Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: Portraying 19th Century Gender Norms That Still Exist Today

Frog MusicEmma 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.

A frog my daughters found at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve last week
A frog my daughters found at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve last week

38 thoughts on “Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: Portraying 19th Century Gender Norms That Still Exist Today

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  4. What a great review, you don’t spoil anything! I just started reading Frog Music this morning — and so far I’m really enjoying it. I’ve read pretty much all of Emma Donoghue’s books [except Room] and have been really looking forward to this one. Thanks you for all your research here on the gender issues, etc.

    1. Thank you! I hope you enjoy Frog Music. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on it. It’s probably the best novel I’ve read so far this year (apart from the classic favorites I re-read for comfort!).

  5. Anna C.

    Great post! I saw an interview with Emma Donoghue in the Times Book Review a few weeks ago. She seemed intelligent and engaging- I was planning to check out some of her books.

    1. I recommend Frog Music! I haven’t read any of Donoghue’s other novels, but I’m very interested in reading them now.

      Thanks for the visit to my blog!

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  7. A wonderful and thoughtful review. I did love the way this novel challenged social norms. It wasn’t just Jenny either. Blanche was the main bread winner in her household and wasn’t naturally attracted to the role of motherhood. It was an interesting book.

  8. Great review! I really wanted to read this book, but now I’ve read so many reviews and articles about it, I think I will wait for awhile and then read it fresh. Have you read any other of her books?

    1. Thanks! I recommend reading it, but I agree that the Internet is saturated with Frog Music reviews at the moment. I haven’t read any of Donoghue’s other books. I’m looking forward to reading Room.

  9. Almost more fascinated with your historical précis on gender norms and legal enforcement of stereotypes, I will read the book now with that in mind. Side note, Blanche’s purported love of carnality does sound peculiar. A psychologist friend told me the sex workers she counsels come to prostitution usually through abuse or drug dependency. Pardon me for being long-winded and into the wish list at the library it goes! Thanks, A.M.B.!

    1. I hope you enjoy reading Frog Music! I really liked Donoghue’s attention to the historical details. It feels like 1876. I wonder how Donoghue’s version of Blanche compares to the known history of the real-life Blanche, though. Was she a prostitute with an insatiable desire for sex? She doesn’t seem to resemble most sex workers today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject and what your friend told you.

  10. This definitely makes me want to read the book! I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds really intriguing. I love it when authors take old mysteries and make a story out of them. It is crazy that even though we’ve come so far people still are a little put off when around people with different gender roles than what is conceived to be the “norm”. Interesting post, as always! 🙂

    1. Hi! Frog Music is a very interesting book. I highly recommend it for readers of historical mysteries. Donoghue’s meticulous research into the characters and the time period really shows in the final product.

  11. Thank you for such an insightful and informative review. I have been curious about this book, especially after having read Room and liking it. I’m really curious about the subject matter in this particular novel, and I do love history. Gender norms and women’s rights are of a particular interest to me. I think this would make a great book club selection.

    1. Frog Music would make a wonderful book club selection. I’ve read many different reviews of it, and everyone seems to focus on a different aspect of the novel. There is a lot to discuss!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  12. Interesting on a lot of levels. First, to see how tightly gender norms are being policed at a time when the suffragist movement was in full swing. Clearly there’s a lot of resistance to female power.

    The depiction of this woman doing prostitution from a love of sex reminds me of the fantasy men so often create that sex workers are doing what they do because they love it, rather than from financial need. I am amazed at the number of guys who buy into the act.

    1. Yes, there was a lot of resistance to female power (there still is!). My only issue with this novel was its portrayal of Blanche’s insatiable sexual desire as the basis for her “chosen” employment. Jenny was encouraging Blanche to question her life, but Blanche insisted she was living the life she wanted to live (apart from feeling used by the pimp and the madam, but not necessarily by the johns).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Thanks for the shout out! I’m glad you enjoyed this book and, as always, I learned new things from your review. I always love the delicious tidbits of law and order you throw in :).

  14. I am endlessly interested in and fascinated by anything to do with gender, especially when it goes against “the norm.” Gotta get this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  15. Interesting post and history. Just out of curiosity, are you hoping the future holds a society that makes no distinction between genders or one that celebrates the differences between the two (rather than claiming one superior or inferior to the other)? Or is your hope something completely different altogether? Just wondering.

    1. Hi Jae! How have you been? Those are interesting questions. I would prefer to live in a world that doesn’t use sex/gender as a shortcut for distinguishing between individuals. Because there is so much variability within perceived genders, I’d rather celebrate the individual. Each person should be free to live their lives as they want. They shouldn’t be limited (forced to wear or not wear makeup, forced to have long or short hair, etc) because they are “boys” or “girls.”

      1. Hi Amol, been doing pretty well. Thanks for sharing your insights and opinions with me. I often come to your blog for the variety of perspectives. 🙂

    1. I definitely recommend Frog Music. I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

      As for Jesperson, I just can’t believe that the court upheld Harrah’s gender-based appearance policy. Harrah’s enforced the policy against the plaintiff by effectively terminating her employment. I agree with the Kozinski’s dissent: “I find it perfectly clear that Harrah’s overall grooming policy is substantially more burdensome for women than for men. Every requirement that forces men to spend time or money on their appearance has a corresponding requirement that is as, or more, burdensome for women: short hair v. ‘teased, curled, or styled’ hair; clean trimmed nails v. nail length and color requirements; black leather shoes v. black leather shoes. The requirement that women spend time and money applying full facial makeup has no corresponding requirement for men, making the ‘overall policy’ more burdensome for the former than for the latter.”

    1. Thank you! Frog Music is a great book. Donoghue’s meticulous research into 19th Century San Francisco and the murder of Jeanne Bonnet really paid off.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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