Wednesday, April 28, 2021


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In many ways, people identify themselves, or are identified by their gender. "I am a man" or "I am a woman." Gender is undeniably the most defining characteristic of all creatures. Since the dawn of time, women and men have played distinctly different roles in society, simply because they have a different anatomy. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior both explore ideas concerning the role of women in society. Although culturally and stylistically dissimilar, both books reveal significant insight into themes concerning the role of women as victims of a male domination, the masochistic nature of women to accept positions of in-superiority and the emergence of women as strong, independent beings.

The role of the male has always been indisputably dominant in the society of nearly every culture. China, like most societies, has its shameful history in regards to the treatment of women. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which takes place dually in China and America, addresses the treatment of women in the Chinese culture. Kingston's first story of the No-Name Woman particularly addresses the foul treatment of women by men. Simply because No-name Woman was a female, she was forced to accept her fate as not only a rape victim, but also as a disgrace to her family. Her predator's "demand must have surprised, then terrified her. She obeyed him; she always did as she was told" (Kingston, 6) No-name Woman was well conditioned to behave the will of the man, and although he may have been taking advantage of her, her fear of him kept her silent. "If you tell your family, I'll beat you, I'll kill you. Be here again next week." (Kingston, 7) And when No-name Woman declared to her assailant, "'I think I'm pregnant.' He organized the raid against her." (Kingston, 7) This type of threatening and misogyny is typical of a patriarchal society the women are to blame, with no regard to the way men behave.

Even in the United States, where millions of immigrants flee to in order to escape persecution and injustice, women of the Chinese culture still faced the domination of men in their society. Maxine was well aware of the priority men took in her life from an early age. When her brother was born, an egg was rolled on his face, an honor secured only to boys. Maxine was outraged that "because I'm a girl" (Kingston, 46) she was not held at the same level as her younger brother. Maxine was constantly bombarded by misogynistic sayings as she was growing up. During meals, Maxine's uncle would stare at the table full of Maxine and her sisters, declaring "Maggots! Where are my grandsons, I want grandsons! Give me Grandsons! Maggots!" (Kingston, 11) Maxine's femininity was so intertwined with negativity that she believed in order to be "not a bad girl," she must also be "not a girl." (Kingston, 46) In Maxine's experience, all Chinese women were treated with this same amount of respect. "I read in an anthropology book that Chinese say, 'Girls are necessary too'; I have never heard the Chinese I know make this concession." (Kingston, 5) Maxine's experience portrays the cruel role that male domination played in Maxine's experience of Chinese culture.

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The significance of male domination also plays a large role in Smiley's A Thousand Acres. The women in the novel live under the fear and control of the men in their lives. The Cook girls' domination by their father is apparent early on in the novel. When Caroline disobeys her father's wishes, he replies with an act of power that forbids her from having a part in the rest of the family's inheritance. "You don't want it my girl, you're out. It's as simple as that." (Smiley, 1) Caroline is then seemingly disowned because she simply disagreed with her father. However, the Cook men's domination over women began long before the argument between Caroline and Larry. The Cook men saw women as a way of obtaining land, and in that sense, the women became nothing more than objects, which like the land needed to be controlled and maintained. Larry's father John married Edith Davis to obtain "a share in the Davis farm." (Smiley, 15) Ginny and the other girls were conditioned that they were "born to serve their elders, and that their service was to be directed rather than requested" (Smiley, 5). In this type of society, being a woman was tolerable, as long as she was "oblivious" (Smiley, 1). Ginny also faced domination by her husband. Ginny's obvious position was domestic, while Ty's was to do the more difficult farm work. Ginny was allowed to disagree with Ty's point of view, as long as she did not attempt to fight with him. (Smiley, 11) Ginny's complacency was a common characteristic of the Cook women. She learned how to keep her opinions to herself with Ty as well as her father. When Larry "asserted his point of view, (Ginny's) vanished." (Smiley, 18) When Ginny does finally stand up to her father, he is publicly humiliates her, saying "How can you treat your father like this? I flattered you when I called you a bitch!" The Cook women were programmed by their male dominated upbringing to accept this misogynistic treatment. Smiley uses the Cook women as an example to portray female mistreatment on a micro-scale and reveal the horrors behind male supremacy.

