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“The term gender is commonly used to refer to the psychological, cultural, and social characteristics that distinguish the sexes” . From the idea of gender such notions as gender bias and stereotyping have developed. Stereotypes have lead society to believe that a male or female should appear, act, or in more philosophical terms, be a certain way. What these gender stereotypes are and, whether or not they really exist, will be discussed further so that they can be examined in reference to the plays Mother Courage and Her Children and M. Butterfly. In Mother Courage and Her Children “motherhood”, and what it should be, is challenged as a result of the actions and qualities of the character Mother Courage. M. Butterfly gives us a great depiction of a stereotypical male, and uses the female stereotype against him. Both of these plays invert, modify, and even glorify the gender stereotypes.
Society has females and males alike type casted into roles which have basic characteristics that are the reverse of each other. Although this has begun to change over the past thirty years, typically the man was seen as superior to the female. This superior image is one that today, is slowly on its way to being reduced to one of complete equality between the two genders.
Before the feminist revolution began, the female was traditionally in charge of taking care of the children and household. Her image in life was that of the wife, mother, and nurturing person. Some of the traits that were thought to be uniquely feminine were; ” emotional, sensitive, gentle, quiet, nurturing, interested in personal appearance and beauty, focused upon home and family ” . Generally the image of the woman was quiet, submissive, and dedicated towards the well-being of her family.
“The stereotypical role for women is to focus their lives on marriage, home and children. They rely on men for sustenance and status. The expectancy is that women will engage in nurturing and life preserving activities through childbearing and caretaking behaviors. Additionally, there is also emphasis on personal appearance and prohibition on direct expression of aggression, assertion, and striving for power.”
The stereotypical male image was the complete opposite to that of the female one. Men were seen as the leaders of the household, the money-makers, and rational thinkers. Their characteristics were seen as; ” aggressive, unemotional, objective, dominant, competitive, logical/rational, decisive, assertive, analytical, strong, sexual, physical, successful. . .” . Men were the protectors of their families and were responsible for providing the strength which the family would need to survive. They did not like to have their judgement questioned or be instructed how to act.
“The stereotypical role for men includes emphasizing physical strength and achievement, restricting emotions (except anger), avoiding emotional intimacy with same-sex peers, and providing sustenance and protection for women and children.”
These ideals for what men and women should be certainly left men with more power and women with a responsibility to keep out of the way. As it was briefly touched upon earlier, the plays Mother Courage and Her Children and M. Butterfly reverse or glorify these stereotypes that have been attributed to the two genders.
The character of Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children has personality traits that are far from those stereotypically defined as feminine. In fact, if her characteristics and actions are examined closely, she seems to have assumed those of a male. She tries to help her children survive the thirty years war. While looking after them is typically a female quality and responsibility, doing so by running a small business and welcoming a war rather than running from it, is much more masculine. She received the name Courage, after driving her cart of bread straight through the middle of a military bombardment because she was broke and her bread was going moldy. This is hardly the action of someone who isn’t supposed to be assertive or strive for power. Women aren’t supposed to be responsible for generating money for the family to survive on, but Courage did so ruthlessly. At one point she was so pre-occupied with trying to save money that one of her sons, Swiss Cheese, ends up being executed because she tried to bargain with his captors. Even then, his death doesn’t bring out any feminine emotion in her; she just keeps on pushing, trying to survive. At the end of the play, when the last of her children are dead, Courage still keeps on going. She picks up her cart without a second thought and moves on by herself. Whereas conversely, the typical woman would be drowned in emotion, Mother Courage’s reaction is that of a stereotypical male.
