Politics of Race, Language, and Gender in Jhumpa Lahiri’s "Sexy"

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There seems to be a disparity of identity when it comes to South Asians immigrating to the US, as well as how they affect the perception of the Americans towards them. There exists a conflict of language where a word or any manifestation of language seems to have different notions per culture or group. There also exists the politics of sexuality which seems to be debatable because in the Asian-American setting, it is always the Western which is the masculine and the Asian (particularly the Orient) the feminine. Also, there is the issue of race where it inflicts exoticism or it reimagines a brand new perspective on the beauty of other race. Interracial relationships of course present differences in race and skin color and how two people of different races are enticed by the exotic culture of beauty. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Sexy provides an intersecting issue of sexuality and race that cages Miranda into an assimilation to the Indian culture and how Miranda is centered on the Asian-American setting—that, an American tries to be an Asian (instead of the other way around, which is of course problematic and quite unique in Asian-American Literature). This paper would like to critique the short story in accordance to its issue of gender and race using the texts Lunch Vignettes by Shah, M. Butterfly by Hwang, Assimilation by Gloria, and The Coffin Tree by Law-Yone. as both texts can be viewed as “theoretically informed” and both are valuable media in representing the Asian-American identity. The paper would like to render Asian-American texts as theory themselves as argued in Goellnicht’s text as, “…that our theorizing…is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language.”

The story begins in the introduction to the characters, Miranda, an American, and Laxmi, her co-worker, an Indian. Laxmi’s cousin calls her informing that her husband left her for another woman on an airplane. The depression felt by Laxmi’s cousin causes a neglect for the son, Rohin which alerts Laxmi. Miranda resorts to talking with Dev and explains some stuff about Bengali culture. The story traces back to the meeting of Miranda and Dev on a make-up counter in a department store. Miranda tries her best go get nearer to Dev and they were able to meet outside the store. Every night, Dev is staying at Miranda’s apartment and they engaged in a conversation about life and Miranda rendered Dev as the first man ever to show maturity to her. Dev shows Miranda around Boston, and eventually in the mapparium. This is the place where Miranda firstly hears that she is “sexy.”

Miranda rushes to the department store to buy things that would surely surprise Dev. Miranda imagines her scene with Dev that would be like a very romantic moment with him, but Dev’s wife returns and appears to Miranda in gym clothes, dismaying Miranda. Miranda then tries to learn of the Bengali culture, language, and food.

Rohin comes to Miranda’s apartment one day and eventually goes to her closet. Rohin finds a silver dress on the floor and asks Miranda to wear it because she’ll look “sexy.” Rohin explains that sexy means, “loving someone you don’t know.” After this happened, Miranda went numb and reminisces what happened in the mapparium. After this incident, she began ignoring anything from that concerns Dev, even going to the point of totally ignoring Dev already asking him not to come to the apartment anymore.

The text presents a lot of issues concerning the identity of an American and an Indian (South Asian) including also the politics of gender and racial power. It is important to dwell first in the aspect of Miranda’s identity. Primarily, Miranda is an American woman who lives all by herself in Boston. Everything changes when she met Dev because particularly, Dev was the first man who entices her because of his maturity. Despite Dev’s legal affair with his wife, Miranda indulges in a forbidden relationship with Dev. In the latter part, we can witness how Miranda desperately tries to adapt to an environment she cannot withstand. The first issue of Miranda’s identity is her transformation to a “Mira” which she believes would transform her enough to be a Bengali suitable to Dev’s liking. Dev first commented that Miranda’s name contains a Bengali “Mira” and she is immediately enticed by it. Secondly, Miranda, when not with Dev, indulges herself in the Indian cuisine. This is almost the same with Shah’s Lunch Vignettes but here, obviously, Miranda is not eating her culture but other race’s culture. It is not denoting that she is not allowed to eat the Indian cuisine but she is eating for the sake of assimilating to the Indian culture, which is obviously a trying-hard attempt. The persona in Shah’s poem is an Americanized Indian who eats at a restaurant but with the fears of being rejected in any way because of her looks. However, she is accepted and welcomed to eat her culture anyway.

