Think your threats scare me?
Yeah, no. You’re crying, aren’t you? Cry all you want, Joe. Lots of men cry after they do something nasty to a woman. I don’t have a daughter anymore. I thought of you like my son. But you just turned into another piece of shit guy. Another gimme-gimme asshole, Joe. That’s all you are.
I continued to sit with Mooshum, at the edge of his cot, thinking about his wish for a happy death. I’d had a chance to see about the difference between Sonja’s right and left breasts, but I wished I never had. Yet I was glad I did. The conflict in me skewed my brain. About fifteen minutes before Clemence and Edward returned with the freezer, I looked down at my feet and noticed the golden tassel by the leg of the cot. I picked it up and put it in my jeans pocket.
I DON’T KEEP the tassel in a special box or anything–anymore. It’s in the top drawer of my dresser, where things just end up, like Mooshum’s limp stray sock where he kept money. If my wife has ever noticed that I have it, she’s said nothing. I never told her about Sonja, not really. I didn’t tell her how I stuffed the rest of Sonja’s costume in a garbage can by the tribal offices where the BIA was contracted to pick it up. She wouldn’t know that I put that souvenir tassel where I’ll come across it by chance, on purpose. Because every time I look at it, I am reminded of the way I treated Sonja and the way she treated me, or about how I threatened her and all that came of it, how I was just another guy. How that killed me once I really thought about it. A gimme-gimme asshole. Maybe I was. Still, after I thought about it for a long time–in fact, all my life–I wanted to be something better. (Erdrich 222-223)
Human relationships are chemical reactions (Sui Ishida, Tokyo Ghoul Volume 11), and in this passage an enduring change can be seen in Joe from a boy who innocently follows the objectification and entitled rhetoric contained within his childish masculinity into–in this aspect of his life–a man who has realized that women are human and are not objects for consumption. This was demonstrated through the contrast between Sonja and Joe’s perspective, the use of the term “gimme-gimme asshole” to indicate the paradigm that Sonja reveals to Joe he is operating within, Joe’s crying when his previous paradigm is broken, and the fact that rather than idolize Sonja’s costume he dismantles it of its previous meaning within the paradigm that he just left.
Joe’s objectification of Sonja can be seen in how Sonja compares him to the various other men that have objectified her, and Joe’s threats were his decision to similarly see her only as an object rather than a person. This can be seen in the first lines of the passage in which Sonja says she “thought of [him] like [her] son” until he threatened her and he “turned into another piece of shit guy.” In threatening her, Joe revealed to her that he only cared for her in terms of her sexuality, which is something that he tried to benefit from when he used the secret of the money to his advantage and disregarded her will or emotions. Prior to this, his objectification of her could almost be written off with his age and his lack of understanding of his own sexuality. The threat to spill Sonja’s secret, however, is a conscious decision on Joe’s part and removes any claim to innocence he has in objectifying her. In doing so, he “turned into another piece of shit guy,” or one of the number of males that have only seen her as an object rather than the human being beneath the objectifiable exterior. Sonja’s comparison of Joe to the other men that have objectified her reveal to Joe the paradigm in which he was operating.
Joe’s paradigm of masculine sexual entitlement in which he was operating can be seen in the contrast between Sonja’s pain and Joe’s attempt to gain pleasure from her sexuality. This contrast is apparent in Sonja’s saying that she “doesn’t have a daughter anymore” and that she “thought of [him] like [her] son” until he became “another gimme-gimme asshole.” The quick switch in tone, from one of affection towards Joe and pain in her lost daughter into one of anger, reveals how objectification and blind masculinity can hurt women. Sonja’s affections towards Joe were maternal, as opposed to Joe’s perspective on Sonja which was one of primarily lust and desire. Joe hurt Sonja by demonstrating this and attempting to gain from her regardless of whether she wanted to give to him, which is in line with the entitlement that can be seen in today’s “nice guy” rhetoric. In this way of thinking, men feel that because of their virtues they deserve the affections or sexuality of a woman. By threatening her and attempting to force her to give a part of her sexuality to him in her stripping, he became a “gimme-gimme asshole” who felt entitled to her body because he had kept the secret of the money for her. This demonstrated contrast between Joe’s “nice guy” paradigm and Sonja’s affection for him is what causes the rift that hurt Sonja, and Joe’s discovery of how this paradigm had hurt her was the driving force behind Joe’s change.
