Elessar Younglove (They/She)
My favorite piece of media is a work of literature titled “Belle Prater’s Boy” by Ruth White. In this review, I will discuss the novel’s explorations (the themes and topics it incorporates into the story or which it challenges) and its limitations (topics it does not successfully pursue, or which it reinforces rather than challenges). “Belle Prater’s Boy” explores themes of gender and socialization, and how gender and socialization affect identity through three female characters: Love, Belle, and Gypsy. However, the novel is limited by its lack of societal solutions.
Love, sister to Belle and mother to Gypsy, is established as the acceptable form of femininity early in the novel, “succeeding” as a woman in society. Like Belle and Gypsy, Love is born in a small, Southern town in the Appalachian Mountains. Gypsy recalls of Love, “My mama was very beautiful. Everybody said so. And she smelled good all the time- like Christmas candy. And her hair put you in mind of one of those Halo shampoo ads” (White 33). She is a widow; her daughter Gypsy is all that Love has left of her husband. Love is a schoolteacher, nurturing children, an esteemed occupation in her town. Society is comfortable with a beautiful woman in a nurturing role. Love benefits from the townspeople's expectations of the female gender. Sheis a successful female example of socialization, the activity of mixing socially with others or the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. Her performance of gender is accepted. In this essay, gender is defined as the attributes, behaviors, and roles socially assigned to sex characteristics. With Love, the novel tells us that women benefit from socialization and gender. If Love is the most acceptable form of a woman, then Belle and Gypsy are not by definition. The inclusion of Belle and Gypsy as the misfit girls tell us not all women do benefit from socialization and gender.
Belle, younger sister of Love and Aunt of Gypsy, is not considered a successful woman by society. She is a victim of the rigidity of gender. White uses Belle’s character to argue that societal expectations of gender are harmful because they hurt women who don’t successfully perform gender. She is described as plain, sentimental, and an excellent piano player. Society is too distracted by her physical appearance to notice anything else about her. The novel explores intersections of gender and identity by including Belle and her experience. Growing up, Belle could not escape being compared to Love and her performance of gender. White narrates, “And folks were always comparing them. Right in front of Belle they'd talk about what a beauty Love was” (White 44). The most interesting aspect of Belle Prater’s character is that we never see her because she runs away in the first chapter. Her presence (or lack thereof) shapes the rest of the story. She leaves her husband, her son Woodrow, and all of her possessions behind. Belle had little say in her life, as if she was the butt of a joke in a story she couldn’t control. Even her name mocks her; it is meant to symbolize “‘that she would be the belle of the ball,” Granny said, and gazed out the window with a long-ago look in her eyes. “We always hoped she would be”” (White 7). Unfortunately, Love was the belle of every ball. Belle is forced to compete against her sister by society to fulfill their idea of a “successful” woman. The novel continuously explains Belle running away as an attempt to explore her life and find her true identity. Identity is a common theme in Belle Prater’s Boy, and for Belle, her true identity is found in boy’s clothes. Belle is happiest when she rejects society’s expectations of her as a woman. Thus, her journey demonstrates to readers that there is no one way to be a successful woman.
Gypsy, daughter of Love, is a beautiful 12 year old girl rejected by society because of her disinterest in behaving like a lady. However, White tells us that if Gypsy stops trying to escape society’s expectations she could grow into a “successful” woman like her mother. While they are foils in appearance, both Belle and Gypsy struggle to be accepted for who they are. With Gypsy, White tells us that even women who benefit from gender roles are suffering because it requires them to perform to be accepted instead of being valued as a human being. Gender is further explored in relation to Gypsy’s hair which is described as long and beautiful. Her family is obsessed with its growth. Gypsy’s father made her mother promise to never cut her beautiful hair, taking away Gypsy’s autonomy. Gypsy cries, “‘Let's say I took a notion to cut it. Ain't it my hair? Can't I cut it if I want to?’” (White, 27). Throughout the novel beautiful hair is valued more than Gypsy as a person. Her talents, such as playing piano, are ignored. Like Belle, society rarely comments on Gypsy’s musical talent because it does not relate to her body. On page 43, Gypsy reclaims her own life by cutting her hair. As she cuts her hair she glares at the mirror, the beauty her father idealized, and yells, “‘I am not your Beauty now!’” On page 47, Gypsy is shocked when her grandfather compliments her skills. She muses, “It reminded me that nobody ever bragged on me for anything except my looks” (White). Yet despite these acts of rebellion,n page 108 Gypsy has a breakdown because she is not able to control her appearance and autonomy. She exists to be compared. “I don't want to be Love Ball Dotson's good little girl all the time!” Through Belle and Gypsy, Belle Prater’s Boy says gender is most healthily expressed when we allow people to express themselves regardless of societal expectations. Despite these explorations, the novel is still limited.
