Patriarchy in a Film “On Golden Pond”

Table of Content

“On Golden Pond”

In our contemporary world, it is almost universally the case that men are valued more than women. Customs as well as social institutions subordinate women to men. The imposition of patriarchal power, which has come to dominate political, social, economic, and even family life, the male species all over the world have come to take the essential roles in the society while the women have ended up being debarred. men are the superior gender in terms of their biological and sociological aspects. Women, as expected, are secondary to men because of their physical shortcomings and weaknesses caused by their biological composition that, consequently, limits the place of women within the boundaries of the home and their role as a wife and supporters of their husband.

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Such kind of power play between the roles of men and women and how these roles impact the family is discussed in the movie On Golden Pond. In this movie, we see how control dominates the life of Norman who, even during his senility, inflicts power over the people around him, thus gravely affecting his relationship with his daughter Chelsea. Brief Background on the Movie:

On Golden Pond is a beautiful movie about family relations. There are various contemporary issues discussed in the movie like the challenges of growing old, dealing with aging parents, the relationship between a man and a woman, and the challenges of being a daughter within a highly patriarchal family. In this paper, however, I would like to focus on the sociological phenomenon of power, the way it manifests in the character of Norman, and how it affects his relationship with his family, especially his daughter. Before I delve further into the issue of Norman with his daughter as well as with his wife, I believe it would be better to provide a brief background of what the movie is about. On Golden Pond is originally a play written by Ernest Thompson. Thompson was only 28 years old when he wrote the play. His main objectives in writing the play were to explore issues that concern families, specifically issues on “age, rage, regret, love withheld, love unspoken, disappointment, and forgiveness, acceptance and renewal” (Andrucki 2). In 1981, the play was adapted for the screen. The movie was directed by Mark Rydell and starred by Henry Fonda (as Norman Thayer, Jr.), Katherine Hepburn (as Ethel Thayer), and Jane Fonda (as Chelsea Thayer Wayne).

There is nothing complicated about the plot of the movie. In fact, everything is presented clearly and straightforwardly. However, it takes a lot of sensitivities to truly feel the tension that exists between Norman and his daughter Chelsea. The movie is set at the cottage of Norman and Ethel on a lake, which they call the Golden Pond. The house is old, but it is still beautiful and comfortable-looking. The couple Norman and Ethel are already in their advanced age. Norman is a typical controlling father who, if given a choice, would prefer to have a son rather than a daughter. His character is perhaps the product of various sociological forces that have allowed him to feel as powerful as he thinks he is. First of all, he is a retired English professor. As a former English professor, he is used to conducting classes in front of impressionable and mostly docile pupils. As a teacher, he has full control of his students—an assumption that we get as the movie unravels. He talks and discusses things with his students with minimal objections. The students take and accept whatever he delivers to them.

The movie also shows how skillful Norman is when it comes to handling and playing with words. He is good at verbal gamesmanship and this is basically what he uses to control people. He may be controlling but his way of controlling people is not as obvious as how other people do it. He uses words to constantly trip people up with unanticipated queries or change the course of the discussion from one topic to another. In effect, Norman enjoys amusing himself at the expense of other people. Moreover, Norman is a curmudgeon person. He does not enjoy so much the company of other people. He likes to be alone. Hence, it is a great deal for Norman to face and accept his old age. He is already 80 years old and being at his age is making him feel less powerful everyday. In addition to his declining physical health, his mental health is also at risk. He is becoming more forgetful and surlier.

The character of Ethel is the opposite of Norman’s. She enjoys being with people and likes doing outdoor activities. Like Norman, Ethel is a loving parent however, unlike her husband, she is not afraid to show her emotions and vulnerabilities. She is a woman after all and a woman, as how our society and culture define her, is supposed to be the loving and caring parent. Despite of Norman being surly, she remains very supportive of him. She loves him and provides him strength, especially during his times of self-doubt and fear of dying.

Chelsea, their daughter, seemingly possesses a deviant behavior and attitude towards life, perhaps as a result of her unhealthy relationship with her father. We learn from the story that Chelsea is an unloved child of Norman, at least this is what she feels towards her father. She claims that her father has made her feel unworthy of his love. She also claims that her father is usually disappointed of her, especially with respect to her athletic abilities. Chelsea has become the kind of daughter who is unruly. Considering her age, about 40 years old, she is still childless. She has been married and divorced, and she has been into different relationships. In short, Chelsea is an unstable daughter that Norman strongly disapproves.

