2. Feminism in contemporary literature
3. The identity of the female protagonists
“Life is shit, if you’re woman“ (Gee 2019, p. 306).
With those words, the protagonist of Maggie Gee’s most recent work „Blood“ concludes the status of her gender. It’s a statement that might be quite simplistic, but also outstanding in its honesty.
Maggie Gee is known for her portrayal of women as strong, but also harshly flawed protagonists. It’s always easy to connect to these characters while reading, because they all seem to have the same core.
In her collection of short stories “The Blue“, published in 2006, Gee does not differ from her style to write female characters. The author being “a satirist of the most unflinching kind“ (Dillon/Edwards 2015, p.1) connects to her portrayal of females, because of certain (British) stereotypes they share and the women taking a submissive role.
In this work I want to show this kind of picture of women in Gee’s short stories “The Artist“ and “The Money“. Those stories both have a female protagonist, that is confronted with issues of race, gender, prejudice and poverty. The characters are mostly unaware of mistakes they make and existential questions that stay unasked. With they way they act and how their stories are told, this work will evaluate if the women in Gee’s stories can’t help the people in need around them or if they are oblivious or even not willing to help. In the beginning this work will give a short overview on women in contemporary literature, but the main discourse will circle around their relationship to the men in their surrounding and the identity they create throughout the stories.
2. Feminism in contemporary literature
Gender, especially the significance women are a main topic in Maggie Gee’s short stories. But what role does gender play in general contemporary literature?
“Gender affects every aspect of our personal lives. Whether we identify as a man or a woman determines how we look, how we talk, what eat and drink, what we wear, our leisure activities, what jobs we do, how our time is deployed and how other people relate to us“ (Bradley 2007, p.6).
Literature always mirrors a certain piece of people’s life and so does gender create images of ‚womanly', ‚manly‘, ‚feminine‘ and ‚masculine‘ traits. Therefore the terms ‚gender‘ and ‚sex‘ need to be pointed out. In general, ‚sex‘ means the biologically given functions, separating men and women. That means, from a narrow point of view, there’s only a ‚female’ ‚male‘ and ‚divers‘ (having both and male and female biological features) (cp. Browne 2012, p. 1).
Gender on the other hand is more of a socially confirmed construction, a showing of a personal identity (cp. Thatcher 2011, p. 17f). Gender is „pervasive, percolating down to habits of dress and speech“ (Thatcher 2011, p.18) and shaped by a person itself and the influences of the environment the individual lives in. Most importantly, gender is what category is identified with. Not every male chooses a masculine identity. Today, the terms ‚sex‘ and ‚gender‘ mostly merge together, as science, society and even class start to loosen up from only male and female divisions (cp. Browne 2012, p.1).
Here comes the importance of literature as a cultural medium. Reading and writing aren’t gender neutral activities (cp. Stephan 2006, p. 284). Attributes like ‚cool‘ and ‚hot‘ exist since the ancient Greeks and since then are exclusively assigned to a gender. This segregation is still present until today and probably will expand into the future, but since the 1960/70’s there was a significant shift in the portrayal of women. Cultural bias of keeping apart men and women in literature, creating male and female topics where replaced by women taking men’s roles. Female heroes in stories arose, behaving in a masculine way. Bisexuality and lesbian love stopped being a topic that shouldn’t be carried out in the open (cp. Browne 2012, p.1ff). But of course female writers and stories with females as protagonists had been present before. Still, the community of women’s writing changed with the feminism movement.
„[…] we have moved from an exclusionary movement, dominated by white, middle-class, heterosexual women, to a broader more inclusive movement that better better allows for the concerns of lesbians, women of color, and/or poor and working class women“ (Fraser 2005, p. 17).
It is a goal to let the reader achieve a special kind of connection to a protagonist, to a hero or villain of a story. Youth and children literature therefore is especially striking because children and teenagers are always trying to achieve a certain kind of identity. They’re trying to find themselves in their heroes. When around a hundred years ago we found the motive of a good girl and later housewife as the goal, we today can see a change to wanting to become powerful, strong and independent. But that still means that this kind of literature is still gendered, that the development of characters and the plot are evaluated by motives of gender (cp. König 2017, p. 132ff). The newest contemporary development arising is the further movement away from gendering in literature: Characters that don’t openly portray any kind of gender (cp. König 2017, p. 133).
3. The identity of the female protagonists
As formerly stated, women in literature went through a massive change throughout the last few decades. But what how do Maggie Gee’s short stories “The Artist“ and “The Money“ fit into gendered writing? How does Gee built up a showing of identity?
At first, a lookout on the role of the housewife. For decades, this role was mandatory for women. Until today, housewives are mostly female, even though a change can be seen.
„The synthesis of ‚house‘ and ‚wife‘ in a single term establishes the connections between womanhood, marriage and the dwelling place of family groups. The role of the housewife is a family role: it is a feminine role. Yet it also a work role“ (Oakley in Young 2018, p.69).
