Table of Contents
2. Exploration of Gender Roles
2.1. Conceptualizing Gender
2.2. Gender in the traditional Ibo society
3. Gender in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
3.1. Okonkwo and his father in comparison
3.2. Family and Property
3.3. Public Life
3.4. Religion and the divine
This paper is going to argue whether Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart illustrates an Ibo society with socially constructed gender roles. Male dominance and supremacy are visible throughout the whole novel, just as the subordination and discrimination of the female gender. Moreover, the novel depicts numerous gender stereotypes, which will be analysed in this paper to achieve a better understanding of the gender ideologies in Achebe’s society. Strong gender roles can be seen in various situations in the life of Okonkwo, which is why this paper is going to be focussed on different aspects in the life of the protagonist of the novel. Beside the question whether Things Fall Apart portrays strong masculine dominance, the following questions will be answered: Are there differences in the various spaces regarding gender roles in the novel? Is there an aspect in Ibo’s society in which the subordination of women is broken? These questions allow the paper to take female rebellion into consideration and to keep the analysis open to a variety of readings of the novel without purely focussing on the reader’s first impression of the dominance of manhood.
Firstly, this paper is going to explain key terms and concepts which one needs while talking about gender. Here, the difference between gender and sex is explained, just as various concepts of sexism and subordination of women in text and language. Although Achebe’s work is written in 1959, this chapter will explain the state of the art, as the following analysis is going to consider gender roles in Achebe’s novel from today’s perspective. Secondly, a description of gender roles in the traditional Ibo society is going to follow. This will help to put Achebe’s work into context and to increase the analysis of Achebe’s authenticity and credibility.
The analysis of Things Fall Apart is structured into four aspects, which are all embracing the protagonist’s life. Firstly, a comparison of Okonkwo and his father is going to offer an introduction to Okonkwo’s character as well as a comparison of two different male characters. As Okonkwo and his father stand in contrast to each other this chapter is going to analyse in how far this contrast is affecting the portrayal of the male gender in the society as a whole. The chapter on ‘Family and Property’ is going to analyse Okonkwo’s private life and the role of men and women in families. Thirdly, gender roles in public life will be discussed. Achebe writes about numerous social gatherings. In how far these portray the dominance of manhood is going to be analysed in this chapter. Finally, the analysis is going to focus on religion and the divine and the questions whether the depiction of gender roles in the Ibo’s belief system correlates with the one in public life.
2. Exploration of Gender Roles
2.1. Conceptualizing Gender
Although the history of gender is relatively short, there do exist certain key words and concepts which are of importance while talking about gender roles. Some of them will be described in the following. First, one must acknowledge the difference between sex and gender. On the one hand, s ex refers to the “biological state of being female or male.” (Sauntson 2) This term is not only used for humans, but also for animals (cf. ibid.). Gender on the other hand only describes human beings. Gender is constructed through “a social categorisation system consisting of a polarised set of behaviours classed as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.” (ibid.) Therefore, gender is linked to sex to some extent, as the different sets of behaviours are assigned to the biological states (cf. ibid). While talking about the correlation of gender and sex the terms cisgendered and transgendered are of importance. Cisgendered is a person “whose chosen gender identity corresponds to their biological sex.” (ibid.), whereas transgendered describes a person who does not identify with their biological sex.
Moreover, Sauntson argues that “Gender is seen as an organising principle for social life in that behavioural expectations around masculinity and femininity are set up through the repetition of social norms.” (Sauntson 3) According to Sauntson, gender organises and structures society and with it appears a kind of hierarchy between gender. Especially in the past, men were considered the dominant gender (cf. ibid.). These expectations of the two different gender can be summarized with the term Gender Ideology.
As gender ideologies are shaped by society, also the subordinate gender plays along, as these “ideologies are not upheld or perpetuated in society by force, rather they become naturalised so that people consent or ‘sign up to’ ideologies without really questioning them.” (Sauntson 10). According to Sauntson the subordinate gender naturally loses agency by playing along with the dominant gender. Furthermore, gender ideologies and hierarchies are strengthened by commonly accepted gender stereotypes.
Gender stereotypes are differences between men and women that are being exaggerated and overgeneralized, which leads to an overall distorted perception of gender, such as “[…] tools being for boys and jewellery being for girls […].” (ibid.) Gender stereotypes can be divided into: “four distinct components of gender: traits, role behaviours, physical characteristics, and occupations” (Haines 354). Stereotypical male traits are for instance: braveness, competitiveness, and a higher tendency towards violence. In contrast, female traits are more sensitive and emotional. This is again picked up in physical characteristics, as stereotypical men have a strong anatomy, short hair and a tough appearance and stereotypical women have a soft body, long hair, and a more elegant appearance. When it comes to role behaviours and occupations, a stereotypical man is more educated and works in higher occupations, whereas a stereotypical woman stays at home with housework and the upbringing of their children (cf. ibid. 353 f.).
