mxmories: pusheen the cat eating ramen (Default)
Feminist Criticism: To Kill a Mockingbird

Feminism, is, most simply, the equality of all genders and sexes. It is made to include all types of people from all walks of life -- something which is essential to human culture. To Kill a Mockingbird reflects many different aspects of feminism; from misogyny to the patriarchal system in which society functions, it all ties into the novel and life itself. This originates from the author’s childhood and the environment in which she grew up in. Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama: a small country town where southern ideals were strictly enforced. Gender roles were rigidly established for men and women. Women were quiet, calm childbearers and men were the strong working people who ran the household. The patriarchal views which permeated society prevented women from behaving in any way which could be deemed as masculine and kept men from exploring femininity. Harper broke and bent these stereotypical roles, establishing herself as a ‘tomboy.’ Above all superficial labels and standards which people attempted to force upon her, she became a world renowned author. This characterization of her childhood self is shown through the character Scout Finch. Other influences around her, such as the way men treated women, what women could and couldn’t do, and the relationship between women’s view of themselves and men’s view of women is also shown throughout her novel. These nuances are hard to miss whilst reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

Women and men are presented very differently within the text, which supports the ideas of the patriarchal society Lee grew up in. Women were portrayed as religious, quiet housewives who were intrinsically more stupid than men yet still well-behaved and polite. They’re only worth their attractiveness and what they can contribute to children. A good example of this portrayal is given through the character Miss Maudie, who is a widowed housewife that now can only interact with children. This is because she is outcasted by the adults, since she doesn’t have a male companion in her life (Lee 47). Women are also hated by other women simply on the account of being a woman. Examples of this within Harper Lee’s text are when Jem expresses his content for Scout’s “g-irl,” and the fact that Scout must spend her days with Miss Maudie, simply because she is a girl (58; 46). This internal hatred also damages the character Scout. As one author states, “at the beginning of the book, Scout is introduced as an intelligent tomboy that plays with older boys and is known for her vicious fights. Later on, Scout begins to act more girly and more cautious about certain actions than her playmates” (Spotting Feminism in To Kill a Mockingbird: Analysis of Character-Scout). Scout is transformed by the internalized misogyny that To Kill a Mockingbird’s female characters possess. Not only this, but women are also given less page space and smaller stories than male characters. Miss Maudie, yet again, is a good example of this. She is given a paragraph of backstory, yet Atticus Finch, another main character, gets a full two page spread (Lee 47; 4-5). Atticus’ story also continues on throughout the novel, yet Miss Maudie’s backstory ends there. She is only talked about, from then on, in relation to other characters’ lives. Women are portrayed in a drastically different way than men are. In summary, they are viewed as stupid, unsuccessful, and subordinate to men. They also rarely get a full back story or duties other than things like house cleaning or childbearing.

On the contrary, men are given the roles of smart, well-rounded people who are allowed full-time careers. This is highly resemblant of the time in which Harper Lee grew up, as she watched women fail to obtain jobs simply because of their gender all of her life. Men, again, are rarely at home and are known to be strong. A concrete example of this characterization is Atticus Finch. Atticus is a lawyer who is only home from his extremely busy job at night (5). Not only that, but boys (and men) are allowed to make mistakes, as they’re “just being boys!” For example, Scout is punished at school for reading and writing, but Jem isn’t even punished for walking around outside without a pair of pants on, as Atticus states it’s “just a phase” (24; 61-2). Also, they are generally viewed as ‘greater’ than women and better in ways that are unfounded or unfair. Jem expressing his contempt for Scout’s g-irlish behaviors is, again, a prime example of this misogyny that occurs within the story; he says things like “I swear, Scout, sometimes you act so much like a girl it’s mortifyin’,” and tells Scout that “girls always imagined things, that’s why other people hated them so, and if [Scout] started behaving like one [Scout] could just go off and find some to play with” (42; 45). These ideals reflect greatly on when Harper Lee was a child, as she likely felt afraid of her own gender because of the hatred men expressed for it. The misogyny she internalized may be why she even acted like a tomboy in the first place. Growing up in the 20s and 30s affected men’s portrayal in To Kill a Mockingbird immensely, as shown.

The relationship between men and women is also presented in a way that references Harper Lee’s childhood environment. Men are portrayed as above women and inherently inferior, as femininity is viewed as a negative thing. Harper Lee, growing up in a small Alabama town, likely faced this relationship dynamic on a day-to-day basis. As one author states, Harper had a very weak, overly feminine mother and did not want to grow up to be powerless like her (Harper Lee: Feminist Lens: Analysis of Author - To Kill a Mockingbird). In addition, men are made to view it as bad to “act like a girl” and women are made to view it as bad to “act like a man.”  This is because of the misogyny within the book and the misogyny within Harper Lee’s young environment. When she was younger, women and men both had very strict roles to fill and were not allowed to break or bend them in any way. In To Kill a Mockingbird, men and women both also rarely interact outside of a familial or romantic context. Husbands and wives may spend time together, and so may brothers and sisters, but that’s nearly it. An example of this occurring is when Jem refuses to talk to anyone besides his male friends at school, leaving Scout on her own (Lee 18). He doesn’t want to be seen playing with a girl around people he’s supposed to look masculine with. All in all, the relationship between men and women in To Kill a Mockingbird is very harmful and has power dynamics within it that are misogynistic and problematic, as that’s what Lee grew up around.

In conclusion, Harper Lee, growing up in the early 1900s, was a masculine girl who was outcasted, judged, and labeled negatively by her peers for her behaviors. These things are reflected within her only published work, To Kill a Mockingbird, by the character Scout Finch and via the relationships between men and women characters. The way women and men treated each other and were portrayed in her childhood society is also connected with the way women and men act within the novel. It is imperative that we notice these differences and complexities through a feminist lens, as they tie the entire book together and help us make connections between culture and what it creates.


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July 2015

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