Gender performativity restricts an individual from reaching their full potential. Those gendered as women are obliged to be feminine and derive self-definition from the way in which they subscribe to feminine norms. Yet these norms frequently relegate them to secondary or submissive roles. In the novels Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, they successfully expose the complex atrocities that emerge from sexual hierarchies. They both exhibit the representation of female gender roles as women who are simply subordinate than men, where women cannot vote, own property or inherit land and wealth, have jobs or do anything else that might allow them to be independent and thereby undermine men.
The greatest power one can hold is autonomy, especially in regards to one’s sexuality. However, this power is ever rarely shared equitably. Gender biases frame the viewing of men as wage-earners and household chores as a woman’s domain. Women are responsible for domestic chores such as cleaning, ironing, dusting, and cooking, whereas men carry out the provider role, taking the perceptible form of income. While housework provides no given salary, women are understood to live off of their husband’s earnings, giving them a lower social status. Paid work has facilitated men’s egalitarian outlook by providing them with power and a sense of fulfillment, dominating women. However, many women dislike the stay-at-home lifestyle and are better suited in other areas but regrettably aren’t given the choice to venture into other fields. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaid’s are permitted to go anywhere within the town that they want, as long as they stay within their boundaries when the text expresses that “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze” (Atwood 165). Similar to the rats, the handmaid’s are oblivious to how much control they are under. The idea of escaping doesn’t interest them as they aren’t longing to go elsewhere. Atwood suggests that there is a vast contrast between minor and maximum freedom. While the handmaids are given slight liberty, they shouldn’t settle for anything less than full independence, much like in our physical world.
Women should pursue whatever makes them feel most comfortable and content, regardless of any barriers society constructs. In both novels, women are limited to the role as child-bearers, in societies that don’t allow mothers a role in the job industry. Men believe that if women were secluded as only child bearers and not given the ability to explore other options, then they could be more easily manipulated and their potential for power would be suppressed. In Things Fall Apart, gender stereotypes severely shape the entire village, where members of the Igbo society follow these obligations so closely; women stay at home completing domestic tasks while men perform the ‘difficult’ work such as hunting for food. Since men are classified by their strength, they undertake the hard labor as women aren’t supposed to be doing tasks that rely on muscularity and power. So, when Ezinma pauses and says “Can I bring your chair for you?” and Okonkwo replies “No, that is a boy’s job…..” (Achebe 45), he doesn’t allow her to do even the easiest task of carrying his chair to the festival because it is viewed as a man’s job.
The central way that men and women are treated antithetically in the community is by their human sexuality, as a person’s role profoundly influences his or her position in society. There are a set of expectations that society has defined, that are expected to be followed. Women are called to be passive, nurturers, emotional, sensitive and homemakers. While men are aggressive, competitive, confident, stoic and breadwinners. An assumption is made that once a child is born and their gender is declared, that child is compelled to act like its gender. There is a projected notion that these gender roles are attached to our biological sex, despite the fact that masculinity and femininity are not inherent. “Sit like a woman! Okonkwo shouted at her. Ezinma brought her two legs together and stretched them in front of her” (Achebe 32). Gender is so emphasized in Things Fall Apart so it angers her father when Ezinma does not sit like a woman and displays unfeminine actions. Being told to ‘sit like a girl’ and ‘act like a man’ mean two completely different things. To ‘sit like a girl’ is associated with acting dainty and polite, while to ‘act like a man means to be aggressive, strong and confident, declaring that these characteristics cannot be shared between both genders. In both novels, women are the weaker sex but are bestowed with qualities that make them virtuous of reverence, such as the ability to bear children. This capability is exceedingly valuable because if women weren’t able to conceive children, there wouldn’t be future generations, thus no future for the world. This provides both self-confidence and assurance due to their pivotal role. A woman’s body can be perceived of great superiority as it holds the ability to bear children, therefore childbirth gives women power. A man’s body cannot do so, therefore makes men appear weak.
However, males have dominated in leadership positions, so any empowerment coming from females are seen as a threat. In order for men to equipoise for their lost power, they utilize the female capacity to give birth for their own personal and sexual gain. This was done through arranged marriages, slavery, sexual assault etcetera. Many women, however, did not want to carry children, wanting to pursue a career, but had no other option besides motherhood due to the social and economic restrictions placed upon them.
Women are chattels of men – belonging to their husbands and providing for them in all sorts. Whether that be through sexual pleasures, preparing meals, taking care of the baby, a woman needs to be a submissive wife, and her feelings and desires are often neglected. Today’s popular literature such as pornography depicts women solely as creatures of the bedroom, giving them little to zero value and respect. It’s important to combat this patriarchy, in order to recognized as women, and not objects, where our society is free of misogyny and values women and their freedom, in lieu of oppressing them. There is a significant section in The Handmaid’s Tale where Offred lies in the bath and reflects on life before Gilead, on how her body was an instrument she once controlled, she “used to think of [her] body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of [her] will….” (Atwood 84). Now, her body is nothing more than a uterus. Her only purpose is childbearing. Which is why she despises going through her menstruation cycle as that indicates her failure to conceive. The handmaids aren’t given any worth nor importance, they have one sole function that determines their value. Women produce their own misfortune while men are never at fault, “If a woman cannot have children or miscarries, it is not because of any sterility or medicinal issues—it is because the woman is contaminated and full of sin” (Atwood 61). Women are taught that they are the single cause of any negative action that transpires in their lives.
Gender roles regulate how men and women should think, speak, dress and interact with society. They are adopted during childhood and continue into adulthood. This creates an evident distinction and power imbalance between male and female. This gender enforcement gives women no choice but to comply with their own oppression and carry out society’s idea of gender, restraining females opportunities by encapsulating their skills and competence which they will never be able to use to their advantage.