Masculinity And Feminism In The Woman Warrior

Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) came only a few years after Small Changes, and yet the context of masculinity is much more hidden. The novel consists of five stories from Kingston’s family, Chinese myth, and Kingston’s own story. The opening chapter of the novel, much like small changes, is the first glimpse of the negative reflection of masculinity reader see. It is the story of Kingston’s dead aunt, or the ‘no name woman’, and how she brought shame to her family and ultimately was erased from the family history. This is where toxic masculinity is prevalent, as the reader learn of the men in the village trying to attain her aunt’s virtue, with one man eventually raping her and threatening “If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here again next week.” Once the men of the family leave the women behind to seek work, the village discovers her adulterous ways thanks to the very man who raped her, and as punishment the village murders the family livestock and desecrates the family home. Masculine authority and toxic masculinity are prevalent throughout the opening story, as it is clear that this unnamed man is using his authority as a man to overpower the no name woman in both a physical and mental form. Not only does this story show the toxic masculinity of a non-western culture, but the brutality of gender oppression in a patriarchal society. Once the no name woman fails her female duty to meet the demands of this male dominated society, which is to “guard her reproductive powers for the service of her husbands’ male line,” she becomes nothing but a stain to her family name. The disgrace the no name woman felt due to the oppressive nature of a testosterone fuelled society leads her to drown herself and her newborn daughter in the families well. Kingston’s mother only tells her the story of the no name woman as a warning to not disgrace her family due to her menstruation cycle starting. It is clear Kingston’s mother only told her daughter this story as a warning rather than a piece of family history, however Kingston purposely publishes her family history in The Woman Warrior as an act of political resistance against the toxic Chinese patriarchal system. Christine A. James describes Kingston’s rebellion of the masculine rule of her family history as a redefinition of privilege in favour of feminism (James). Whilst this rebellion of historical patriarchy shows Kingston’s commitment to feminist ideology, it also shows a bias towards the representation of men and masculinity from the beginning of the novel.

Roughly 30 years after the publication of Small Changes and The Woman Warrior, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) made its way into the conversation of gender roles. Whilst Small Changes discusses the role of women’s independence and sexuality and The Woman Warrior discusses the rebellion of patriarchal structure, We Need to Talk About Kevin (to be referred to as Kevin) focus’ around the role of parents with particular emphasis on motherhood. The protagonist Eva attempts to find her place in her family, with a husband who doesn’t listen to her and a son whom she feels she cannot connect too. Although Eva’s husband can be argued to representative of femininity and Eva that of masculinity, Franklin’s treatment of Eva and parenting of Kevin shows that he too is a male character written in a way to make the reader dislike them. Franklin is a product of ‘traditional’ masculinity, which Connell defines as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women”. This is shown throughout the novel as Franklin degrades Eva for not being able to connect emotionally with Kevin nor his concern for his unusual behaviour. Eva notes “In fact, Franklin's biggest strength is diminishing everything Eva says, or completely ignoring Kevin's numerous warning signs”. By having Franklin as a ‘traditionally’ masculine man, Shriver opens the character up to criticism as his disregard for his wife’s feelings and favouring of his son is the driving point of their failing marriage. Franklins parenting style reflects ‘traditional’ masculinity, as he brushes off Kevin’s unusual behaviour as ‘boys being boys’ and tells his daughter that all boys pull little girls pigtails. He therefore becomes an unlikeable character, as his trait of masculinity acts as a shroud for Kevin’s behaviour and his wife’s concern, and ultimately can be blamed for his demise.

Kevin on the other hand is the representation of ‘toxic’ masculinity within the novel. As the antagonist of a feminist novel, it is already obvious that he will be an unlikeable character, and Shriver makes this clear by using toxic masculinity. Referring back to Elliot’s definition of toxic masculinity, Kevin displays this trait be humiliating, degrading, and asserting dominance over his mother Eva. One specific scene in the book that cultivates this toxic trait is when Kevin purposely leaves the bathroom door open so that Eva will see him masturbating and “though most males conduct this exercise with their eyes closed, Kevin has his cracked open, the better to shoot his mother a sly, sleepy glance over the shoulder”. This act shows Kevin asserting his dominance over Eva as this reflects his sexually driven nature and need for dominance over the matriarch of the household. Kevin also reflects the violent nature of toxic masculinity from hurling bricks at cars to causing his younger sister to lose an eye, to ultimately committing a school massacre. The readers are already uneasy about Kevin from Eva’s letters; however, these acts firmly cement him as a villainous character.

The different strains of masculinity represented in Kevin showcase that despite not necessarily being toxic, masculinity is still seen as the trait of an antagonistic male. Franklin represents the traditional trait of masculinity, established by the patriarchal thinking of history and entrapping the majority of males represented in feminist novels. Kevin represents a modern definition of masculinity, that houses violence and the degradation of women as its main traits. Despite the 30-year difference within the publication of Small Changes and Kevin, it can be clearly seen that the negative representation of men and masculinity is a recurring theme throughout feminist novels. Whilst Kevin opens discussions for much more than just masculinity, it is clearly a driving point for the characters and ultimately a contributor to the morbid climax of the novel.

The question that therefore arises from the analysis of Marge Piercy’s Small Changes, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Lionel Shriver’s Kevin is do all feminist novels represent men and masculinity in a negative light? It can be argued that these novels are simply making a comment on the ongoing pressure on men to achieve masculinity through traits such as devoid of emotional vulnerability, physical strength and sexual prowess (Richardson). This leads to men feeling that they have a ‘right’ to the female body and an apparent superiority over them as that is how masculinity has been represented throughout history. However, there have been many criticisms on feminist novels for portraying men as villains in the fight for feminism. Karen Hornick states that even the best of feminist authors cannot help their bias towards women and are writing the intractable truth of the fight against the patriarchy. Therefore, it could be said that feminist novelist do not intentionally portray all men and masculinity as a negative part of the fight for feminism, but they are only writing characters with masculine traits that have stood the test of time despite movements such as feminism and the fight for men’s mental health. It could also be said that by publishing the book under the feminist genre, that the author is opening themselves up to criticism for their negative depiction of men and masculinity. Novels that are published as women’s fiction, whilst the genre itself goes against feminist ideology, do not open themselves to criticism for their representation of male characters as they do not align themselves with any particular movement or group (Flood). As feminist novels do align themselves with feminism, their depictions of men and masculinity make it appear as though men are purposely being shown as villains in the fight for feminism due to the history of fighting against the patriarchy.

Feminist novels were initially created to give feminism another voice in order to express feminist ideologies to a wider audience. With this comes the preconceived and stereotypical representations of men and masculinity that have existed for thousands of years. While feminist novelist may only be attempting to make political comments on the patriarchy and the oppression of women, because they are linked to the feminist movement it creates a negative connection of how men are seen within feminist ideology. As such, men and masculinity, including both traditional and toxic, are negatively represented within feminist novels and constructed as a hinderance on women and feminism. 

16 August 2021
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