Although prior to Sonja Joe existed in a paradigm of an objectifying paradigm, over the course of the aftermath of Sonja’s striptease Sonja breaks that paradigm; Joe, rather than fix it, rebuilds it to one of sympathy and compassion towards women in remembrance of his mistake in threatening Sonja. The shattering of his paradigm is expressed in Joe’s crying when Sonja lashes back at him for objectifying her and his subsequent confusion in his attitude towards seeing Sonja’s breasts. Crying is a typically emasculating act because it is a show of emotion, and Joe is crying at a time where Sonja is harshly admonishing him for his actions. Because Sonja is pushing against this paradigm, Joe and “lots of men” cry when this paradigm is pressed back against. This act was within a fracture in his paradigm that Sonja caused by showing how she had been hurt, that she was human, and rather than fixing his old paradigm he rebuilt it around a realization of what he had done.
Joe’s confusion between the fracturing of his paradigm and the shift in perspective from young Joe to adult Joe is due to both Joe’s progressing realization of how he had just hurt Sonja and his progressing decision to build a new paradigm. This is conveyed through both context and the use of the juxtaposition of the phrases “I wished I never had” and “Yet I was glad I did.” Joe wishes he never had seen the difference between Sonja’s breasts because it broke his previous paradigm by forcing him to see the pain that it causes, but at the same time he is glad he saw the difference because it revealed to him the damage that paradigm can do. The confusion in the juxtaposition of these two phrases reveals Joe’s ongoing maturation in this process reveals the internal conflict between the paradigm of blind masculinity and the humanity of women. This internal conflict is resolved when he chooses to abandon his old way of thinking in favor of a new one.
What Joe does with Sonja’s stripper costume is indicative of the change he has just undergone, and in the process he changed the meaning of the costume tassel from one of objectification to one of repentance. The symbol of the costume is imbued with meaning through both what he kept and what he threw away. Joe kept the golden tassel, but “stuffed the rest of Sonja’s costume in a garbage can.” The fact that he threw the costume away, rather than idolizing it as a trophy, is a symbol for him discarding his previous paradigm of objectification in favor of sympathy for what had been done to her due to that way of thinking. Joe is discarding the exterior objects that Sonja was being objectified with rather than holding onto them. Had he held onto them, it would have given them the meaning of a trophy or a symbol of what he had gained from Sonja. By discarding it, he chooses to reject his old paradigm and what he had gained and only keep the reminder of Sonja’s humanity.
The golden tassel becomes a symbol of Sonja’s humanity and consequently becomes a symbol to Joe of the fact that women are human and not objects. Joe created this symbol by holding on to the tassel and putting it where “he will come across it by chance” and each time he is “reminded of the way I treated Sonja.” One of Sonja’s breasts had a scar that had been inflicted upon her by a previous male because she refused to objectify herself any further, and the golden tassel is a reminder of both the way of thinking that Joe had operated in and the pain that it inflicted upon Sonja. Because he saw the pain that he himself had inflicted upon Sonja, this tassel is a reminder of the reason he had found to treat women as fellow human beings.
Throughout the novel, Joe undergoes various changes, and his interactions with Sonja cause a change in his way of thinking about women. Joe goes from his previous innocent masculine paradigm that objectifies women and views male virtue as grounds for sexual gain to a mindset of sympathy for the pain that that mindset has caused women. This change was driven by Sonja’s reaction to Joe’s revelation of this way of thinking as applied to Sonja herself. The results of this change can be seen in Joe’s discarding of her stripper costume and only keeping a piece of it that reminded him for the rest of his life of both the pain that his masculine paradigm can cause and to continue to treat women with respect. This lesson is a part of Joe’s various lessons that he learns over the course of the story, and is one step on his journey to becoming a mature adult male in society.