Girls and Dolls – Gender and writing by Emily Oldfield

Considering the recent flurry of talk over ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the reverse of feminism and the ever recurring question of ‘has equality been achieved?’ it is through literature and writing I aim to explore my own situation. This is not an attack on males or females, as after all, an attack on sex is obviously not the way to equality – this is a critique of society. And, importantly, this is a critique explored by a number of writers, for example by Angela Carter through the form of the fairy-tale.

It is ever-recurring comment to women that they look attractive when ‘dolled up’, objectified by this awful cliché, as Ibsen observes in his play ‘A Doll’s House’, the woman almost infantile in marriage is regarded as ‘pretty as a picture’ and ‘a little doll’.

Perhaps it is a more pleasant case, and not a simple dropped cliché, that the material we read can actively enrich our lives, rather than perceived aesthetic appearance. On reading Ibsen’s ‘A dolls’ house’ in which the female character Nora realizes that all her life, she has been simply acting as a decoration for the Hemler household and even compares herself to a doll, an object of play and viewed trivially therefore by both her father and her husband.  I felt not only angered at Nora’s position, but almost sickened by the colloquialisms ‘My little skylark’ for example, used to refer to her by men. Note the use of the possessive adjective ‘My’ and adjective ‘little’ seemingly emphasize the position of this woman as child-like, infantile.

Yet some may confront me, as myself – after all, I am seventeen, therefore surely I am unable to comment upon the position of ‘woman’, and therefore should simply sit back. This view itself I believe illuminates a major problem in current society – the Implication of ‘Woman’ I believe, clearly requires re-consideration. Somehow, it is viewed that on her eighteenth birthday, the female suddenly sprouts into ‘woman’ – yet there is no distinct biological change which accompanies this at a single time.

 Of course, the attribution of ‘woman’ at eighteen, even though it still persists, is clearly ridiculous. At this point it is worth considering Simone De Beauvoir’s comment ‘One is not born, but one becomes woman’ and hence, amongst this ambiguity, I believe it is necessary, as Ibsen demonstrated in ‘A Doll’s House’ to examine the female position, rather than assign such to terms often imposed to limit such as ‘woman’. Some may argue that the female position has become much more positive as time has progressed, yet that eighteen still continues to be a term of limit to when one becomes ‘woman’ I believe demonstrates that females are still subject to the pejorative and a number of limits in society, expectation of ‘woman’, with its frequent sexual connotations, just being one.  It is also important to note that there is also much ideology generated in terms of the expected role of the male, at eighteen years of age.

Perhaps it is the case that eighteen is viewed as a definitive age as a number of legalities emerge for both sexes – for example the ability to drink alcohol legally – yet the implication for the female is perhaps more serious, with more expectations imposed which perhaps makes up ‘woman’ – the socially repressed female. For example eighteen is the age at which a female can marry without parental consent, hence often subject to social manipulation of expectation. This ‘repressed female’ is also perhaps more evident at eighteen in that prostitution becomes legal, the apparent ‘legality’ for the woman to sell herself and her body, as is seen in many novels, for example ‘East of Eden’ by John Steinbeck. where ‘whorehouses’, or ‘flophouses’ appear a popular retreat.

Yet this selling of the female body begins much earlier, hence I believe why I am appropriately able to comment upon the subject. This begins early in childhood, where it is often expected that female children will play with dolls for example – this in itself enforcing a form of patriarchy in which the female is confusingly both object and subject from an early age. But what harm is this, and why does it involve the older female? Not only does this expectation of female behaviour imply expectation for her future, but also in cradling and caressing the doll, which is common of young females to their dolls, this in turn reflects the behaviour the female often wants to be given to herself. In turn this creates her perception of self as a sort of doll – as implied by the character of Nora in ‘A Doll’s house’, first to the father, then to other men.  The observation of the female child with doll is fascinating – for example the child will often allow the doll, under their control, to embark of various extreme pursuits – scaling walls, rolling through mud. What I believe can be observed is a prominent parallelism here – like the young female becomes subject to often harsh social expectations, the doll becomes subject to the girls expectations she often cannot actualise in herself in society. It is seemingly a commodity for the young female to have a toy embodying a doctor role for example, yet fewer females are considered for doctorates now than ten years ago.

It is not just the ‘doll’ that seems an apparent form through which the female can be sold in childhood and this is revealed through Angela Carter’s collection of short stories ‘The Bloody Chamber’ loosely based on fairy tales – as ‘the fairy tale’ form is perhaps a key example of the pejorative treatment of women, for example ‘the damsel in distress’.