Adding to the two given reasons on the fault of Miranda’s identity, Miranda tries to recall her experiences with Indian culture—the Dixit family in which her peers made fun of because of their names and she feared the painting of the fierce goddess Kali. Though embedded in the past, she believes dating with Dev would strip the shame away from her body but of course, it wouldn’t. Though it is already in the past, it is still quite obvious that Miranda rejects the culture of the Indians and she is not fit to be assimilated into it. The digression of Miranda’s identity is her forced intake of culture that is very unknown to her. Shah’s poem present someone eating her own culture but Miranda eats another culture because she wants to absorb it and make it a part of her.

Intersecting with another food as a medium of identity, Gloria’s poem Assimilation presents the idea of assimilating into the American community by mimicking their ways. In the poem, the persona brings ‘rice meal’ into the school but he observes that what he eat is very different from others and instead the day after, he indulges with an American food. In this poem, it represents the ideal thing for an Asian to do to belong to an American society: to do what they do, or quoting a quote, “do what the Romans do.” However, Miranda is not assimilating into an Indian society because she lives in Boston and although there are other Indian-Americans there, it is not an Indian culture. Obviously, Miranda forces assimilation through a selfish avenue that having an Indian culture part of her will render her available to Dev without any exotic manifestation differing the two. Miranda cannot be rendered to be readily assimilating but she is merely forcing a culture that her body rejects. Then, she does not assimilate primarily but she “tries to be an Indian” through culture. The obvious manifestation of this is the part where she is in the grocer and she is told that the Hot Mix is too spicy for her. Obviously, the culture of the Indians is too much for her that she cannot take it all and forcing these cultures upon her would not render her as an Indian.

Law-Yone’s The Coffin Tree exemplifies the notion of language as a requirement in order to have a better communication. In this selection, the power of the English language is the active agent in determining the competence of one to live in the America. The protagonist in the story in the end, was “unable to cut the mustard” meaning that she wasn’t able to meet the required standards set for her. Language became a primary medium on how life in America works and it is a manifestation of how one’s level represents how a person already adapted in the American society. In picturing the power of language, there is a resorting to Miranda’s effort in reading her name in the Bengali manner. She tries to adapt the Bengali language even primarily noting only for her name just to be rendered as an Indian. Obviously, there is no mastery of the language and the language choice is very selective and thus, it is not able to conform to the power of Miranda over the Indian language that will be a basis of her adaptation level to the Indian society and culture. Second is the most controversial perhaps or the most intrinsic issue of language in the story: the conception of the word, sexy. In the western concept, sexy may mean that one is sexually attractive; enticing and seductive. The linguistic front of Miranda is very westernized and it does not conform to the language of the Bengali. Miranda rendered the definition of sexy in her western terms and embraced it as something that is very comforting to her—boosting her self-esteem even. Because of this incident, Miranda is inspired already to dress up for Dev and prepare her best for Dev, because she renders Dev to be the mature man that will be the fulfillment of her romantic dreams.

However undeniable, there is always the issue of language disparity and barrier. The linguistic culture of both the West and the Bengali affirms the similarity of the semantic and morphological construction of words but the lexical meaning of such words changes; like how in the postmodern, things have changed in meaning due to its respective signification. The word sexy as explained before in the western terms is someone sexually attractive. In the Bengali language, or rather in the cultural language of the Indians, sexy is defined as, “loving someone you don’t know.” Miranda is loved by Dev for the sake of the pleasures of love and all the benefits he can receive from it but nonetheless, it is only rooted in pleasure. Dev barely knows Miranda and all the historical information about Miranda, the same way Miranda loves Dev but only surfacial and never what is something more in the inside. The language of sexy became the language of love—in a sense that the word is somehow an eye opener on how love is viewed in both cultures. That, a single word that seems so good to hear is actually a nemesis that would rip apart the love Miranda founded for the surfacial aspect and never for the substance.

Because of the problem of language, Miranda and Dev wasn’t able to understand one another. Miranda took the sexy as a compliment while Dev gave Miranda a sexy remark because he loves Miranda for the sake of surfacial value. Obviuously, the disparity of language is emphasized just like how the female protagonist in Law-Yone’s The Coffin Tree wasn’t able to understand “how to cut the mustard.” Language is obviously one of the most “othering” barriers between two races. The problem of language destroyed the secret affair of Miranda and Dev (which would be rendered good) but because of the issue of language, Miranda was able to open her eyes regarding her forced intake of the Indian culture. Language even though Miranda and Dev was able to understand each other does not take form into a general English because while Miranda uses American English, it would appear that Dev uses Indian English and both are the same most of the time but there are differences worth noting.

