“Boys will be boys” is a clich often used when males exemplify the traits of wild, abandoned exploration, or use poor judgment in situations due to a desire to fulfill self. These traits, however, are seen as great downfalls and serious cause for concern should females display the same characteristics. Willa Cather beautifully portrays characters that defy stereotypical gender roles in her novel, My Antonia. Not only do the main characters, Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerdas, not conform to traditional gender roles, but neither do many of the lesser characters presented in the novel.
The relevance of these non-stereotypical gender rolls becomes apparent in the unfolding of characters through Jim Burden’s narration. This novel fully explores the changes in young women, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, towards traditional roles. Women of this time period desire to make their own choices in life, rather than submit to society’s dictated rules. Antonia Shimerdas is a curious mixture of both male and female gender traits. She is an anxious young girl, seeking knowledge of any kind, when she comes to live in America.
She is “always ready to forget [her] troubles at home and run away with [Jim] over the prairie” (54) looking for excitement and fun. She takes on decidedly male characteristics after her father’s death to the point she even brags about “how much ploughing she [has] done that day. ” (118) Antonia is a strong, practical young woman with few illusions concerning life, yet she is able to reconcile her disillusionment within herself to create a peaceful, happy home for her children.
Her hard work, strong values, and sincere concern for others allow forgiveness of her masculine superiority at home. She is courageous and stubborn in fulfilling her own personal desires, as are many men, yet she is able to ascertain which moments or periods of her life require the female gender roles and behaves accordingly. Antonia depicts a realist’s view of life, and continually strives to propagate success for her family as a whole. Jim Burden is portrayed as a total romantic. He seems to see life through rose-colored glasses.
He is raised by a certain code of which he is too weak to break out from under. Jim behaves exactly as expected by his family, which is usually the behavior of females of the time period. Jim does not undertake daring adventures or risky situations. He is content to view the world as an audience member. His relationships with those around him are never pushed to any extremes as he “…[sits] at home with the old people in the evenings …” (193) following the expectations of his grandparents. Jim is forever watchful of those he loves.
His desire to see his friends’ and family’s expectations of him met outweighs his desires for himself. Jim is totally content with memories of friends, as the memories continue the illusions that would otherwise be shattered should he see old friends as they age. This denial of the real world is generally a female trait of the time. Jim’s refusal to visit Antonia during visits out West allows his purely romantic adoration and love to endure the test of time as he “did not want to find her aged and broken. (259)
His realization that she retained “the full vigor of her personality…” (262) during his first visit led him to the final conclusion that they “possessed together the precious, incommunicable past. ” (286) Jim never completely loses his romantic notions and gentle, effeminate ways even though his life does not become what he expected it to be. Other characters in this novel also reject traditional gender roles. Tiny and Lena neither succumb to societies ideas of female roles, nor do they have any desire to endure families of their own.
Their close relationship in later life gives each of them areas in which to fill voids in the other’s life. Both have made their own way, on their own terms, in a male dominated world. Tiny has found, within herself, a surprising aptitude for figures and money, which she uses to hers and Lena’s benefit. During this time period, such an aptitude is considered a male trait, as is Lena’s business sense. Neither woman requires that security provided by a husband, as they have learned to be secure in themselves. Francis Harling also displays male traits in business while working for her father.
Her father’s admiration of her is shown by the frequent discussion of transactions with her for her point of view. We do not know if Francis keeps command of these traits. She desires the wife and mother role as Antonia has chosen, and no further information is given. The characters of this novel are multifaceted, yet greatly affected by their inner, singular basic personality. While these personalities are often the result of circumstance, each character makes conscious choices to continue in their nonconformity.
Should Antonia behave femininely from the start, Jim would not admire her as he does. Jim admires in Antonia what he himself does not possess. Her will to live her life the way she sees fit, and her ability to make a hard life enjoyable, thoroughly amazes Jim. Jim never attains an ability to doggedly pursue his dreams as Antonia does. This fundamental difference is the most important reversal of gender roles in the novel. Without women such as Antonia, Tiny and Lena, women might very well still be bound strictly to the home and family.
These types of women have helped open the doorway for great advances in the societal expectations of women. Likewise, without men such as Jim Burden, men’s roles in society might also be only work attitudes. The exchange of traditional gender roles has greatly influenced society, allowing more universal expectations in roles of people without regard to gender. This new equality is allowing mankind as a whole to progress in leaps and bounds, which shall, hopefully, one day have global support for a future free from discrimination, accusation, and shame.