The gender distinction and stereotypes are subconsciously nurtured into our perception of the world since childhood. The “Girl” is a short story written by Jamaica Kincaid that interprets the societal prospects regarding what a girl child advancing into womanhood should be. The protagonists of the story are both female characters, a mother and her daughter reaching the adolescent. The poem is based on the guidance the mother gives to a young girl about the deeply rooted discriminatory standards of female behavior with men. According to the cultural constructs of the time, the story was written, a girl must be subjective to men and must fend for a man’s upkeep, including her father’s. With that said, Kincaid conveys the principles of female mannerisms, values, and uprightness in the context of gender bias, feminist perspective, and women’s role defined by the society in which she lives.
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Summary of the Story: Personal Reflection
Kincaid’s story provides valuable insights concerning gender stereotypes and the relative freedom it can be perceived within modern society. In “Girl,” a mother gives a set of advice to her daughter on how she should behave like a woman or rather perform the role of a woman as commonly seen by society at that time. More specifically, a mother wants her daughter to learn the widely recognized aspects of the etiquette and mannerisms about being a lady, how to behave, and generally maintain home comfort and a man’s wellbeing. However, at some point, her mother’s guidance seems terrifying and ambiguous in words “…This is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child” (Kincaid 321). This topic appears highly disturbing when teaching a young girl the moral and behavioral standards at this age and specifically at such times. Furthermore, a mother continuously mentions how disgraceful it is to become a woman of easy virtue that, in her opinion, her daughter desperately wants to become.
Considering the representation of men, the author presents them as lacking personal values, which might require some control or being careful with. Moreover, Kincaid creates a demeaning picture by suppressing the role of a girl as a future woman below any men she meets in her life. She also connotes an adverse impact on a girl regarding her behavior among men. Most importantly, her mother is vigorously biased against any possibility of gender equality concerning the life and maturing of the young girl. This can be traced to when she reminds her daughter that she is not a boy, so she is not allowed to squat down to play marbles. By emphasizing gender privileges and inequality, Kincaid’s story can be considered an example of educating gender stereotypes and limiting the girl’s freedom from the very early years of life. Therefore, the “Girl” can be examined through the lens of the feminist critical theory to adapt its main idea within a framework of modern and open-minded culture.
Annotations on the Story
The basic concept of the story is built upon the relationship between the men and women within the societal norms at that time. The story concerns one of the critical tenets of feminist theory: sex and gender roles. The mother’s instructions restate and reinforce the norms and obligations forced by society upon women, to a significant degree focusing on being subservient to men, who are described as patriarchs in the story. The mother in the story gives eight instructions explicitly mentioning men or boys, and none mentioning women (Kincaid 320-321). These concern doing or not doing things for men’s sake: “this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt [and] pants”, “…how to behave in the presence of men who you don’t know” (Kincaid 320-321). Finally, one of her last instructions is “…how you love a man, and if this doesn’t work … don’t feel too bad about giving up” (Kincaid 321). These quotes highlight the feminist views that women are marginalized and only recognized for their value to men; their role is, therefore, providing this value.
Most of the mother’s instructions in this story are related to two broad stereotypes of a woman in a patriarchal society: the angel and the whore. She condemns her daughter for being “bent on becoming [a slut]” (Kincaid 320). However, this condemnation seems to be the response to the girl displaying any kind of individuality or agency in her actions. There is, the author suggests, only one correct way for a woman to be in society: the virginal, gentle, weak homemaker figure, the angel. A significant portion of the mother’s advice concern one’s appearance and social behavior: “walk like a lady”, “you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys”, “this is how you smile” (Kincaid 320). All of these instructions are unified by the theme of maintaining a virginal, lady-like, wholly dependent impression. The maternal side of the stereotype is obvious in the instructions, as well: “This is how you sew”, “…how you sweep”, “…how you set a table” (Kincaid 320-321). Throughout the story, a picture is painted of an ideal woman, according to the patriarchal society: weak, dependent, subservient; any agency or individuality that does not conform to this picture is condemned.
Not only does this narrative expose the sexist norms that place men as a higher class of people, but it also shows how limited the agency of women should be in this patriarchal society. In general, the story demonstrates the limited and strongly restricted control over the life of the young girl, which is defined in advance, rather than her mother’s guidance and life lessons. She is ordered to live her life and be subservient to men, as well as taught the ways to please them. Furthermore, the story shows how ingrained these norms are since it is a mother teaching them to her daughter, perpetuating them seemingly on her own volition.
Feminist Critical Theory
The advice that a girl’s mother gives genuinely relates to the mature issues that are difficult to comprehend for a young daughter. Some of it can be construed as generally benevolent guidance on housekeeping and practical skills: cleaning, cooking, sewing. However, it is not the inclusion of these topics, but the exclusion or condemnation of others that put them in a feminist perspective. Once again, the future woman’s role is defined solely by doing things that men do not, placing her as the other.
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The history of feminism and the struggle for equality covers a long and challenging period that still occurs in many parts of the patriarchal world. The current reader undoubtedly questions how this piece of literature “undermine[s] the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women in terms of feminist criticism” (Tyson 83). The core principle of feminist theory implies that women are oppressed by patriarchy in “economic, political, social, and psychological terms,” which means that patriarchal ideology is the primary source by which women are affected (Tyson 83). In addition, a woman is automatically perceived as different within any domain with the patriarchy reigning. Western civilization is considered the most impacted by the leading patriarchal ideology.
However, the fundamental idea of the feminist theory lies in the fact that although our sex is defined by biology, the culture in which one grows up determines the gender and, thus, our roles. Jamaica Kincaid’s literary oeuvre is focused on the difficulties that teenage girls have to deal with during the process of growing up. Moreover, all the characters of her stories originate from her personal life experiences, specifically with her mother. Ultimately, this story explores and, by placing so many instructions in such close vicinity of one another, criticizes the culture and a woman’s supposed place in it, her inability to change anything, including herself.
Such an autobiographical background of the story undoubtedly enhances the reality of the gender roles issue and the need for a feminist approach to examine them. In the poem, a mother defines domestic values as explicitly adoptable feminine values that a girl must follow. In contrast, the depiction of men by her mother puts them at a supremacy viewpoint where things are done for them by the women, who are always in their service. With that said, the “Girl” strongly aligns with the common space in feminist theories about women being oppressed by the society with patriarchal authority and standards where a woman is constantly marginalized. A female’s role is both defined and limited by her gender but, most importantly, it was also widely accepted and followed for ages, and taught to young girls.
The grim realities of addressing gender biases and marginalization through both literature and the real world are indeed complex issues to examine. To sum up, Jamaica Kincaid incorporated the specific aspects of a young girl growing up to convey the enhanced sense of the hardships caused by the stereotypes. Such literature pieces aim to eliminate stereotypes and highlight the ongoing concern of people limiting the rights of other people and the harsh consequences. Both in 1978, when the poem was written, and in 2020, this topic is highly significant to understand and repel the stereotypically gendered roles imposed for girls by both societies. Nowadays, there is a broader spectrum of opportunities and freedom to examine the identity of oneself and others within a social context, including culture, race, ethnicity, family, and faith.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, edited by Ann Charters. 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, pp. 320–321.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd ed., 2006.