Going back to the story, after many years of not avoiding her father, Chelsea finally visited her parents at Golden Pond. She went there with her new fiancé and with his fiancé’s son Billy. Billy spent the rest of the days with Norman and Ethel while Chelsea and her fiancé spent some time together in Europe. A beautiful relationship was built between Norman and Billy—something that Chelsea never had with her father. Norman and Billy made each other happy. Chelsea and her fiancé eventually returned and Chelsea witnessed the beautiful bond that developed between her father and Billy. What Society Says About the Roles of Father and Mother:

Since time immemorial, women are bound to be mothers, domesticated and servants of their spouse and children. On the other hand, men or husbands are regarded to be the head of the family and the provider in terms of financial needs. The functions that mothers and fathers play in earlier generations represent the way society and culture confine men and women by putting them into gender specific molds.

Although biology has never claimed that husbands must be the sole providers of the family and the wives are the only ones capable of doing household chores and taking care of the children, still biology is held responsible for the stereotypes in the roles of mothers and fathers in a family. For instance, the women or the mothers are always regarded as the default parent to the children (Townsend 110) because biologically they are made to bare children. Hence, in the natural process, mothers are more caring about their kids that they would love them no matter what or unconditionally (Lamphere 95). Since mothers carry their children for nine months inside them, they tend to connect easier with their kids as compared to the fathers.

Therefore, mothers can better understand the attitude and behavior of their kids and can handle them well, whereas men are believed to be not that really patient when it comes to children and such behavior makes them choose to provide for the family instead of assume the role of the mothers. Domestication is then equated with reproduction. Since women are the only ones who are capable of giving birth, then they should also be the ones to stay at home and look after these children that they gave birth to. This implies that biology has somehow influenced the social roles of women and men in the family.

Culture also plays a big role in defining the functions of men and women in the family. History accounts for this and shows us how our women ancestors served their family, like cleaning the house and feeding the children, while their husbands were away farming or fishing. Such kind of living has been passed on to the next generation until it becomes part of the culture. So now, in some parts of globe, men and women still respect and strictly follow such culture that men should be the worker and women should be the housewife. I say “in some parts of the globe” because today there are countries and people who no longer believe and follow such kind of division of labor.

The situation today is very different from before and the roles of women are now evolving. Women are now likely to join in the labor force, while men are more likely to take part in house chores and childcare. Also, single parent families are increasing in numbers because women are now becoming more radical that they see the possibility of becoming a mother
without actually having a husband and a family. Control Theory:

In sociology, there is what they call the control theory. This theory is mainly categorized into two: centralized and decentralized. For the purpose of my discussion, I would like to focus on the centralized category of control. According to Hagan, Simpson and Gillis (790), centralized control is a kind of bureaucratic control that is maintained through hierarchical systems. In this hierarchical systems, there are standards or rules to follow in order to retain control. However, according to Walter Reckless in 1973, if the control within one social system is weak can cause deviant behavior (cited in Hagan, Simpson and Gillis 800). He added that individuals act rationally, but they have the tendency to act deviantly if given an opportunity. This opportunity stems from weak social bonds between members of a social system. Therefore, if there is strong social bonds between individuals and society, people will less likely to digress from what is perceived to be right.

The control theory can be applied to a family. A family is a social system normally headed by a father. Within a family there exists a hierarchical system that puts the father on top, the mother after him and the children below them—what is called a centralized control. The father usually is the one controlling the family. His decisions prevail over the decisions of any other member of the family. If the control imposed by the father over his family creates a strong bond between the family members, then, it is highly probable that his children will grow up healthily and positively. On the contrary, if the control system within the family creates weak ties between the family members, it is highly possible that the children will show deviant behaviors.

Conventional Social Roles and Control Theory: Their Manifestations in the Movie Golden Pond and How They Affect the Thayer’s Family

The conventional social roles of men and women and fathers and mothers have rooted from the society’s long history with the construct of patriarchy. Even today, the power play the exists between a father and a mother in a family is still evident notwithstanding the increasing independence of women. Although women claim to be emancipated and equally capable in handling a family, the equality that women seek is just an illusion because, no matter what women do, there will always be social forces that will place them subordinately to men. I am saying this because this is how I see the relationship of Norman and Ethel.

