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In “Girl”, a woman’s domestic duties are the predominant representations of her societal and corporeal subjugation. The girl’s mother rattles off domestic tasks to represent instructions on how to be the “girl” idealized by the protagonist’s culture and society. The mother’s advice, “this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard” (Kincaid), is portrayed as stifling to a young, impressionable girl. In the girl’s society, seemingly every girl is destined to lose against the overwhelming cultural pressures that force her fate, including the protagonist. That theme is also woven through the specific regional foods addressed by the girl’s mother, with food becoming a vehicle to shackle the girl to the ideals of previous generations and shackle her to her future slaving away in a cult of domesticity.
From “salt fish” to “pumpkin fritters” (Kincaid), food is a representation of her mother’s domestic achievements that she wills her daughter to carry on through her own future family. As the girl presumably follows the path of her mother, the story illustrates the form the post-colonization bondage of girls takes in Caribbean culture. By highlighting cultural stereotypes of what women and girls should be, Kincaid shows this damage society brings to young girls through its imposition of strict domestic standards.
Another story, “Mack!”, largely uses humor to satirize the typical American sense of masculinity and to underscore the dark points of the protagonist’s hyper-genderized culture. As a whole, the unnamed narrator’s life represents one of the average traditional American family – nice house in the suburbs, dutiful wife who cares for the kids, gives the man some freedom and makes him dinner – a perfectly ordinary existence in our society. Thus, the occurrence of some of the more disturbing parts of the story – its perverse gender ideals, the violence propagated by the narrator, and his subsequent delusion – highlight the pervasive sense of misogyny engendered by the protagonist’s culture and surroundings.
The narrator cries out, “We’ve got to kill it!” (Winnette) after finding out his mistress is pregnant, before letting her speak, illustrating how corporeal autonomy ties into traditional ideals of masculinity in American culture. The protagonist’s bloody fight with his mistress’ boyfriend, in which he proclaims his sperm, “the United Postal Service of Pregnancy” (Winnette), also illustrates the gendered dichotomy of corporeal autonomy within the narrator’s culture – the men have the choice to brawl it out, but the woman does not get to choose whether to abort her baby. Sperm is seen as a symbol of this corporeal autonomy associated with men; through the narrator’s lense of toxic masculinity, men are the architects of life merely from their sperm while women are relegated to receiving objects of fertility, in addition to sexual and domestic objects.
The protagonist of “Mack!” has both a wife and a mistress in Dallas; he views the women in his life as two-dimensional tokens: one for family, one for fun. The narrator’s polarized views on gender also affect his own subconscious, as he battles emotional instability and insecurities after his girlfriend dumps him. Unable to confront his true feelings, the main character’s warped sense of masculinity creates emotional barriers to acceptance of his life; he cries in his car saying, “I pulled over somewhere and put on a sad song and cried for a little bit, but it hurt so goddamn much that I had to quit” (Winnette).
The narrator’s attitude in this scene is of deep contrast to the one cried out earlier in the story as he proclaimed the strength of his sperm and fought with another man over his mistress’ unborn child, proving the deep divisions between one’s true self and the contrived sense of self molded by society’s gender roles. While society sustains these expectations, through familial osmosis, the narrator’s young son grows up with the same sense of toxic masculinity that the narrator himself engenders; he tells his son, “boys get beat up” (Winnette 5), thus subversively teaching his son to associate masculinity with pain, both physical and emotional. The narrator’s words will his son away to the same hyper-masculine stereotypes that ironically plague his own psyche, thus perpetuating the cycle of toxic masculinity across generations, diffusing the mask of masculinity from fathers to their sons.
In summation, both the stories of “Girl” and “Mack!” demonstrate how pervasive and damaging gender stereotypes are to societies and the individuals that live within them. Themes of gender roles affecting corporeal autonomy and cultural identity pervade both these stories as well as our modern existence. Hopefully, by reading these stories, we can recognize the oppressive gender roles cast on us and eschew the traditional landscape of sexism existing across our culture, and throughout almost every era of history.
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