The issue of Gender and its construction is particularly contentious and has been explored and scrutinized both conservatively and radically in different literary works. The controversial issues arise from the how gender is socially or culturally defined and the expectations and ideals that define gender identities. One of the prominent themes in Alice Munro’s Boys and Girls is the issue of gender construction. Through the story’s characters Munro highlights how societal forces and beliefs provide distinction between male and female children, which propels their maturity into gendered adults. By definition, gender refers to the roles, characteristics and behaviors ascribed to individuals on the basis of biological distinction. From the story, it is clear that Munro depicts that the conception of gender is a form of production influenced by the society. The purpose of this essay is to provide a literary review of Jane Munro’s Boys and Girls and to frame the thesis that the author believes that there are differences in the characteristics of boys and girls which shape their personalities into adulthood, all which should be respected. The considerations that explain the thesis further include the author’s belief that societal gender construction and patriarchal gender inequalities undermine the unique personalities that boys and girls have.
Gender distinction-characteristics and roles
There is conflict in gender distinction in Boys and Girls as portrayed by the story’s protagonist and narrator, a girl who is trying to decipher her gender roles in her society. The story is based in Canada, around the 20th century. Together with her family, father, mother and a brother, the narrator lives on a fox farm where she tries to envision her view of herself, identity and role. Initially, the narrator has no perception of gender roles but as the story advances, she begins to identify what is expected of her as a girl in her society which results in the story’s main antagonism. Through the narrator, Munro depicts the society’s view regarding the qualities and perspectives that define the standards of propriety and action expected of girls/women in that society.For example, the narrator’s grandmother prods her to sit appropriately like a girl by keeping her knees together or to avoid slamming doors.“My grandmother came to stay with us for a few weeks and I heard other things. “Girls don’t slam doors like that.” “Girls keep their knees together when they sit down.” (Munro, pg. 141). As a girl, the narrator is forced to act according to her mother and grandmother’s demands despite her androgenized mannerisms that do not depict how a girl should behave.
There is a distinct and spatial division regarding the responsibilities that boys and girls should assume evidenced by the disparity in predetermined space set aside for male and females on the farm and within the house respectively. The prevailing stereotypes in the book concerning the characteristics of boys and girls, portray boys as dominant and aggressive while girls remain passive and calm in assuming their roles in the society. As that, the difficult farm work and hunting of wild animals is prescribed to be the reserve of boys/men while house work is meant for girls/women. The protagonist naturally feels comfortable working on the farm and hunting, a male domain, and constantly seeking validation from her farther and shunning her mother and grandmother’s efforts prompting her to work in the house. She views housework as boring and endless; while farm work seems important to her (Munro, pg. 147). This distinction of work according to gender highlights the disparity between boys and girls in that the characteristics of the work assigned to them is distinguished based on productivity and non-productivity, where girls/women are meant to embrace domestic roles that are not considered very productive compared to male roles.
The narrator is determined to defy conformity into the traditional roles predetermined for her evidenced by her vivid thoughts and dreams about situations where she is a heroic woman. Even though Munro’s story focuses on the narrator’s conflict with her role and responsibilities as a girl, the roles played by boys/ men are not exempted. As a boy, the protagonist’s brother, Laird, is expected to assume his roles and responsibilities in the farm where brevity and the occurrence of a successful hunt is deemed as some sort of initiation into manhood and aligns with the expectations of being a man in the society (Munro, pg. 153).
In the story, it is evident that parents are greatly responsible for the assumption of their children’s mindset and views regarding the issue of gender. Additionally, parents can facilitate gender socialization by raising their children based on social structures and norms neglecting their characteristics and desires. As mentioned, at the beginning of the story, the narrator has no perception of gender attributes and roles. However, through her parents, her mother in particular, she starts to decipher the traditional roles that she is supposed to assume as a girl. Her mother tells her father that he should wait till Laird, the protagonist’s brother, gets older so that he can get real help on the farm. “I wheeled the tank up to the barn, where it was kept, and I heard my mother saying, “Wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help.”” (Munro, pg. 144). The statement undermines the narrator’s role as a girl in the farm and shows the influence that parents have on the gender attributes that their children assume. In this society, there is total disregard for the androgenized female with male interests, such that the narrator’s characteristics and mannerisms are neglected by her own mother. As that, being unique is disregarded and children are supposed to assume or model the characteristics and traditional roles from their parents, such that girls learn from their mothers regarding femininity and feminine activities while boys learn the aspects of masculinity from their fathers.
