April 2, 2019
Note: This essay analyzes the article “Burl’s: Negotiating the Hazy Border Between the Sexes, an 8-Year-Old Boy Unpuzzles the Shifting Lines of Gender and Identity” by Bernard Cooper, published in the Los Angeles Times in November 1994.
Navigating Gender and Sexuality in Mid-Century America
Take a moment to remember what it was like being eight years old. At that age we are as curious as ever, with a growing knowledge of the world and experiences that will become a part of our permanent memory. Perhaps you remember considering your gender and what it means to be male or female, or learning about sexuality. Gender and sexuality, although two separate matters, come to our attention together as older children. Bernard Cooper invites us into his world when he was discovering where he stands on those topics as a young boy in his essay “Burl’s: Negotiating the Hazy Border Between the Sexes, an 8-Year-Old Boy Unpuzzles the Shifting Lines of Gender and Identity.” He opens his piece with a detailed description of what early dinners in the summer with his parents at a restaurant named Burl’s felt like. His father asks him to get a newspaper from the vending machine in front of the restaurant. Out on the sidewalk that day Cooper experienced something unforgettable: seeing two women walking towards him wearing cocktail dresses, heels, and wigs. There was something he felt was off about the women, and then he noticed they both had Adam’s apples, and were hiding a shadow of facial hair with foundation. He went back inside to join his parents, but didn’t say a word about these women who passed him on the sidewalk. Cooper then goes on to give the reader more insight to his childhood navigating femininity and masculinity. His parents try to get him to sign up for gymnastics, which Cooper states was meant to toughen him up and bring him more in touch with his masculine side. Throughout the essay themes of fluid gender expression and same-sex desire appear, making it clear to the reader that Cooper’s intention with his essay is to normalize falling outside a strict gender binary and to reject heteronormativity. He does this with various rhetorical techniques such as speaking from personal experience, appealing to his audience’s values, using powerful examples, logic, and relating to the reader’s sense of identity.
In this essay Cooper uses the I of personal experience. His essay feels personal and by the end gives the reader an understanding of his perspective. Everything stated in the essay is a fact from Cooper’s life. These are compelling reasons to follow Cooper’s claim about gender. He mentions after the incident at Burl’s that he wakes up some mornings as if it were undecided what sex he would be that day. He says “Finally stirring, I’d blink against the early light and greet each incarnation as a male with mild surprise. My sex, in other words, didn’t seem to be an absolute fact so much as a pleasant, recurring accident.” Personal experiences like this one are facts. In this part of his essay he is telling readers that his gender isn’t something that is set in stone. Therefore, it’s a fact that gender can be fluid, which supports his overall thesis.
The author appeals to the reader’s values of family and cherishing childhood memories. Despite what an individual reader may feel about family, it is the most important American institution. His story being one from when he was eight years old makes the reader sympathetic right off the bat because we all value our childhoods and the time in our life when we had that unique mix of innocence and curiosity. His story being mostly positive in tone, yet pierced with realistic moments of seriousness or disappointment, give the reader a nostalgic feeling, compelling us to read on. Having the same values, or at least the appearance of having the same values, makes readers inclined to agree with Cooper even before he connects these childhood memories together, forming a statement about gender and sexuality. How he appeals to the readers’ value of family is well done in his essay. He describes interactions with his parents very realistically. He says “One evening, annoyed with my restlessness, my father gave me a dime and asked me to buy him a Herald Examiner from the vending machine in front of the restaurant.” Perfect families aren’t believable, relatable, or well-liked by most audiences. Cooper’s family is clearly just your average likable American nuclear family. He inserts sentences that capture exactly what it was like to be eight years old: “Duty made me feel large and important,” Cooper says about getting his father the newspaper. Getting a truthful glance at his family and his childhood brings feelings of nostalgia to the reader, which is the perfect companion to appealing to these values. By the time Cooper’s thesis is clear, by using this strategy, the readers are already supportive of Cooper and his story.
