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Gender Stereotypes in The Crucible, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite Western culture’s progress beyond dueling, chastity belts, or smelling salts, most of us can agree that we need to do something before we cross “gender equality” off the old to-do list. The popularity of many gender stereotypes certainly doesn’t help, especially when you consider how long some of them have been around. To do a quick overview of some American stereotypes, let’s look at three American literary classics.
Set during the Salem witch trials in Puritan New England, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible begins when two little girls fall ill after being caught dancing in the woods at night. The locals immediately conclude that they are involved in witchcraft, and since denial is more dangerous than confession, the girls have no choice but to agree… After that, they implicate a bunch of other people just for fun.
As the witch hunt spirals out of control, it is interesting to note that the suspects are almost exclusively women. This sets up an interesting chain of logic: forests; witchcraft; women. The seventeenth-century association between femininity and wildness implies that, by contrast, structured, civilized society falls under the domain of men. Which shouldn’t surprise you all that much, given how few women in The Crucible hold positions of political power. (See also: none.) We assume that’s why they call her Mother Nature, not Uncle Earth.
Another famous gender stereotype can be found in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. After flying down the Mississippi River, Huck must hide his identity to prevent people from realizing that he is a lost and endangered child. During his first foray into town, Huck introduces himself as a girl on her way to visit some relatives. Although the woman Huck is staying with is not deceived, she good-naturedly decides to give him advice on how to pass for a girl.
Throwing clumsily and without precision is important in this list of female attributes, implying that physical strength is primarily a male trait. (And if the phrase “throw like a girl” is anything to go by, the stereotype is alive and well today.) Acknowledging that men are, on average, stronger than women is one thing, but insisting that women are physically incapable is quite another.
Which brings us to Harper Lee’s civil rights masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. The favorite narrator of the novel is a six-year-old boy named Scout, with a quick mind, a sharp tongue and a mean right hook. She sticks to her brother’s friends and sometimes has to refrain from fighting with boys who are older than her. Her colorful aunt Alexandria struggles in vain to wean her to dresses, polite language and tea, but to no avail: Scout is hell-bent on never becoming “girly”.
While you could easily argue that a girl imitating her rowdy older brother is no more non-conformist than a girl imitating, say, her brave and upright mother, that’s the point: so much of human behavior is simply a matter of conforming to a given social climate that it’s hard to say what unadulterated masculinity or femininity might actually be like – or whether these states even exist.
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