Essay, Research Paper: Gender Roles


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I have thought about many different ways to organize this paper and have come to
the conclusion that the best way to approach the topic is on a book-by-book
basis. My perceptions of the gender biases in these books vary greatly and I did
not want to begin altering my views on each so that they would fit into certain
contrived connections. What interests me most in these stories is how the
authors utilize certain character’s within their given environment. Their
instincts and reactions are a wonderful window into how the authors perceive
these “people” would interact with their surroundings and often are either
rewarded or punished by the author through consequences in the plot for their
responses. Through this means we can see how the authors expect their characters
to behave in relation to their post in the world. We must be very careful as
readers to judge these biases based only on evidence within the text and not
invent them from our own psyche due to the individual world we know. In Louis
Sachar’s award winning book Holes, we see gender biases in many characters.
The first and most obvious bias in this book can be found in the way Sachar’s
characters address Mr. Pendanski, one of the staff members at Camp Green Lake.
Many of the boys refer to him sarcastically as “mom”, and it is not because
of his loving nature. Mr. Pendanski is neurotic about things the boys consider
trivial and he has a tendency to nag them. Because Mr. Pendanski is portrayed as
the antithesis of Mr. Sir, who simply drips testosterone, others view him as a
female for his weakness. The fact that Sachar allows his characters to equate
weakness with femininity, or more accurately motherhood, shows a certain bias
towards the supposed strength that innately accompanies masculinity. This
attitude is only furthered by the fact that the rest of the book as almost
totally devoid of female characters other than the witch-like caricature
presented to us in the form of the warden. She comes complete with a vicious
disposition and poisonous fingernails. The most interesting part of this bias is
that the boys chose to name Mr. Pendanski “mom” in light of their own
personal family histories. I think it can safely be assumed that not many of
these boys had a functional relationship with their parents or they probably
would not be in Camp Green Lake to begin with. These boys chose to place Mr.
Pendanski, a whiny and unrespected man in the grand scheme of things at camp, in
the role of mother. They did not turn to the only woman present at the camp, nor
the man who disciplines them each day, to fill their maternal needs. Instead
they turn to the weakest figure in their lives and mock him by referring to him
as a woman. This demonstrates to us that Sachar considers femininity a weakness
in this world and has no issues showing us. As Ernst wrote, “How easy is it to
relegate girls to second class citizens when they are seen as second-class
citizens, or not at all” (Ernst 67). This point is only furthered by the fact
that the only woman present is such a fairy tale character. She is portrayed to
us as all but a sorceress and it can be assumed she has taken on this persona in
order to survive in a predominately male post in a totally male dominated
environment. Even in our class it was evident that many readers were taken aback
by the fact that Sachar chose to make his warden a female. And so it again can
be seen that Sachar has imparted onto us a bias that a real woman could not
function in this world so he had to invent a completely fictional and grandiose
one. With all the other characters in the book appearing so human, it seems
obvious he turned the warden into a beast because he felt he had to. In What
Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman, gender bias shows itself in a new way. In this book
masculinity and evil seem to go hand in hand. There is the character of Van, who
is pretty much the same abusive man from every after school special and info-mercial
we see during primetime, doing terrible things to a defenseless family. Then
there is Jamie, who by my estimation is one of the meekest male characters I
have encountered in a children’s book. Finally we have Earl, who is such a
hollow character that I truly believe he is merely Coman’s “out” for this
book and nothing more. He is the not threatening to Jamie and his family because
he is not anything or anyone; he is simply the idea of a man. He is not
developed as a character nor does he give any insight into the situation he
encounters and therefore can be disregarded as a tertiary character either
passive or emotionally absent from the world around him. Van and Jamie however,
serve a much more prominent and functional purpose. Van strikes me much the same
way the Warden does in Holes. Although he is presented in a slightly less
fantastic light, one cannot help but see him as the embodiment of evil and
destruction within Coman’s world. This not only demonstrates a stereotype of
men as violent, but it also is a necessity to the book because it does not ever
actually detail the violence occurring in the book other than the opening. By
making Van the animal that he is, we as readers have an easier time believing he
is capable of the horrors inherent within this book. He takes on almost a
Neanderthal-ic feel as the book progresses and the lives of everyone involved
become more complicated. I do not mean to suggest that power and masculinity
always must go together, but Van most certainly is shown to us as the
stereotypical dominant male from the start. Using his brawn to solve problems
rather than his brain, Van is our worst nightmare of what a man is capable of
becoming: a thoughtless, guiltless tornado of destruction. Coman uses these
biases present in our minds to amplify her character and thereby increase the
power of her story. The gender bias in Virginia Hamilton’s Cousins is very
obvious and straightforward in the form of Patty Ann, who is described many
times the way we would talk about a porcelain doll. Hamilton places on her
character the two most common stereotypes women encounter: the image of
perfection and an innate insecurity with themselves. She does this very