Mother Courage is a character who very matter-of-factly makes a statement. Women are capable of achieving exactly that which men do. Women and war are images not traditionally related. Perhaps, if any relation can be drawn during a war, it is that women are waiting for their men to come home from defending their honour. Mother Courage shows us that if a woman is put in such a situation of conflict and disparity she too can survive; although by doing so she takes on those ideal masculine qualities. These qualities are displayed throughout the entire play, and the only time we see the true feminine motherliness in Courage is when a recruiter tries to get her boys to enlist. She immediately tries to convince him that he ought to ignore them. Her boys aren’t up for trade. This motherly protectiveness is supposedly typical of women. As quoted from Cook, “. . .women will engage in nurturing and life preserving activities. . .” . However we quickly see Mother Courage revert to her male characteristics as the recruiter decides to keep pressing the issue of her sons enlistment. She suddenly pulls a knife on the man and says: “Go on, you kidnap him, just try. I’ll slit you open, trash” . Protectiveness is one thing, but sheer aggression is categorized as a male trait. Mother Courage is a physical force to be reckoned with and that force is not a quality indicative of a stereotypical woman.
M. Butterfly depicts a man, Gallimard, as a possessor of completely typical, ideal masculine qualities. He is the male stereotype. In this play the female stereotype is what destroys him. The girl Gallimard meets and falls in love with, Song, portrays the ideal female so perfectly that Gallimard can’t fathom the idea, or at the very least deny that she could be a spy; let alone a male actor.
The male actor knows exactly how to get Gallimard to pursue Song. He creates a girl who is so fragile that Gallimard immediately finds a desire to protect her in his arms. Song starts to draw Gallimard in when she calls him at 5:30 in the morning and tells him “I waited until I saw the sun. That was as much discipline as I could manage for one night. Do you forgive me?” (Hwang 1.9.76-77) She is appealing to Gallimard’s sexual and dominant characteristics because the stereotypical man enjoys the idea of a woman who is desperate for his attention. Song plays on Gallimard’s need for dominance, and puts him on a pedestal. She acts quiet, and frightened. She even tells him that she has never invited a man into her flat before – which spurns Gallimard’s interest as to whether or not she’s even been with a man before. His dominant and competitive traits make him want to be her first sexual partner. The male actor has achieved exactly what he wants with Song when Gallimard states that he thinks she feels inferior to him (1.10.90).
Gallimard stops calling and seeing Song as he wants to make her even more desperate for him. The male actor, Song, plays right along and after six weeks begins to write a series of letters which finally end with telling Gallimard that she has given him her shame – what else could he want? Gallimard’s stereotypical male reaction is a feeling of power from the process of ignoring her. ” I stopped going to the opera, I didn’t phone or write her. I knew this little flower was waiting for me to call, and, as I wickedly refused to do so, I felt for the first time that rush of power that absolute power of a man” . Never does Gallimard find this a little too simple, or his Song too perfect. In fact her perfection encourages him to brag that he found the perfect woman . Of course his perfect woman turns out to be a cross-dressing, male, Chinese informant.
The illusions are destroyed and Gallimard’s dream shattered when he learns the truth about Song, and consequently the mythical existence of “the perfect woman”. Instead he only realizes the reality of the stereotypical male qualities he possesses. Near the end of the play when Gallimard laughingly points out that he finds humor in the amount of time he wasted on “. . .just a man” it’s really quite ironic that his attitude for the entire play could have been summed up as “just a girl.” He obviously didn’t find her to be a challenge, he openly decided that she was inferior to him. It would have been much more logical for him to shake the actor’s hand out of masculine respect when the truth was revealed.
Mother Courage and Her Children inverts the stereotypical female ideal and gives the character Mother Courage glorified male characteristics. This play creates a glimpse of gender equality. Mother Courage is capable of exactly that which men are. She becomes even more powerful than the typical man by retaining that motherly quality of looking out for the children and by doing so in an aggressive, masculine manner. So aggressive that she ends up losing her offsprings. Mother Courage and Her Children raises the question: “what would happen if both genders possessed male stereotypical traits?”
The male stereotype, Gallimard, is destroyed by the idea of the”Perfect Woman” (1.3.5) in M. Butterfly. The play shatters the illusion of the female ideal. The character Gallimard discovers that it doesn’t really exist. However, the stereotypical male all too real. It is glorified to its absolute extremes in this play.
The one conclusion that can be drawn between these two plays and gender stereotypes, is that stereotypical masculine characteristics are quite genuine. Conversely, those qualities that create the female ideal, are merely a figment of male perceptions.
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