The Manifestations of Power and Justice in Male and Female Roles Essay
The Manifestations of Power and Justice in Male and Female Roles: An Analysis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane
The postmodern condition presents us with complex issues revolving on gender and gender roles in conjunction to the concepts of power and justice. It is important to note that like human civilization itself, these concepts continuously evolve in the course of society’s historical development. This is to say that in the context of the ever-changing economic, political, social and intellectual climates, these concepts are continuously defined and redefined. Such definitions and redefinitions resonate the idea that the human condition itself is fluid and malleable which makes it amenable to modifications.
In line with this, the following discussion provides an analysis of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane based on the framework provided by Kelly Marsh in her article entitled “Dead Husbands and Other ‘Girls’ Stuff.’” The discussion is based on the argument that although feminism has developed in pursuit of the need to provide equal opportunities for both men and women, the development of the movement has failed to account for the inequalities between and amongst women as can be seen not only in Glaspell’s Trifles but also in Scott’s G.I. Jane.
Feminism in its analyses of the conditions and predicaments of women under patriarchal systems and social institutions provides us with a fine example of how the human condition evolves. Indeed, as far as the entire feminist movement is concerned, the plight of women has undergone substantial modifications since its inception. To further this point, it is important to note that the feminist struggle, at this point in our society’s historical development, is not merely a struggle against the oppressive social and political structures dominated by males. The problem is much more complicated than that and the issues are far more intricate. Marsh in “Dead Husbands and Other ‘Girls’ Stuff’” points this out more clearly, as she claims:
The similarities between Trifles and Legally Blonde underline the continuity in women’s issues: the importance of sisterhood, the need to provide options for disadvantaged or abused women, and the destructive potential of the objectification and devaluation of women by men. The differences signal a new concern not found in Glaspell’s work: the exclusivity of a narrowly defined feminism that leads to the objectification and devaluation of women by other women. (201)
In the aforementioned passage, Marsh introduces an important aspect on the contemporary situation of the plight of women, that being women’s capacity and responsibility for the proliferation and continuation of the objectification and devaluation of their own kind. In her analysis of Trifles and Legally Blonde, it is safe to say that for Marsh, a “narrowly defined feminism” is responsible for the feminist movement’s recognizable division since a narrowly defined feminism, that being an “ideological feminism,” reeks of strict exclusivity (201-204). The significance of Marsh’s work on the current plight of women should be clear at this point. While Marsh is somehow sympathetic to Elle’s character, along with her personal hardships and the brand of feminism she represents in Legally Blonde, the point that she wishes to underscore is the changing face even of feminism. This is to say that it is possible for women to be devalued and objectified by their fellow women. In itself, the recognition of this dimension can provide us with a deeper understanding how feminism, in different periods, continuously defines and redefines itself.
As compared to Marsh’s work, Glaspell’s Trifles is understandably more directly concerned with male and female gender roles together with the societal expectations that these roles entail because of the time within which it was written. Such being the case, the type of opposition between gender roles in Glaspell’s work has a more rigid, strict, and binary characterization to it. This characterization takes many forms. First, Glaspell’s work provides us with glimpses of the acceptable behaviors for both males and females. In Trifles, women and men act in accordance to what is customary male or female behavior. For instance, when the party arrived at the crime scene, that is, the Wright home, the women only stood close to the door when the men were already inside, near the stove (Glaspell 3). They waited to be invited to join the men near the stove before approaching the area of the crime scene. It was Mr. Henderson, the county attorney, who invited them inside. He states, “Come up to the fire, ladies” (Glaspell 3). After Mr. Hale’s recounts what happened, which initiated the investigation, the women were left at the kitchen (Glaspell 3). Symbolically, of course, the kitchen is the woman’s place in the home and they were left there as the men proceeded upstairs to search for evidence. In line with the investigation of the murder, it is important to note that the house’s disorder mirrors the initial disorder in society caused by women’s recognition of their power in relation to men. Alkalay-Gut provides an example of this as she claims, “[T]he kitchen…is a world of simple imperatives: cleanliness, order, productivity, fruitfulness. The interruption of the orders of these imperatives caused a disturbance in Mrs. Hale that immediately suggests a warped sense of values” (2). Alkalay-Gut here specifies that the disorder in the kitchen is a manifestation of Mrs. Hale’s recognition of her need to subvert the female stereotypes represented by her home. Glaspell’s characterization of these behaviors in conjunction to the predetermined territories for their enactment manifests the seemingly different worlds that men and women inhabit. Glaspell thereby provides a forceful analysis of the condition and predicaments of women in relation to men during that time.
