Examining Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle”
Discussing Brown’s groundbreaking ‘73 novel as we approach her 73rd birthday almost 45 years later. What’s changed in our society since the novel’s release?
To the family of the author: This article contains explicit language. If it “seems like just yesterday” that I was “in diapers”, then this may not be the article for you. Happy belated Thanksgiving!
P.S: No, the title was not meant to be a gynecology joke.
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, published in 1973, is about Molly, a lesbian who grew up in poverty alongside her abusive mother, Carrie, and her sexually repressed cousin, Leroy. From ages 11 to 24, we are taken through Molly’s various romantic partners throughout the years as she tries to lift herself out of poverty through her love for filmmaking.
Rita Mae Brown is a lesbian author and avid feminist, widely known for her membership in The Lavender Menace in 1970. Now, she co-writes the Mrs. Murphy series with her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. If that’s not an accomplished life, I don’t know what is.
Allow me to begin with this: I am young. Really. By the time I was born, Ellen DeGeneres’ first sitcom was already off the air — though I did watch it in its entirety over another Thanksgiving break and pressured my parents into watching an episode. My earliest encounters with lesbianism were almost exclusively performative; Britney, Xtina and Madonna’s MTV onstage love fest, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”. I grew up, undoubtedly, with a starkly different view of the LGBT community than almost-73-year-old author Rita Mae Brown did. Subsequently, I read Rubyfruit Jungle with an entirely different schema than that with which it was written.
This is far less of a history paper than it is my initial impressions as a young lesbian reading work from a significantly older one. Regardless, I hope you are able to gain something substantial from my difference of perspective to that of Rita Mae Brown’s, as I almost fully attribute these discrepancies to societal changes over time.
So, what’s changed since the publication of Rubyfruit Jungle?
1. Transgender inclusion: absent.
Reading the novel, I immediately noticed that Molly’s sexuality is very closely tied to the yonic aspects of women (vulvas, breasts, etc.). The title itself is an overt reference to the vagina.
“When I make love to women I think of their genitals as a, as a ruby fruit jungle.” “Ruby fruit jungle?” “Yeah, women are thick and rich and full of hidden treasures and besides that, they taste good.” (Brown, 203)
Many (but not all) members of the LGBT community today would find this politically incorrect and agree that a woman is defined not by her presence or lack of certain anatomy, but by her own personal sentiments of womanhood. This led me to wonder — how present were trans people in the gay community in the 60’s and early 70's? Activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera existed, of course, but how often were them and women like them simply disregarded as drag queens?
It’s debatable, but Brown’s participation in the Lavender Menace group could have contributed to this trans-exclusionary attitude in the novel. This is not to imply that Brown is in agreement with everything her protagonist has to say, but it can be particularly difficult to separate Molly from Rita, as so much of Molly’s life is based on Rita’s own experiences. Opinions on whether The Lavender Menace was trans-exclusionary or not are highly varied, but it was a radical feminist movement, a movement which branched off of the more conservative equal-rights feminism out of a perceived necessity to alter the patriarchy entirely as opposed to compromising with it.
“Radical feminism” today is often synonymous with “trans-exclusionary radical feminism”, a branch of feminism that views trans women as nothing more than predatory men.
While Rubyfruit Jungle was written during the second wave of feminism, subtle trans exclusion can still be seen creeping through in modern third-wave feminist ideology, from women declaring “pussy power” to donning “pussyhats”.
Perhaps this facet of Rubyfruit Jungle hasn’t changed quite as much as others — but as people continue to protest feminist and lesbian identities that revolve around physical attributes, representations like those in Brown’s novel will surely come under more fire.
Some may say that this is a nitpick on my part. Trans people make up a very small percentage of the population, so it’s not necessarily innate for one to completely separate genitalia from gender, even today. However, as much of a “nitpick” as it may be, feeling included is justifiably important to every minority.
The Lavender Menace itself was created as a response to feminist Betty Friedan calling lesbians a “lavender menace” in her movement. There has always been a flurry of issues with the feminist movement, particularly in terms of inclusion (don’t even get me started with the race issues), but it is continually growing and evolving to meet the needs of all women.
2. Labels: for soup cans. Do people still say that?
Rita Mae Brown’s reluctant attitude towards labels is very apparent in Rubyfruit Jungle; not only in terms of “butch” or “femme”, but also in terms of “gay” or “straight”.
Rubyfruit Jungle exists in a purgatory between harsh reality and erotic fantasy, wherein Molly woos a total of six women throughout the book despite being surrounded by violent homophobia, often from those same women. Molly takes the initiative in her sex life — even when it’s with a man:
I kissed him and grabbed his thing. He was in utter shock, “You can’t do that.” “Whaddya mean, I can’t do that?” “Men and women are supposed to close eyes and fuck. You’re not supposed to grab me.” (70)
There is a certain irony in Molly’s desire to dominate over her partners while also detesting those who are generally dominant over their femme counterparts in lesbian relationships: butch lesbians.
