The Disposition of a Man: Incorrect Analysis and Lies of Omission in “Oh, Brother”

By Leda Gillbride 1

“Dorotea [in Don Quixote], a young woman who has been dressed as a man, begins to take off her costume in the woods when a priest and barber happen upon her in this liminal state. They catch her suspended between seeming opposites—with the hair and feet of a woman, but the clothes and disposition of a man.”

—Lily Weisberg, MC ’21,“Oh, Brother,” Second Place in Nonfiction, 2020 Yale Wallace Prize

I didn’t know of Dorotea, so I educated myself. Now I know she deserves her rest. The rich and cruel Don Fernando had promised to wed her but then took her virginity, leaving her ineligible for marriage. She has fled the city in boys’ clothes to avoid public shame, and is bathing her feet in the stream after her journey. Soon, a priest and barber will approach her, and she will tell them of her misfortune; she will charm them with her beauty, articulateness, and innocence even in her deflowerment and despair. With their assistance, she will assume different identities, visit different lands, but still long for Don Fernando to marry her. She loves him. Ultimately, she will pitch herself hard enough, be loyal enough, prostrate herself enough, that Don Fernando will accept her as his wife. But for now, far from her city, her path is hazy, and she needs to clean the travel off herself; within larger uncertainty, she finds a moment of rest.

As the sky grows dark behind Claire’s Corner Copia, Lily opens her tattered copy of Don Quixote to the scene where Dorotea cleanses herself in the stream. Coincidentally, Lily first read this anecdote when Engender initially asked her to rush Sig Ep; coincidentally—a coincidence like dropping your copy of Calvino on a hot TA’s foot—this eleventh-hour lens-widening implies that Lily’s personal experience has meaning, weight beyond the individual.

Lily Weisberg is also resting. By the last paragraph of her Wallace Prize-placing personal essay “Oh, Brother,” Lily has completed the rush process for the all-male fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon. Make no mistake: she is not a member of Engender, the Yale organization attempting to make fraternities co-ed. She finds their tactic of directly confronting fraternity members unproductive, overly aggressive, “antagonistic, [and] man-bashing.” Instead, Lily has a more measured strategy to enact positive change: she curates her appearance and small talk to be sexed but not too sexed (read: intriguing but not slutty) to trick the brothers of Sig Ep (or convince through her intellectual and sexual power) into realizing women (especially Lily) are fun (and thus should be let into frats) because she wears jewelry but her clothes are loose (the “Madewell Gambit”). Her plan allows her to disarm certain brothers of Sig Ep, and learn intimate details about them—like how they like to play video games. Yet no matter how charming Lily is, the boys are bound by the rules of their national chapter and are unable to offer her a bid. As the sky grows dark behind Claire’s Corner Copia, Lily opens her tattered copy of Don Quixote to the scene where Dorotea cleanses herself in the stream. Coincidentally, Lily first read this anecdote when Engender initially asked her to rush Sig Ep; coincidentally—a coincidence like dropping your copy of Calvino on a hot TA’s foot—this eleventh-hour lens-widening implies that Lily’s personal experience has meaning, weight beyond the individual.

The last-minute deployment of this anecdote illuminates a few things, besides the fact that Lily reads books, which seems important to her2. It reminds the reader that Lily has sought male acceptance: Dorotea’s story centers around her desire to wed Don Fernando, and Lily’s story centers around her experience rushing Sig Ep in hopes of receiving a bid or, failing that, appreciation from the Sig Ep brothers. It tells the reader that Lily chose to don masculine clothes to combat misogyny: after all, that’s what Dorotea did. But Lily also feels genuinely alienated from femininity, missing no opportunity to insult her female peers, from whom she feels vastly different. She characterizes members of Engender as “militant,” and new pledges’ female dates as “superficial”; she can’t bring herself to interact with them beyond social niceties. Conversely, she instinctively orbits men, clicks with them on a deeper level than she does with women3, bonds with them over shared experiences, and envies the “looseness and beauty of their physicality.” And this too must be like Dorotea, because—to take Lily’s word for it—Dorotea has the disposition of a man.