Aside from the prescribed and expected behaviors from the two genders, it is also important to take note of Glaspell’s characterizations of power and power relations, as they are significant to gender roles. As it is evident in the play, Glaspell presents us with the idea that the struggle for power is intertwined with the various aspects of human existence. In Trifles, for example, it is not difficult to see the power relations existing between the women and the men. From the fact that men practice their professions (i.e. sheriff, county attorney, etc.) and earn their living from it, they have the upper hand in matters concerning domestic affairs. This shows that men’s power over women can partly be explained by this economic aspect. The unjustness of the situation should be put in plain view. Whereas men are compensated for their work, women are not. By confining the woman to the kitchen (or the household) and the chores associated with it, the man retains his power over the woman. In the play, Mrs. Wright’s solitary confinement after marriage further proves this point. Mrs. Hale describes Minnie Wright’s house, as “down in a hollow” (Glaspell 18). It is in fact a house which is invisible from the public since “you can’t see the road” from it (Glaspell 18). Aside from this, from Mr. Hale’s statement, John Wright refuses to install a telephone line on their house even if, according to the former, “womenfolks liked the telephone” (Glaspell 5). All of these things point out to the fact that Minnie Wright’s existence after her marriage to John Wright is no different from the bird in the cage both literally and metaphorically. Glaspell’s employment of such symbolism accurately captures the power relations existing between the gender roles at the time.
Although separated by a few centuries, Scott’s G.I. Jane continues to manifest the different forms of gender inequality in society. By virtue of the growing power of the feminist movement in the 20th century, one may state that it was possible for Scott to introduce the character of Jordan O’Neill, a navy recruit whose acceptance into the institution was made possible by another female character, that being Senator Lilian DeHaven. The film portrayed the obstacles experienced by women who were given the opportunity to occupy what was once considered as a male profession. In the film, for example, O’Neill was initially forced to leave the training as she was dubbed as a lesbian who fraternizes with women (G.I. Jane). Ironically, DeHaven provided the evidence to substantiate this accusation. The film however ends with O’Neill’s acceptance in the institution. An interesting aspect in the film’s ending lies in it association of O’Neill with an image of a bird from D.H. Lawrence’s “Self Pity.” The poem states, “I never saw a wild thing/sorry for itself. / A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough/ without ever having felt sorry for itself” (qtd. in G.I. Jane).
Scott’s G.I. Jane, in this sense, continues the narrative left by Glaspell in Trifles as it portrays the possibilities available to a female member of society in the 20th century. It diverges from Glaspell’s text however as it emphasizes the manifestation of ideological feminism as can be seen in the relationship between O’Neill and DeHaven. As Holstein notes, Glaspell’s text emphasizes the creation of an ethics of care between females (285). Holstein argues that the manifestation of this ethics of care can be seen as the other homemakers prevented their husbands from proving that Mr. Hale’s death was caused by his wife (285). This ethics of care however is not apparent in the relationship between DeHaven and O’Neill. The most striking aspect in the film, if it is assessed within the context of feminism, may even be attributed to Urgayle’s recognition of O’Neill’s capabilities, the capabilities that were used by DeHaven to further her personal goals. G.I. Jane, in this sense, portrays the lack of solidarity amongst the members of the female sex in the 20th century as they continue to perpetuate sexist practices in line with their treatment of their fellow women.
It is important to note that G.I. Jane’s manifestation of the need to strengthen feminist ideals may not only be attributed to the antagonistic relationship portrayed between O’Neill and DeHaven as it can also be seen in the relationship between O’Neill and Urgayle. An important indication of this is apparent in Urgayle’s comparison of O’Neill to the wild bird in Lawrence’s poem. By comparing O’Neill to this bird, it is true that Urgayle recognizes her strength and abilities. However, it also emphasizes Urgayle’s association of O’Neill to entity that needs to be tamed by virtue of its wildness. This is an exact opposite of the metaphor of the bird in Glaspell’s Trifles, the death of which signaled Mrs. Hale’s freedom by virtue of her recognition that the bird represented her entrapped self.
To a certain extent an analysis of the implication of the representation of women in Scott’s G.I. Jane seems to offer a disheartening account of the development of the feminist movement. Such is the case since feminism was deeply focused on the attainment of equality not only for women but also for all the members of society during its initial development as its ideals are represented in Glaspell’s text. In G.I. Jane however, one is presented with a version of feminism, which is only applied by women in relation to themselves. This does not necessarily entail that feminism is a lost cause, it merely signals the need for the movement’s reassessment of its claims in order to account for the discrepancies in its practices.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “‘Jury of Her Peers’: The Importance of Trifles.” Studies in Short Fiction 21.1 (1984): 1-9. Print.
G.I. Jane. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen, and Anne Bancroft. Caravan Pictures, 1997.DVD. Caravan Home Entertainment, 2000.
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. New York: Players P., 2007. Print.
Holstein, Suzy. “Silent Justice in a Different Key: Glaspell’s ‘Trifles.’” Midwest Quarterly 44.3 (2003): 282-290. Print.
Marsh, Kelly. “Dead Husbands and Other ‘Girls’ Stuff’: The Trifles in Legally Blonde.” Literature/ Film Quarterly 33.3 (2005): 201-205. Print.