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The real thing : transsexuality and manhood in Rose Tremain's Sacred Country

By Emma Parker


Commenting on the medical establishment’s preference for designating intersex babies as girls rather than boys, a prominent surgeon once crudely quipped, ‘you can make a hole but you can’t build a pole’ (Fausto-Sterling 2000: 59). Such a comment confirms Marjorie Garber’s assertion that in sex reassignment surgery ‘there remains an implicit privileging of the phallus, a sense that ‘a “real one” can’t be made, but only born’ (Garber 1992: 104). Garber contends that ‘culture does not yet strongly support the construction of “real men”’ by surgical means (Garber 1992: 104), and the dominant order’s disavowal of female-to-male (FTM) transsexuality is reflected in the fact that there are few cultural representations of FTM, as opposed to MTF, transsexuals. Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country (1992), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Prix Fémina Etranger, traces the transition of its central character from Mary to Martin Ward and is significant both because it makes the FTM visible and because it subverts the myth that manhood is an inviolable state, or sacred country, inhabited by a privileged group of subjects: real men. However, rather than asserting the realness of the FTM, Tremain questions the very notion of the real. Inspired by queer theory’s critique of an ‘original and true sex’ (Butler 1990: viii), this essay proposes that Sacred Country affirms not the authenticity of transsexual manhood but the impossibility of sexed realness, and confirms Judith Butler’s contention that ‘“being” a sex or a gender is fundamentally impossible’ (Butler 1990: 19). By paralleling the experience of her transsexual protagonist with a series of male characters who struggle to reinvent themselves as men in the changing landscape of post-war Britain, Tremain not only rescues the FTM from the status of ‘Other’ but also presents him as a typical rather than an exceptional man. [Taken from the introduction]Peer-reviewedPost-prin

Publisher: Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Year: 2007
DOI identifier: 10.1080/09574040701612445
OAI identifier:

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