by Maddy Forbess
What defines a woman? Would you describe her by the length of her hair or the clothes she chooses to wear? Is it her biological sex or her sexual orientation? Does the color of her skin add nuance to womanhood, or are all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexualities included in this umbrella term: “woman”? For generations, literature has confined women to a limited role in novels. The white, male canon of American literature exemplifies the point that the female voice has been presented through the lens of male authorship. In the nineteenth century, male authors wrote female characters into their stories as either angels or madwomen. Their stereotypical personas limited their agency in novels. Women were either damsels in distress or insane, emotional women. The image of the madwomen furthered sexist attitudes in America, suppressing empowered females by restricting them to a life of domestic confinement.
A shift occurred as female authors began to broach new genres, delving into the world of love poetry and transforming certain aspects of the novel. While all of this took place in the broader context of a patriarchal system, female authors such as Charlotte Gilman in her “The Yellow Wall Paper,” worked to innovate and to push the boundaries of traditional gender norms. Jane, the main female character in her short story, adds whole new meaning to the conventional madwomen image. She is depicted as insane but a feminist reader holds that it is her husband—and, on in a greater sense, the patriarchy—that is responsible for her declines to insanity. Gilman plays with the dynamics between sexes, manipulating her own authorial power to expose misogynistic tendencies in cliché depictions of women. Her distinct, female perspective sheds light upon the sexism latent in male literature.
Lesbian poet Adrienne Rich is an example of the expansion of the Feminist movement to include other expressions of sexuality. Her poem “Recreation” transforms the reader’s perception of sexual identities, intimate relationships, and the function of romantic love beyond the purpose of procreation. Recreation can be taken to mean “for pleasure” but it can also mean the “re-construction” of a new type of love outside of America’s heteronormative culture. Rich’s intimate relationship with the topic of this this poem makes the intricacy of her lines all the more powerful. It is not always right to assume the author is the speaker of a poem, but I believe Rich’s individual identity factors heavily into her writing. Gender, sexuality, and outward expression of identity are all parts to a greater whole—the diversity of voices that makes up the Feminist movement.
Female authors continue to work within the established power structures of literary in order to make their voices heard. They must, in some sense, play into the patriarchal system so that their works will be published and well-read. Great literature has been determined by men for generations, but women have found loopholes. Perhaps a novel has a presumed male hero; but, upon deeper analysis, his portrayal is dripping in irony, thus flipping the connotation of his masculinity on its head. Maybe a movie like I, Tonya depicts Tonya as the typical female trope of the madwoman. She is more masculine than the other figure-skaters, an outcast, and an angry, emotional woman because of it. As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that the biases against powerful women who stray from the norm are the driving force behind her craziness. It is the unreasonable standards of beauty placed on figure-skaters and expectations of a certain social class that compel Tonya to her madwoman behaviors.
Examples such as these modern-day pieces of art force us to look inward, as a society. What can we do to further break down the gender barriers faced by women in the professional sphere? Female authors work to counteract the sexist literary history of our country’ s past. The film industry shows its commitment to advocating for sexual and gender equality through the production of socio-political movies. The expanding nature of the Feminist movement reflects how the word “woman” has come to represent something all-encompassing. The word “woman” only demands more respect and carries more weight as it branches out to include more demographics.