Women, Sex, And GatsbyJune 21, 2011 No Comments
F. Scott Fitzgerald is heralded as one of the greatest writers America has ever produced and The Great Gatsby is arguably his most enduring work.
The novel appears on school syllabi across the Western world, and is often one of the first texts students critically analyze. But what sort of message does the story send to young women? Are we willing to sacrifice positive female role models for (admittedly beautiful) prose and an insight into life as it was in the 1920s?
Assessing this story objectively is not an easy task for a feminist in the 21st century. It is often difficult to determine where the sexism attributable to the era ends, and where the sexism attributable to the author begins.
What is most striking about the portrayal of women in The Great Gatsby is their lack of morality and strength of character. The key female characters, Daisy, Myrtle and Jordan, are all (mis)understood through their greed, whether it is for money, status, security or attention.
For example, when men engage in extramarital activity it is because they’re men and they’re entitled to; their decisions are rarely born of desperation. When women do the same, they are tainted, vulgar, immoral. Myrtle cheats on her loving husband for bling and a ticket out of a tired town, while Daisy does so for the attention and affections of a man who reminds her of a time when she felt young and desirable. Both are portrayed as fickle and selfish.
Readers are regularly encouraged to question Daisy’s strength of character. She kills a woman whilst driving too quickly, and doesn’t stop to offer help. She leads along two men, thriving on the drama it creates. She neglects her daughter and seems occupied by material possessions. And her intellect isn’t much better; Daisy appears as though she doesn’t know who or what she wants, and we’re given the impression she deserves and desires all the control she gets from her overbearing husband.
Some academics argue The Great Gatsby is a critique of male dominance. While male dominance, particularly of the violent and physical kind, is denoted as negative, so too are the women who “allow” it through their submissiveness. There is never an explicit admission by the author that he understands women’s options were severely limited, or that their unhappiness could have been caused by anything other than their ungratefulness. While the main character does not actively engage in beating women, he does not act to stop it.
What’s more, in The Great Gatsby, women are effectively relegated to the physical sphere and men to the intellectual.
The first description of every female character is of her physical appearance, generally in relation to how attractive Nick Carraway finds her and which weight range she falls into; conversely, men are introduced and defined by their character and mannerisms.
Yet, there is one female character, which stands out as perhaps a subtle nod from Fitzgerald to a type of modern woman he had anticipated. Jordan Baker, a friend to Daisy and a brief fling to the protagonist, is a professional golfer who does not conform to feminine stereotypes. She drinks, smokes, parties, and is hardened enough to cheat in order to get ahead in her career. She has premarital sex and when Carraway is rude to her, she speaks her mind and dismisses him.
And finally, you shouldn’t write a review without giving rumour a little space.
There are many voices floating about the interwebs suggesting Nick Carraway was gay, and indeed, hot for Gatsby. Carraway is undoubtedly drawn to, and intrigued by Gatsby, but whether that attraction was based on mystery or sexuality is never made clear (although there would be some lovely irony to a gay sub-plot in a much loved national classic).
While The Great Gatsby serves to teach young women just how far we have come, there’s a danger it may lull them into a false sense that equality has been achieved.
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