A novel by Fran Ross. Originally published in 1974, reprinted in 2000 by Northeastern University Press with a foreword by Haryette Mullen. ISBN: 1555534643.
Oreo is a loose re-interpretation of the Greek myth of Theseus set in 1970's Philadelphia and New York City. The novel is so named for its protagonist, a girl born to an African-American mother and a Jewish father. In her quest to learn the secret of her birth, Oreo encounters many colorful and hilarious characters whom Ross uses to dissect and satirize cross-cultural relations and stereotypes.
Feminist ideas and gender role reversals are among the prominent themes in Oreo. The following is an essay I wrote which explores these themes.
Feminism in Fran Ross's Oreo
by Steven Goldberg, a.k.a. ludwig_van
Originally published in 1974, Fran Ross’s only novel, Oreo, was not met with significant success. The book failed to find an audience and soon went out of print, only to be resurrected in 2000. Reading Ross’s multi-racial re-interpretation of an ancient Greek myth, it is not hard to see why mainstream readers had trouble accepting the novel. Clever wordplay and racy humor abound in Oreo, incorporating elements of Jewish and African-American culture in an off-color fashion which in many ways remains unconventional today. Ross makes use of a variety of cultural stereotypes throughout Oreo, usually presenting them in a humorous or unusual way, and at times turning these established ideas around completely, forcing the reader to re-examine his perceptions. The role of women in modern society is one of the most prevalent of the stereotypes dissected by Ross in Oreo. Ross employs both primary and secondary characters to continually create situations in which traditional gender roles are either altered or totally reversed, making Oreo a highly progressive and decidedly feminist work.
From the outset of the novel, Ross begins telling her tale with a feminist slant. She exhibits a strong tendency to paint feminine characteristics as virtues and masculine traits as vices. The strongest characters are female, and the antagonists are largely male. In introducing the characters, Ross begins applying her feminist slant subtly. She sets up the protagonist’s mother, Helen, as an interesting and intelligent character, while her father Samuel is described simply as “just another pretty face” (4). Samuel is called “a schmuck” (79) and Helen explains to Oreo that the reason for his failure to contact or acknowledge his children is his desire for his father’s money. It is also made clear that Samuel regularly cheats on his wife with prostitutes, further calling into question his morality. Ross goes on to mention that Betty, the neighborhood nymphomaniac, routinely has sex with her father. Helen’s father, James, harbors an intense hatred for Jews, and Samuel’s father hates blacks. In each situation the male character is portrayed as sinful and the female as virtuous, a direct contrast to traditional gender roles deeply rooted in Western culture. In the book of Genesis, it was Eve who was responsible for tricking Adam into eating from the tree of knowledge, thus causing humanity to be cast out of paradise. Ross thus begins a series of reversals in traditional gender portrayals.
Oreo herself is portrayed as a powerful female protagonist, both physically and mentally. Oreo is strong and capable of defending herself. Ross explains that “Oreo developed a series of moves that made other methods of self-defense obsolete by incorporating and improving upon their most effective aspects.” The creation of Oreo’s system is also rooted in feminist causes. She is inspired by her mother’s comments in one of her letters to Oreo. Helen says that the oppression of women is something that she has “given a lot of thought to,” and that she thinks she has the answer. Helen explains that the main contributing factor to their continued oppression is the fact that “men can knock the shit out of women.” She highlights the absurd fact that Louise still deferred to James even during his paralysis, just to be safe. “He ain’ gon hab no scuse to box my jaws,” Louise would say (54). Rather than accepting this ongoing plight of women, Oreo devises her system of self-defense in order to change it. Thus Ross begins to paint Oreo as a feminist ideal: a woman who takes action to assert her power and refuses to be dominated by men. Ross does not deny Oreo feminine characteristics, however. She describes Oreo as beautiful, making reference to her “short-toed, perfect feet” (93) and her “perfect twin roes” (159). The reader learns of an incident in which a man standing on a corner had seen Oreo riding in her uncle’s car and “had made sucking noises to denote his approval of her appearance” (54). Ross describes this man’s behavior as “primitive” and mentions that it enrages Oreo, implying that Oreo would hurt the man were she given the chance. When she is glimpsed by the pimp Parnell, he immediately takes notice and approaches her. She tells him that she is a virgin and he replies “At your age, looking like you do? No way” (157). Later when she passes two men changing the marquee outside of the Apollo theater, one calls out “Is that a fox or is that a fox!” (171). However, Oreo never acknowledges the men who make advances toward her. Throughout her journey she is an object of sexual desire for others, but she never reciprocates. Thus Ross places Oreo in the position of power, possessing sexuality but choosing not to exercise it even in the face of pressure from men around her.
