In contemporary western culture men and women appear to be treated as equals. However, literature presents examples of ways in which gender inequality still prevails. For instance, Margaret Atwood’s 1993 novel The Robber Bride shows the prevalence of female gender stereotypes in which women are often thought of as either good or evil. Good women are honest, kind, caring, virtuous, obedient and faithful to their husbands and families; while evil women are remorseless femme fatales who please no one but themselves. Atwood’s novel illustrates that by conforming to society’s expectations; good women generally support the unequal gender divisions of patriarchal society and also directly jeopardize their own success and satisfaction in life. In the novel, stereotypical thinking is challenged, and an alternative is presented for liberating female (or simply human) behaviour, in which so-called good and evil qualities are combined into a more balanced whole.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – Simone de Beauvoir
In a social political reading of The Robber Bride, the ideas that the novel communicates about female gender stereotypes can be linked to Judith Butler’s theory on the social construction of gender, which is in line with De Beauvoir’s famous quote. In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Butler argues that as members of a culture people learn which gender roles they are supposed to fulfil based on the behaviour that their society links to the physical sexes. For instance, men are stereotypically expected to be brave, strong and rational; whereas women are supposed to be caring, kind and emotional. Butler claims that these characteristics are not inborn, but that they are taught to children, for example by encouraging girls to play with dolls. The danger of these gender roles is that they can become fixed frames of thinking and are accepted as natural givens, instead of as culturally constructed abstractions. For example, women are then seen as innately caring and emotional, while these qualities are heavily stimulated in their upbringing.
Women robbing themselves of freedom
The Robber Bride also hints that through underlying social structures women contribute to their own stereotypical gender role. This can be related to Antonio Gramsci’s theory on cultural hegemony, which describes how people are manipulated into (subconsciously) consenting to a social system that is disadvantageous to them. Hegemony is partially based on people’s embodiment of suppressive social conceptions, which can be clarified by Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus. Atwood’s novel thus raises awareness of how women in Canadian society of the 1990’s (and perhaps still in western society today) support their own oppression, and additionally, the novel shows how they can begin to free themselves from it.
Literature and social empowerment
As a literary text, The Robber Bride displays the importance of literature for women’s (further) emancipation. Thereby the novel exemplifies literature’s broader social role in the empowerment of groups that are marginalized in society because of differences in class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. As a cultural representation, literature thus has the power to reflect on society, and through artfully crafted texts it offers the reader the intriguing challenge of extracting liberating and stimulating ideas.
Note: this is a Summary of the excellent Bachelor Thesis of (C) Babeth Bruijn: Women robbing themselves; the dismantling of female gender stereotypes in Margaret Atwood‟s The Robber Bride. VU University Amsterdam 2013. Supervision: Dirk Visser.