¶ … opposite of a superpower, invisibility refers to the condition of not mattering, not qualifying, or not counting in the eyes of the dominant culture. Invisibility is the quality imposed upon by the oppressor and experienced by the oppressed. Those who do not conform to a white patriarchal standard are rendered invisible, and they may float through life never fitting into a social circle and never gaining access to the means whereby they can change their status. Invisible is what Miss Lily Bart experiences as she subverts gender norms in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Invisibility is certainly what the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man experiences as he navigates his way through early 20th century America. The disenfranchised are rendered invisible when they are positioned at intersections of race, class, gender, and power.
For the invisible man in Ellison's book, invisibility is ironic because a black man is very much a visible sight in a white-dominant, racist society. His anonymity -- his namelessness -- is an emblem of the narrator's invisible, the badge he wears to prove that blackness blends into the background and renders one powerless. Blackness and invisibility are also symbols of what Callahan calls the "great formlessness of Negro life wherein all values are in flux," (24). Miss Lily Bart, on the other hand, possesses white privilege but that privilege is rendered impotent in a patriarchal society. Yet just as invisibility is ironic for what would otherwise be a very visible outsider -- a black man -- Lily Bart's invisibility is also ironic given the precise function of invisibility in The House of Mirth. Invisibility can be a tool of the oppressor, who willingly embraces invisibility in order to play the part of the puppeteer. For example, Merish locates invisibility not with women, which would be the most logical place to look, but with men instead, noting that in The House of Mirth, women's bodies are used "to display men's wealth and men's wears," and are therefore the visible counterpart to men's implicit and invisible power (249). Men in Wharton's novel "hover in the background," instead, only appearing in relation to their utility or their money (249). Men's power and status is wrapped up in the power of their invisibility, as they are the puppeteers pulling the strings in the lives of women; Ellison would likely point out also that white men proffers the privilege of pulling the strings of power over people of color, too. Whereas the people in positions of power can choose whether or not to don their cloaks of invisibility, though, people like Miss Lily Bart and the narrator of Invisible Man have no choice; society has stripped them of the power to choose.
The invisibility that comes from existing at the intersections of race, class, gender, and power is qualitatively and functionally different from the invisibility that exists for those who dictate the boundaries of race, class, gender, and power. As they become the heroes of their own respective narratives, the invisible man and Miss Lily Bart both reclaim their power by rebranding their invisibility. While they cannot attain the types of power that are legitimate from the perspective of patriarchal norms and race-based social stratification, the invisible man and Lily Bart can reclaim their power by affirming their identities as invisible people.
For example, Lily Bart lies. Starting off by noting the linguistic similarity between the act of fibbing (lying) with the horizontal position of the human body (which uses the same word, lying), Goldner draws attention to the feminization of lying as it is depicted in The House of Mirth. A lie can be defined as hiding the truth, which essentially connotes the making the truth invisible. Wharton makes sure that the only lying characters are female, because females can get away with lying in the same way a light-skinned black man can get away with being black. Both the invisible man and Lily Bart pass for being upstart members of the society, when they are genuinely subversively heroic figures. Goldner also points out that women's sexuality is traditionally invisible, and is made more so by Wharton as the act of lying is conjoined with the sexual connotation of lying in a...
Women's sexuality and sexual potency is invisible, but it is in that essential invisibility that she can reclaim her power over the man. A lie possesses subversive power too, as the teller of a lie has control over perceived reality. Yet that power is deviant in nature; once she is exposed, she is labeled for a liar. Lying perfectly parallels the experience and perception of invisibility.
Invisibility can be a direct response to and a product of rampant racism and discrimination, the inability of white America to recognize its black counterpart. Invisibility also refers to the deliberate hiding, often construed as "passing," as when biracial or light-skinned blacks "pass" for white, or when gay men "pass" for straight (Franklin). The act of hiding is a deliberate invisibility that responds to discrimination, a coping mechanism. Franklin's work testifies to the lasting importance of The Invisible Man, as social science researches show that the African-American psyche has been indelibly shaped by the shared experience of invisibility. Therefore, invisibility can be a cultural marker, something that joins together those who exist at liminal social positions at the intersections of race, class, gender, power, and sexuality.
Throughout the deadly and disturbing era of Jim Crow, within which both Wharton and Ellison write, invisibility served as a survival mechanism vis-a-vis lynching and other relatively common responses to visible deviances from the white establishment such as skin color but also homosexuality and female promiscuity. Passing as white could mean passing one's way into freedom, avoiding the brutality of racism (Hardin). At the same time, passing can mean biracial identity construction, which is an even more problematic brand of invisibility. The biracial individual ultimately does not get away with "passing" for anything, and does not fit neatly into any pre-established ethnic category. The person is without a social home, without an identity. Yet invisibility can also be a response to and defense of homoeroticism and what Hardin calls a "transgressive sexuality," (96). Hardin effectively connects homoeroticism to miscegenation, as both signify liminal positions. Biraciality specifically implies that one does not fit into acceptable categories, just as homosexual desire precludes a person from squeezing into neatly defined social structures or normative behaviors, and as the female desire for self-sufficiency precludes acceptance in a patriarchal society. Neither the invisible man nor Lily Bart fits within established boundaries.
The stratifications and structures embedded in society have invisible origins: a different type of invisibility. Those who control social norms and power hierarchies are invisible to the masses and particularly to those who are disempowered by those very structures they create. The men in The House of Mirth possess political, economic, and social capital and because of this, they are able to determine Miss Lily's social status and her access to resources. Lily Bart consciously subverts gender norms by vying for access to the same venues for wealth and social resources, and the invisible man does the same. They succeed marginally; their effort is what makes these protagonists heroic. Women in the case of The House of Mirth, and African-Americans in the case of Invisible Man are two major but marginalized groups: women comprise half of the entire human population. The entire American economy was built on the bloody backs of black men as they slaved for centuries serving the white establishment.
Restuccia discusses the different types of "feminisms" in Wharton's novel, which the author calls a "social fable that indicts" society for producing "human feminine ornaments that it has no qualms about crushing," (p. 223). The ornamentalization of women parallels what Merish notices about the way women wear men's wealth on their bodies, a symbol of their being owned and possessed just like an ornament on the wall. In a similar way, the invisible man becomes an ornament for the whites, particularly evident in the potent scene in which the whites make him fight just for their own entertainment. Just as Merish discusses women as servants to men's power, Restuccia likewise dissects The House of Mirth to locate examples of subversive and sometimes radical feminism that nevertheless skillfully avoids mentioning lesbianism as a direct alternative to patriarchy. Ellison also skillfully averts direct dealing with homosexuality as a political response to oppression, instead choosing to position the invisible man at the intersections most meaningful to the reader.
Invisibility connotes a state of nonexistence or even worse, of subordination. It is a state of limbo, of purgatory, and a parallel reality from the elite members of a society. Superheroes in graphic novels possess invisibility as a superpower, indicating that the most marginalized members of society -- who often do turn out to be superheroes -- can capitalize on invisibility. Invisibility can be a powerful tool for two main reasons: one,…