Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music is an engrossing novel based on real-life events that took place during the summer of 1876 in sweltering San Francisco. The heatwave is the hottest on record, one that has transformed the city’s air into “a stinking miasma of all the steams and soots San Franciscans can produce.” Simultaneously, smallpox has infiltrated the town, dotting the city with yellow “warning” flags and ultimately killing at least 482 residents over the next year.
Amidst these conditions, Jeanne “Jenny” Bonnet, a 27-year-old frog catcher, died almost instantly from gunshot wounds.* It’s a real-life unsolved murder, one that Emma Donoghue resolves more than a century later through fiction in Frog Music. In the afterword, Donoghue details her meticulous research into the actual events, explaining that she offers only “an educated hunch, which is to say, a fiction” as to who pulled the trigger and why. The result, if not strong enough to survive a grand jury, is a fascinating tale that touches on 19th Century gender dynamics that still exist in a more subtle form today.
At death, Jenny’s companion is Adele Louis “Blanche” Beunon, a 24-year-old French woman who makes a living as a dancer and a prostitute for relatively “high-end” johns—or michetons. The novel is peppered with French terms, usually ones related to sexual acts, that may make the sexual content slightly more palatable to prudish readers who don’t happen to read French (there’s a glossary of French terms included in the book).
Donoghue portrays Blanche as a woman whose prostitution is based on her love of sex, “the stuffed-to-bursting sensation that erases thought, the steam train of its movement, the frantic mazurka for two.” In many ways, Blanche is a john-centric fantasy of a prostitute, a beautiful entrepreneurial woman who purportedly engages in this exploitative trade because she wants to do it. To the extent Donoghue provides hints that Blanche’s enthusiasm for prostitution is more show than reality, it’s minimal and focused more on criticizing her mac (pimp) and madam than on criticizing the michetons or the circumstances that could force a woman into it. I would have appreciated a more nuanced analysis of whether Blanche’s “chosen” employment is really a free choice based on an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure or if her claims of “desire” are, at best, an attempt to cope with her circumstances.
Still, through Jenny’s interactions with Blanche, Donoghue addresses some of the confining gender norms of the time. Jenny rides into Blanche’s life on a “high wheeler” bicycle, literally toppling her to the ground in a collision before figuratively toppling her world by asking too many questions: “Who are you and what’s your story,” “Who’s the baby [in a picture]?,” “Who put you on the town in the first place?” To Blanche, Jenny is puzzling both for her frustratingly refreshing inquisitiveness and her unorthodox appearance; she wears pants at a time when San Francisco has a local law that prohibits individuals from, as Donoghue describes it, “appearing in the apparel of the other sex” in a public place.
Sociologist Clare Sears, whom Donoghue thanks in the Afterword, explains in Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dress Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth Century San Francisco that, by passing this local law in the 1860s as part of the offense of indecency, San Francisco joined a growing number of cities and states that policed “gender transgressions” by criminalizing them. According to Sears, many people “fell afoul of this law, including feminist dress reformers, female impersonators, ‘fast’ young woman who dressed as men for a night on the town, and people whose gender identifications did not match their anatomical sex in legally acceptable ways.”
Localities continued to pass and enforce these criminal anti-crossdressing laws well into the 20th Century. In the 1980s, for example, two people were arrested for being female impersonators in St. Louis, MO, sparking a court case that went to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In D.C. and M.S. v. The City of St. Louis, 759 F.2d 652 (1986), the 8th Circuit invalidated the law, which criminalized appearing in public “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex” and other “lewd” behavior, under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
While criminal anti-crossdressing laws like the ones that existed in St. Louis and San Francisco are unconstitutional, the underlying gender expectations that fueled those laws remain in our society. We see it in many forms, including in outright discrimination against transgendered individuals. See, e.g.,ACLU’s Know Your Rights(Apr. 24, 2013); Oiler v. Winn-Dixie La., Inc., 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17417 (E.D. La. Sept. 16, 2002) (denying protection under Title VII to a transgender plaintiff terminated from work because of “off-duty acts of crossdressing and impersonating a woman.”).
We also often see gender norms about appearance in workplace dress codes that limit women to skirts and men to pants, that permit women to wear makeup while prohibiting men from wearing it, and that require women to wear their hair long while requiring men to crop theirs. While a violation of such a dress code would not result in criminal penalties, it could result in job loss with little legal recourse for the employee.
Employer policies based on gender stereotypes may violate local, state, and federal law in the U.S., including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on sex (among other characteristics) in the workplace. However, courts have often permitted employers to impose dress codes that treat men and women differently as long as those dress codes “appropriately differentiate between the genders” and do not impose an undue burden on one sex. Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., Inc., 444 F.3d 1104 (9th Cir. 2006) (upholding employer’s grooming policy that prohibited men from having long hair and from wearing makeup and nail polish and that required women to wear hair down, makeup, and nail polish); see also Hayden ex rel. A.H. v. Greensburg Cmty. Sch. Corp., 743 F.3d 569, 577–785 (7th Cir. 2014)(noting that the question of “whether and when the adoption of differential grooming standards for males and females amounts to sex discrimination” has not been revisited by most Circuit courts since Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989)).**
So, while society has changed quite a bit since 1876, we haven’t necessarily come as far in terms of rooting out gender stereotypes as many of us often think. There are still risks to those who challenge these norms.
Check Out These Reviews of Frog Music: A Novel:
- Katie from Words for Worms(4/2/14): “You guys, this book was AWESOME. I could not put it down, I simply had to know all the sordid details of Blanche and Jenny’s lives. I had to know about the smallpox epidemic sweeping the city. I also had to get a visual image of Jenny’s Highwheeler bicycle (though I prefer the term “Penny-Farthing” to describe the contraption.) Can you imagine trying to ride that thing?”
- Dee at EditorialEyes Book Blog (5/13/14): “Blanche is a fascinating heroine, a woman in the 19th century who genuinely loves sex and is entirely comfortable with her sexuality. She’s fashionable, shrewd with money, and not maternal. Her fight for her baby is far more a matter of will and a sense of duty than love or instinct. This is a refreshing take on motherhood and womanhood.”
- Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea (5/14/14): “I liked this book, but found the narrative a little confusing at times on audio. The story jumps around to timeframes both before and after the murder. I did better after switching to the print format. As I read I found myself much more interested in Blanche’s character and how things would work out for her and her child, rather than trying to get to the bottom of the murder mystery.”
*Someone asked me why Jenny would be catching frogs (an American–we don’t eat a lot of frogs legs here). She catches frogs for restaurants specializing in French cuisine.
** Judge Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, wrote a fabulous, compassionate dissent in Jespersen that is available at the link.