Let’s face it. Society is chock full of subtle, and not-so-subtle, demands to conform to the “norm”, and going with the flow is a big part of life. Ideas of conformity are beaten into us as soon as we’re able to comprehend the world we live in. A large piece of the conformity pie deals with the role of the woman, and how she should look and act. A good pair of literary works that illustrate the conflict which I assume that all women encounter are “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston and “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy.
I say that I assume because, being male myself, I really have no idea what the female gender is all about. However, I’ll see what I can do. When viewing the two works together, one realizes that although the price for rejecting cultural norms can be shame, torture, and even death, fully embracing the ideals is often a worse alternative. “No Name Woman” is an excellent example of the possible horrors awaiting those who won’t fit the mold. The story is set in the culture of China in the early 1900s. The female role in this culture bears strong similarities to that of a slave.
Women were essentially not supposed to have their own opinions, thoughts, or wants. Their main goal in life was to marry a prosperous man and serve him. They went to great pains making themselves look perfect, hoping to attract a wealthy male much like male bird’s bright colors do the opposite. To have a child out of wedlock was an unforgivable sin, and with it came a hefty price. In the story which Kingston’s mother told her, Kingston’s aunt violated the social norms of the culture and suffered grave consequences.
Barbie Doll” shows the opposite end of the spectrum concerning choices made when confronted with an unfavored social norm. The poem was written in 1970s America, when the roles of women had begun to change drastically. Women’s Lib and the sexual revolution all both come into play in this work. The poem boils down to a sarcastic attack on the image of the ideal woman, which the media showed America and the feminists fought to destroy. Women were meant to be thin, have fair skin and hair, to cook, clean and sew according to society, and they were definitely not supposed to have an opinion or a sense of independence.
In short, women were simply considered to be of less substance than men. Although the two works are from different eras, each with their own separate histories, languages, customs, and mentality, their attitudes toward women, and what was expected of them, is strikingly similar. At the simplest level, women of both cultures were inferior to men. This is expressed in “No Name Woman” by the fact that the adulturing male was free from blame by the village. Not only that, but he also “joined the raid on her [the aunt’s] family” when it came to be known that she was with child.
Ironically, the same cultural values that destroyed the young girl’s life had forced her to commit the heinous crime. “My aunt could not have been the lone romantic who gave up everything for sex,” Kingston explains, “Women in old China did not choose. Some man commanded her to lie with him and be his secret evil. ” Another illustration in “No Name Woman” of the cultural preference of males over females is a line concerning why the aunt decided to kill herself and her child. “It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.
Lan Hung addresses this line in the book Translating Cultures. “Kingston’s addition of this line is not without meaning. It illustrates a peculiarity common to virtually every civilization’s history: the favor of male infants to female. This act is cradled in the structure of the patriarchal society itself, where the husband’s surname is kept after marriage. A result of this is the favoring of male children, who will carry the surname a further generation” (Hung 78). This apparent goal of an ancient surname is found in societies all over the globe and all through time.
The only exceptions are, of course, Matriarchal societies. A second sociological attribute found in both works is the “perfect mate” ideal. Most likely originating in the primeval instinct to choose a healthy mate to propagate with and have likewise healthy offspring. This instinct still resides deep in our subconscious. Women attempt to beautify themselves to attract a mate, who would be looking for a “healthy” partner. Both pieces demonstrate this ideal very effectively. Kingston explains it more directly as the narrator’s mother tells her of the rigors of beauty in China.
Children’s hair and eyebrows were plucked, their feet bound, and their freckles gouged out. Granted, this is a more extreme example of the “perfect mate” ideal, but it is nonetheless evidence of it. The second work, “Barbie Doll”, not only describes the American “perfect mate” ideal, it is based on the ideal. The entire work is an open act of defiance to the ideal. “The poem shatters the ideal woman via a woman who openly embraces it. This change of perspective subtly hints at the enormity of the problem, much in the same style of Jenkins’ ‘Chambre’.
The woman in the poem is an example of the zombielike attitude some women have in this concern” (Ridgecrest 2). Ridgecrest brings up an interesting point, which not coincidentally is my thesis for this paper. To uppercut your culture, bobbing and weaving from it’s norms, can result in a shameful, crushing destruction of one’s self much like Kingston’s aunt in “No Name Woman”. The aunt’s farm animals were killed, her house broken, her family terrorized, and her existence forgotten; all because she deviated from the social norms of her culture, old China. This was a terrible, painful price to pay, yes.
However, what lies at the other end of the spectrum is a morally worse fate. Complete and total acceptance and submission to a culture’s rules is the basis for Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”, which illustrates the horror of sacrificing one’s individuality in order to belong. Total assimilation into a group and it’s version of “perfection” is to erase your self and become one of many. This choice, this action, however easier and less painful, is a far worse fate than being judged and sentenced for expressing individuality. Our uniqueness, our rarity, this is what makes us human. This is what gives us a soul.