Another similar theme running between The Woman Warrior and A Thousand Acres is the woman's neglect to recognize dominance and accept her position as a lower class citizen. In the Woman Warrior, many of the hateful comments Maxine is influenced by are made by women. These women are conditioned from childhood to believe that women are below men. A female neighbor comments to Maxine's mother, "there's no profit in raising girls. Better to raise geese than girls…when you raise girls, you're raising children for strangers." (Kingston, 46) Even the word for "I," as referring to women in Chinese means "slave." (Kingston, 47) Most girls were sold as slaves in China, at different prices depending on age. (Kingston, 8) Maxine's mother goes on to explain that in China, a girl like Maxine would have been much cheaper, but "I was in the United States paying two hundred dollars for you." Maxine's own mother puts a value on her life. Although brave Orchid was a well educated, accomplished women, the opinion of women in Chinese culture was so engrained in her nature that she too believed women were worth less than boys. Maxine's parents were embarrassed to take her and her sister out together, for fear of the ridicule from the other villagers. (Kingston, 46) Her parents would also comment that "when fishing for treasures in the flood, be careful not to pull in girls." (Kingston, 5) The women of the Chinese culture were taught to detest themselves, as well as other women. Maxine refuses to allow this type of self-hatred continue in her family and vows to "never hit or scold (her) children." (Kingston, 46)

Similarly, in A Thousand Acres, the Cook daughters are ignorant and complacent toward their treatment on the farm. As long as the Cook girls are obedient and do not oppose or second guess the men, they are considered good wives. Rose comments that "When we're good girls and accept our circumstances, we're glad about it…when we are bad girls, it drives us crazy" (Smiley, 106). The girls initially accept that this is their position and do nothing to change it. Rose, who recognizes this complacency before Ginny exclaims, "You're so slow to judge, it's like stupidity. It drives me crazy" (Smiley, 16). Although Rose may be more aware of her domination, she remains bound to her condition. "I thought it was okay, that it must be okay if he said it was, since he was the rule maker. He didn't rape me, Ginny. He seduced me" (Smiley, 06). By reconciling with herself that her encounters with Larry were not rape, Rose made herself believe that this behavior was acceptable. This self-created domination is what made it so difficult for the Cook girls to escape their life on the farm. If they were able to believe they were worthy of their treatment, then it made it all the easier for the men to treat them that way.

Another similarity between both books is that the repressed women are able to rise above the demeaning behavior of their oppressors. The 'Woman Warrior' in Kingston's memoir is symbolic of a character that transcends gender and is accepted by not only her village and country, but family as an equal to a male. By asserting her martial superiority, Fah Moulan proves herself as a woman and a warrior. While fighting the Baron and listening to his misogynistic claims that "girls are maggots in the rice" (Kingston, 4), Fah Moulan rips her shirt off to show her breasts and "I slashed him across the face and on the second stroke cut off his head" (Kingston, 44). Fah Moulan, unlike men has the superior ability of not only destroying life, but also returning it. "I bled and thought about the people to be killed; I bled and thought about the people to be born" (Kingston, ). The warrior woman was greeted by her family as a boy would be, with chickens and excellent food to eat (Kingston, 4). Kingston strives to make herself in the image of Fah Moulan. "I could not figure out what was my village. And it was important that I do something big and fine" (Kingston, 45-46). Maxine felt the need to prove to her parents that she is similar to the woman warrior, that she too is valuable. "When I visit my family now, I wrap my American success around me like a private shawl; I am worthy of eating the food" (Kingston, 5). Maxine even goes on to claim that "the swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar" and "what we have in common are the words at our backs" (Kinston, 5). By comparing herself to the honored warrior woman and finding a common ground in their strength to overcome and stand up to injustice, Kingston is able to produce strength in her readers.

Like the Warrior Woman and Maxine, Ginny is able to defeat her dominators and emerge as a stronger, self-governing woman. Ginny Realizes she cannot live under the dominance of Ty any longer. As she runs out the door to leave him he yells, "I gave my life to this place" (Smiley, 57). Ty's exclamation is not one that begs for Ginny to stay, but simply a pathetic declaration that his true love in life had been the farm, not Ginny. This statement further asserts the idea that Ginny was dominated by Ty, since her position in his eyes was less important than the land. Later Ginny explains to Ty how she once "saw it all your way…the proud progress from Grandpa Davis to Grandpa Cook to Daddy" (Smiley, 70). By admitting that she had been dominated and allowed herself to be, Ginny is finally able to free herself from the grasp of the men in her life. She tells Ty, "I wasn't like this, I was a ninny" (Smiley, 71). Ginny's realization allowed her to escape the cycle of domination that plagued the Cook women for decades.

Male domination is irrefutably a commonality in the lives of many women. For many women, the only way to deal with this authority is to accept that it is a part of life that will not go away, as the women in The Warrior Woman have been conditioned to do. For these women, being controlled is simply a consequence of being born into the culture. But only through the realization and acceptance that such a condition exist can women begin to break free of their bindings by men. Jane Smiley and Maxine Hong Kingston both strive to emancipate women readers from their conditions by helping them recognize their positions.

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