Gender also acted as an important agent in determining the hegemonic structure of the differences of Miranda and Dev. Primarily, using Hwang’s M. Butterfly as an important theoretical medium, one is bound to note important details: (1) the Asians are subjected to the power of the Western; (2) the Asians are the feminine, the Western is the masculine; and (3) the female is eventually the one who commits suicide or dies of depression (thus oppressed). The role of the continuous manifestation of gender acted on how gender roles are present within the selection and how Miranda renders the idea about the structures of gender in the society.

Primarily, Miranda renders Dev as the ideal masculine. It is the first time that Miranda was able to meet such a man that would fill in the gaps of her romantic longing. Dev renders Miranda as feminine because he is able to subject Miranda to his commands of sex and love-making in her apartment. Primarily, there is an inverted notion of what is expected of Asian-American texts; that, it is the Western who is subjected to the power of the Asian, just like how Gallimard (a French diplomat) was enticed by the seductive power of Song Liling (a Chinese spy). It is also a given fact on how Miranda was enticed by the masculinity of Dev that she tries to do everything for Dev. Firstly, she rushed to the department store to buy the things that a mistress should have. Second, she tries to learn the Indian / Bengali culture in order to have a more acceptable state for Dev, blurring any exoticism present in their love affair. Lastly, she is the one who made the first move in the cosmetics section of the department store and throughout the short story, she is the one subjected especially when Dev told her that she was sexy.

Though articulated before that Asians are feminine and Western is the masculine, it seems to be negative again in this story. For the first reason, the Asian manifestation of Dev proves his masculinity in his dominance over Miranda. Dev dominates Miranda over the many aspect of life (especially the romantic aspect) and Miranda continues to be the weaker sex: the feminine Western. Miranda manifests a lot of feminine aspect that renders the notion of the masculine western useless.

Finally, it is the female who dies at the end or suffers from loss. In M. Butterfly, it is the male Western man (Rene Gallimard) who dies and commits suicide. Though in the short story no one commits suicide, it is Miranda who ends up in ruin. She expected a lot from Dev that he will serve as her savior from her dull life but instead, he’s the cause of the ruin. Miranda suffers a lot of loss in terms of the manifestation of her dream—the efforts she made but eventually, she loses just like Medea in the historical tragedy. But eventually, Miranda was able to get back up and she was seen at the end studying the city of Boston which is fairly new to her, possibly implying that she is a western woman and she must bond with other western men.

In conclusion, Indian-American literature seems to address the problem of assimilation and incorporation of culture. Indian-American literature manifested by Lahiri in her work presents the issue of racial relations between an American and an Indian-American in terms of language, gender, and race. It presents that language is still a very important part in the representation of Indian-American literature because there are some terms that might be of different meaning to what is expected the text to gear towards. Gender relations emphasize the idea of how gender is primarily coined in the Indian aspect and how it is viewed in the western and how masculinity and femininity intersect and represent the Indian-American in literature. Finally, racial relations still remain as an important aspect in determining Indian-American literature. The reason for this is that exoticism is quite present and deters the American from the Indian-American in terms of the skin color. The dark complexion of the Indian-Americans compared to other Asian-Americans problematizes the notion of a compatibility of races.

Mapping the text within the context of Asian-American literature, it presents a lot of themes present in other Asian-American texts especially the concept of assimilation and linguistic issue. Truly, many Asian-Americans are problematic when it comes to language because its power is the ability to communicate with the Americans properly. Without its mastery, one will have a difficulty in determining the implied notions about language. Assimilation is of course is one of the adaptive concepts the Asian-American is bound to represent in Asian-American texts. The concept of assimilation presents the notion of incorporating the self into other culture, adapting to it, and undergoing to the special stage of the Self-Americanization.

One thought on “Politics of Race, Language, and Gender in Jhumpa Lahiri’s "Sexy"

    A Homemaker's Utopia said:
    September 9, 2013 at 6:13 am

    Very interesting and well penned review :-)

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