blatantly, as is evident in her writing. This image of perfection can be seen in
Cammy’s description of Patty Ann, “Patty Ann had her special expression
again, the kind that made folks say she was the best. That made people not
notice the rest of her was just skin and bones. Her face was just perfect…”
(Hamilton 93). This image of fragile perfection is what has kept women
(especially those of beauty) from being perceived as equal or intelligent. I was
surprised to see this image so obviously presented until I realized it was
necessary for the character to function properly within the story. However it is
still obvious that one of the oldest female stereotypes exists in full force
within the character on Patty Ann. In addition to this doll-like quality,
Hamilton shows us the insecure underbelly of her character. Patty Ann shows
throughout the book how much she fears what others think of her through her
attitude. She has a tendency to be rather mean at times because of her
insecurities and it serves to distance her from many people in her life.
Hamilton uses Patty Ann to demonstrate the perceptions people may have of girls
and then allows Cammy to digest Patty Ann’s short life in order to debunk
them. The image of Patty Ann while she is alive and Cammy’s view of her after
she is gone differ greatly, which serves to remove the validity from the very
stereotypes Hamilton is presenting. Edward Bloor’s Tangerine presents us with
a gender bias we encounter more commonly in TV sitcoms than in literature: that
of the athletic, mean spirited, adolescent male. Erik’s tirades and terrors
are well documented in the book, and though I will not rehash them I will say
that they are tragic. Bloor’s character is menacing and torturous towards his
little brother for his own amusement and spite. Erik’s ability to cover his
tracks and allow everyone to believe he is a “normal” young man turns him
into a conniving villain in this piece. Erik fits the jock/bully role perfectly
and Bloor amplifies this by using Paul’s voice in his writing. Paul deems
Erik’s goals as “The Erik Fisher Football Dream” and even comments on his
love life. “I guess Paige and Tina want to date football players, so these two
will do. Erik and Arthur want to date cheerleaders, so these two will do” (Bloor
39). Erik now is shown to us as a materialistic social climber with no regard
for anyone but himself. The egotistical Adonis we now see serves as the villain
to the sensitive and humble Paul. Bloor does this because to the modern reader
the dominant male character is very easy to hate, what with his well-documented
oppression of every other major group he encounters. Bloor further stereotypes
the Fisher family, but for a very different reason than the other authors I have
discussed. He is attempting to satirize our stereotypes of the nuclear family
through the over-the-top nature of this family. This is an approach that I have
not encountered and found most enjoyable. Bloor has a tendency to write many of
the family interactions in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone, which adds humor to
the story and allows us as readers to laugh at the ridiculousness of our own
preconceived notions about what a family “should” be. By showing us the
augmented version of our stereotypes Bloor hopes to show us how silly they truly
are. Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech is a book that I believe presents a very
well rounded and complete character in Sal. She is a warm and intelligent girl
and Creech does not encumber her character with the pitfalls of any evident
stereotypes as far as I can see. She interacts with her environment in a logical
and intelligent way, and at times, such as when her mother lost her baby,
demonstrates amazing strength. It appears that Sal’s strength is derived from
her family, which is a very endearing feature. This is probably why Creech
employed this characteristic, in order to make Sal someone we would want to know
and care for. It is important in this book for Sal to be someone the reader can
relate to because she is not only a central character but also a storyteller. We
must trust and care for her in order to feel the emotions Creech is trying to
evoke. Sal’s charming, simple humor and perseverance through tough times make
her one of the only characters we have encountered whom I feel is truly a
complete and noble person. Creech does an excellent job of getting into her
psyche and displaying it to us throughout the story without becoming overly
dramatic or “sappy”. Creech uses Sal to show us the human spirit that can
exist within a good and intelligent person, regardless of their sex or social
category. All of these books deal with gender roles, either unwittingly or in
order to display them as falsehoods. They present to us a reflection, however
warped it may be, of the world we live in and the perceptions inherent within
it. In order for us to recognize and deal with these ideas, we must continue to
discuss them through real-life situations or literature we encounter. Only by
dissecting obvious examples of these biases will we ever be able to abandon
them. Censoring books such as these merely avoids the problem and allows future
generations to go on clinging to the same stilted social values we fault now.
Each author presents to us an image of the world and then displays the
principles they hold dear by controlling their characters within it. It is by
analyzing these images and principles that we will be fully able to understand
the views present around us and thereby form a more educated one of our own.
Ernst wrote, “…changes in children’s books often come long after they have
been seen in reality” (76). We as teachers have a responsibility to dialogue
these notions with our students so that they will have the insight to write
about it in the future.

Bloor, Edward. Tangerine. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997. · Coman, Carolyn.
What Jamie Saw. New York: Puffin Books, 1995. · Creech, Sharon. Walk Two Moons.
New York: Harper Trophy, 1994. · Ernst, Shirley B. “Gender Issues in Books
for Children and Young Adults.” Battling Dragons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann,
1995. · Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Frances Foster Books, 1998.

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