Gender Roles and Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Gender Studies

3. Gender Stereotypes in “Bastard Out of Carolina”
3.1 Glen and the Boatwright Uncles
3.2 Anney and the Boatwright Aunts
3.3 Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright and Aunt Raylene

4 Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Gender stereotypes and roles are present in the people’s mind and can be found almost everywhere in daily life. Children and adults are confronted and influenced by those stereotypes, most of the time internalize them and behave according to their gender roles. Men and women perform different roles which are based on nothing more than their biological gender. Although these roles cannot be referred to each individual, the majority of people live out their lives in accordance to these pervasive roles.

To sum it up, gender is a central and “organizing category in social life” (Warren 7).

Women anthropologists from the 1920s up to the present time focused their research on Western women’s issues and examined women’s settings. Their result is that mainly the domestic sphere, child rearing, health and nutrition are the settings or the tasks ascribed to women. In part, this is - according to the anthropologists - a consequence of expectations associated with the society’s home territory and with Western anthropologist’s cultural assumptions. Additionally, the societies which were studied by these anthropologists were often highly gender-segregated and numerous roles and activities could be taken by one gender and were banned to the other (Warren 16).

To put in other words, most societies are “husband-centered” (Warren 14) and some of the societies studied “to a degree even greater than is customary in Western Europe and America”. (ibid.)

The novel “Bastard Out of Carolina” written by Dorothy Allison deals with gender stereotypes and tells the story of the so called ‘white trash’-girl Ruth ‘Bone’ Boatwright and her family. Allison critiques in the novel not only two of the most damaging bourgeois myths about “white trash” - illegitimacy and incest – but also the ideology of motherhood emphasizing a socially constructed gender system that cuts across social classes (Baker).

About her own family, Allison says that they “were the bad poor: men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage” (qtd. in Baker). These characteristics and stereotypes of the white poor in America can also be found in the novel and the members of the Boatwright-family.

In the novel, Bone’s mother, Anney, the other female members of the Boatwright-family, as well as Anney’s husband, Glen, and the Boatwright Uncles present and fulfill typical gender stereotypes whereas Bone’s Aunt Raylene and Bone herself break out of these gender roles and stand out from the typical gender stereotypes.

To prove my thesis, I will first give an overview of the term ‘Gender Studies’ and the characteristics associated with gender stereotypes and roles. In the second part of my paper, I will spot special gender behavior and prove that Glen and the Boatwright Uncles behave according to their internalized male gender role and show that Anney Boatwright and most of the female members of the Boatwright-family act and think according to the expected female stereotype. Furthermore I will have a look at the novel’s protagonist, Bone, and her Aunt Raylene and demonstrate that they behave and think contrary and stand out from these gender stereotypes and roles.

In the last part of my paper, I will evaluate my findings and guess the function of the gender stereotypes and the different behavior of the characters presented in the novel.

2. Gender Studies

When people are categorized only on the basis of their biological sex, it leads to the question of difference and theorists still discuss whether this differences between women and men are extensive and widespread or not. In this context, maximalists believe that the differences are large and deeply rooted whereas minimalists maintain that the dissimilarity among men and among women are more important than the differences between them

( a) Wood, Rostosky and Remer).

Another topic to discuss is the location of gender. Again, there are two different groups which analyze and interpret human beings and their behavior in different directions. Essentialists proceed on the assumption that the behavioral difference between women and men are fundamental rooted in biological sex difference and focus on evolutionary distinctions between genders. Because of emphasizing the biological aspect, essentialists often do not differentiate between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ ( a) Wood, Rostosky and Remer).

In contrast, social constructionists consider that gender is located within social arrangements. When people relate to one another and live together in a social context, gender differences arise and are not only the consequence of biological sex distinction, but more often viewed as resulting out of cultural expectations for what are appropriate behavior and characteristics of females and males. Therefore social constructionists examine and try to identify conditions that are associated with similarities or differences across gender and treat the term ‘sex’ as a biological category whereas ‘gender’ is treated as a social category

( a) Wood, Rostosky and Remer).

The third possible point of view is that gender is located both within individuals and within cultural and societal arrangements. In this mixed perspective, a few biological differences, such as women’s ability to bear children, shape social arrangements and conditions and influence social interaction. From that point of view, individuals internalize sociocultural expectations for their assigned gender and then behave according to them. This position brings essentialism and social constructionism together to form an interactionist conceptualization of gender ( a) Wood, Rostosky and Remer).

Gender roles can be described as “socially and culturally defined prescriptions and beliefs about the behavior and emotions of men and women” (Anselmi and Law 195) and many theorists believe that these perceived gender roles structure and form the bases for the development of a gender identity (ibid.).

Several theorists try to portray and describe this phenomenon of gender roles and stereotypes and aim to explain its development and cause.

The feminist sociologist Nancy Chodorow emphasizes in her works the role of women as primarily caregivers in the development of sex difference. According to Chodorow, the early and close relationship between mother and child influences boys and girls in a different way. Boys must separate from their mother to form an identity whereas girls do not have to undergo this disconnection to define their identities as females. In sum, Chodorow explains that the devalued role of women in society is a result of this painful process men experience when separating themselves from the female role ( b) Wood, Rostosky and Remer).