The novel is limited by its lack of societal solutions. There is no social authority to change how the women are viewed and give them justice. This creates a lack of resolve for the book. When the novel ends, readers still have no idea what happens to Belle after she runs away. Was she happy in the end? Belle is the only character to wear boy clothes and her fate is to run away and never be heard from again. This tells readers that the only way for women deemed unattractive to survive is to leave everyone they know behind. When the townspeople find out Belle has run away they spread rumors about her having an affair. Even when she leaves society it still makes a joke of her. By limiting Belle to her interactions with her family and the townspeople we only ever see her as a “failing” woman, someone who will never be good enough. It paints a bleak picture for other gender nonconforming people, or people who are seen as unattractive by society. By making Belle’s story a tragedy White has told readers there is no hope for a woman who is disapproved of by society. Transgender and gender non conforming (GNC) people need representation with happy endings. They cannot be limited to the tragic side characters of a story who further others. The story could have further explored Belle’s life and how she found happiness. White could have incorporated Belle running away further into the story, or even told chapters from her perspective. Instead, it limits her to the sad GNCside character. There is no scene where Belle returns to a loving and apologetic family. Her suffering is never rectified. And that's okay; many GNC people in the real world never find acceptance, and their stories need to be told. Discrimination and marginalization can never be addressed unless we talk about it, and storytelling is a great way to do that. However, as a GNC person myself, I find myself longing for more stories that center on the joy that comes from being one's true self. When stories of GNC suffering are the only pervasive narrative, that becomes discouraging for GNC readers. It can even start to feel like our pain is being used as entertainment for a gendernormative, cishet audience wherein we are reduced to a trope. In the future, I'd love to read more books with GNC main characters who have happy endings.
It is worth mentioning that I, a bisexual and nonbinary person, saw myself in Gypsy. I was assigned female at birth and, at 12 years old, I related to Gypsy’s complicated relationship with my hair. I still do. Gypsy notes that everyone sees her hair before they see her. Her mother is especially fond of Gypsy’s, taking personal pride in it. “She would tell everybody how many inches long it was and how many years she had been growing it, like it was one of her prize azalea bushes or something. To even hint at cutting my hair could spoil her day” (White 32). I have received several compliments on my hair for its thickness, its curl, etc. Sometimes, an insecurity nibbling at my ribs told me it was the only aspect of me people found attractive. Unfortunately, being transgender is sometimes viewed as a betrayal by others. Abandoning your assigned gender confuses, and even enrages, some people. They look at your identity as a betrayal from the person they know. If I cut my own hair would I, also, be seen as a traitor? Would my haircut out me? The only thing that frightened me more than being rejected with my haircut, was to be seen as a pretty girl with short hair. Or worse, a pretty girl who’d stupidly cut her hair. If I cut my hair, I thought, would people still see me the same way? Was my assigned gender inescapable? And if I managed to escape it, if I did cut my hair, would people respect my choice? Or would they lament the days of me being “a pretty girl.” I couldn’t help relating to Gypsy and her internal struggle surrounding her hair and how others used her appearance to define her. While I found questions in Gypsy, Gypsy searched for answers in her father.
This is a tragic attempt for closure because her father is dead; he cannot be held accountable for perverting Gypsy’s sense of self. When Gypsy’s father made her mother promise to never cut her hair he took away her freedom. With this promise, Amos stole Gypsy’s autonomy. This causes Gypsy to break down and even begrudge her appearance. Many young girls, and their bodies, are viewed as things by others and something which keeps them alive - something they should always control. But Gypsy’s father denied her those rights. Her father’s values of societal expectations and gender performance have shaped Gypsy’s life. Because he is dead Gypsy will never find rectification in her suffering. She can’t even be upset with her father because he committed suicide; she is not allowed to be angry with a dead man. The novel frames her father as the decider of Gypsy’s fate. Because of his suicide the novel has a lack of societal solutions, meaning there is no rectification from the townspeople or Belle and Gypsy’s families. Gypsy cannot ever confront her father with this and he cannot ever apologize. I found this significant because it limited Gypsy and her father’s relationship. It didn’t leave readers with a sense of rectification. However, I believe the novel’s ending furthers its themes of identity and socialization. If society is what caused these issues, isn’t it best to find fulfillment in yourself?
In conclusion, I consider “Belle Prater’s Boy” to be a successful critique of gender because it explores topics like gender and identity. I believe the explorations of the novel outweigh its limitations. Gypsy’s hair is a perfect example of women fighting for the right to control their bodies and express themselves however they choose. The novel addresses the policing of women’s appearances and how women feel they do not own their bodies. It also explores how gendered expectations negatively affect both “successful” girls like Gypsy who are valued by society and plain looking, unattractive women like Belle who are not valued by society. “Belle Prater’s Boy” tells readers that all women are affected by gender and socialization. This is important because it encourages readers to view others as valuable regardless of their physical appearance. When a woman is only allowed to be one thing, she is not living her own life, as Belle realizes. This tells readers that gender is best expressed however a person chooses, and not how their biology or society dictates. The novel advocates for self expression and the autonomy of all bodies, making it my favorite media to interact with gender.