The best thing a person can be in life is who he or she is.
Quite often in life, there are conventional roles that are placed on individuals by society. These roles are usually defined by stereotypes based by one’s race, gender, ethnicity or social class. Many times, people may suffer from existential anxieties in attempts to redefine themselves as an individual apart from these set roles. Often, however, one may not live to their fullest potential because it is metaphysically easier to simply fall into these roles in attempts to obtain the acceptance of others than to be the product of independent thought.
Simone de Beauvoir refers to these roles and incapability to develop a unique identity as “the other.” In Tennessee Williams’ tragedy play, The Glass Menagerie, there is a profuse amount of imposed gender roles. This is especially true in the imposing of what the mother, Amanda Wingfield’s idea of what femininity is on her daughter, Laura Wingfield. This is evident from the very beginning when the family is discussing Laura’s lack of “gentleman callers” and her ideas of what women should be to attract and entertain these “gentleman callers” (Williams, Tennessee, 684).
According to De Beauvoir, many people, like Amanda, are ultimately the other because they have chosen to be. Amanda is the perfect example of a woman who enjoys her role as other because it allows her to escape the anxiety of defining herself as subject. It seems that when one does try to break free from other in attempts to simply develop their own personality, they may suffer consequences that affect the quality of life. Some of these punishments that one may suffer from is shown in Amanda’s stringent unthoughtful criticisms toward her daughter (de Beauvoir, 124).
Because Laura does not get any suitable men trying to court her, Amanda is afraid she will not have a man to take care of her and develops aspirations for her daughter to become a secretary. Amanda signs Laura up for school in hopes that she can develop a life for herself. This was never in Laura’s plans, however and although she allows her mother to believe she is going to school, she really is not. In a way, Laura feels the need to deceive her own mother and as a result has to oppress herself around her own family in order to avoid hearing any criticism or negative comments. This is dimly ironic because by not simply being true to herself, Laura has multiplied the criticism because now, not only does she get criticized for not attending her typing classes, but she gets criticized for being deceitful as well. Amanda does not only question Laura’s femininity in comparison to other people but also her entire adulthood. When she finds out Laura has been lying to her she tells her, “I thought you were an adult; it seems that I was mistaken” (Williams, 685).
The roles that are imposed on people often leaves one in a state of delusion. In the case of femininity, one can say that Amanda is delusional about what her daughter truly wants to be like as she makes plans for what Laura’s life and personality should be according to her standards. Amanda covers her incapability to deal with reality by focusing on Laura, through her criticisms and through her unrealistic expectations. Rather than focusing on her own transcendence and defining herself as an individual apart from these standards, she is focused on hopes that Laura will fit the same standards, remaining in the same state of immanence as her mother.
Laura, although secretly defiant of her mothers’ imposing, is also in a state of self-delusion and otherness because she often feels the need to create an illusion fitting of Amanda’s standards in order to avoid hearing criticism. She never wanted to go to business school, she would have rather secretly explored, and she did. During the hours where she was supposed to be at school, Laura was visiting the museum, the park, the movies, shops, etc. Although she managed to do what she wanted behind her mother’s back, her worries are evident as she explains the reasons for lying to her mother. She did not just lie for the sake of being deceitful. She lied because she did not want to disappoint her mother: “Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’ mother in the museum! I couldn’t face it.” This tendency to avoid disappointing the people around her, is what inhibits Laura’s genuineness from flourishing. (Williams, 686).
The very advice given to Laura by her own mother proves that parenthood may be one of the primary institutions within the patriarchy that emphasize the value of gender roles in society. Too often, women are not understood in themselves independent from men, but are defined and valued in terms of their relation to men. While mothers like Amanda continue to give their daughters this kind of advice the difficulty to define oneself independent from men will prevail, leaving many women in a state of immanence. Women are highly capable of transcending, but the traditional relationship between man and woman dooms many women to an existence of immanence in which she never progresses or develops her own unique identity (De Beauvoir, 128).Through imposing these traditional values on Laura, Amanda is encouraging of this lack of progression. “It is proved that there is a description of gender role socialization within mother-daughter relationship, that Amanda has been socialized certain gender roles explicitly to Laura, by using specific ways in socializing those gender roles” (Tungka & Darta, 1).
Amanda warns Laura of the consequences of not taking up the business career and plans that she has made for her daughter. She asks of Laura, “what is there left but dependency all our lives?” and warns her by depicting a horrible alternative life as the consequence of not following Amanda’s plans, “I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South– barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife!– stuck away in some little mouse-trap of a room– encouraged by one in-law to visit another– little birdlike women without any nest– eating the crust of humility all their life! Is that the future we’ve mapped out for ourselves?” She advises her daughter that if she cannot make a business career of herself that she ought to marry some nice man to depend on (Williams, 686-687).
