Masculinity, Femininity And Sexuality In Giovanni's Room

In James Baldwins Giovanni’s Room women seem to play ornamental roles next to well-developed male characters. When discussing Giovanni’s Room, it’s important to look at the themes surrounding ideas of misogyny, femininity and cleanliness as it regards the male characters of the book, particularly Giovanni and David. This paper will explore how Baldwin questions gender identity and its performative roles in heterosexual, bi-sexual and homo-sexual relationships in a hetero-normative environment.

The theme of cleanliness has weaved itself throughout the texts of Giovanni’s Room. Cleanliness seems to relate to heterosexuality and American masculinity. While, dirtiness and disorderliness seem to be associated with homosexuality.

The first instance of dirtiness we see is when David recalls the weekend he spent with Joey. He recounts a moment where Joey believes he’s bitten by a bed bug and David replies; “You slob”. This implies that Joey lives in squalor or filth, Baldwins use of bedbugs gives the reader the impression that Joey is dirty.

This isn’t the only reference to filth in the text. When David is first intimate with Giovanni he finds his room to be “full of clutter and disorder”. As the story progresses the room becomes increasingly filthy and unbearable for David. We can attribute this accumulating filth to David becoming more enmeshed in the homoerotic relationship with Giovanni. David described the room as “Giovanni’s regurgitated life… towering like a wall were boxes of cardboard and leather, some tied with string, some locked, some bursting… the table was loaded with yellowing newspapers, empty bottles and a wrinkled potato in which even the sprouting eyes were rotten”. This room is the physical manifestation of David’s sexuality. David is imprisoned in this dirty, dark, degrading space this space mirrors his views on sexuality and femininity.

We see these two ideas converge later in the text. Giovanni and David are having a conversation about Hella when David proclaims to love Hella Giovanni contends that David loves no one (Baldwin 132). Giovanni exclaims; “You love your purity… you walk around with your hands in front of you as though… you have diamonds between your legs! You will never let anyone touch it- man or woman. You want to be clean” (Baldwin 132). Here cleanliness seems synonymous with purity and masculinity. Although Giovanni is literally referencing “what’s between [David’s] legs, symbolically he seems to be discussing David’s heart, because of David’s denial about who he is, or he ought to be, he will never be able to truly and freely love or accept love.

Giovanni continues: “You think you came here covered with soap and you will go out covered with soap-and you do not want to stink not even for five minutes. You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he’s not afraid of the stink of love”. Here we see a transference of the filth, from the room to Giovanni. David cannot except who he is or relinquish his purity and give in to love. So Giovanni sits in the stink alone, from his room to his being, Giovanni gives in to the relationship while David maintains his moral high ground.

In the early years of David’s life, there seems to be this indoctrination into gender roles and how they are performed, with a focus on masculinity, what it takes to be a man. Much of this rhetoric came from David’s aunt and father, the emphasis on David’s manhood not only affected how he views masculinity, but it has also informed his views on femininity and sexuality.

David’s relationship with women seemed doomed from very early on in his life. David’s mother died when he was five years old, and his only real memories of her are in the form of nightmares, he describes her as: “...blind with worms, straining to press me against her body; that body so putrescent, that it opened as I clawed and cried, in a breach so enormous as to swallow me alive” (Baldwin 12). David also depicts his mother's spirit as “dominating their and controlling the family” (Baldwin 12). Shortly after the introduction to David’s mother we meet his aunt she too is this impeding, “frightening” figure. She’s described as “dressed to kill (which surely perpetuates this idea of the woman being this dangerous creature), lips redder than blood, clothing too tight or too young”. David’s aunt appears to be this despotic woman, who not only threatens his father’s his manhood, but accuses his father of losing his manhood to a woman he’s seeing.

David’s first homosexual encounter was with a boy named Joey. David describes joeys body as a “black cavern in which he would be tormented til madness came, in which he would lose his manhood.” Here we witness David’s first confrontation with his own manhood and his attempt to reconcile his feelings after the encounter, we also witness David’s first bout of shame regarding his sexuality. And again, there is an invading female presence as David “wonders what Joeys mom would say”. Later David likens the memory to that of a “decomposing corpse” this appears to be a direct reference to the childhood nightmares of his mother. The presence of this maternal or feminine gaze seems to signify social construct of gender roles, as he always seems to feel defeated and ashamed in its presence. Conversely, David’s father represents masculinity and David seems to be repulsed by this “masculine candor”. Even though David isn’t particularly fond of his father he explains his father behavior “beneath his jocular boys together air…. he was frightened”. Baldwin seems to develop male characters, they have feelings, hopes, fears, while the female characters seem merely ornamental, despite being desperate or overbearing.

Why does Baldwin use women this way? In using women this way, what point is he trying to get across about gay men? And what social and political commentary is Baldwin trying to make by using cleanliness and dirtiness as to express heterosexuality and homosexuality respectively. I believe Baldwin is using women to represent gay men in society. He feels that the tropes of gay men are at the receiving end of hate and homophobia and women are used as an allegorical symbol, to show how these boxes we place on sexuality and performing gender are stifling and harmful to any marginalized group. Baldwin is using dirtiness to highlight the trope of the dirty, depraved homosexual, that persist even today. Emphasizing this trope in juxtaposition to the clean, pure heterosexual American is a critique on how homosexuals are othered by American society. 

16 December 2021
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