Gay Rights vs Stereotyping in Jody Picoult’s “Sing You Home”

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As a Canadian living in the US I’m not totally ignorant of US politics, but it did surprise me to learn recently that one of the main reasons the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified was because there is a fear that it may lead to furthering progress in gay rights. (God knows we can’t have that can we, Human rights for ALL humans? Even those queers who live down the street?) When I learned about this little nuance regarding the history of human rights in the US, I was reminded of “Sing You Home”,  the Jody Picoult book I read last year.

The story opens with a young married couple trying to have a baby and the emotional rollercoaster involved in the whole process of invitro fertilization. The emotion pain at the beginning of the book was difficult reading, but then that is a sign of good story telling.

Zoe  is a music therapist. The description of her career is very interesting, and certainly well researched. As the relative of someone who has suffered a brain aneurism, I actually learned something about the workings of the brain through Picoult’s research that explained a few things.

One cool thing about this book is that it’s multimedia and comes with a soundtrack. I liked the music, but to be quite honest, considering that Zoe was described at one point as a “***king nightingale” I thought the singer on the track was weak. I wouldn’t go out and purchase the sound track for its own merit.

After one horrible miscarriage that almost kills her, and the revelation of further health issues, Zoe continues her obsession with having children and her husband, Max can take no more and he leaves the marriage.  Lost without her however, he falls off the wagon,  then subsequently becomes a fundamentalist Christian through his religious brother and sister in law. I didn’t much like Max. He’s one of those weak people who needs someone or something outside of himself to give structure to his life. Sometimes I just wanted to slap him upside the head.  It takes him a while but he does eventually grow a backbone.  Zoe on the other hand, makes a new friend, Vanessa, and begins to realize that she is falling in love and “turns” gay.  I have to wonder about that. Zoe has never experienced gender confusion and has never been attracted to a woman before.Would it be better to say that Zoe realizes that she is bisexual? I’m not really sure about that one. Anyway, I do think Picoult could have done a better job with regard to the fluidity of human sexuality.

Picoult does an absolutely superb job of delving into the gay rights issues, while at the same time portraying Max and his right wing mode of thinking in such a way that we can really understand that there is no black and white and only shades of gray.  All in all, it is a complicated story in which the reader can sympathize with everyone involved, (except maybe the Pastor and Max’s lawyer, both of whom made my skin crawl every time they entered the story line).

I have read a few other reviews of this novel written by more knowledgeable Picoult fans, there is quite a bit of controversy over this particular novel. Some of her fans love it and some really take offense. One fan, a devout Christian, was very upset at the stereotyping Picoult does in this story “this novel paints all evangelical Christians as homophobic scumbags and all lesbians as kind-hearted, loving saints” and that she describes Christian women as “simpering, uneducated doormat(s) who’ll only do those things (their) husband allows and who (have) no opinions of (their) own, outside the one he gives (them).”

A cropped version of this photo centered on Re...

A cropped version of this photo centered on Reynold's face is at Image:Burt Reynolds 1991 cropped.jpg. Burt Reynolds on the red carpet for the 43rd Annual Emmy Awards, 8/25/91 - Permission granted to copy, publish, broadcast or post but please credit "photo by Alan Light" if you can (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was no place on this website to reply to this particular post so I’ll do it here. I don’t think Picoult meant to say that ALL Christians are like the characters in this book. Picoults characters represent possibilities in reality. ALL books / stories use archetypes and stereotypes when creating characters. Not all Lawyers are scumbags (believe it or not, one of my best friends is a lawyer.) Not all old women are cookie baking grannies, not all used car salesmen are slimy greaseballs (at least I don’t think so, I don’t personally know any used car salesmen) not all prostitutes have a “heart of gold” (see  “Whores’ Sluts and Studs”       ) and not all gay men talk with lisps. (see “Watson is a Woman?”  )

As a northerner living in the south for ten years I have to say yes, I HAVE met people like these in the novel. The first time I saw a Sheriff down here was at the HEB on the I 45. He spoke with a very strong drawl, was chewing on a toothpick, and standing with hands on hips with  supreme attitude. I thought for a moment that I’d stepped into a Burt Reynoldsmovie. Also, One day while

waiting for my kid to be released from his gymnastics class, I overheard two women discussing the then new “Star Wars Phantom Menace” movie. They were saying they weren’t comfortable with the “demonic look” of the villain Darth Maul, and one woman was going to ask her minister if he thought it would be ok for her to see it.

Ray Park as Darth Maul

Ray Park as Darth Maul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Picoult’s novel represents a certain EXTREMIST portion of the population that DOES exist.  Heck, we only need to look at the Yahoo News to see them in politics and the media, on a daily, basis. (Do I really need to bring up Rush Limbaugh AGAIN?)

Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of mar...

Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of marsdencartoons.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

http://www.jodipicoult.com/sing-you-home.html

4 responses »

  1. I had to comment…I also read this novel last spring and your response was a mirror of my own. There is not much else I can say in regards to how it made me feel or the way the author’s descriptions of certain characters were so much like people I’ve seen or read about in the media, or that I know personally.
    The only thing I would add is my perception of is of Zoe’s view of herself as she evolves into her lesbian relationship…who says that we have to be labelled as straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual – could we not as humans just see those qualities and the possibility of love in all humans no matter the gender? Looking past the fact you may be the same gender and you see the good and the bad in that person, is he/she not worthy of loving, being loved, made love to, and being married to?
    I can honestly say I’ve not been open to these facts of relationships all of my life, most of the time I’ve kept it on the outskirts of life, but over the years the more it was protested and put forth in the media as a negative blemish on human kind by all religions it made me want to support and understand it more…that being said, I’m glad I opened my mind and heart to the feelings these people have and the things they have to endure everyday in our society today that are more difficult than most – they are shunned, bullied, ignored, hated and beaten for who they are and that’s just the surface.
    I’m proud to say that one of my daughter’s is a lesbian, and she is one of the most loving, caring, and beautiful people inside and out that I’ve ever known…I told her that often even before she told us that she was gay. She is a person with hopes, dreams, wishes, feelings and love to receive and give just like the rest of us…she deserves the same rights as anyone else without the distrust, hatred and ignorance this society puts forth.

  2. I’ve never read a Jody Picoult book, but this one sounds interesting (especially because I’m a musician). Unfortunately, stereotypes exist because there are indeed groups of people who exhibit shared characteristics, for better or worse. As you point out, of course that doesn’t mean *everyone* in a given demographic acts/talks/thinks a certain way.

    • I agree what you say about the stereotyping, and when writing fiction, and trying to portray a certain viewpoint, writers will make use of it to get a point across. I think what this particular fan was missing in her reading was the husbands viewpoint. While the pastor was certainly stereotypical of right wing evangelists, the husband Max, (even though I didn’t like him) was a very real person and we could sympathize with his thoughts on the whole issue. I think this fan was have a reaction particularly to the character of the sister in law who is the prim and upstanding Christian woman, but the fan missed the whole point that this woman didn’t really know who SHE was and there is a great deal of growth in her character as she discovers that. Anyway, it’s a great book, and from a musicians point of view I think you would find that element of it fascinating.

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