Every teenage girl has “that time of month,” as it is so euphemistically referred to, but in Cycler, the totally inventive and fun debut novel from Lauren McLaughlin, Jill McTeague discovers that during her time, her body goes through entirely different changes than most girls — specifically, four days a month, she becomes Jack, right down to all the appropriate plumbing.
As you might expect, an idea like this is fertile ground for an examination of gender politics, particularly the teenage division, but as McLaughlin notes in this Big Idea, once she started in on the writing, the book went places she never expected it to regarding gender concepts — because of the characters themselves. Where does it go? Well, here’s the author herself to explain it all.
Gender is a prison. That was the Big Idea behind Cycler. I actually wrote it in sharpie on a piece of white paper and taped it above my desk as I worked. I wanted this story, about a girl who turns into a boy four days out of every month, to be an examination of gender as a cultural construct. I wanted to explore the ways in which gender identity constrains us, shapes us, limits is. But a strange thing happened.
Once I set my characters in motion, they immediately adapted to their bizarre circumstances and made the best of it. The girl persona, Jill, strategizes to hide her alter ego so that she can blend in with the rest of her high school peers. The male persona, Jack, who spends his four days hidden from view, develops a powerful memory so that he can scour Jill’s life and live vicariously through her.
Neither of them confronts the issue of gender directly. And why would they? They have no control over the powerful transformations that rule their lives. I think in some ways this reflects our experiences of puberty. Our bodies change, our interests change, and we begin thinking as sexual beings. We are not in control of the process; rather it feels as if the process is controlling us. We are subject to its whims and ever on the cusp of heartbreak and humiliation.
And it is in this crucible of thwarted longings and desperate fumblings that we lay the foundation for our sexual identities. No wonder, then, that a great many of us get it dreadfully wrong, our bodies hungering for one thing while our fragile egos lead us to seek conformity at all cost. The obvious example, of course, is the gay or lesbian teen rebelling against desire to begin a journey of self-denial and self-loathing.
But I think this disconnect between what we carnally desire and what we seek to conform to is more broadly applicable. Think of the popular girl who finds herself uncomfortably smitten with the class nerd or the purple-haired rebel secretly pining for the quarterback in defiance of the misfit code. In our desperate attempts to find a box to fit into, we betray our own desires. We do it to ourselves.
But we don’t keep the damage to ourselves. We inflict it on everyone. One of the strangest things about gender conformity in our society is the way we have become addicted to the bloodsport of it all. Think of the Mommy Wars, the Hillary Wars, “Iron my shirts.” All of these are examples of people trying to enforce their version of femininity on all women. To celebrate their favored brand of femininity, they must demonize all others. What the soldiers in this pointless battle fail to realize is that gender is not binary. There is no one correct expression of femininity and no one correct expression of masculinity. Nor is gender timeless. Even the most “traditional” or “conservative” fighter in the culture wars will hold opinions on gender that his or her great grandmother would find radical. Gender changes through time, through place, and from person to person. It is a fluid and creative construct. But oh, how we love to shape it into a blunt instrument and bash at each other.
In Cycler, I represent what I call the Binary Theory of Gender through Jack and Jill’s mother, Helen. Go to your local bookstore and you will find countless books promising to decode the opposite sex by reducing them to a set of stereotyped characteristics. The Rules, Why Men Marry Bitches, and, of course, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus are just a few examples.
A Rules girl through and through, Helen encourages her daughter to nurture the most stereotypical feminine traits. Because she’s willing to try anything to achieve her twin goals of safeguarding her secret and landing the perfect prom date, Jill jumps right on board.
The problem with this approach is that it presents the opposite sex as, at worst, the enemy and, at best, a dim-witted booby prize. How can you love someone you have basically manipulated into a relationship? Anyone who’s actually been in love knows that love is a wild and lawless thing. Attempts to decode the endeavor with comforting gender stereotypes might sell a lot of self-help books, but they won’t guarantee smooth sailing. Just ask The Rules co-author, Ellen Fein. After “capturing the heart of Mr. Right” by putting her own rules into action, she wound up divorced.
But one thing I wanted to avoid in Cycler, was replacing one Theory of Gender with another. While it’s all well and good to poke fun at girlie girls and macho boys, the truth is, I’d miss them if they were gone. In fact, some of my best friends are Rules girls, bless them. While I consider myself fairly androgynous (psychologically, if not physically), I would hate to live in a world where that became the official prescribed gender identity. What I hope to accomplish with Cycler, other than telling a sexy, thrilling and hilarious story, is to poke holes into everyone’s conception of gender, including my own. I want to destabilize the notion of gender as a stable category. Because it isn’t stable. Whatever feels right to you now will seem quaint and ridiculous to your great grandchildren. And that is exactly as it should be.