Another explanation based on socialization is given by the social psychologist Alice Eagly. She assumes that the sexual division of labor and societal expectations based on stereotypes produces gender roles. In this suggestion, she differentiates between the communal and the agentic dimension of gender-stereotyped characteristics. The communal role is described by attributes such as nurturance and emotional expressiveness and commonly associated with domestic activities and therefore referred to women. Contrary, the agentic role is typified by qualities like assertiveness and independence and usually related to men. Furthermore Alice Eagly adds and stresses that the individual behavior is strongly influenced by gender roles when cultures endorse gender and form firm expectations based on those stereotypes ( b) Wood, Rostosky and Remer).

In sum, Eagly assumes that gender roles are closely connected with gender stereotypes. The term ‘stereotype’ can be defined as “overgeneralized beliefs about people based on their membership in one of many social categories” (Anselmi and Law 195). Stereotypes are socially constructed and a common example of a gender stereotype is that men are more likely to be seen as aggressive and competitive whereas women tend to be perceived as passive and cooperative. Moreover men have been considered to be financial providers while women have been regarded as caretakers ( b) Wood, Rostosky and Remer). But since cultures and societies change, what roles are adaptive to each culture also changed over time and will always be in the process of changing.

3. Gender Stereotypes in “Bastard Out of Carolina”

The roles prevalent in modern Western society prescribe that men should be domineering and aggressive […] whereas women should be submissive, nurturing, gentle, […] emotional and desirous of nothing more than a happy family and a husband to provide for her while she remains at home and tends the house. (Feldmann)

This quote presents a certainly not very serious and exaggerated idea and view of gender roles and stereotypes in society. But after all, the statement could be referred to most of the male and female characters in Dorothy Allison’s novel “Bastard Out of Carolina”, in which only Bone and her Aunt Raylene escape many parts of the female stereotypes and stand out of the traditionally Boatwright course of life.

In the following, I will demonstrate that Glen and the Boatwright Uncles just like Anney and most of the female members of the Boatwright-family fulfill typical gender stereotypes whereas Bone and Aunt Raylene do not behave according to their associated gender role.

3.1 Glen and the Boatwright Uncles

The novel’s protagonist, Bone, describes the outward appearance of her Boatwright Uncles with the following: “They were all big men with wide shoulders, broken teeth and sunken features” (Allison 22). Bone also tells the reader about her uncle’s behavior and doing in their leisure time: “They tinkered with cars together on the weekends, standing around in the yard, sipping whiskey and talking dirty, kicking at the greasy remains of engines they never finished rebuilding” (ibid.). The Boatwright Uncles represent typical male stereotypes: they drink, have a bad and violent temper and can barely provide their families financially. Uncle Earle, Bone’s favorite uncle, seems to jump from one job to the other (Allison 24) and was also known as the “notorious and dangerous Black Earle Boatwright” (Allison 11).

Furthermore Uncle Earle is left by his wife because of lying and his infidelity (Allison 24). Serving as role models for the typical male stereotype being domineering and aggressive, Uncle Earle and two of his brothers went to jail for causing other men serious damage (Allison 12) and “rumor told deadly stories about the Boatwright boys, the kind of tales men whispered over whiskey when women were not around” (Allison 12). After this description it is clear that the typical gender stereotypes are used in this novel: men represent the strong and aggressive gender and tell each other violent stories when the weak and emotional female gender is not around. When the sheriff locks one of the uncles up for shooting or punching, his wife would accept it and would continue caring for the children (Allison 23). “What men did was just what men did” (Allison 23) and that was accepted by the ‘weaker women’. In this context, the narrator of the story, Bone, wishes that she had been born as a boy and seems to like the easy way her male relatives live their life (Allison 23). But Bone also notices that “though half of the country went in terror of them, my uncles were invariably gentle and affectionate with me and my cousins” (Allison 22). Glen, Bone’s stepfather, behaves in that point entire contrary. He comes from a completely different background than the Boatwrights. His family belongs to the upper-middle class and is not poor like Bone’s family. Furthermore his mother works outside the home and his family members are professionals. But Glen is the black sheep in his family, fails at his jobs and according to his brothers married ‘trash’. Whereas the Boatwright uncles seek release from their circumstances in fighting and liquor, Glen seems to turn “his rage and regressive dependency needs upon the Boatwright women in an attempt to compensate for his own sense of emasculation” (Baker). Glen molests, abuses and finally rapes Bone violently every time he fails and sees a rival for Anney’s love in her. Findings indicate that men who lack power in some ways, may try to compensate it by showing power through violence ( b) Wood, Rostosky and Remer). Bone recognizes the reason for Glen’s behavior, too: “every time his Daddy spoke harshly to him, every time he couldn’t pay the bills, every time Mama was too tired to flatter him out of his moods, Daddy Glen’s eyes would turn to me” (Allison 233). Though Glen was different from the Boatwright uncles, he still presents typical male sterotypes and was also known for his temper and his hands. Even though “he didn’t drink, didn’t mess around, didn’t even talk dirty” (Allison 35), Glen internalized the typical gender role and patronizes his ‘weak wife’ Anney. When a relative of Anney’s former dead husband, Matthew Parson, comes and wants Anney to sign some papers, Glen meets him at the door and takes the papers. He wants to be in leading strings and behaves according to his gender role. In this situation he is dominant and leaves Anney in the submissive position with the words: “Let me handle it” (Allison 57). But this is only one example for Glen’s patronage over his wife, there are many other situations in the novel proving it.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Gender Roles and Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina"
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
“You Nothing But Trash“
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
494 KB
Dorothy, Gender, Carolina, White, Trash, America
Quote paper
Anna Wertenbruch (Author), 2009, Gender Roles and Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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