Similarly to how the author evokes nostalgia, he uses excellent word choice throughout the essay to give us a genuine and detailed experience. The author’s word choice transports us to that point in time by starting with a lengthy description of Burl’s, and gives us an internal monologue of the eight-year-old boy as he sees those two women walk down the sidewalk. He uses words that an eight-year-old would think, as it is his thoughts we read. The details he provides give us hints as to what period in time he is growing up in. The newspaper is ten cents. The women on the sidewalk wore beehives. An American audience may guess that Copper was eight years old in the 1950s or 1960s. This was a golden period in history in America and definitely increases the pathos the reader has for Cooper.
This powerful example of Cooper seeing those women in front of the restaurant solidify the author’s thesis about gender and sexuality. He says in the essay, “Any woman might be a man. The fact of it clanged through the chambers of my brain... as if everything I understood, everything I had taken for granted up to that moment--the curve of the earth, the heat of the sun, the reliability of my own eyes--had been squeezed out of me.” It is clear that Cooper is starting to question what he had once considered as facts. He knew there were men and women, but now women can be men and the lines between the two genders he knew were blurry. This example starts the reader off by introducing the theme and gives them something to think about as Cooper tells the rest of his story. It is honest in a way only the thoughts of an eight-year-old can be. This scene is referenced to at the end of the essay to tie everything in, reminding the reader of how strong of an impression that memory has on Cooper. He relates it to his own experiences by saying “Men in dresses were only the tip of the iceberg. Who knew what other wonders existed--a boy, for example, who wanted to kiss a man--exceptions the world did its best to keep hidden.” He relates his identity (wanting to kiss a man) to those two women here and reestablishes his thesis as a statement in support of gender fluidity and exploration of gender expression and sexuality.
That phrase he used to tie his experiences to the two women he saw on the sidewalk is referencing an earlier part of the essay in which Cooper discusses his gender and sexuality. He admired a girl from his class, and was caught by his mother when he was playing pretend that he was her. This caused confusion for Cooper who thought as a boy he was supposed to be interested in girls, showing how he grew up influenced by heteronormativity. Another favorite activity of the author’s that he reveals in the essay is playing dress up in his parents’ closet. He marveled at the neatly separated men’s and women’s clothes hanging in their closets. He contrasts this strict division with how his father raises a pinky when he drinks from a teacup, or how his mother looks as plain as his father until her hair and face were done: another example of the lines of gender expression and binary being blurred. He also describes his parents’ displeasure when he exhibits feminine traits. He is learning that the world cannot be split into binaries. This supports the author’s thesis by showing his eight-year-old break down those concepts and realizing the gray nature of most things. He also uses a powerful example to consider his sexuality. The author mentions that he was infatuated with a man who owned the local pet shop. When he says that men in dresses are the tip of the iceberg, it’s a logical argument to say that men who kiss other men may also be “hiding” in this world. He is bringing his own identity to question when he relates the powerful example of the two women he saw outside the restaurant back to his own experiences at the end of his essay.
By the end of his essay we start to see the identities that Cooper as an eight-year-old is testing out for himself. It’s not 100 percent clear on what those are, which is a good way to appeal to the reader’s sense of identity. Leaving out hard lines or labels lets the reader choose what parts of Cooper’s narrative they relate to. Perhaps it’s feeling both feminine and masculine, discovering something that they can’t talk about with their family, or coming to terms with their sexuality. It opens the door for many people to feel as if the essay has related to their sense of identity.
Cooper uses both his personal experiences and examples of seeing other people defy the gender binary to support his claim that gender can be experienced fluidly and cannot be contained by the binary, and that there is more to sexuality than what he had been led to believe. His use of the “I” of personal experience and how his essay is told from the point of view of his eight-year-old self appeals to readers’ values about family and childhood. His word choice supports strategies like appealing to the readers’ values and using powerful examples, strengthening his stance on his thesis. The powerful example he chose is memorable and relates perfectly to his thesis. The example of the two women outside Burl’s is connected to at the end of the essay leaving room for readers to interpret Cooper’s thesis through their own identities. This essay was well executed and convinced the reader to be sympathetic to his argument. His thesis is perfectly woven into what reads as a narrative of his experience being eight years old. The reader is left contemplating their own upbringing and perception of gender and sexuality from an open-minded perspective provided by Cooper’s essay.