looking at things and interpreting things. So while I don’t exactly know what she needs or wants, at least I know I want to try and understand.”

In a sense, the transsexual proves by his/her ability to emotionally identify with both sexes, that he’s the exception to the rule, the “hy­brid” that both confirms and challenges the divide between male and female, between masculine and feminine. Sexual stereotypes—genetic or environmental? Hardwired or mutable? What’s “natural” or “nor­mal” in one culture may be anathema in another. A redhead in Poland is considered good luck, but redheads are bad luck in Corsica, and in Egypt they are burned. So important is a melodious singing voice in Wales that those who can’t sing are ostracized. Epileptics are felt to be possessed by sacred spirits among the Hmong in Laos. In Western cultures, dating back to the Greeks, effeminacy in males has been seen as a disease, a perversion, whereas in a South American country an androgynous male can have godlike powers, uniting male and fe­male, like the “two-spirit” people of some Native American tribes. Male and female may signify opposites to us, but in China, “yin” and “yang” mean an ultimate merger. There is ritualized transvestism in Bali, whereas in the West, drag is most often either broadly comical (hetero men in dresses) or disturbingly beautiful, like the divas of the “ball culture” in the documentary Paris Is Burning.

To these normative fixed poles of Western culture, however, resis­tance has run like an underground river, expressing itself in myths of hybrids and hermaphrodites, in art and mythology, that test, tease, and destabilize our sexual certainties. The sexual burlesques of Aristo­phanes and Euripides, raucous travesties of hypermasculinity, and the plays of Shakespeare reveal earlier artists and audiences more com­fortable with jokes about virility and send-ups of sexual stereotypes. Like Ovid, from whose fables he so often drew, Shakespeare, the grand master of sexual paradox, appreciates the criss-crossing of not only male and female characteristics but interspecies as well. See, for example, Bottom the ass making love to Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream; Beatrice and Benedick, the screwball opposites of Much Ado About Nothing, speaking and mocking the artificial language of court­ship, exposing the obligatory nature of male-female roles. The fact that men, or boys, played women only added extra layers to the pun, with As You Like It and its Russian-doll roundelay of sexual disguise—man dressed as woman dressed as man dressed as woman—the ulti­mate pun on gender.

In his emphasis on artifice and role-playing, on life as theatre, Shakespeare is the great poet of straying gender, understanding the degree to which our sexual myths and stereotypes are far from natural but are culturally created, thus susceptible to changing fashion. But the role reversals, the upending of stereotypes, the lure of regression may speak to an audience’s fears as well as desires. Such violations of “nature” and order, including passion itself, are fraught with peril for the afflicted/liberated characters. The danger, Ovid understood, is that once we leave our secure perch, once Io becomes a cow, Callisto a bear, Viola a man, Bottom an ass, we will be neither one thing nor the other, will be unable to communicate with either side, and will tumble into a void of indeterminacy.