The Effect of Stereotypical Thinking on Individual Development in Brownmiller’s Femininity and Rodriguez’s Complexion
Stereotypes are standardized notions or perceptions regarding a particular group of people or objects. Considered to be “mental cookie-cutters”, stereotypes propel us to put “a simple pattern upon a complex mass” and define a multitude of people by a single set of characteristics (Nachbar and Lause, 1992, http://www.serve.com/shea/stereodf.htm). In Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity and in Complexion by Richard Rodriguez, the effects of stereotypes and stereotypical thinking on the development of individuals are examined.
Susan Brownmiller, a feminist, has done ground-breaking research on the issues behind rape and has written Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape and Women Against Pornography. She is also a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, and remains to be an advocate of feminist issues. In Femininity, the author attempts to define and understand the concept of femininity, while exploring its biological and social origins. According to Brownmiller, the most basic facets of women’s lives have always been formed by the paradox that is femininity.
In her piece, Brownmiller says that the feminine principle is one that women understand to be a “grand collection of compromises, large and small, that she simply must make in order to render herself a successful woman” (Brownmiller, 1984, http://www.susanbrownmiller.com/html/femininity.html). The author also defines the distinction between masculine and feminine, saying that the feminine principle consists of such elements as “vulnerability, the need for protection, the formalities of compliance and the avoidance of conflict” (Brownmiller, 1984, http://www.susanbrownmiller.com/html/femininity.html). Brownmiller also makes the observation that femininity “serves to reassure men that women need them and care about them enormously” and that this is the reason behind the recent “renewed interest in femininity” (Brownmiller, 1984, http://www.susanbrownmiller.com/html/femininity.html). However, the author, in her discussion, seems to “accept a wide range of restrictions – physical, emotional and otherwise”, and this may lead some to question the validity of her theories (Handelman, 1984, http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=234600).
In Complexion, Richard Rodriguez, the Mexican-American writer best known for his memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, recounts the story of how he, from an early age, was forced to deal with stereotypes on his race and skin color. Rodriguez, who grew up seeing how his aunts would complain about the dark color of their children’s skin and how they would use home remedies to try and lighten their complexions, developed the belief that his skin color made him ugly and inferior to others who were light-skinned. As a child, Rodriguez thought of his family as inferior because of their ethnicity and skin color, and because of the way that they treated themselves in the framework of the greater American culture. In the world in which Rodriguez grew up, complexion was not simply complexion, labor was not merely labor – everything was given meaning and value and placed in a social context that Rodriguez and his family were unable to control.
In his story, Rodriguez claims that constant exposure to stereotypes can diminish a person’s self-confidence, yet he also believes that with enough self-confidence and determination, anyone can prevail over anything – even the effects of stereotyping and racism. As Rodriguez grew older, he was able to deal with stereotypes in such a way that he was able to somehow overcome them. Although he sometimes “suspected that education was making [him] effeminate”, the author was able to compensate for not being “feo, fuerte, y formal” with his academic achievements (Rodriguez, 1982).
As were detailed in their respective works, both Brownmiller and Rodriguez developed gender ideas that were affected by their respective cultures. Both Femininity and Complexion tell the story of how a young child’s identity and beliefs regarding gender were shaped by cultural stereotypes. Both stories also reveal how each author would grow up and begin to rethink these stereotypes. Brownmiller and Rodriguez both initially accepted the stereotypes and gender ideas that the cultures of each held. Brownmiller recalls how, as a child, a game of “setting the table” would influence her beliefs regarding the differences between masculinity and femininity. Meanwhile, Rodriguez grew up in a culture that placed much emphasis on masculinity and eventually felt the pressures of having to comply with the machismo male stereotype.
But despite these parallels, the two authors also had unique insights regarding stereotypes and their effects on individual development. The details in Complexion show that Rodriguez believed that stereotypes can affect a person’s beliefs about himself and that these beliefs can affect a person to the extent that he will begin to do things that will prove to be self-defeating. In the story, Rodriguez explains that the shame he felt for his dark skin can be attributed, not to the “color codes of a racist society”, but to the “seemingly private values of his female relatives whom he frequently overhears discussing dark skin with disdain” (Soto, 2006, http://epsilon3.georgetown.edu/~coventrm/asa2000/panel6/soto.html). Because he takes this dislike for dark skin as a gauge for his sexual appeal (or lack thereof), he begins to think of himself as unattractive and shifts his focus to issues of the intellect. Instead of trying to defy the norm, Rodriguez allowed the stereotypes to restrict him.
In contrast, Brownmiller’s Femininity proposed a new way of viewing the issue of the feminine principle. Instead of shunning femininity as something that is improperly used by women to get ahead of the pack, Brownmiller argues that femininity can be successfully used to survive and to triumph, because “the world smiles favorably on the feminine woman: it extends little courtesies and minor privilege” (Brownmiller, 1984). It appears that Brownmiller has taken the stereotype on ‘the feminine” and turned it on its head, using it to empower women.
Brownmiller, S. “Femininity”. Great Writing: A Reader for Writers. 3rd Edition. Eds. Harvey Weiner and Nora Eisenberg. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. 485-489. Retrieved from < http://www.susanbrownmiller.com/html/femininity.html> on November 24, 2006.
Handelman, J. 2006. “Lackadaisical ‘Feminity’”. The Harvard Crimson Online Edition. April 26, 1984. Retrieved from < http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=234600> on November 24, 2006.
Nachbar, J. and K. Lause. 1996. “The Meaning and Significance of Stereotypes in Popular Culture”. The Websites of Robert Shea. Retrieved from < http://www.serve.com/shea/stereodf.htm> on November 24, 2006.
Rodriguez, R. “Complexion”. Great Writing: A Reader for Writers. 3rd Edition. Eds. Harvey Weiner and Nora Eisenberg. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. 513-518.
Soto, S. 2006. “From One Yellow House to ‘Late Victorians’: Richard Rodriguez’s Isolated Labyrinth of Identity”. Georgetown University. Retrieved from < http://epsilon3.georgetown.edu/~coventrm/asa2000/panel6/soto.html> on November 24, 2006.