How Irish Literature Established a Fictionalized Gender
By Terry Scott Niebeling
Within Irish culture and literature, there are many great divides, sorts of impasses, in relation to religion and nationalism, and also, especially, in relation to gender. Gender in Ireland is an understanding brought to the forefront by writers and playwrights as a hot-button topic, established, by what seems innocuous intent. This presents an image of the proper, or decidedly generalized Irish woman. In establishing a gender, male writers depict the assumed typical Irish woman in her natural element, she is true to family, true to duty, and appears, always dependent and unsure, and reliant on the male’s wants and needs. What Irish male writers do, by creating an archetype for Irish women, is to enable a preconceived notion of a group through observing an individual, through single examples, and thus degrades and enforces these stereotypes on a diverse group. In this action, there exists a logical fallacy, the fallacy of composition: one part of the whole cannot represent the whole entirely, absolutely. This gender construction is a status placeholder, allotted and acknowledged by those in close proximity, and those in the mainstream, those who witnessed one individual, not an entire group and wrote on that. In Irish literary culture, by way of written word, there is an immense disparity in gender, and an assumption on the roles each gender plays.
The masculine perspective in Ireland, per writers e.g. Joyce, Martin McDonagh, establishes a pariah shut-in interpretation of women, and this formula for a gender, by “Othering” the kind, creates a subjective perspective authored by men. This act alone assumes and mislabels an object as subjective and discrete, predictable, lowering the female status to an “ism”. Irish writers have presented gender, not as objective, but subjective, creating a vast stereotype which damns, and absolutely requires dispelling. Irish females are iterated by men in the past-tense, not in the present because of these texts.
While ascertaining the meaning and value of a label, you must look into the agency creating the label. This assessment is similar to understanding who writes history. In the case of Irish gender identity, the female persuasion is explained (in these instances) through the eyes of males. This patriarchal observation gives females a patina of disparaged hue, one of subservience, one of a life filled with chores, family responsibility, and sheer lack for personal pleasure and fulfillment. Within The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the reader is introduced to what you could assume is a traditional family of western Ireland. Immediately, dynamics are skewed; readers are given bickering women, embattled over food in a kitchen, caring for one another, while one, Maureen hopes for more, and the other Mag, wishes to keep family around her to care for her, because she does not want to be sent away from her home. The only reprieve from this situation for Maureen is to find the next male that shows her attention. This male is her ticket, her future. McDonagh gives these women a typical aspect, one from a male perspective; Maureen’s salvation is through a salacious male after a one-night stand. Not only does this situation come across as fictional, it comes across as lowering Maureen to a level lacking, needy for love. Her only outlook on life depends on that of another, particularly that of a male.
Another example of the stereotypical Irish female is presented in James Joyce’s Eveline, a story from Dubliners. Within this story the reader is shown a woman in love, about to commit to a relationship, which her family disapproves of, naturally. Eveline is sure she is in love with a sailor named Frank. It appears, at first, as if Eveline is set in her ways; she will leave, she must. Yet after some contemplation and a melancholic climax at the train station, she leaves and appears to directly disassociate herself with her future life and lover, for one of the past. In this story, pressures from home, the familiar, specifically from her father, create a cognitive dissonance within Eveline, affecting her decision. She, a young woman, has her whole life ahead of her, yet she inevitably has to choose between two males. One side of this story focuses on the independence of Eveline. The other side focuses on the considerable influence males around her have on her decision, essentially her fate. Eveline’s fate is chosen by the pressures around her. The males within proximity judge, label, and degrade her, in hopes that she performs her task as the stereotypical Irish woman. Eveline, we can assume, becomes a caretaker for the family, a creature that exists at home and cares for her father and family’s needs rather than her own. And fate is just a go-to word which explains it without actually explaining it. She was fated to attend to her family.
