How can Betty Friedan’s theory of ‘The Feminine Mystique’ be applied to an extract from Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room?

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Published in 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique articulately illuminates the discontent position of American woman, particularly that of middle-class housewives, in the mid-twentieth century. Her work ‘ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world’ (Fox, 2006). First arising from Friedan’s own sense that there was ‘something very wrong with the way women are trying to live their lives today’ (1965: 9), this realisation lead to the creation of an intensive questionnaire which was handed out to Friedan’s college classmates fifteen years after their graduation. The responses to those ‘intimate open-ended questions’ (ibid) revealed the ‘strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image that I came to call the feminine mystique’ (ibid). Friedan’s revelation of the construction of the ‘feminine mystique’ as an icon of femininity, an image to which all women should aspire, is an idea in debt to Simone de Beauvoir’s notion that ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (1949: 48). Whereby, to ‘become’, when reoriented in terms of Friedan’s work, women must conform to the constructed image of the feminine mystique and ‘devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children’ (1965: 14). Thus, it is in the extract from The Women’s Room that Freidan’s work can be clearly exemplified, where Adele’s daughter Linda is already conforming in girlhood to the requirements of the feminine mystique through childhood play-pretend and imitation of Adele’s behaviours.

When applying the feminine mystique to the extract from Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room a narrow, possibly problematic, element of Friedan’s theory is revealed. In her work much is made of the negative effect of the image dictated by the feminine mystique that women, most particularly housewives, must conform to. Friedan shows how the image is unavoidable in American society as it constructs and perpetuates itself by penetrating every facet of society, or as she states:

‘This image created by the women’s magazines, by advertisements, television, movies, novels, columns and books by experts on marriage and the family, child psychology, sexual adjustment, and by the popularizers of sociology and psychoanalysis – shapes women’s lives today and mirrors their dreams’ (Friedan, 1965: 30)

Thus much emphasis is placed on how the ever-present, dictating nature of the feminine mystique affects women while little emphasis focuses on how the image’s normativity in society effects young girls growing up in the 1950’s. Friedan does, however, note evidence that younger and younger girls were beginning to conform to the requirements of the feminine mystique, whereby ‘the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping […] Girls started going steady at twelve and thirteen, in junior high’ (1965: 14). These are the daughters who witness first-hand the effort their mothers go to in order to conform to the feminine mystique and who will, inevitably, imitate her behaviours in order to conform too. Such a social discourse is evident in The Women’s Room where French describes how ‘Linda tried to help’ (96) with the particular use of the verb ‘tried’, as a past participle of ‘try’, suggesting that there is an element of failure which may occur in the action as it is defined as to ‘make an attempt’ (Stevenson and Waite, 2011: 1550). This failure is immediately realised when Linda drops the milk, her face becoming ‘white and terror-stricken as she looked up at her mother’ (ibid). Her terror in the act of failure arising because the feminine mystique dictates that ‘the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfilment of their own femininity’ (Freidan, 1965: 38). The fact that she was unable to complete such a small domestic task means that Linda is not fulfilling her femininity or conforming effectively, a truth which even at her young age is socially ingrained as an ultimate taboo.