We should not take Lily’s word for it. Reading the specific Don Quixote passage mentioned in “Oh, Brother,”4 Lily’s characterization of Dorotea as having “the disposition of a man” quickly becomes laughable. Dorotea is sexed feminine from the moment the priest and barber see her—that is, from the moment she is introduced. The men know she is not a man, even though she is dressed in boy drag, because her intense purity and femininity shine through her masculine clothing (in language that now reads Eurocentric). They are stunned by the beauty of her feet, which are clearly not meant for hard labor: they look “exactly like two pieces of white crystal that had been born there among the other stones in the stream.” Her calves are “like white alabaster.” Her long hair is “so abundant and thick that it conceal[s]…not only her back, but…the rest of her body…except for her feet,” calling to mind The Birth of Venus

This is not the disposition of a man. This is, according to Cervantes, a man’s ideal woman. Dorotea’s hair, loosed from her cap, is enough to cause sunbeams envy; her hands combing through her hair look like pieces of driven snow; she is so self-evidently beautiful, pure, untainted, her feet so delicate, that the men immediately offer her comfort, help, anything she might desire—they weave their futures with hers. And when Dorotea lifts her face to the sun, it is a face of such incomparable beauty that the barber is moved to speak:

“This…is no human being but a divine creature.”

Not only is Dorotea not like a man, she is more than a mere woman. This is evidently an aspirational image for Lily, who tries to gain male approval by being particularly distinctive: “I could be the platonic woman—there neither to hook up nor to attack.” She painstakingly differentiates herself from such attackers (Engender) and hookups/vapid sluts (pledges’ plus-ones): “With the perfect balance of intensity, sarcasm, charm, attractiveness, I could be a destabilizing anomaly” (italics mine). To hear Lily tell it, women are largely charmless and dull—except for her, who can “devise a better approach.” Her better approach is her modern-day attempt at the alabaster legs, the sun-kissed hair: her oversized jeans and girl-next-door persona render her pure, while her loose face-framing strands keep her alluringly feminine. Lily fancies herself a visibly divine creature, and wants everything that follows: if all goes according to plan, her superiority will be so obvious that men will be drawn to her, and mold their futures with her in mind.5

Yet instead of giving the reader this relevant final image, Lily chooses to tell a bald lie. “Dorotea…has the disposition of a man.” Reading along the obviously intended Dorotea/Lily parallel, this image is a last-minute move to absolve Lily of responsibility for her actions. Elsewhere, Lily calls her chill-smart, not-too-feminine persona a “curated personality”; but rather than admit it stems from her desire to rise above other women, Lily airlifts in an anecdote that contradictorily implies this behavior comes naturally. Oh, it’s just my disposition! If being masculine is how Lily is when she thinks she is alone, she’s not doing anything wrong; she’s just being herself. Her “casual disposition” is, in fact, casual. It’s not her fault that men happen to observe her and be thrilled. She’s just naturally better than other women. She can’t help it.

Protagonists need not be moral, and stories need not have action points attached; part of stories’ utility is their ability to give voice to complicated, unflattering realities. Unfortunately, rather than portray a complicated world, Weisberg removes crucial parts of the world she renders, simplifying it beyond recognition.

Are readers intended to catch this? Is this the author’s sincere misreading or slippery narrative move6—or is the author presenting herself as a flawed character all too willing to let herself off the hook for her internalized misogyny and narcissism? Elsewhere, Weisberg alludes to deception; the Don Quixote paper she mentions writing is about “the invisible line between lies and truth,” and her description of Engender as trying to “achieve equality through deception” could ultimately highlight her own craftiness. And Weisberg is allowed to interrogate her flaws—though embarrassing, it’s not wrong to interrogate the self-deception that allows her to write off other women, the respectability politics which ground her vision of ideal womanhood. Protagonists need not be moral, and stories need not have action points attached; part of stories’ utility is their ability to give voice to complicated, unflattering realities. As Weisberg notes in her description of Cervantes, things can be “right and wrong, true and false, or performance and reality at the same time.

Unfortunately, rather than portray a complicated world, Weisberg removes crucial parts of the world she renders, simplifying it beyond recognition. She has gotten caught up in the performance and forgotten to depict the reality behind it. The reality is that in 2018, eight Yale students came forward about their experiences of sexual assault at DKE, four about the same brother. The reality is that in 2015 and in 2017, members of Yale’s SAE chapter (now LEO) denied entry to women of color based on their race. The reality is that last year, over one-fourth of non-consensual sexual touching at Yale happened in frat houses. Engender is real, and has a concrete list of demands, though Lily rolled her eyes and didn’t pay attention. Its lawsuit, which Lily uses as a punchline, details that all three plaintiffs were groped at fraternity events. It is a response to years of reported and lived assault and racism in Greek life. Anita Hill sits on its Senior Advisory Board. All this information is intimately relevant to the reality Lily engages with, regardless of whether Lily agrees with the stances this information supports. This information would provide much-needed context for the purpose of Engender. This information would also helpfully gesture at the positionality that makes Lily’s unthreatening “neutrality” possible: whiteness that allows her to de-sex herself, that allows her to bond over “non-PC comments,”7 money that makes her presence familiar8. This information is necessary for basic comprehension of the debate over fraternities’ existence—yet this information lurks just outside the frame. 