In the contemporary society, the issue of gender construction and inequalities are contentious and remain significant in different aspects of life such as, in the family setting, education, careers, and controversial matters such as sexuality.
As a result of conflict in trying to decipher her gender role in her society, the narrator in Munro’s Boys and Girls consequently deals with the issue of finding her identity as a girl. Regarding the process of identifying and assuming identities, Munro explores whether the aspect of self is determined by the respective individual or by societal influences, for example is gender construction influenced or assigned through societal pressures or by individual determination. In the story, the narrator’s character is un-named which may symbolize identity unawareness or a lack of identity altogether. Further, the disparity between boys and girls in this society is evidenced by the naming of the narrator’s brother, whose name, Laird means ‘Lord’ which on critical analysis may imply a suppression of the identities of girls/women. Throughout the book, the narrator struggles to understand what her gender attributes and expectations are which ultimately defines her identity in her society. Another case of symbolism in the story that portrays the issue of identity is when the narrator frees Flora, a female horse destined to be killed to feed the foxes by neglecting to close the gate when she is the only one close to it (Munro, pg. 153). This occurrence depicts a strong stance on the narrator’s behalf concerning her desire to be independent and free of the societal pressures and expectations. Also, in many aspects, Flora’s escape resembles the dreams and fantasies that she constantly has and which are contrary to her situation and place in her society. Eventually, by the end of the story, the narrator accepts the variety of societal expectations and pressures directed at her by embracing her gendered role and expected identity which implies suppression of her mannerisms, desires and adoration to work on the farm. Ultimately, it is a gendered role coupled with gender subjectivity.
The social dynamics in the book jolts my understanding and individual experiences on the complexities of socializing and the set of beliefs, actions and norms that influence our social interactions such as bias, prejudice and assumptions. All these complexities shape our identities and our perceptions and that of others. I learnt that in assuming some of my identities, social ones especially, I constantly allow and conform to these social rules and norms to determine my identity in the society. Also, in the current world, the gender issue has evolved gradually to a more feministic approach and as that it is possible to classify Munro’s Boys and Girls as a parable for feminist discourse.
From the story it is clear that gender perceptions and roles are subject to production and influence from external factors such as societal expectations and parental influence. In our normal day to day lives, this system of production of gendered roles on the basis of biological sex distinction, that is, male or female, is not a natural process. It is an invisible process that is tailored to seem natural due to the accepted norms that a particular gender ought to follow(Goldman, pg. 121). Munro aims to highlight this mechanism by highlighting that despite the narrator being born an androgenized female, her parents and society influence and stifle her mannerisms and desires to conformity and a domesticated role as a girl/woman. In the contemporary world, gender issues remain trivial just like in the book, where a child’s character and mannerisms may be stifled due to gender appropriation. It is important to understand that some children are not strictly masculine or feminine, and therefore, cross gender behavior and characteristics should be respected in order to prevent gender stereotypes. A non-conventional and non-traditional approach should be embraced while handling children so that they do not evolve into gender typed adults where their characters and beliefs are governed by gender norms or stereotypes.
Goldman, Marlene. “Penning in the Bodies: The Construction of Gendered Subjects In Alice Munro’s Boys and Girls.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en littérature canadienne 15.1, pp 115-127, (1990). Web. 17 Oct. 2016.
Munro, Alice. Boys and Girls, in The Norton Introduction to Literature: Shorter eleventh Edition, ed.Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2013, pg. 137-147