Following this, French goes on to make use of a number of language choices which highlight how acts of domesticity go on to become learned behaviours for Linda. These learned behaviours become the foundation of what it means to conform, and be seen as conforming, to the feminine mystique much in the same way most unconsciously learned psychological behaviour presents an outward image to be accepted by society. As Friedan eloquently asserts, ‘the new image this mystique gives to American women is the old image: ‘Occupation: housewife’ (1965: 38). In the extract, French narrates the process by which Adele unconsciously teaches Linda how to complete domestic tasks, such as cleaning up the broken milk bottle. Rather than simply do the task herself, which could be easier given Linda’s apparent clumsy nature, she actively incorporates Linda as a helper in the task; possibly because, from a psychological standpoint, observation is one the most important methods of learning for children. Thus, in order to help sweep up the glass Adele grabbed a dustpan and broom and ‘told Linda to follow her’ (96), giving her the job of ‘holding the dustpan’ (ibid) and then Adele ‘gave the broom and dustpan to Linda’ to put away (ibid). In this short segment, French utilises a number of verbs in which help to describe the process by which Linda learns directly from Adele’s behaviours. The verbs ‘told’, ‘follow’ and ‘gave’ are all used because they situate Adele as the one providing the action, providing the platform of observation and teaching by which Linda will imitate. This process of observation and imitation is then further detailed through the act of ‘holding the dustpan’ (ibid), where Linda becomes an active participant in the task. The noun ‘holding’ grounds the narrative in the present tense, although the narrative of the novel is told almost entirely in past tense, indivertibly making Linda’s act of participation eternal as a moment of unconscious domestic imitation. By blurring the lines between the past and present tense in this way at this particular moment French is able to present simultaneously both parts of the observation-imitation process, showing how innately the image of the feminine mystique is engrained into societal norms and family dynamics of the 1950’s.

In the first chapter of her work, aptly entitled ‘The Problem That Has No Name’, Friedan demonstrates the nameless isolated, dissatisfaction felt by suburban housewives whose ‘role was to seek fulfilment as wives and mothers’ (1965: 13). As these women completed their daily domestic tasks as wives to their husbands and mothers to their children, they began to wonder ‘What kind of woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfilment waxing the kitchen floor?’ (1965: 17). The route of this dissatisfaction was the ‘strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying conform’ (Friedan, 1965: 9). This disparity is subtly demonstrated in French’s description of how Linda voices her Barbie doll: ‘Hello, dear,’ she said in an artificial voice’ (97-8). The choice to use the adjective ‘artificial’ emphasises that the image of the feminine mystique is that just that, an image. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘artificial’ as something which is ‘contrived or false’ (Stevenson and Waite, 2011: 74), thus for Linda to utilise this style of voice suggests that she identifies this untrue, disparate image; even if she does not understand what she is identifying. This identification with the problematic conformities of the feminine mystique is then further emphasised through Linda’s play-pretend where she ‘paraded the Barbie doll around in a circle, humming all the while’ (97). The happy image of parading around while ‘humming’ presents a microcosmic version of the disparity felt by housewives trying to conform to the feminine mystique, who felt they should be fulfilling their femininity as opposed to this lingering sense of dissatisfaction. Clearly this is something that Linda subconsciously recognises as it would based on Adele’s behaviours, the normalisation of this the reason that it has become engrained in her play-pretend. Thus for Linda to identify such behaviour as normal is the beginning of her conformity, even in girlhood, to the requirements of the feminine mystique.

In conclusion, Betty Friedan discusses the concept of the ‘feminine mystique’ in an extremely narrow manner where the focus of her work, although detailed and in-depth, is that of only adult females. Little emphasis is made on the how to prevalent image of the feminine mystique, which has penetrated all facets of American society, effects young girls who are growing up and maturing during the 1950’s. French’s work highlights how the feminine mystique is an image that Linda learns, and imitates traits of, from her mother who is an example of adult female Friedan so deeply discuses. Therefore, French’s work shows how the feminine mystique is a constructed image, one of which is perpetuated and inevitably passed down in society from mother to daughter as an image to conform to, the pinnacle of feminine achievement; a problematic image to say the least.

WORD COUNT: 1503

References

Fox, M. (2006) ‘Betty Friedan, Who Ignited Cause in ‘Feminine Mystique,’ Dies at 85’. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/national/05friedan.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0&ref=bettyfriedan (Accessed: 16th Febuary 2016)

French, M. ‘Extract 3: The Women’s Room’, pp. 96-99.

Stevenson, A. & Waite, M. (2011) Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 12th edn. Oxford University Press: Oxford

 

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