After experiencing a lesbian bar — may they rest in peace — in New York, Molly is startled when a butch woman named Mighty Mo has a fixation on “femme” and “butch”. After her friend, Calvin, explains to her this phenomenon, she responds:
“That’s the craziest, dumbass thing I ever heard tell of. What’s the point of being a lesbian if a woman is going to look and act like a man?” (147)
It’s difficult to ignore Molly’s hatred of butch women. Again, it is unclear what Rita’s personal views are. After all, I’d peg her as relatively butch herself nowadays, but it is, in the wise words of Mighty Mo, “‘What’s this world coming to when you can’t tell the butches from the femmes. Ha. Ha.’” (147)
In David M. Halperin’s book How To Be Gay (2014), he makes the argument that such a hatred of “masculine” women is not only common in media, but a harmful perpetuation of heteronormativity— that is, gay people have an obligation to “look” or “act” heterosexual. Halperin has this to say about the trend of gay male relationships in 20th-century media consisting only of straight-passing men:
“[It] thrived on explicit put-downs of effeminate or gender-deviant men, from whom the hero or the author recoiled in horror. … A similar phenomenon appeared in lesbian fiction in the postwar period with Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952) and, most aggressively, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), in which butch lesbians from earlier working-class lesbian bar culture are subjected to savage ridicule and intense sexual depreciation.” (Halperin, 47)
This trend has persisted throughout the past 45 years, and still remains in fruition today — gay hookup apps like Grindr are overflowing with “masc for masc” profiles, and butch women are often accused of being violent and somehow having “masculine privilege” under the guise that butch lesbians have some sort of societal one-up over femmes, all while misusing buzzwords like “imposter syndrome” and “toxic masculinity”. Even the Chicago Dyke March’s Twitter (below) has fallen victim to these ill-conceived stereotypes.
Molly’s friend, Calvin, tells her that she needs to choose butch or femme “for a warm bed” after Mighty Mo rejects the idea of dating another butch woman on the basis that it would feel like they were brothers. This comment surprised me. I have never heard most of my lesbian friends even utter the words femme or butch. I don’t consider myself either one, and I have been attracted to both very “femme” and very “butch” women. Were such identities really that polarizing, or is this comment intentionally hyperbolic?
I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that this attitude is no longer realistic. Thomas C. Caramagno, author of Irreconcilable Differences?: Intellectual Stalemate in the Gay Rights Debate (2002) relayed that according to a 1990s survey:
95% of lesbians are familiar with butch/femme codes and can rate themselves or others in terms of those codes, and yet the same percentage feels that butch/femme was ‘unimportant in their lives’. (Caramagno, 138)
Today, there is also an ever-growing emphasis on femme and butch being two extremes of a spectrum, wherein “soft femme”, “soft butch” and “futch” are championed as legitimate identities. I’m on the fence about this. On one hand, it would make sense to argue that “butch” and “femme” are too limiting, as is “man” and “woman” oftentimes. There are plenty of gay women who do not fit into those two categories. However, there is historical significance behind these identities as expressions in their own right, not as points on a spectrum, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Femme and butch identities, to me, are not necessarily meant to be all-encompassing.
Rita Mae Brown’s own views on butch and femme identities are — from what I can gather — relatively ambiguous. Authors of Butch/femme: Lesbian Gender (1999) Sally Munt and Cherry Smyth insist that “butch-femme does disappear from the pages of most lesbian-feminist writing in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s”, pointing out “Rita Mae Brown’s … various 1970s political essays” (29) as an example. However, Brown has been vocal in that she is in full agreement with Molly when it comes to identities of sexual orientation itself. Here’s what protagonist Molly has to say:
“So now I wear this label ‘Queer’ emblazoned across my chest. Or I could always carve a scarlet ‘L’ on my forehead. Why does everyone have to put you in a box and nail the lid on it? I don’t know what I am — polymorphous and perverse. Shit. I don’t even know if I’m white. I’m me. That’s all I am and all I want to be. Do I have to be something?” (107)
Later, Molly does more openly call herself a lesbian, but the fact still stands that she perpetually rejects being defined by such a label throughout the entirety of the novel.
I agree with the message here. Nobody is obligated to use labels — but if they do, they should probably be taken seriously. In an interview with Time in 2008, Brown said:
The funny thing is, I don’t believe in straight or gay. I really don’t. I think we’re all degrees of bisexual. There may be a few people on the extreme if it’s a bell curve who really truly are gay or really truly are straight.
On one hand, acknowledging the fluidity of sexuality rids the community of the necessity for redundant micro-labels such as “homoflexible” or “heteroflexible”, but I can’t help but feel it to perpetuate the notion that women almost always feel some level of attraction to men, even if they’re lesbians. Compulsory heterosexuality is very real, and very much perpetuated by this sort of ideology.
I get it. Oscar Isaac is beautiful. But people already struggle to understand that women can exist with absolutely zero influence from their male peers.
