Surviving Female Gender Roles Essay
What defines being ‘feminine’ will vary with each culture, but two archetypes: passive homemaker and liberal feminist have existed for centuries as one will see in two Japanese stories written in the 17th century. In The Love Suicides at Amijima, readers see the social chains that bind a submissive woman to her societal duties. On the other hand, in Tales of Sensuous Women, readers are shown a complete opposite archetype where women find ways to circumvent the social expectations that have been imposed upon them.
Although four hundred or so years have passed since these stories were written, modern women these days still have a number of societal restrictions that make them less liberated than their male counterparts which brings us to question who “society” actually is and whether or not it has correct or faulty judgment regarding gender roles. The female characters in The Love Suicides at Amijima are examples of the passive and supportive archetype. The female protagonist, Koharu, comes from the lower class in 17th century Japan, a time defined by the samurai and social hierarchies.
Koharu is a prostitute who is in love with a merchant class individual named Jihei. Because of her weak social leverage, her male clients can disrespect her as Tahei does when he says: “this is the Koharu I’ve confided to you about – the good-hearted, good-natured, good-in-bed Koharu. Will I soon be the lucky man and get Koharu for my wife? ” (49). Koharu keeps her composure and merely scolds Tahei for judging a person without personally knowing them. Even today, it’s typical that a female would be more composed in order to keep up her feminine appearances.
Showing aggression toward Koharu would be a masculine trait. Later in the story, Koharu reveals to readers that her lover, Jihei has decided to “purchase” her for himself with the only problem being he can’t afford it. Koharu is concerned about Jihei’s reputation when she says, “if somebody else claimed me during that time, it would be a blow to me, but a worse disgrace to Jihei’s honor” (53). In American society, a female would never be “purchased” and rejection by the female would not be taken as seriously as it was back in 17th century Japan.
Another character who fits this archetype is Osan, Jihei’s wife. Although she knows of Jihei’s plans to “purchase” Koharu, she eagerly supports him by saying: Why should you bow before me? I don’t deserve it. I’d be glad to rip the nails from my fingers and toes, to do anything which might serve my husband (63). It is uncommon nowadays for women to oblige to a man’s wish to openly cheat on her and even suggests that she take the role of maid while Koharu replaces her as Jihei’s wife.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the women in Ihara Saikaku’s Life of a Sensuous Women are depicted as liberal feminists. The collection of vignettes in Saikaku’s work put an emphasis on women taking initiative, expressing independence, sharpness of mind and most importantly making their sexual partners grow old and sick. In the vignette, Mistress of a Daimyo Lord, the female protagonist complains that “in bed he(daimyo) just couldn’t do anything anymore” (599). In A Teacher of Calligraphy and Manners, the female protagonist assertively confesses her lust for a male client.
She “made love with the man day and night (until) he ran dry” (605). In A Monk’s Wife in a Worldly Temple, the female protagonist agrees to let the priest have sex with her in exchange for money, and a lifestyle of luxury sponsored by the offerings made to the temple by superstitious grieving family members of deceased relatives. However, when she hears that the priest would abandon her once she loses her youth, she “knew I (she) had no business being in that temple a minute longer” (602).
Readers of The Love Suicides at Amijima would not be able to see multi-faceted female characters as these in Life of a Sensuous Woman. Readers would only see female characters who blindly support the endeavors of the men in their lives. The women in Tales of Sensuous Women are less confined by circumstance but 17th century Japanese people would have preferred the obedient and submissive female as opposed to one who had a mind of her own. The feminist movement that guaranteed a female’s civil rights through law has increased the number of rights given to them.
In the 21st century, society believes that a female who fits the homemaker archetype should be more adventurous while a female who fits the liberated, free-loving archetype should be more restrained. Society accepts from women, a balance between the two archetypes which brings up the question of how social norms or gender roles are created and who enforces these roles. Does Koharu and Osan’s passiveness stem from physical weakness or were they brought up in a way that made them act this way? They’re behavior as supporter is restrictive and shameful in the sense that they are second class citizens.
For the liberated women, is life for them simply seducing men and robbing them of virility? Almost each protagonist at the end feels emotionally empty when she reminisces her sexually active days. This brings up three theories regarding social norms. One theory lies in control for males. Like zero-sum theory, in order for males to have freedom, females must lose out on freedom. Another theory is biological where females appear more sexually attractive when they are submissive. In Tales of Sensuous Women, daimyos, priests and common folk are attracted to women who behave in a certain way.
The last theory stems from lessons learned about reality. Because men are typically stronger than women, a woman must use her mind to outwit a man in order to survive. A docile woman would become a second-class citizen so that a man will decide to protect in exchange for her duties as a wife and lover. Whether it’s Koharu or one of the sensuous women, their usefulness to males are all related to sex. The females in The Love Suicides of Amijima are depicted as passive, and supportive feminine creatures because that is how the author approves of them.
The females in Tales of Sensuous Women, are depicted as loose and dominating because the author is showing a side of them that Japanese patriarchal society disapproves. Gender roles are changing because men are learning to feel compassion toward women. Because men are still generally stronger than women after four hundred years, they may tend to make the rules about what is socially acceptable in society. However, because women have more influence nowadays, the road to gender equality is gradually meeting its goal.