Additionally, gender stereotyping does not only lead to a distorted perception, but it “may, for example, limit the expression of individuals’ aptitudes and interests.” (Liben 2) This is already visible in preschool children’s behaviour, as they automatically separate in same-sex groups (cf. Maccoby 55). Furthermore, such a behaviour can limit or even shape children’s development, as Liben argues: “Even theorists who disagree about the relative role of cognitive versus environmental factors agree that children’s assimilation of cultural stereotypes plays a role in guiding and shaping their own gender role behavior.” (Liben 14). For instance, when a boy is confronted with a doll, it is likely that he refuses to play with it because of socially constructed gender stereotypes (cf. ibid.). But also “[c]hallenging gender stereotypes” (Mulvey 681) is difficult, as it “can also lead to social isolation” (ibid.), which shows that already children are dependent on the constructed gender roles to live a life in society. Hence, gender stereotypes lead to a cognitive gap between women and men, which then leads to abuse of power as the stereotypical man is stronger and more powerful than the stereotypical woman. Thus, gender ideologies and gender roles with a hierarchy are created. Analysing how these gender ideologies are represented in texts is a useful approach in gender studies (cf. Sauntson 1).
There are different approaches to deal with gender roles in texts. Part of them is focussing on “‘minoritised’ genders and sexualities such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender plus (LGBT+) identities.” (ibid.) But also a focus on “more ‘hegemonic’ identities, such as heterosexuality and hegemonic masculinity” (ibid.) is a reasonable approach. Especially with the previously mentioned strong gender ideologies constructed by society, there do still exist patriarchal societies and “we would expect there to be many representations which serve to potentially disempower (some) women and girls.” (ibid. 6) One way of pointing out the dominant gender is by demonstrating sexism in language: “‘sexist language’ has come to be defined as language which is used in ways which ignore, define and degrade women.” (Sauntson 145)
Sexist language can be divided into direct- and indirect sexist language. Direct sexist language “[…] refers to any use of language which makes an explicit or implicit assumption that the ‘male’ or ‘masculine’ is either the norm or is representative of all human beings.” (ibid. 146), this is mostly visible by using generic masculine forms such as masculine pronouns, nouns, adjectives and “any other linguistic forms which present ‘man’ as representative of ‘humans/people’.” (ibid.) Therefore, everytime language is used to state that men are the dominant gender and women are subordinate can be regarded sexist language. But also omitting feminine expressions is excluding women and thus subjugating their gender. There are many more ways of sexist language, for instance semantic derogation, which means words that originally were neutral become negative or even insulting throughout time i.e., spinster or mistress (cf. ibid. 147). Indirect sexism can be seen in different ways. One is sexist humour, which Sauntson describes as follows: “Humour […] often exaggerates certain features associated with a group or draws on and plays with stereotypical knowledge for comic effect.” (ibid. 150) This happens for instance, when a woman says things which have the opposite meaning: Yes = No; We need = I want; We need to talk = I need to complain (cf. ibid.)1. Another way of indirect sexism are presuppositions. For instance, “‘So, have you women finished gossiping?’” (ibid. 152), this automatically links gossiping to the feminine gender. Additionally, silence is a way of indirect sexist language, as sexism can be achieved “through what is not said/written” (ibid. 158). All in all, while talking about gender there are many concepts and approaches which must be taken into consideration. The approaches now mentioned will be used in the discussion of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
2.2. Gender in the traditional Ibo society
This chapter is going to give a theoretical overview of gender roles in the traditional Ibo society. Most studies that deal with gender in the traditional Ibo society lead to the description of masculine and feminine cisgendered people. This is already visible in the naming of Ibo people. Onukawa argues in her study: “Our sampling shows that gender-specific names constitute more than 90 per cent of Igbo names. […] Only a tiny percentage of Igbo names (less than 10 per cent) are gender-neutral, borne by both males and females.” (Onukawa 108) The author’s sampling of Ibo names shows that there is a clear distinction between men and women in the Ibo culture. Furthermore, there is also a difference in the dominance of gender.
1 For the full table of Women’s and Men’s language translated see Sauntson 150 f.