The Representation of Gender Roles in Harold Pinter's Play "The Birthday Party"

Term Paper, 2020

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. What are Gender Roles?
2.1.Traditional Female Gender Roles
2.2.Traditional Male Gender Roles

3. Comparison of Traditional Gender Roles and Pinter’s Gender Representation in “The Birthday Party”

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

There is no doubt about the importance of the gender discussion over the last sixty years, especially since the start of the feminism movement in the 1960s. What exactly is gender and how should gender types behave? Out of these discussions a certain kind of awareness about gender arose and people started to recognize gender roles patterns in almost every part of daily life. But even when gender roles have changed significantly, there is still a traditional or stereotypical understanding of what gender should look like. Even in the entertainment industry - which also includes drama. Concerning the gender discussion one playwright should get our attention: Harold Pinter. Victor L. Cahn said that “Pinter always dramatizes men and women as fundamentally contrasting in nature, with distinct values and desires revealed in the seemingly eternal struggle for power” (8). One can assume that there has to be a certain pattern of gender role representation in Pinter’s plays. The Birthday Party from 1957 is his second full-length play. The leading question of this term paper will be how gender is represented in The Birthday Party and to what extent it can be seen as a portrayal of stereotypical gender roles. We will first have a look at gender roles in general (chapter 2) including a view on traditional female gender roles (chapter 2.1) and on traditional male gender roles (chapter 2.2). In chapter 3 we will have a look at several scenes from the play and compare them with our findings about traditional or stereotypical gender roles.

2. What are Gender Roles?

Every day in our lives we can find different things labeled ‘male’ or ‘female’. When something gets such a label it gets gendered. This applies to ordinary things such as public toilets, cosmetics or clothing. Those labels always want to tell which – to stick to the example - toilet or which shower gel should be used by either men or women. It implicates that women and men are two different species with different needs. Also, behavior and modes of expression get gendered. In arts and culture, artists and writers move us through powerful images of what is male and what is female. When things in art get gendered it usually happens in terms of how women and men are acting, what they look like and what they say. These gender characteristics are so deeply integrated in our society that we do not even actively realize them most of the time. One could say that these characteristics portrayed in daily life and arts are something like “role models” how to behave as a man or a woman. Or – the other way around - the characteristics portrayed in arts are the mirror image of societies behavior; “[g]ender is the structure of social relations that centers on the reproductive arena, and the set of practices (governed by this structure) that bring reproductive distinctions between bodies into social processes” (Connell 10).

Germaine Greer created a model “that separate[s] sex – ‘biological’ maleness or femaleness – from gender – signified by the nouns ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’” (Tripp 2). From this point of view “gender is understood to be a variable and unstable cultural construct” (Tripp 2). That makes perfect sense, since different cultures expect different behaviors from men and women. The psychoanalyst Robert Stoller agrees with Greer. He argues that “gender…[is] primarily culturally determined; that is, learned postnatally…This cultural process springs from one’s society” (Tripp 4). But just like cultures can change over time, gender can as well. Today we have a completely different picture in mind when we are talking about femininity and masculinity than, e.g., a century ago. Because The Birthday Party was written before gender roles changed through several movements, it arose in a time with what we call today ‘traditional gender roles’. Actually, these gender roles are outdated. But some things never seem to change and so there are still many traditional expectations about what a woman or a man ought to do, say, or look like.

2.1.Traditional Female Gender Roles

The traditional portrayal of femininity shows women subordinated to men. While men had the privilege to go to work and earn money, women were in charge of the household and the children. The domestic area has long been central to women’s positions and representations in society. The household might not be a woman’s only place these days, but it continues to be seen as a feminine sphere where the chores it entails are women’s duties (cf. Milestone & Meyer 99). This ongoing connection could be caused due to motherhood.

In traditional gender roles, it appeared like a woman’s job to be a mother. A woman without children was not a proper woman. In this sense, motherhood played an important role for women’s identities. With children they were first and foremost mothers (cf. Milestone & Meyer 105). Today it is totally fine to decide not to become a mother.

Becoming a mother not only changes a woman’s identity. It also changes a woman’s body. It gets softer, some women gain stretch marks and weight and not all body parts stay as tight as they may have been before the pregnancy. Even for the outer appearance there are certain expectations of what a woman’s body should look like. There is an indirect pressure to ‘look good’, which is not only the case for younger women “but also, to groups of women previously thought of as asexual, such as mothers or older women. […] These women are no longer considered beyond the pale of attraction, but as a consequence of this, they, too, face the pressures to conform to a certain look” (Milestone & Meyer 97). That certain look consists of a young, fresh and girly appearance. One should not see, that the woman has a certain age or that her body changed due to circumstance. To reach or to keep this level of social constructed attractiveness, many women invest a lot of time and money in fashion, cosmetics and fitness products. Hoping that this would be ‘the key to endless youth and beauty’ and that their efforts get recognized.