Amanda, as a dominant single mother tries to prepare Laura for the sole purpose of finding a husband after failing to complete her classes. Amanda is filling her position in a patriarchal institution by forcefully socializing the role of a housewife to Laura through her advice. She wants Laura to stay “fresh and pretty– for gentleman callers!” (Williams, 682).
Laurie Arliss explains in her book Gender Communication that parenthood is one of main foundations that result in the social conditioning of an individual because parents are the very first agents of society in a child’s life since birth. While raising a child, parents react differently toward their child’s behavior in relation to their gender by reinforcing what is considered feminine behaviors in girls and what is considered masculine behavior in boys. By purposely preparing children for appropriate adult sex roles, one may never transcend thus raising an individual who does not live to their fullest potential. Some examples of social conditioning by parents is the rewarding of ‘strong, solid and independent’ behaviors in boys and ‘loving, cute and sweet’ behaviors in girls. Children are also conditioned by the very beginning through their toys as boys are usually playing with toy soldiers, cars and participating in sports, while girls are surrounded by dolls and play kitchen sets. Arliss refers to this condition as “anticipatory socialization.” On the reverse side, parents also may act negatively toward behaviors deemed as the opposite of gender appropriate through either disciplinary verbal sanctions or physical punishment. This negative reinforcement is called “non-anticipatory socialization” (Arliss, 133-134).
Amanda conditions Laura by determining how she ought to behave in order to attract any potential suitors by claiming how girls in her days “knew how to talk” and that she, unlike Laura, “understood the art of conversation.” She explains to her son, Tom that she and the girls from her time “knew how to entertain their gentleman callers. It wasn’t enough for a girl to be possessed of a pretty face and a graceful figure– although I wasn’t slighted in either respect. She also needed wit and a tongue to meet all occasions” (Williams, 682).
Amanda also tries to condition Laura’s interests and personality by advising that not only should she be a good conversationalist but that she also should not be so quiet and shy and that she ought to be more outgoing and encourages her to get dressed up and go out rather than stay at home. Amanda asks her, “Laura are you going to do what I asked you to do, or do I have to get dressed and go out myself?
Rather than accepting Laura’s differences in her personality she tries to adjust her shy character toward a more charming and vivacious one. While Amanda is helping Laura get ready for a date with Jim O’ Connor, she questions her trembling and nervousness. Any of Laura’s actions that do not fit Amanda’s ideals of what it means to be feminine confuses her: “I don’t understand you, Laura. You couldn’t be satisfied with just sitting home, yet whenever I try to arrange something for you, you seem to resist it.” Amanda seems to be frustrated with any of Laura’s differences and does not believe that she should simply be satisfied with her own individual pastimes, which is sitting at home with her old records playing and taking care if her glass menagerie. Not only does she impose social standards on to Laura but she also imposes beauty standards by enhancing her bosom, stuffing her bra with two powder puffs. She calls them “Gay Deceivers” and when Laura expresses her refusal to wear them, Amanda forces her to and insults her by saying, “to be painfully honest, your chest is flat” (Williams, 705).
By enforcing gender roles from the very beginning of life many people are growing up to not fulfill their full potential. As a result, parenthood is a biological institution “lying under the patriarchal society, which aim to ensure that all potential on earth, and including women, shall remain under male control.” Through this social conditioning brought on by one’s parents, daughters are placed in the “subordinate position, where male will always be the center or the purpose on their life” (Humm, 269).
Simone de Beauvoir agrees with Humm’s claim by stating that “humanity is male, and man defines woman not in herself but in relation to him; she is not considered as an autonomous being.” By being kept in a position of inferiority through these types of social conditionings, women have become inferior to men and because of the emphasis on social conformity, the emancipation of woman has been seen as a danger that threatens conservative morals and interests. This social conditioning have created an atmosphere where a man’s self-entitlement allows him to never even have to question his place on earth in comparison to a woman’s. “One of the benefits that oppression gives the oppressors is that it makes the most humble men among them feel superior… When compared to women, the most mediocre male can think of himself as a demi-god” (de Beauvoir, 124-127).