Ross describes situations in which woman are often victimized in reality, but she once again reverses the roles. Soon after beginning her journey, Oreo is attacked by a pickpocket and not only avoids being robbed, but relieves the criminal of his weapon and convinces him to give up on his crooked pursuits. Early in the story Oreo is sexually harassed by a man over the phone. Rather than simply hanging up the phone and ignoring the man, she resolves to teach him a lesson. She toys with him, giving him false hopes of enacting his fantasies before stopping short and throwing him out on the street. She uses his sex drive as a weapon against him. Again Oreo asserts her control of her sexuality and her ability to refuse the advances of men, even sexual predators. Ross brings up the issue of rape numerous times. According to the US Department of Justice, a woman is raped somewhere in America every two minutes, making it a major concern for women. The first allusion to rape is subtle, as Oreo describes a story she is writing: “I am writing a story about a repentant but recidivous rapist. In the story, the repentant rapist catches his hand in a wringer” (47). Ross later addresses the subject more directly when she describes the “beauteous band of female rapists” in Riverside Park. “We’re not in this for pleasure,” the leader explains. “We’re out to teach you … a lesson.” The women threaten “If you can’t get it up, we take it off” (122). Ross places women in the role typically occupied by men and makes their intentions clear. She portrays them as vigilantes rather than villains and perverts like their male counterparts, and she shows them as capable of violence, going so far as to threaten their victim’s genitalia. Oreo expresses her approval of their actions by turning over and going back to sleep rather than coming to the aid of the male victim.
Later, Oreo herself thwarts the direct sexual attacks of Kirk and Parnell. Parnell attempts to control and degrade women, feeling a sense of ownership over those who work for him. He describes his group of women as his “stable” (158). Witnessing his arrogance and misogyny, Oreo humiliates him for the first time in the street. Kirk is described as something akin to an animal, sporting abnormally large genitalia. He seems to be the physical embodiment of the male sex drive, primal and completely detached from the intellectual. Ross uses this opportunity to take a crack at machismo posturing and male sexual insecurity: “Parnell took Kirk to his corner … rubbing his back and giving his behind the athlete’s homosexual underhand slap/feel of encouragement.” When Kirk tries to penetrate Oreo, he is “met with a barrier that propelled him backward.” Even with his exceptional male organ, Oreo is able to thwart Kirk with great ease. Ross explains that the false hymen Oreo uses to protect herself was made possible by a grant from an organization called “Citizens Against the Rape of Mommies” (160). This episode with Kirk contains some of the novel’s most obvious feminist significance as it is very far-removed from reality and not of direct importance to the main plot. Its only purpose is to once again place the female character in position of sexual power. The fact that Oreo protects herself with a false hymen is also significant, a reminder of her continued virginal status. “It takes a better man to break my cherry,” Oreo says. Kirk’s attempts are repeatedly thwarted, prompting Oreo to sarcastically express her sympathy for him: “Oh, the heartbreak of satyriasis” she quips (161). When the ordeal is over, Kirk and Parnell, Oreo’s would be sexual assailants, are both defeated and humiliated. “Kirk was standing in the corner asleep, his legs crossed, his hands cupping a gathering of gonads, a tear runnel glistening on one cheek of his hanging head. ‘Poor thing,’ Oreo double-entendred” (163). Once again Oreo has physical and intellectual power over her male attackers, protecting herself and degrading them in the process.
The secret of Oreo’s birth, the knowledge that Oreo sought throughout her journey, provides the book with a firmly feminist conclusion. Oreo learns that she was born from artificial insemination. This was a necessity because, quite predictably considering the feminist themes, Samuel was unable to have children due to his low sperm count. Ross makes it clear that the deficiency lies solely with the male. The fact that Oreo was conceived in this fashion has important feminist ramifications, however. The concept of artificial insemination removes the male from an active role in the conception of the child. It was Samuel’s sperm that was used to conceive Oreo, but it was the doctors in the GI clinic who were actually responsible for impregnating Helen. Thus Oreo was born out of her mother virtually without active participation from her father, placing all of the importance on the mother in the child-bearing process, and subtly calling to mind the biblical virgin birth.
From start to finish, Fran Ross’s Oreo flouts traditional gender stereotypes. She portrays Oreo as a strong and intelligent female protagonist capable of not only defending herself from men but defeating them and bending them to her will when necessary. Female characters throughout the story are shown as powerful and virtuous while men are seen as sinful and base. Ross tackles issues of male and female sexuality and violence, describing female characters that are in control of their own sexuality and not sexual objects subject to the whims of men. With the conclusion of Oreo’s quest Ross casts the entire novel as a feminist work, revealing the sought-after secret of Oreo’s birth to be the final piece in the puzzle of female empowerment. By suggesting that women could reproduce without participation from men, Ross makes the ultimate feminist statement. Thus Ross flies in the face of cultural stereotypes regarding men and women, challenging accepted gender roles at every level.
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