As is, any context and thus complexity comes from the reader’s outside knowledge. If a reader has no prior knowledge of Engender—or Don Quixote, for that matter—they will take the claims that Engender members are militant and ensnaring, that their goals are nothing more than snow flicked off Lily’s shoe9, at face value. They’ll walk away thinking they should buy some Everlane pants and assume the world is a safe place. “Oh, Brother” won a Wallace Prize and was published on the Yale Daily News’s website, which over half the student body accesses every week. Readers who come to the YDN for factual journalism and read the “nonfiction” label on Lily’s piece may leave without any Cervantes-like uncertainty, or any stakes to ground the story—or really any facts. All they are given is a dull, trivial landscape (Boys and girls are fighting), rendering the final exhortation that everything is “right and wrong…at the same time” a listless shrug: Well, none of this really matters anyway. This is nonfiction washed clean of all consequence, reality sanitized through omission.

Don Fernando has paid Dorotea’s maid to let him into her chambers. Now the door has swung shut. Images of this scene depict one oil lamp as the single light source on the hard floor, not unlike moonlight spilling into a Pierson suite, or a ceiling bulb in a frat basement.

I wonder if one of Lily’s 80 bookmarks10 marks the page where Dorotea is deflowered. I think of how Dorotea describes it. Dorotea is in her chamber at night, with the doors locked and a maid keeping watch. But then, “Without knowing or imagining how…I found [Don Fernando] standing before me; the sight of him perturbed me so much that I lost the sight in my own eyes, and my tongue became mute and I was incapable of crying out, nor do I think he would have allowed me to do so…”

Don Fernando has paid Dorotea’s maid to let him into her chambers. Now the door has swung shut. Images of this scene depict one oil lamp as the single light source on the hard floor, not unlike moonlight spilling into a Pierson suite, or a ceiling bulb in a frat basement.

Don Fernando professes his love for her, his intent to marry her, grips her in his arms. She tells him he better mean what he says and he says he does. Dorotea doesn’t believe him. In fact, Dorotea is freaked the fuck out—she doesn’t want to have sex with Fernando, but she loves him, and he speaks so vehemently, and, in her words: “If I try to reject him with disdain, I can see that if he does not achieve his ends in the proper way, he will use force, and I shall be dishonored and have no excuse when I am blamed by those who do not know how blamelessly I find myself in this situation. What arguments will be enough to persuade my parents, and others, that this nobleman entered my bedroom without my consent?”

No matter how eloquently she speaks, no matter how many times she states her morals, Don Fernando is bigger than her. Don Fernando has money and status she doesn’t have. Dorotea’s story is about fear. Dorotea’s story is about force. 

Yes, Dorotea loves Don Fernando. But you can love someone and still be afraid of them. You can love men and still be afraid of them. You can love fraternities and still know that they are historically places of fear.

You can be unafraid of some men and be afraid of other men.
You can be unafraid of individuals and be afraid of a system which houses those individuals.
You can be unafraid and know that in the future you might be afraid.
These are all interesting stories, award-worthy stories.

Here is the problem. “Oh, Brother” has positioned itself at the center of a conversation which is all about fear, force, power, and violence. If not for the ongoing dialogue about fraternities and violence, “Oh, Brother” would be meaningless. The events depicted in “Oh, Brother” would not even occur. Yet “Oh, Brother” never mentions the possibility of fear and force, and only discusses its absence. The first paragraph jokingly conjures the bedsheet-ghost equivalents of assault (“football players dragging women in sequined skirts up stairs”) and racism (“baseball caps with racist puns”) only to shoo them away. And rather than recognizing that danger comes in many forms and isn’t always visible, Lily imagines reality is limited to what she sees, and what she delineates as safe or dangerous: she doesn’t see or experience football players dragging women in sequined skirts up stairs, so the possibility of real danger is dismissed; she missed the day of the reading where we learn how people get away with it. Lily neuters the fraternity discourse into one of vague “equality.” To hear Lily tell it, the central conflict is: Will the brothers of Sig Ep make more female friends than they already have, or will they get to play FIFA in peace? The scariest thing in “Oh, Brother” is Engender “cornering baby-faced frat brothers into ideological battles”, which isn’t that scary at all. The stakes could not be lower or less urgent, and the plot could not be more tedious. Of course Engender seems militant, then; she’s removed their cause. 

Still a nagging voice in the back of my head wonders if this is all on purpose, a conscious choice to write a severely deluded character and expose the violence of the author’s own selective blindness. Why otherwise would Weisberg turn away from any number of knotty, compelling, relatable struggles in order to portray a tepid haze of nothingness? 