The short story „The Artist“ centers around Emma, a British housewife facing contact with a foreign worker at her house. Emma is married, doesn’t work in a usual job, but refers to be working as an artist, a writer. Throughout the whole short stories, which has plot time (timespan in which the story takes place) expanding for a few days, Emma only leaves the house for a short trip out with Boris and in the end, when she again is on the lookout for a new worker. We actually don’t see her write as well in the story, but the third person narrator tells us, that she has been writing unpublished stories (p.15). It seems that Emma doesn’t fulfill any housewife duties herself, e.g. <The cleaners always leave> (p.17). Her only shown action is observing. Emma interacts with her worker Boris, tries to keep him working and inspects his work as assigned by her husband. <You have to get it done> (p. 22). Throughout the story Emma is told to be writing, she even tells Boris that she has to get back to her work (p.16). But still it is only told that she tries, but it is shown, that she is failing <she hadn’t actually published any books> (p.21). Still we can see elements of what makes Emma a housewife: Even if she is a <benefactor> (p.21), she has the urge to serve. When Boris unexpectedly brings his family with him to Emma’s house, she insists on serving them drinks and food, even if they insist not to and the narrator tells the reader, that Emma can’t stand Anna and Boris’ wife. <I can hardly just give them water> (p. 19). This again shows when Boris tells Emma to drive him to another part of the city, where he can find workers. Emma doesn’t want to drive there, but Boris can easily convince her to go there. It is questionable if in these cases Emma really wants to ‚help‘ or if she is just used to receive orders and the social rules of politeness.
In “The Money“ we see our nameless protagonist out of her usual home, which means we can only see behavior of housewife in other’s homes. But what is more striking are the housewife-traits of the other female characters in the short story. In contrary to „The Artist“ this story switches the cultural background from the protagonist being in her English environment, interacting with a foreign person, to the protagonist in an African cultural environment, where she is the foreigner. When she arrives at the village where her driver’s family lives, we can immediately see women that do actual work that has to be done for the household and people living in it. <The first sister-in-law fills the plastic carriers“ (p.69). This again gives a strong opposite to Emma, who also identifies as a housewife, but only takes an observing role. But also the protagonist of “The Money“ is build up to be an opposite to the other characters. Throughout the whole story she is marked to be different, e.g. <white woman> (p.68). This also glimpses through when the centered woman of the story tries to help carrying water. We again can see a showing of a housewife here, the expectation of helping without asking, but she seems out of place here. <[…] look at the muzungu carrying water> (p.70).
Through the first person narrator we could muse that we get a strong inside look, but even if the narrator sometimes switches to ‚we‘, we only get a flat, unknowing look of other characters. It’s characteristic for a first person narrator to not have a look at other character’s thoughts. A first person narrator is mostly unreliable, because we only have this restricted, self-centered look. Adding to that, we only see the truth of the protagonist, but we don’t know if what they think and say is really true. “The Money“ shows this outstandingly, for example when it comes to the protagonist taking photos. She doesn’t think about invading the people’s privacy by taking pictures, because she asked once or twice. There’s nothing told about the residents just being polite.
In “The Artist“ a third person narrator is used. This gives a less constricted look, it feels like looking at the characters from above. Still, Gee manages to write a third person narrator only centering on the protagonist. Just like in “The Money“ we only see Emma’s opinion, the narrator is strongly influenced by her. The narrator, in both stories, is another connection to a prejudiced female identity. It gives us a feeling of not thinking about the consequences of their actions, or simply being completely oblivious. Even if “The Money“’s protagonist seems to get a certain realization in the end, she doesn’t change anything at all.
The next point to be evaluated concerning female identity are the power levels between the characters. In “The Artist“ a strong scheme of female vs male power is built up. This divides into dominance between the English characters, being Emma and her husband. Then, between Boris, his wife and his daughter and, the most complex, between Emma and Boris. Emma is married to her more or less absent husband. We can muse that the husband is working and only present in the evening, when Boris is gone. Here, it is strongly shown, that he takes the dominant role. He decides and gives Emma instructions, even though he’s never actually there and sees Boris work. Adding to that, he doesn’t seem to take Emma very seriously, for example, when she tries to complain about Boris, he doesn’t really pay attention (p. 16). Edward manhandles Emma in their story time, because he seems to think that she can’t even handle the simple task of observing the worker. <I’ll talk to the fellow. I’ll sort him out> (p. 17). Emma and Edward are a conservative, but still current picture of a dominant, all-knowing husband and a submissive, unknowing wife. A similar structure we can eye when it comes to Boris, his wife and his daughter. When Boris brings them to Emma’s home, they’re immediately described as inferior: <They trooped up the path, […] in front of Boris, who drove them before him like sheep> (p. 18). Here, they’re even compared to animals and throughout the story they’re described a dumb and annoying. Boris always speaks for them, e.g. <no, they don’t like> (p. 19). Even with a different cultural background, the same structure of power compared to the English characters, is shown.
As formerly mentioned, the relationship of Boris and Emma is the most striking throughout the story. From Emma’s point of view, it is clear, that she thinks that she plays the dominant role. She’s Boris employer, she gives him money, work and also attention. Emma is shown to be confident with her inner and outer characteristics which leads to her presenting herself to be generous by just talking to Boris. She even believes that he falls in love with her, but positions this thought as absurd, because she is someone superior, an artist, while Boris is just a foreign, poor worker. This can be interpreted as lacking respect. But the levels of power shift strongly throughout the development of the story. When Boris seems to be the most inferior, being told down by Emma, we suddenly see him taking action. To <get the job done> (p. 22) Boris stops any submissive behavior. He tells Emma to drive him to the suburbs to find new workers to help him. This scene seems quite odd, because the behavior to command the seemingly superior person, isn’t expected. She tries to protest, but Boris’ authority, e.g. <stop car. i do it> makes her simply obey. Here, the whole construct of Boris’ and Emma’s relationship is an example from the narrator, being centered on Emma, keeps the information that Boris isn’t submissive at all, therefore the change is quite surprising. In the beginning it is told that Emma controls the story, but it is shown that Boris, even in his position, holds the reins.
- Arbeit zitieren
- Nane Möller (Autor:in), 2020, Women in Maggie Gee’s “The Artist“ and “The Money“. Helpless or not helping?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1023962