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In the novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, Sissy Hankshaw is a young woman who gets introduced to the world via hitchhiking. From the beginning of the novel, Sissy’s sexuality is foreshadowed. She goes with her mother to see a psychic, Madame Zoe. When asked if Sissy will ever get married, Madame Zoe replies, "There is most clearly a marriage. A husband, no doubt about it, though he is years away…There are children, too. Five, maybe six. But the husband is not the father. They will inherit your characteristics" (Robbins 33). There is also a lot of defying of traditional gender roles in this novel. Sissy hitchhikes all over the eastern United States by herself. Her self-reliance and determination was previously thought to be more of a male characteristic. Along these lines it is also relevant to use Feminist Literary Criticism to assess this novel. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and its main character, Sissy Hankshaw epitomize the change in women and sex roles in the late 1960s and 1970s.
First of all, this novel can be looked at as representative of the sexual revolution in the 1970s. According to Linda Grant, author of Sexing the Millenium, up until the mid-1960s, single women had a difficult time obtaining birth control and were given the responsibility of remaining virgins until they consummated a marriage. Abortion and homosexuality were not only illegal, but were taboo topics of discussion. Furthermore, a number of women were trapped in loveless marriages due to strict divorce laws (2). Lillian B. Rubin, author of Erotic Wars, describes the beginnings of the Sexual Revolution:
Then came the sixties and the sexual revolution. The restraints against sexual intercourse for unmarried women gave way as the Pill [oral contraceptive] finally freed them from the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Seduction became abbreviated and compressed, oftentimes bypassed altogether, as women, reveling in their newfound liberation, sought the sexual freedom that had for so long been ‘for men only.’ The assumption of the era was that she wanted sex as much as he did, the only question being whether or not they wanted to do it with each other. Young people lived together openly, parading their sexuality before their parents’ outraged and bewildered gaze (13).
She goes on to report about an interview with a 15-year-old boy who says, "I guess sex was originally to produce another body; then I guess it was for love; nowadays it’s just for feeling good" (13).
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These ideas about the Sexual Revolution are displayed in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues very clearly. Sissy’s mother leaves the psychic shortly after she is informed that Sissy’s future children will not be fathered by her future husband. She gives Sissy a "rare embrace" and leaves. Sissy goes on to travel from Richmond to Manhattan, where she meets the Countess, a homosexual male socialite. She is introduced to Julian Gitche, who she spends a weekend making love with after she has a group sexual experience with a married couple. She ends up marrying Julian. She goes on later in the novel to meet Bonanza Jellybean, a cowgirl at the Rubber Rose Ranch, and feels sexual desire for her. They have sexual experiences together a few times throughout the novel. Another man that Sissy has sexual intercourse with is the Chink, a sort of legendary wise man. It is not so much that she is in love with any of these sexual partners, as earlier generations would have as a prerequisite, but that all of these people make her feel desirable. Also note that Sissy is technically an adulteress because during her sexual escapades with Bonanza Jellybean and the Chink, she is still married to Julian Gitche. Clearly she did not have sexual relations with all of these individuals for procreation or love, but rather personal pleasure.
As for the Countess, a homosexual who is obsessed with feminine hygiene and enterprises upon it, he also deviates from traditional sex roles. According to Love, Sex, and Sex Roles by Constantina Safilios-Rothschild, prior to the 1960s, homosexuality was taboo. Men were not able to express emotional need to other men, but rather had to compete in work, sports, etc. (74). Prior to the era of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, lesbianism was viewed by some psychoanalysts as "narcissistic regression." This means to say the lesbians were immature in that they could only love themselves and "loving" one of the same gender was only an expression of self-love (Jeffreys 316).
Homosexuality is a theme in Robbins’ novel. The countess is homosexual and is very emotionally sensitive, a stereotypical characteristic of male homosexuals, but he is also a shrewd businessman, a more dominant characteristic. The same gender experiences that Sissy has in the novel defy the earlier psychoanalytical view of lesbians. Sissy truly does care for Bonanza Jellybean and wants to help her on the Rubber Rose Ranch. They become close friends throughout the novel in addition to Sissy’s attachment to the other cowgirls.
Feminist theory can easily be applied to this novel. In Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, author Jonathan Culler writes:
…We consider gender as performative, in the sense that it is not what is but what one does. A man is not what one is but something one does, a condition one enacts. Your gender is created by your acts, in the way that a promise is created by the act of promising. You become a man or a woman by repeated acts, which…depend on social conventions, habitual ways of doing something in a culture. Just as there are regular, socially established ways of promising, making a bet, giving orders, and getting married, so there are socially established ways of being a man or being a woman (99).
There are several examples in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to back up Culler’s theory, the most prominent examples being the Countess and Bonanza Jellybean. One could arguably say that the Countess is not, in fact, male. He is often referred to in the novel as "she" and at one point in the novel asks Sissy to imagine what it is like to be a "male Countess." In reality, there is no such thing as a male Countess, as he would be a Count. Not only does her refer to himself as a female, but he dresses like one in very ornamented clothing. Bonanza Jellybean exhibits traditional male roles of aggression. At one point, she holds the ranch manager hostage and demands that certain things are changes. Traditionally women would take a more passive approach to confrontation.
The Sexual Revolution and Feminism have paved the way for women of my generation and beyond. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a timeless record of the Sexual Revolution and gives strong examples of women in power. It makes strength in women, sexual liberation, homosexuality, and independence into desirable qualities. This novel is also easily criticized formally from a Feminist Theory perspective with multiple examples of female domination. Sissy Hankshaw is the perfect example of a sexually liberated women, just as Bonanza Jellybean and the Countess are examples of redefined sex roles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Grant, Linda. Sexing the Millenium: Women and the Sexual Revolution. New York: Grove Press, 1994.
Jeffreys, Shiela. Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 1991.
Robbins, Tom. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. New York: Bantam Books, 1977.
Rubin, Lillian B. Erotic Wars: What Happened to the Sexual Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 1990.
Safilios-Rothschild, Constantina. Love, Sex, and Sex Roles. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977.