Marvin Macy: The Strong Man of Grotesque Power and Heteronormativity

Posted by Rachel Carden on May 19, 2017 in Blog, Rachel Carden tagged with , , , , ,

Joseph Greenstein – The Mighty Atom

In my previous blog, I established Miss Amelia’s café as a place of inclusive community, linked to Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualisation of carnivals and their connection to freak shows. I highlighted that the space engendered a sense of community where its occupants’ grotesque physicality and their subversive genders were accepted. This post explores the grotesque power of patriarchy using Foucauldian theory and its resistance to the collapse of dichotomous gender and sexuality binaries in Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951).

Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund, in their book Grotesque (2013), elucidate the philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion ‘that aberrant bodily forms and behaviours expose the social construction of ‘normality’ and, as a result, challenge essentialism’ (Edwards and Graulund, p.26). Foucault’s examination of social institutions like the hospital, asylum and, importantly for McCullers’ text, the prison ‘reveals how power is wielded by the disciplinary measures of institutions to regulate that which is deemed ‘abnormal’’ (Edwards and Graulund, p.26). These considerations are important when considering the character Marvin Macy in McCullers’ novella.

Macy, we learn was the ‘handsomest man in [the] region’ and the baddest (Ballad, p. 34). He is one of the most significant characters in the novella for representing the flux of gender and sexuality. In one instance, Macy is a hyper-masculine character, a razor-wielding murderer who degrades and shames ‘gentle young girls’, representing the antithesis of his shy and tender brother, Henry Macy (Ballad, p.35). In another, he is a character who falls in love with the manly and ‘queer-eyed’ Miss Amelia, a character whose problematisation of conventional gender roles is well noted; critic Claire Kahane (1980) refers to the protagonist as a ‘hermaphrodite’,[1] while Sarah Gleeson-White, labels her a ‘tomboy’ who seriously threatens ‘the status quo based on clear gender demarcation’ (Ballad, p.35).[2] Love changes Macy and he goes to great lengths to reform himself before proposing to Miss Amelia. For the critic Panthea R. Broughton (1974), the novella presents us with a town that initially prescribes to strict gender roles.[3] Sensitive men are ridiculed for effeminacy and thus Macy’s ‘attachment to Miss Amelia is such a pathetic thing’ as he reforms his character, purchases gifts, gives up his land and fails to consummate their marriage, before being ejected by Miss Amelia (Broughton, p.39). The portrayals suggest that sexuality and gender in the novella are based on models of continuum. This is confirmed when Macy returns from an Atlanta penitentiary to revenge himself on Miss Amelia and her community café. He returns resembling the masculine figure of a cowboy, dressed in a ‘red shirt, and a wide belt of tooled leather [… carrying] a tin suitcase and a guitar’ (Ballad, p.57). Clearly, he has once again altered his position on the feminine/masculine gender scale.

Marvin Macy’s return to town, at the height of the café’s success, is noteworthy when juxtaposed with Foucauldian notions regarding social control. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977) discusses the use of the prison as a method of monitoring, disciplining and correcting transgressors. Foucault writes that to imprison the body is to place it in a system ‘of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions.[4] He also theorises strategies of power, that is, institutions’ production of power practitioners capable of identifying and classifying offenders. Edwards and Graulund highlight power’s grotesquerie, which ‘operates through the faceless mechanics of the state, in the anonymous bureaucracies of asylums, hospitals and prisons, and in a more personalized image: the power of the ‘strong man’ (Edwards and Graulund, p.26). If we accept the flux of Macy’s gender and sexuality in the conservative/intolerant American South and that unrequited love has reignited his criminality, Macy’s incarnation is unsurprising. However, imprisonment also establishes him as having been subjected to and “rehabilitated” by the normalising prison institution; a place, which seeks to ‘contain, alter and regulate that which does not conform to accepted norms laid down by dominant power structures’ (Davidson in Edwards and Graulund, p.26).[5] Imprisonment has compelled Macy to contain and control his expressions of queer sexuality and gender, to fix it at a heteronormative position. Prisons, in Foucauldian theory, are institutions capable of creating power practitioners. Macy’s incarceration, then, has endowed him with the ‘arbitrary sovereignty’ of Foucault’s strong man. A figure who ‘for all his power, is no more than a puppet of the system’ (Edwards and Graulund, p.29). Macy’s power lies not only in his physique, but his violent criminality, bad reputation and secret ‘charms’, which he uses to end the café’s carnival community and to forcefully normalise Miss Amelia, the object of his and patriarchy’s revenge (Ballad, p.63).

A crucial passage to note is the fight between Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy. For many critics, including Sarah Gleeson-White, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the scene constitutes the ‘final defloration of Miss Amelia, thus casting her on the side of ‘woman’’ (Gleeson-White, p.76).[6] Certainly, the fight has connotations of physical intimacy: Macy is half-naked and ‘their hipbones braced against each other. Backward and forward, from side to side, they swayed this way’ (Ballad, p.80). The violence, however, is more suggestive of rape, during which Amelia is overcome because of Cousin Lymon’s betrayal, his assistance of Macy. The crowd’s reaction demonstrates their shock at the defeat/rape of Miss Amelia, ‘This was not a fight to hash over and talk about afterwards; people went home and pulled the covers up over their heads’ (Ballad, p.81). The violent reminder of Miss Amelia’s sex through rape leaves her ‘gender-locked in a decaying house’ (Kahane, p.61). Consequently, she relinquishes features of her masculine performance: ‘her face lengthened, and the great muscles of her body shrank until she was thin as old maids are thin when they go crazy’ (Ballad, p.82-83). Macy, a practitioner of patriarchal power, has enforced heteronormativity upon Miss Amelia. Now made a woman Amelia is forgotten, particularly by the object of her queer desire the equally ambiguous Cousin Lymon, who ‘nothing true was ever heard of’ (Ballad, p.83).

Ultimately, what we see in McCullers’ narrative is a varied use of grotesque tropes that are ‘used for shock-effect […] to bewilder and disorient, to bring the reader up short, jolt [them] out of accustomed ways of perceiving the world and confront [them] with a radically different, disturbing perspective’.[7] As my previous blogs have outlined, McCullers’ grotesque demonstrates that gender and sexuality are fluid rather than fixed essences of human subjectivity. McCullers’ grotesque, however also critiques the power dynamics, which maintain the status-quo, preventing a healthy and happy society.



[1] Kahane, Claire, ‘Gothic Mirrors and Feminine Identity’, Centennial Review, (1980) pp.43-64 (p.60)

[2] Gleeson-White, Sarah, Strange Bodies: Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2003)

[3] Broughton, Panthea R., ‘Rejection of the Feminine in Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café’, Twentieth Century Literature, 20 (1) (1974), pp.34-43

[4] Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, (New York: Vintage Books, 1977) p.11

[5] Davidson, Arnold, I., ‘Introduction’, in Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975, eds. Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Solomoni, trans. by Graham Burchell (New York: Picdor, 2003) p.xx

[6] Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume 2: Sexchanges, (New Haven: Ney York University Press, 1989) pp.109-110

[7] Phillip Thomson, The Grotesque (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1972) p.58

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