Yet the plight of the doll for the female position is also widely echoed in writing, for example in Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘The applicant’, the sneering tone of ‘’A living doll, everywhere you look/it can sew, it can cook/it can talk, talk ,talk’’ the mocking repetition implying the possible stagnation of the female position. What is most illuminating about ‘The applicant’ is the perspective of voice, apparently addressing a woman who is seemingly attempting to try for a place in what appears to be a patriarchal society. This is an intense external metaphor and the poem opens with ‘’First, are you our sort of person?’’ implying that an extent of ideology is applied to gender and this remains much the case today. This is emphasized through the line ‘Black and stiff, but not a bad fit’’ which for myself conjures imagery of conforming to capitalism, which perhaps like the ‘suit’ – an apt metaphor – is just as limiting to women, enforcing them to ‘uniform’, like the form of a doll.  I want equality for both sexes – for women to be released from stereotype and pejorative treatment just as I want men to be released from the stereotypical expectation that emotion should be repressed etc. Gender is a largely social construction I believe, though we are born with a biological sex – society in turn manufactures expectations of it. This is implied as highly limiting, not only in the work of Ibsen but of Plath also.

However, separate from poetry and plays and the theoretical work of Simone De Beauvoir, I believe that it is the work of Angela Carter, for example in terms of the ‘Bloody Chamber’ which encouraged my wider consideration of the female condition to such a level. Angela Carter was an English novelist and journalist, known for the use of feminist themes within her work as a well as a style of ‘magical realism’, where magical aspects merge with the real World, often resulting in a kind of aesthetic pleasure. It could be considered that the ‘Bloody Chamber’ as a collection of short stories in itself is one whole metaphor of female changing identity and self-realisation, and hence, the stories become new representations in themselves – they do remain as ‘fairy tales’ just as Carter intended for the role of women not to remain in stagnation.

Carter appeared to have a highly poetic and abstract imagination as is revealed through her writing and this perhaps allowed her to tackle and explore the implication of women escaping their social constructs, not necessarily by relying on man. This is beautifully implied in the short story “The Tiger’s Bride”, where Beauty is transformed by Beast, and explored is the irony of the cliché ‘beauty is only skin deep’ – in which the tiger licks off the female skin to reveal the beautiful animal underneath. This is perhaps a representation of the inner-power of the female, whilst in the male-personified tiger, this is already socially evident. The revelation of animal beauty is luxuriously described as “each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs’’ implying the creature of woman, the female, becoming exposed, with ‘shiny’ connoting something potentially precious, but not crushed and spoiled with social material value.

But where is the relevance, you may ask? As a student, the study of these texts has significantly shaped my outlook on society and the treatment of gender roles. I experienced the initial shock of seeing the base content of my childhood stories threaded with sex and violence in the ‘Bloody Chamber’, observed the plights of the single woman in the work of Plath and admired the attempt Ibsen had made to illuminate the situation of women in marriage in ‘A Doll’s House’ – and I believe that through experience of these texts, some of my previous ignorance has been broken. I have realised that it is important for men to be considered also, with Carter displaying broken male characters in the form of ‘the beast’ for example. With ‘The Bloody Chamber’ on the sixth-form syllabus also, I am very pleased in terms of what appears to be the wider consideration of gender issues in schools and it is without doubt that both sexes can learn more about their own position through these illuminating texts. Once this is the case, perhaps then we can truly move on and still continue to document continuing change towards equality, through writing.

Are there any books or pieces of writing which shaped your perception of gender and equality? Do you think that gender should be an area of key concern in writing? Comments would be very much appreciated, thank you.

2 Responses to “Girls and Dolls – Gender and writing by Emily Oldfield”

  1. John D Rutter says:

    On this subject I suggest you read Faye Weldon’s very funny novel, Affliction, and Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion. They each say a lot about female roles.

    I am curious as to whether Fifty Shades of Grey would have sold three million copies had a man written it. I wonder whether the literary criticism of it would have been more blunt. Could men buy this kind of literature in these numbers and take their copy to work without being sneered at? And is the position different to that of one or two generations ago?

  2. Keynesians_rock says:

    ‘Continuing change towards equality’ – What exactly do you mean by equality? Who determines when this point is reached and how? Calls for ‘fairness’/'equality’ always merges into hollow rhetoric.

    Nonetheless like the point about not blaming one sex or the other as a guard of disparity or norms. Basic but needs to be said.

Leave a Reply