To that, a concept that is most astonishing, when considering these gender stereotypes, and the frequency of utilization, is the stark contrast between movement and labeled-gender; moreover, location: west and east, within Ireland; and homebody versus traveler, without. Purpose and place of the character, the individual, is allotted by this movement. If the individual is mobile, the individual is male. If the individual is immobile, the individual is female. Through experience one sees this from west to east, or vice versa. The more progressive and more mobile individual is located in the east of Ireland. The less progressive and less mobile individual is located in the west of Ireland, perhaps. In the west, our group experienced males who drove vehicles, busses and ferries; accordingly, we experienced women who were sedentary, in shops and cafés, similar to the character roles depicted in Once and The Dead. In Once the audience is shown a woman stuck, unmoving in her ways, tied to her husband and family. She, “Girl” (her name is exactly one of gender), exhibits convictions to a male (or two males), and to her family. To contrast, “Guy” does not live by these same rules, he is free to go back to England, and to search for his love. “Girl” is not able to branch out, to find love, which does not allow her to move on, or move in any manner. Within The Dead, again, the women are portrayed as housemaids, cooks, organizers (at their own party, Women’s Christmas), furthermore none of the women appear to be experienced travelers. While Gabriel writes for a newspaper abroad in London, -embarrassingly so, Gretta sits at home contemplating Michael Furey and the love she could have had. The women within these texts lack mobility, and conversely, the men are free to go anywhere, free to move at will.
This lack of mobility comes with a price. As a group we ventured further to the west of Ireland, this mobility of gender, or lack thereof of, became ever more apparent. Jerry our bus driver carried us along narrow roads, regaling us with local experience and traditional lore. We learned a little something from Jerry, whether good or bad, -from the Irish male perspective. We were told of a jogging path along the shores of Galway, and what Jerry called it; a name which was rooted in woman’s anatomy, perversely. When we came to the ferries, we also learned that it was piloted by males. After arriving at Inishmore, with the sweater shops and cafés, we were introduced to women. Those of a gender stuck inside. Whether or not they remained inside or not throughout their day is unimportant, the image given is one of a static condition, in comparison to that of the males. We were given the perspective of a male through Jerry, through his microphone, while he maneuvered his bus. While I purchased my wool wares and lunch, I heard few tales of experience from the women attending to me. Even that last sentence feels oddly disparaging.
Accounts of experience learned through the journey were given ubiquitously by those Irish males we had come into contact with. Those reiterations of experience will hold a place within us for some time. Because we journeyed to a new area we saw. Had we not, we would lack that of which we experienced. By way of experiencing we become more seasoned, flavored, more educated, well-rounded, and intelligent. As a foreigner, taking in the literature and the real-life encounters, one notices that things are not as described in a book, but different. Though, if that stereotype is carried over from a book and assumed genuine it can diminish the character of real-life in a way that it cannot progress. If Irish women are depicted as shut-ins, homicidal for the love of a male, and destined to be caretakers for their families, in frequently read literature, then who is to oppose this generalization when met with it head on? Those who observe both the literary and physical examples can only go on those experiences, respectively.
In both of these stories, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Eveline, the female gender is depicted as unable to leave, -though not unwilling (interestingly), stuck in ways of the past. There is one sole duty of a woman in the Irish community. That duty is to maintain her family, appreciate the desires of males, and to be content with that existence. Perhaps Joyce and McDonagh thought to represent an aspect of life. This representation, this realism they experienced; although the reality they create is one of sedimented ideology, beliefs, thoughts, concepts based on ways of the old. By presenting females in such a light, these authors have squelched that gender’s very social ascension, and the literal status of women in Irish society. What is even more disturbing is that readers today may take these literary works, examples, and estimations as genuinely definitive. In this exchange of “knowledge”, Irish women become misrepresented in their own culture’s historical “masterpieces”, by those writers who made the time to designate a single example as true of an entire group. These stories are protocol for what good Irish women do, not what progressive Irish women do. Stay safe, stay orthodox.
Some Irish literary works have cast a stereotypical shadow, a female archetype, by way of male playwrights, -those who appear modern and progressive and authentic to locality, within Ireland. By way of employing a label, a caricature typecast of the female gender, and their static ways, notions, and goings-about, certain Irish male authors have placed Irish women at a disadvantage. These authors enable a stereotype which proliferates and thrives in present-day culture, in the very existence of these stories. Had readers not been exposed to such generalizations, those iterated by male writers, readers, as observers may have had the opportunity to view Irish women with a fair and objectively sound eye; however now, with this literature, the concept of an Irish woman is sedimented in subjective design, fictionalized, an anomaly to be pondered and put forth.
McDonagh, Martin. The Beauty Queen of Leenane. London: Methuen Drama in Association with the Royal Court Theatre, 1996. Print.
Joyce, James. Dubliners,. New York: Modern Library, 1926. Print.
Once. Fox Searchlight Pictures :, 2007. Film.