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Gender and Sexuality

Funny Boy by Selvadurai presents memorable sketches of family members and friends who constitute a large Tamil family with specified traditions and beliefs about sexuality and gender roles. The key character in the novel is Arji, a boy who tends to have more feminine dimensions compared to masculine characteristics the society expects him to exhibit. On the other hand, Notes on Love in a Tamil Family is Trawick’s anthropological account of a large South Indian Tamil family. It is worth noting that Trawick lived in the community gathering information on the expression of anpu, the English word for love, among members of the community. Being an ethnographic account, Trawick will be presumed the key character to be used in the illustration of the intersection of gender and sexuality with ethnicity and language, religion, and beliefs in shaping identities, gender roles, and gendered performance.

This essay compares and contrasts the roles that ethnicity (Tamilness), religion, language, and caste play in the shaping of gendered performance and gender identities.


In both stories, ethnicity and language are significant shaping the roles of both men and women in the society. They have some common bonds in their Tamilness, and their ethnic dimensions play a vital role in influencing the roles of male and female. In both stories, a man is supposed to be a man and a woman is supposed to do the same, and undertake their responsibilities definitively. For instance, in Funny Boy, there is a clear understanding that a man is not supposed to do what a woman can to do from an ethnic perspective. When Arji tries to engage in bridal relationships with his cousins, his mother and uncles withdraw him from the game and tell him he cannot continue engaging in such roles (Selvadurai 55). This is a clear indication of the view that everyone has the clearly specified duties in line with ethnic understanding. More so, Trawick opines that everyone in the Tamil family she studied, was more inclined to their duties, and the refusal to learn English language binds them together in terms of concentrating on their respective tasks. In fact, Trawick’s account tends to bring out a parochial society where ethnic tendencies define the roles of a woman (Trawick 34). On the other hand, Arji’s family and ethnic inclinations do not fully bar him from engaging in feminine duties, especially because of the influences of English and Sinhala languages they speak. When his family is visited by his auntie, Radha Auntie, Arji gets the opportunity to engage in other social roles by staying closer to the aunt (Selvadurai 65). This implies that Selvadurai’s novel does not have stricter definitions of gender roles compared to Trawick’s account where everyone is only supposed to adhere to their duties and responsibilities, as stated by the society. The clarity in the definition of duties is a clear indication of the repression of women in South India. The clear definition of gender roles in both stories is vital in determining gendered performance (Trawick 52). Both men and women become specialists at their duties and responsibilities because of the kind of ‘training’ they receive from their childhood. For instance, Arji is trained to act like a man and identify himself as such by participating in men’s roles instead of focusing on ‘bridal matters.’ This is similar in Trawick’s account, where both women and men have to learn about what is expected of them from an ethnic perspective.

There is a similarity in the manner religion influences gender roles and gendered performances in both Salvadurai’s novel and Trawick’s account. In line with Trawick’s account, the Tamil community in South India is more inclined to the Vaishnavan mode of religion, where Krishna is worshipped as the Supreme God (Trawick 89). As a tradition, the religion is strict in the manner it views men and women, and they have to identify themselves in tandem with the provisions of religion. Instances of homosexuality are not allowed in the strict sense of religion in gender identity. Again, gender roles are supposed to be done in a manner that impresses Krishna. This is similar to the influence of religion in Arji’s family. Arji’s family is subscribed to the Christian religion, and is strict on gender identity and roles. For instance, Arji is not allowed to exhibit homosexual tendencies, as this is not allowed in the Christian religion (Selvadurai 77). More so, most gender roles are supposed to be performed in a manner that satisfies God. In both families, gendered performance is supposed to be driven by religious values that sanctify God. On the other hand, in Trawick’s account, the influence of religion on gender identity and roles tends to be lenient because it allowed cross-cousin marriages, and performance of duties. This differs from the practice in Arji’s family where such events are not allowed to occur. The Christian religion is not open to cross-cousin marriages and gender performances. The differences in religions allow the two Tamil families hold different beliefs about gender identities, roles, and gender performance, but Christianity tends to be more flexible.

The caste system highlighted in Trawick’s account shapes gender roles and gendered performance differently from that highlighted by Selvadurai. Trawick opines that the South Indian community (Tamil) is associated with a strict caste system where women are put at the lowest status possible (Trawick 128). They do not seem to have a defense against their husbands. They are supposed to do everything without questioning. This ensures they do most of the tasks related to taking care of children in terms of cooking and weaving baskets for sale. Men are dominant and overall leaders of the family in line with this caste system. This differs from what Selvadurai presents in Funny Boy where the caste system tends to balance the roles and identities of both men and women (Selvadurai 102). Women are not necessarily mistreated in the Sri-Lankan Tamil family and they are given some sort of reverence in the performance of their duties and responsibilities. For instance, Arji’s sister, Sonali, supports him when others feel that he is not attending to his duties as a man, because of his feminine tendencies. Therefore, gendered performance in Trawick’s account differs from that of Selvadurai’s novel in the sense that it is forced along the caste system where there are strict limitations on the gender roles within the society. Everyone in Arji’s family performs freely and delivers on responsibilities voluntarily without much pressure relating to performance related to the caste system (Selvadurai 68).

In conclusion, both similarities and differences can be noted from Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Trawick’s Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. From both accounts, it is easy to understand that gender roles and duties in both communities are clearly defined and every person is supposed to undertake these duties in line with their gender identity. A man is not allowed to exhibit feminine characteristics, and women are not expected to exhibit the masculine ones. However, Arji’s family’s Christian beliefs tend to flex their approach to gender roles, in comparison with Trawick’s account, where women are supposed to follow what men say, as dictated by the caste system in the family.