Despite the fact that the movie presents the character of Ethel as someone who likes to be with people and enjoys doing outdoor activities as opposed to the character of Norman who is exactly opposite as her, it is still apparent that Norman maintains the control in the family and Ethel is simply the supporter of Norman. Hence, Ethel remains on his side despite his ill-mannered behavior and negative perception towards aging and dying.

However, I would like to leave the issue between the gender roles of Norman and Ethel as dictated by our society and culture. What I would like to focus on this part of my discussion is the role of Norman as a father, how he uses his power to control his family, and the pain it causes to Chelsea leaving a rift in his relationship with his daughter.

There are many instances in the movie that suggest how distant Norman is from his daughter. In a conversation between Norman and Ethel, when they are looking back at the swimming competition days Chelsea, we can sense here the disappointment that Norman has for his daughter. Norman wants his daughter to be the best as she could be. He wants Chelsea to do the back flip and be the best swimmer, but Chelsea fails him in this area. Ethel, during this conversation, reiterates that Chelsea actually did the swimming just because she wanted to please her father. Despite of the effort of Chelsea to make her father happy, it seems that what she does is not enough, or, according to Chelsea, will never be enough because she will always be a disappointment for her father. How Norman controls the life of his daughter does not end with her being an athlete.

It continues with how Norman deals with his daughter’s suitors. In one of the conversations with Bill Ray, Chelsea’s fiancé: Chelsea told me all about how you like to have a good time messing with people’s heads. She does too, sometimes. Me, sometimes I can get into it. Sometimes not. You know, it’s not imperative that you and I become friends. I thought it would be nice. I’m sure you’re a fascinating person, and I thought it would be fascinating to get to know you, but that’s obviously not an easy task. So you just go ahead and be as… poopy, to quote Chelsea, as you want to be, and I’ll be as nice and as civil as I can be. But I think there’s one thing you should know while you’re jerking me around and making me feel like an asshole. I know precisely what you’re up to. And I’ll take just so much of it. (taken from the movie On Golden Pond) In these lines, we see how Norman tries to always get in the way of his daughter’s life. We see how he maintains his control by using his wit and words, a skill that he has learned from his experiences. Perhaps it is because, just like any parent, he only wants the best for his daughter.

The way Norman maintains his power can also be seen in how he suppresses his emotions towards his daughter. The society expects the father to be strong and solid for his family. After all, he is the head of the family. This social expectation often results to the emotional restraints that fathers experience as they interact with their children. As in the case of Norman, he tries to conceal his true emotions towards his daughter by changing the topic and not dealing with things directly. There seems to be a force that prevents him from expressing his feelings and thoughts towards his daughter, and this force may be because of his intention to keep his power despite of his advanced age. Our society have this notion that showing emotions is being vulnerable, and vulnerability is only for weak persons.

Hence, in most parts of the movie, Norman remains emotionally distant and surly. In one part of the movie where Chelsea is trying to fix things between her and Norman, Norman endeavors to avoid the conversation by transforming the supposedly sincere confrontation and reconciliation into something that is farce. He normally uses his wit to avoid sincere conversations with his daughter, and thus hide his feelings. Sadly, the control that Norman employs over his family causes to weaken his bond with his daughter. As mentioned in the control theory, the weakness in Norman’s bond with his daughter has resulted to the deviant behavior of Chelsea. She refuses to follow the footsteps of her father and, instead, lives an unstable life. Conclusion:

It is sad to realize how social conventions have negatively affected family relationships. Sometimes, the intention of performing the roles that are traditionally established by our culture and society causes the family to break. It is also unfathomable how a father can restrain his emotions just so to prove his power and control at the expense of his children. Indeed, our culture is important because it is part of our identity but parents should know when to stop following social conventions. Showing love and care for the children is verily more important than maintaining control and power. Works Cited

Andrucki, Martin. On Golden Pond. May 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. Haga, John, John Simpson and A. R. Gillis. “Class in the Household: A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Delinquency.” American Journal of Sociology 92.4 (1987): 788-816. Print. Lamphere, Louise. “The Domestic Sphere Of Women And The Public World Of Men. In Caroline Brettell & Carolyn Fishel Sargent (Eds.), Gender And Cross-Cultural Perspective, 3rd edn. Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008. Print. On Golden Pond. Dir. Mark Rydell. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Jane Fonda. Universal Pictures, 1981. Film. Townsend, Nicholas W. “Fatherhood And The Mediating Role Of Women.” In Caroline Brettell & Carolyn Fishel Sargent (Eds.), Gender And Cross-Cultural Perspective, 3rd edn. Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

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