Society tells women that they will only get into a relationship with a man when they are beautiful. Being in a relationship with a man is considered to be a woman’s goal. Having a sexual relationship and getting married to a man is culturally seen as the key goal and source of happiness (cf. Ballaster et al. 59). This is pretty much the same today as it was in the past.

All these dating platforms and apps are a perfect example that it is still a life goal to find the putatively perfect partner. In traditional gender roles a sexual relationship with a man was only socially accepted when it happened in marriage or a constant relationship. Only prostitutes had sex with men they were not related to. At least this was the case until the second wave of feminism1 started. Since that time “[t]here has been a shift towards a ‘new femininity’ which is more socially and sexually assertive, confident, aspirational and fun-seeking. It encourages [women] […] to enjoy sex within and outside relationships […]. This leads [women] away from the traditional femininity of being ‘ladylike’[…]” (Milestone & Meyer 88).

2.2.Traditional Male Gender Roles

Also, men underlie traditional gender roles. The “traditional masculinity is the ‘original’ type of masculinity strongly associated with the 1940s and 1950s” (Edwards 137). This type of masculinity is called the ‘old man’, which was followed by the ‘new man’, who emerged in the 1980s. Later on, in the 1990s the ‘new lad’ appeared (cf. Edwards 137). All three types continue to exist side-by-side, as well as they continue to change over time. But since we are talking about traditional male gender roles, we will focus on the traditional masculinity embodied by the ‘old man’. The traditional portrayal of masculinity contrasts men and women a lot. Men went out for work and functioned as the head of the family and the household. They were the “breadwinners” (Milestone & Meyer 115) of the family. Today also men keep the household and women go to work. But since there is a gender pay gap it still happens that a family is dependent on a man’s income. Men with traditional gender roles “are presented as strong, active, powerful, authoritative, hard, aggressive, violent, competitive and rational, and lacking sensitivity and emotions” (Milestone & Meyer 114).

Strength and power are characteristics that can be defined through physical appearance. Muscles function as an indicator for physical strength and power. Today they are also a part of male attractiveness. But apart from that, it was not that important for men to look good. Caring about the outer appearance, to look young, fresh “and being sexually attractive [was] the realm of women, not men” (Milestone & Meyer 114). Nowadays also men want to be attractive and care about their outer appearance.

Traditional male gender roles primarily define a man through his work. The higher a man’s income, the higher his working position must be, which comes along with social power. Often, the higher working position goes hand in hand with a certain kind of competitiveness. While trying to reach their goals, men focus on their own interests first and foremost and emerge “as an uncompromising and ruthless figure” (Milestone & Meyer 115). The working position is still important for men.

In a traditional masculine portrayal, men are considered to show no emotions at all. They are not even interested in a romantic love relationship. All they care about is their “strong sex drive which has to be continually satisfied” (Firminger 303). That is why they do not see women as their friends or partners but sexual objects. It is very important for traditional males to show their heterosexuality, either through a relationship with a woman or through heterosexual promiscuity. Traditional masculinity occurs as homophobic and sexist.

3. Comparison of Traditional Gender Roles and Pinter’s Gender Representation in “The Birthday Party”

We will focus on some selected scenes as well as on two female and two male characters. The two female characters are Meg and Lulu, which is obvious as they are the only two women with active roles in the play. The two male characters are Stan and Goldberg because of their dominance in the play. The chosen scenes are not only but mainly scenes that show situations between these four characters.

The first scene to be discussed can be found on page 112. There we have got a scene between Meg and her husband Petey. While she is preparing his breakfast, he is reading the newspaper which leads to the following conversation between them:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


1 In the 1960’s, the ‘second wave’ of feminism arose and lasted until the 1980’s. It arose because there were still many inequalities between men and women. This wave aimed for the same rights and chances in education. “It also concentrated on issues which specifically impacted upon women’s lives: reproduction, mothering, sexual violence, expressions of sexuality, and domestic labor“ (Gillis 21).

2 Pinter, Harold. The Birthday Party. Faber and Faber, 1991.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Representation of Gender Roles in Harold Pinter's Play "The Birthday Party"
University of Koblenz-Landau
Catalog Number
representation, gender, roles, harold, pinter, play, birthday, party
Quote paper
Nathalie Schmitt (Author), 2020, The Representation of Gender Roles in Harold Pinter's Play "The Birthday Party", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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