What drives people to act the way they do? What rules of society drives their sub-conscience decisions everyday? Is it the way people around them act? What about the laws of their current location? Or could it be that people’s everyday actions, decisions, and interactions are affected by gender?
The idea of looking at a piece of literature or media based on gender is known as gender criticism. You use gender criticism to look at characters and wonder why they act and think the way they do because of their gender and the gender of the people around them. However, gender criticism can uncover some not-so-pleasant things about cultures, like cultural hauntings. Cultural hauntings are evil-spirited stories or happenings that apply to certain societies or groups because they themselves believe in the hauntings. They can be mental, like a town remembering a horrible accident that happened years ago, or it can by physical, like a structure or object that has a bad rememory. Rememory is a theory created by the author Toni Morrison, which can be summarized as such: Rememory is the association of certain feelings or emotions with an object or location. It is not the actual memories that occurred with the place or object. Gender criticism is like a lens used to see past the surface of a story to find the hauntings hidden within it.
Gender criticism can uncover things like sexism in a town, hysteria in women, or too much masculinity or femininity in general. Many pieces of literature can be gender-critiqued, and two such pieces are Empire Falls by Richard Russo and The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Empire Falls is a novel about a small town in Maine called Empire Falls and is focused on a small-restaurant owner, Max Roby. Max has recently gone through a divorce with his wife Janine, and is slowly working to repair his relationship with his daughter Tick. His restaurant gets shut down from too many health-code violations, and the repairs are through the roof, so now Max must decide if he will spend the money or pursue opening a new restaurant in a clean building. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story about a woman whose husband, a doctor named John, confines her to bed rest in a rented cottage in order for her to return to normal after getting constant headaches. He forbids her to any physical or social activities, including writing, and has his sister check in on her every so often. Unfortunately, the wallpaper of the attic where the wife is kept begins to drive her insane-literally. She convinces herself there is a woman trapped behind the “bars” of the wallpaper, which in reality was just the pattern. In the end, she goes crazy and tries to tear down all the wallpaper while locking herself in the room so John cannot reach her.
My goal is to show that gender plays a huge role in the actions and thoughts of people not only media articles, but also in real life. Because of gender and the gender of others, people act in ways they have deemed “socially respectable,” even if they don’t realize it consciously. These roles have always been around, regardless of whether or not people have out-rightly noticed them, and have simply evolved to fit with the ever-changing time period.
Depending on where someone is looking from with gender criticism changes how you interpret and describe articles. Non-scholarly people think of gender criticism as a way to examine “how sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works.” Also, people think of it as a way to read/watch/listen to a piece of literature with a blend of gender-based views. Another way people call a distinction to gender criticism from more biased gender-views is by noting how gender-based critics are more constructionists than essentialists. Construction-ism is a view that states that most of the differences between men and women are not characteristics of the male and female sex (nature) but more of the masculine and feminine genders (nurture).
Scholars and people of a higher academic standing think of gender criticism not as much as a way to look at and describe a piece of literature, but as a way to look more at the time period and why roles of certain genders have become structured in the first place. For example, Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature emphasizes the patriarchy of the Victorian Era and how feminism slowly grew from it and tried to overthrow it. The book is of the opinion that gender criticism is based on the idea of woman versus men in society, but also off the sexual desires of said characters. This is a strong parallel of what other scholarly books and texts believe, but unfortunately I do not have the book to cite and cannot recall its examples or information well enough to use it now.
Gender criticism is very present in the two pieces of literature I mentioned earlier, Empire Falls and The Yellow Wallpaper. Miles, the main character of Empire Falls is very non-dominant, so femininity takes its place over Miles, represented in his wife, daughter, and boss. All three women are dominant over him, on different levels of obviousness. His wife is very obvious, often dropping remarks about how clueless and unsure he is, just constantly insulting him without repercussions. This can be gender critiqued because she is fully taking on a feminine role and absolutely disregarding Miles. His daughter, Tick, is dominant in a much less obtrusive way. She controls him with a non-intended manipulation of being daddy’s little girl, which is where gender begins to show itself as a social guideline. And lastly, Mrs. Whiting, the boss, brings up the point of gender critique-ability when she manipulates Miles by using the restraint he runs for her. She makes sure he is on unsure ground by not letting him know exactly for sure if she will leave him the restaurant in her will. This is considered against the grain of a standard gender relationship because in a stereotypical modern view, the man would be the boss and even that a woman boss would not manipulate her male workers. Another notable gender role in Empire Falls is between Janine, Miles’s wife, and Tick. Tick mostly blames Janine for the divorce, so Janine cannot fulfill the standard motherly role. So much so that Tick often calls her mother harsh names, like a bit*h and Janine almost runs Tick over with her car on accident, which is very symbolic.
The Yellow Wallpaper is another piece of literature with gender roles that we studied in class. This book is set in a later time period, so the idea of a patriarch is more accepted and assumed in relationships. This idea is very present in the idea of the couple, John, the husband/doctor, and the unnamed wife, who is the absolute main character. Because of the gender stereotypes, the wife cannot resist when the husband orders her to bed rest in the attic-room of a cottage they are renting away from time. Bed rest might not seem like such a bad treatment option, but in those times it meant not leaving the house AT ALL, or in her case even the attic, and absolutely no contact with the outside world, including letters. Overtime, the main character begins to slowly lose mental control because of the lack of social interaction and because of the never-changing room she lives in. She begins to convince herself of something in the wallpaper that is trapped, and in the beginning, seems to realize what is happening to herself. The insanity comes on in small doses, and the woman tries to alert her husband to it. However, because he is so convinced he is smarter than a woman (even his ailing wife) he simply tells she “really is getting better” and needs an even stricter bed rest treatment. The main point of gender roles is that the husband is so blinded by the idea he is dominant and always right bears him unable to believe his prescribed treatment is making his wife worse, rather than better. In the end, the woman goes truly crazy and tears down all the wallpaper. The sad ending could have been avoided had the society not been set in such a patriarchal view point.
Gender roles are everywhere, all the time. Don’t worry, they aren’t scary, they are actually very…assisting. They set rules and guidelines that can be seen with gender criticism. Without the sub-conscience rules of gender criticism, the socially accepted and respected ways to act around member of the opposite and similar sex would be very blurred, almost non-existent. Just as the ways I pointed out in Empire Falls and The Yellow Wallpaper, gender rules and roles can dominate a culture, for the better and worse. Gender criticism is a tool, and a lens to use in order to see these roles and rules and without it, we would still have those things, but we couldn’t recognize them enough to put them in words. However, many people go throughout their life without knowing said rules consciously, so don’t worry. Hopefully, this has shown you some insight into how much of a part gender plays into our day-to-day life, and that it can indeed be haunting.
Department of English. “Critical Approaches to Literature.” — CRITICAL APPROACHES TO LITERATURE —. Ole Miss University, 21 Aug. 1995. Web. 26 July 2012. <http://home.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/spring97/litcrit.html>.
“GENDER CRITICISM.” N.p., n.d. Web. <http://faculty.mckendree.edu/brenda_boudreau/English%20290/gender_criticism.htm>.
Parker, Christopher. Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature. Aldershot, Hants., England: Scolar, 1995. Print.