Oleanna And Trifles Essay, Research Paper
Gender Roles and Stereotypes in Trifles and Oleanna
Individuals commonly address the issues of gender roles, gender stereotypes, feminism, and political correctness in everyday conversation as well as in modern literature and modern drama. Questions have arisen concerning the differences between men and women other than obvious physical variance. Are men and women inherently different? If so, are they equal? Should men and women fill different societal roles? Are potential differences a result of gender roles and the stereotypes associated with these roles? Two modern plays, Oleanna by David Mamet and Trifles by Susan Glaspell address these types of issues. Both plays address the above themes of gender roles, stereotypes, and the differences in the way men and women perceive each other. More specifically, in both plays, all of the female characters take advantage of gender roles and stereotypes in a manner that allows them to reverse the roles of subservient females and dominant males.
In her play, Susan Glaspell blatantly comments on feminist ideals and criticizes female gender roles and stereotypes. Throughout the play the reader is able to find examples of the playwrights feminist ideals. As early as the description of the setting, the criticism of ownership and property rights typically associated with males is shown. By describing the house as “the farmhouse of John Wright” Glaspell expresses her distaste for the male-dominated culture found during this period and rural area. Also early in the play, the reader is given the names of the dead man and the woman accused of murdering him-Minnie and John Wright. The name Minnie may symbolize the sense of inferiority felt by women during this time period, while the name of the insensitive Mr. Wright may be a sarcastic play on the term “Mr. Right”. Also regarding the use of names, the fact that the women are never addressed by their first name at any time in the play may express the male attitude that women are not supposed to act individualistically. The next feminist ideal shown to the reader comes in the form of a negative male stereotype-that men are uncaring and trivialize serious situations. The playwright illustrates this stereotype of male insensitivity through the constant laughing among the male characters. The speech of the Sheriff and County Attorney are described by Glaspell as “chuckling” and “scoffingly”. Also, in the beginning of the play, “the men laugh” when Mrs. Hale questions whether Mrs. Wright is going to quilt or knot her piece of fabric. In a more subtle criticism of male dominance, Glaspell makes the comparison of the bird, non-existent cat, and birdcage, to Minnie and John Wright and to John Wright’s house. Much like a bird, Minnie Wright is described as “happy and fluttery”, at least until John Wright chokes the spiritual and emotional life out of her in the “quiet and gloomy” house that can easily be compared to the now empty birdcage. Finally, and most importantly, the play views women as being more likely to pay attention to detail. According to Mr. Hale, “women are used to worrying over their trifles”.
Because of this propensity to look more carefully at seemingly insignificant details, the women of the play are able to use this stereotype in order to find the truth surrounding the murder of John Wright. The women notice the mental decay of Minnie Wright through the messiness house, and more obviously through the increased shoddiness in the stitching of one of Mrs. Wright’s quilts. “All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was about! (After she has said this they look at each other )” The women’s fears are realized when they discover the dead bird that has been strangled much the way John Wright had been murdered. After coming to the realization that Mrs. Wright is indeed the killer, in an act of sisterhood, the women decide to protect her by not divulging the evidence that they have discovered. By not telling the men, the women are able to reverse the dominant role from male to female. The women ultimately hold the power of the situation-they are the ones that are able to determine the fate of Minnie Wright, not the male sheriff or the male judge.
Much like the play Trifles, gender roles and stereotypes are also prevalent in the play Oleanna. In the first half of the play, Carol personifies the stereotype of women as helpless, stupid, and constantly needing men to take care of them. Because Carol is too helpless to figure out material for herself, she decides to go to her superior, male professor for help. Carol states “But I don’t understand. I don’t understand. I don’t understand what anything means.” The second stereotype of women that Mamet shows the reader of the play is that of women taking the role of homemakers. Several times throughout the play, when the topic of John’s new house comes up Carol becomes immediately excited and exclaims “oh. You’re buying a new home!” These exclamations give the reader the impression that Carol longs to have a house and family much like John’s wife who is the stereotypical female homemaker. John on the other hand works and fills the stereotypical male “breadwinner” role.
Carol abuses both these female stereotypes as well as male stereotypes in order to reverse the dominant gender role from male to female. First of all, it should be noted that I read the play in a way that Carol actually took advantage of John from the beginning of the play. Carol appears to be an angry student who exaggerates her existing incompetence in order to satisfy her need to get back at the professor and at higher education in general. I came to this conclusion not only because there exists an inexplicable change in vocabulary and speaking ability between the first and second acts, but also because of the fact that she had no reason to ruin John having satisfied her two requests-to learn more and to receive a better grade. Looking at Carol’s character in this way, one can argue that Carol plays the role of the stereotypical, helpless woman, and that she abuses this stereotype in order to trap John. By acting helpless and pathetic Carol fools John into taking a comforting and almost patriarchal role. Furthermore, due to the existing gender stereotypes of males, John’s actions are easily misconstrued. Carol takes advantage of the stereotype of men being sexually driven and twists John’s actions and words in a way that make them seem at least flirtatious in nature. Yes, John did say that he liked her, and that if she came to see him more outside of class he would raise her grade; however, it is the sexually driven male stereotype that causes individuals to interpret those actions in a sexual way when taken out of context.
Both of these plays inarguably delve into the theme of gender and more specifically the use and abuse of gender roles and stereotypes. The difference in the two plays lies in the intentions behind the authors’ use of these stereotypes. Susan Glaspell uses these stereotypes in order to criticize the male-dominated culture described in her play while David Mamet uses these stereotypes in order to attack the overly feminist and politically correct views of today’s society. Despite their differences in social commentary, both of these plays revolve around the use of stereotypes in order to reverse the dominant role from male to female. The women in Trifles act in a stereotypical manner which allows them to ultimately control the fate of a woman that would normally be controlled by men, while Carol in Oleanna abuses modern gender stereotypes in order to ruin John.