3. BDSM and LGBT: not the same acronym.
As seen in her short-lived relationship with Polina, an older woman exploring her same-sex attraction, Molly is unenthused by fetishes:
“Where are we?” “We’re in bed, in my aparment. Where else could we be?” “No, no, we’re in a men’s john.” (202)
It hit rock bottom for me when she wanted to be told she was a golden shower queen. Polina had saved her urine in empty glass Macadamia nut jars for me to admire while I told her the story of her mighty pissing powers in yet another fantasy men’s john. (207)
Molly learns that Polina is having a fling with an exceptionally unattractive NYU English professor, and tries to sleep with him herself to see the appeal:
“Where are we?” I was on. “We’re in a men’s john at Times Square in the subway.” “No, no,” he shrieked. “We’re in the ladies room at the Four Seasons and you’re admiring my voluptuous breasts.” “Goodbye, Paul.” (206)
Ah. Makes sense. But wait — is Molly kink shaming?! Is she railing against members of her own community — the kinksters?
Yes, BDSM and LGBT culture are, today, sometimes conflated to the point where those with kinks proclaim themselves as “queer”. Aside from the fact that American society has become more accepting, this is likely another reason why so many millennials are “queer”: there are far fewer requirements. It seems that the BDSM community and the LGBT community are, in part, a subversion of societal expectations of sex and sexuality. Many lovers of S&M pride themselves on being “perverted”. Most vanilla LGBT people do not, though they may be branded that way.
Take, for instance, this post made in 2003 on asexuality.org by David Jay, the founder of the website and an avid ace activist:
There was a prevalence of “sexually deviant” establishments such as bathhouses back when Rubyfruit Jungle was set, especially before the 80’s, but I wouldn’t guess that many people saw homosexuality and kink as one collective, self-contained community other than radical homophobes. Even the LGBT acronym wasn’t to show up for another several years after the novel. There is a history of hostility against bisexuals and trans people by gay people as well as between lesbians and gay men, so many didn’t even see those four identities as part of one community.
Earlier this year, a tweet from HuffPost Queer aroused mass confusion.
In what world does kinky diaper-wearing assume itself under the LGBT umbrella? HuffPost responded to one criticism with this:
Personally, I see the main disconnect here as the argument of why LGBT exists as a community. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people joined together over the desire to bond over being unique. They joined together to combat the oppression that they were, and are, faced with. I don’t know about you, but I have never heard of someone getting beaten to death over a diaper fetish.
So, no. Just as kinky folks can be homophobic and transphobic, LGBT people can be weirded out by people with unique fetishes.
4. Marriage: out of the question.
Molly’s attitude towards marriage makes perfect sense in the time frame in which the book was written, as does her hatred of motherhood, children, and even monogamy.
MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has been with her girlfriend, Susan Mikula, since 1999, but they are in no rush to be wedded. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, Maddow said:
I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships … And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture.
When Brown herself was asked by Time in 2008 for her opinion on same-sex marriage, she held a similar view:
I don’t understand it. I don’t even know why straight people want to get married because you invite the government in your bedroom. But that’s okay. It seems to be a very basic human need that I don’t share.
It is only recently that gay Americans have been given such widespread access to lives of marriage and children — privileges that were, for a long time, strictly available to opposite-sex couples.
5. Rubyfruit Jungle: undeniably and unapologetically gay.
It certainly doesn’t take an academic to know that the fact that this book was published 4 years after Stonewall and 8 years before AIDS is incredible. Sure, it was preceded by plenty of lesbian pulp fiction paperbacks (many of which were written by lesbians and bisexual women), but they were undoubtedly tailored to the male gaze, and generally, the characters were overcome with shame.
Yes, Rubyfruit Jungle does resemble lesbian pulp fiction in some aspects. There is an emphasis on delicate, effeminate women who practically melt in Molly’s arms, while butch women are non-existent other than the pests who infest lesbian bars. Leota looks back on her sexual encounters with Molly in shame.
Molly, on the other hand, is an unapologetic, “full-blooded, bona fide lesbian” (194).
The “out and proud” attitude is far more prominent in today’s media than it was 45 years ago. I would bargain that it has something to do with the significant increase in acceptance and normalization of LGBT identities from American society. On that note…
Have things changed for the better or for the worse?
Better. Definitely better.
What feminists, lesbians and everyone else should do is ultimately subjective. Issues of who belongs to which community are minor setbacks when you consider how far we’ve come in terms of equality. The Price of Salt, an example of the aforementioned lesbian pulp fiction genre, was made into an Oscar-nominated movie (Why isn’t Rubyfruit Jungle a feature-length film yet?). Marriage equality is nationwide in the United States (for those who want to put a ring on it).
Times may have changed, but Rubyfruit Jungle will remain a staple in LGBT literature for centuries to come.
Thank you for reading! I always appreciate friendly criticisms and further insight on the history discussed in this article. This article has also been published on my website, annajhaynes.com. All support is appreciated.