At the end of the day, we have to read the text put in front of us, and the text itself is lacking.

But plausible deniability does not a good piece of writing make. Purposeful omission is still omission. Eighty bookmarks mean nothing if you never flip to their pages. Sure, perhaps the essay is a cautionary tale about how the patriarchy traps women into loops of subservience—or it’s a hopeful story about how the author thinks women should behave. Perhaps the essay is a study of hubris, about how unhelpful it is to view men as one bloc and women as another bloc and yourself as the only person smart enough to transcend—or it’s sincerely expressing that very view. Perhaps the essay barely mentions race because it’s making a purposeful statement about white Greek life spaces—or because the author simply doesn’t have to think about race very much. Perhaps the essay is a radically subtle transmasculine narrative! Or it’s not, because if it were it would be a different essay. 

At the end of the day, we have to read the text put in front of us, and the text itself is lacking. Engender’s entire info session is turned into white noise. Dorotea is whittled down to “a young woman dressed as a man.” Lily scrubs reality clean, renders it unrecognizable, dulls the light of everything in the story but her. The only thing of substance in the piece is the character of Lily herself, as author-Lily gives her to us.

And that character is not uninteresting. Character-Lily is a tragic figure, forever twisting herself into knots in order to gain access to a cabal of people who she admires—ironically—for their ability to do whatever they want. In a Cervantes-esque contradiction, Character-Lily tries to be masculine to gain freedom from conventional patriarchal scripts, unaware that spending so much time thinking about men’s reception of her is itself a symptom of patriarchypreventing her from living the “boyish, free, easy life”11 away from gender norms that she imagines. Character-Lily is not Dorotea, though. Dorotea dresses as a man to escape the city’s stifling misogyny; Character-Lily dresses as a man to be the most popular girl in the city. She refuses to accept that no matter how many loose dress shirts or dangly earrings she wears, Sig Ep will never want her in the house. She’s forever licking the boots of the men in her life in the hopes a reward is coming. Not even important men. Men she’s just met. She’s a sell-out, parroting “non-PC” talking points and throwing marginalized people under the bus just for a smile from a male acquaintance. She’s not Dorotea. She’s the maid, grinningly accepting Fernando’s bribe to let him into Dorotea’s chambers. She is depressingly, easily paid off. She would do it for free.

  ***

I feel sorry for all Lily’s Doroteas, all the people who have trusted her only to realize she was never on their side. I also feel sorry for Lily. Reading “Oh, Brother,” I hope the character of Lily will eventually be able to look past the simulacrum of freedom she gets from being freer than other women. I hope she will learn to separate her worth from her worth in men’s eyes. It’s a hard task. Even at the stream when Dorotea thinks herself alone, she is still framed through the male gaze: the men decide her beauty, decide whether she can pass. No one asks: what is Dorotea like at the stream before anyone perceives her? Simply being inside her clothes, simply washing her feet. No appraisals of her value, no segmentation of her body. Her actions just actions. I wish for Dorotea—and myself, and Lily—the liberation of being truly alone: no intrusions, no priests and barbers, and, thank God, no more essays

  1. The author has requested to use a pseudonym.
  2. “I picked up the tattered red paperback of “Don Quixote” that I’d inhaled in two weeks over winter break.”
  3. “[Reid and I] clicked....we discussed Grand Strategy and why I thought sororities were the worst thing to ever happen to feminism….We were just two people talking. We even fist-bumped.”
  4. Lily’s description of Don Quixote’s “red cover” indicates she’s using the Edith Grossman translation, which is also the most popular DQ translation, so I did the same.
  5. And if I could, through my casual disposition, respect, and solidarity, get these men to like my company more than that of the boys who were rushing, might they wonder why they’d chosen a social world isolated from women?”
  6. Wesiberg has since issued an apology appended to a Broad Recognition article critiquing her essay.
  7. I came up with...concessions about how I “kinda loved” the non-PC comments our Shakespeare professor made, especially the day when he belabored the decline of free speech at American universities. So true! Haha! Scott basked in the glow of...my apparent conservatism.”
  8. “I...racked my brain for a way to start the conversation. It proved no challenge. He went to an elite Upper West Side Catholic boys’ school, and I went to an elite Lower East Side co-ed Quaker school.”
  9.  “Jess outlined the battle plan as I brushed some snow off my shoe.”
  10.  “I opened to one of the eighty pages I had bookmarked.”
  11.  “I also wanted to prove to myself that I could... briefly live life boyish and free and easy.”

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