The 57 Bus Themes
Gender Identity Beyond the Binary
Sasha, who chose their name because of its gender-neutrality, identifies as agender and uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” eluding binary gender roles and perplexing many teens and adults in Dashka Slater’s The 57 Bus. Unlike Andrew (formerly Samantha), who definitively says “I am not a girl” and transitions, Sasha does not reject or accept any gender identity and questions the concept of gender itself. Thus, the refusal to subscribe to a gender identity, and the implications and consequences of this refusal, are central to the book.
An inventor of their own language—Astrolingua—and a gifted student who blazes through “calculus, linguistics, physics, and computer programming,” Sasha inevitably applies their intelligence and aptitude for questioning to the issue of gender.
“I just know,” Sasha’s father Karl said when Sasha asked how he knew he was a man. “It’s who I am.”
But how does he know? Sasha wonders. Is it because of biology, or social conditioning, or both? More importantly, why do people need to define themselves by gender? Once Sasha begins an epistemological inquiry into gender, they have an epiphany.
Other people seemed to have a file in their brain marked Gender. But Sasha didn’t feel that.
Still, identifying as one gender or another is the dominant norm, as Sasha realizes while making daily decisions, such as whether to use the men’s or women’s bathroom in public. Sasha solves the problem by discarding gender as a sorting category: for instance, they decide to pick whichever bathroom is less crowded. When Sasha visits her father’s kindergarten classroom, they question the practice of organizing children’s registers by “boys” and girls” and suggest Karl instead use folders “A–M” and “N–Z” to group the children by name. In these ways, Sasha exposes the arbitrariness of gender as a sorting category and neutralizes its importance in their life. Further, Slater discusses how categories of biology, gender, sex, and romance are beginning to separate and combine in endless algorithms:
It was like a gigantic menu, with columns and columns of choices.
In Sasha’s case, the support of their parents and attendance at the progressive Maybeck School empower them to define their unique identity. What’s more, the meaning of “identity” itself is fluid for a digital native like Sasha, whose selves extend into virtual domains and games. The outside world, on the other hand, is more static. When Samantha transitions to Andrew, for instance, he becomes the subject of gossip at his public high school:
People at school kept coming up and saying awkward and nonsensical things like “I heard you got a sex transplant?”
Andrew’s parents are not as supportive as Sasha’s, which hastens his crisis. Further, even though Sasha’s parents accept them unconditionally, they, too, struggle at first to adjust to Sasha’s agender identity. When Sasha begins to wear a skirt at eighteen, Debbie and Karl worry about them becoming a target. Karl recalls the time he was attacked as a young man by a group of young men who assumed he was gay. Thus, through varying experiences of gender, and a close examination of terms like “grey-sexual,” the book juxtaposes Sasha’s compassionate, expanding consciousness with a society still struggling to catch up.
The Fear of the "Other"
With its two protagonists belonging to minorities of race or gender, respectively, the idea of otherness plays a crucial part in The 57 Bus . Identifying as agender, Sasha constitutes an “other” for the heteronormative majority; and though class and race privileges protect them from pervasive discrimination, Sasha ultimately faces danger in a more public space. In the book’s central incident, sixteen-year-old Richard sets fire to Sasha’s skirt as Sasha sleeps on the bus, leaving their legs badly burned. When the police interrogate him with leading questions about motive, Richard...
(The entire section is 1,530 words.)