Everything that Amanda does in preperance for Laura’s date with Jim is under the agenda to please him while there is no focus on Laura’s needs or what makes her happy. She even goes as far as letting Laura take responsibility for the dinner that she prepared, giving Jim the illusion that Laura actually is this subordinate, male-serving character. “You know that Laura is in full charge of supper! It’s rare for a girl as sweet an’ pretty as Laura to be domestic! But Laura is, thank heavens, not only pretty but also very domestic.” Not only does Amanda’s dialogue between her, Jim and Tom in this scene impose roles toward women, but it also imposes what a man should be attracted to on women. Amanda selfishly puts her marriage plans for Laura into play by delivering the most convincing good impression that she can possibly leave on Jim. (Williams, 711-712).
Amanda does not mean to lead her daughter toward this path of immanence. As a parent, she has good intentions and realizes the consequences of straying away from the role as other. Simone de Beauvoir does not deny these consequences either. She warns readers that “to refuse to be the Other, to refuse complicity with men, would require that women renounce all the advantages that alliance with the superior cast confers upon them” the same way that Amanda warns Laura of the consequential alternative lifestyle for not conforming to her expectations. Aside from Amanda’s “barely tolerated spinsters” example, de Beauvoir offers her own example of a well-known female author who refused to allow her portrait to appear in a photo series dedicated to female authors. According to de Beauvoir, she wanted to be included among the men, not solely women “but she used the influence of her husband to obtain this privilege” making it nearly impossible to obtain masculine respect and acknowledgement without using her husband as a means to getting to that position (De Beauvoir, 124-125).
Although there may be social consequences for not filling the role of other, De Beauvoir also warns her readers of the more grim metaphysical consequences of not justifying her existence as a unique individual. She warns the reader, “along with the economic risk, she also eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its own ends without help. Indeed, besides the urge of every individual to affirm himself as subject, which is an ethical urge, there is also the temptation to flee one’s freedom to become an object.” This temptation that Amanda has fallen into and urges for her daughter to as well “is a disastrous path– passive, alienated, lost; on it one becomes prey to someone else’s will, cut off from one’s transcendence, defrauded of all worth. But it is an easy path.” It is an easy path for one such as Amanda whom seems incapable of developing a personality based on independent thought but voluntarily devlops one based on oppressive traditional values. Just because Amanda has conformed to the role of other, however, does not mean that she is any less happy than someone who has decided to define themselves based on their own exclusive mindset because to a certain extent, it eliminates some despair as it “evades the anguish and the stress of taking upon oneself an authentic existence… Woman does not affirm herself as subject because she does not have the material resources, because she feels that the bond that ties her to the man is necessary even if it lacks reciprocity, and because she is often pleased with her role as the Other” (de Beauvoir, 125).
By allowing Laura to decide little regarding her own future, Laura’s responsibility to define herself as an individual is being put at risk. By not trusting Laura to make decisions for herself she is risking her falling into a state of immanence. Amanda’s lack of trust that Laura can lead her own life is evident in the dialogue between her and her son. Amanda tells Tom, “we have to be making plans and provisions for her… It frightens me how she just drifts along… I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent.” This is an ironic use of the word “independent” because Amanda’s idea of independent is apparently to be completely reliant on a husband. She continues, “I put her in business college– a dismal failure! I took her over to the Young People’s League at the church. Another fiasco. She spoke to nobody, nobody spoke to her. Now all she does is fool with those pieces of glass and play those worn-out records. What kind of life is that for a girl to lead?” (Williams, 696-697).
Amanda focused all her energy on planning a life out for Laura, rather than focusing on her own transcendence. It is ironic how much effort she put into finding Laura a husband because the one gentleman that she found suitable is unavailable. Jim turns out to be engaged to marry a woman by the name of Betty soon. Amanda fails to see the error of her ways and blames Tom for the whole disaster since he was the one who introduced Jim to the family even though he did not even know about Betty.
Through her negative criticisms, Amanda offers Laura all but negatives sanctions as a consequence for her gender/age inappropriate behavior. Through the automatic connotation of Laura’s shy and nervous nature with negativity and silliness, Amanda makes Laura feel inferior for who she naturally is. Through her parenting tactics, Amanda’s character shows how parenthood can be a primary enforcer of misogyny within a patriarchal society, as well as an enforcer of all imposed stereotyped roles of the world. As long as these social oppressions exist, the importance of being a human being above all the peculiarities that distinguish humans from one another will rarely take part in shaping humanity to its fullest potential.
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Humm, Maggie. 1992. “Feminism, A Reader.” Great Britain: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Tungka, Novalita Francisca & Darta, Deta Maria Sri. “The Study of Gender Role Socialization
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Williams, Tennessee. “The Glass Menagerie.” The Heath Introduction to Drama. 5th Edition.