Representation of Gender in Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ are both texts that present gender in similar ways but with varying effects. This is often through the use of characterisation, for example the contrast between traditional and unconventional gender roles. They also look at the theme of power and how that may lead to men and women being presented as equals.
Both Fitzgerald and Albee show traditional gender roles in ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. Fitzgerald uses the character of Daisy Buchanan in ‘The Great Gatsby’ to represent the traditional gender roles constructed for women in the 1920s. She is elegant, soft-spoken yet carries an enormous amount of wealth and status due to her marriage. You could argue that Daisy despises this role that she’s been pushed into due to society’s expectations as she tragically states that she hopes that her child will be “a fool- that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”. The repetition of the word “fool” emphasises the idea that women should be unintelligent and unaware of their surroundings and the actions of men around them to protect themselves; their only role is to be a beautiful object. Fitzgerald allows the reader to gain sympathy for Daisy, especially when rumours of Tom having multiple affairs surface through Jordan’s storytelling. However, it’s arguable that while Daisy is still aware of her socially constructed role as a wealthy wife and mother, she also accepts it and possibly even enjoys it as she does nothing to change it. Maia Samkanashvili in her article on the “Role of Women in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald” states that Gatsby’s description of Daisy having a “voice full of money’’ demonstrates how the “woman Gatsby once loved has been corrupted with money and the lifestyle that Tom has provided for her. She has allowed herself to become a snooty, rich American”. This is an example of how while Daisy may complain outwardly about her place in society, she inwardly enjoys the sense of tradition and comfort it gives her, whether that be financially or emotionally. While readers may sympathise with Daisy when Jordan tells Nick about how she cried hysterically about marrying Tom and not Gatsby, she ultimately ends up marrying Tom Buchanan with emphasis on the “string of pearls at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars” that he gifted her the day before the wedding. The mention of a large amount of money so closely connected to the discussion of marriage suggests that while true love may make Daisy doubt her decision, ultimately money is the driving force in marriage. Another potential motivation for her marriage to Tom Buchanan is the ability it would have to cement and control her life. Fitzgerald describes Daisy as wanting “her life shaped now, immediately – and the decision must be made by some force – of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality”. This use of an asyndetic list shows how love was never the key force in the marriage as money and practicality are as big of a consideration in a marriage, and Tom has all of these features. This was typical of the time as even though women were slowly gaining freedom with the ability to vote and the idea of ‘flapper girls’, there were still strong traditional boundaries that were enforced by society, especially in the upper class. This forces a debate on whether Daisy’s traditional appearance is of her own making or forced upon by society. While she may complain about the superficial elements of her life and the loss of true love due to a structured class system and traditional views on marriage, the contrast she provides for Jordan Baker who is a strong and independent woman shows that it is possible to go against society’s expectations and still thrive in the same setting. This demonstrates that Daisy has created this role based on, yet not forced by, society’s expectation of women in the 1920s.
Similarly, Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ presents traditional gender roles through characters like Nick. Albee shows Nick to fit into the typical role of men in the 1960s. He is a boxing champion, has a “pretty good body” and has a good status job within the University which makes him appear to be the ideal man. The idea of sport being key to masculinity, which is seen in both ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, relates to the idea of competition. Nick and George’s conversations within the play normally have an underlying tone of competition, whether it is for women or achievement within their jobs. Nick appears to win in all types of competition; he has an affair with Martha, he wins boxing matches and is academically more successful (achieving his masters at 19 years old). When Martha tells Nick that he is “no better than anyone else”, Nick answers with determination “I think I am”. This highlights the confidence he has in himself due to his masculine identity. His active and aggressive displays of traditional masculinity, for example his boxing success, is starkly contrasted with George’s refusal to take part in a boxing match with Martha’s father. For Nick, this is a small win in the competition for masculine superiority. Clare Virginia Eby argues in her article on “Fun and games with George and Nick: Competitive masculinity in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that “post-war heterosexual masculinity is fundamentally competitive, as gender identity demands proof as well as performance. The play suggests that, if competitive masculinity produces a victor, it also demands a loser” with Nick being the obvious victor as he fulfills all the ideals a traditional man should fulfill. This idea that to be masculine you need to win a competition is seen throughout the play, yet due to Albee’s choice of literary style being the Theatre of the Absurd, the overall victor at the end of the play is ambiguous and is left to the audience to decide who is the superior man. This literary style also highlights how unnecessary it is for Nick to try so hard to fit this traditional role as when looking through the lens of the Theatre of the Absurd, life is seen as irrational, and therefore so is the desperate need to win this competition. When looking at the play at this angle, George ironically appears to be the real winner despite being called a loser throughout most of the play. As well as this, traditional genders roles are presented as more damaging than an achievement. This therefore suggests that Albee wanted to undermine the idea that tradition leads to victory and show how unconvention and uniqueness may lead to victory just by using a different route. In this way ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ contrasts with ‘The Great Gatsby’ as traditional characters like Daisy end up unscathed while unconventional Jordan can be seen to be thoroughly criticised throughout the novel.
Fitzgerald and Albee both contrast these traditional characters with characters that rebel against these conventional roles in ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. In ‘The Great Gatsby’ Jordan Baker is a key example of an unconventional woman for the 1920s. She is independent, self-sufficient and a sports star in her own right. She embodies the idea of the ‘New woman’ and the freedom it brought. Fitzgerald describes Jordan in an adrogynous way. Nick explains that Jordan is a “slender, small-breasted girl” that threw her “body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet”. This shows Jordan’s lack of obvious femininity, especially in contrast with Daisy’s hyper-feminine appearance, and the use of the simile comparing her to a young cadet explicitly shows her resemblance to a young boy instead of a grown woman. However, Fitzgerald also echoes the idea that while this may be an exciting time for women, it is still hard and ultimately unachievable. Nicolas Tredell argues the same point in his essay “The balancing girl: Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby ” saying that Jordan is a “young woman trying to balance four roles with her own desires”: husband hunter, flapper, champion and celebrity. This balancing act means that Jordan, despite her strong exterior, is in a precarious position of wanting it all and not being able to have it all. Nick says “the object she was balancing had obviously tottered a little and given her something of a fright” symbolising the reality of being a flapper girl while also showing an element of vulnerability in Jordan’s character. The other characters’ interactions and reactions to Jordan also emphasise the point that however hard she tries, that not even an unconventional woman could be equal to a man. Despite growing levels of freedom in American society, many people still thought that mentally women and men weren’t equal and that they should stay in their ‘sphere’ of home and family. Fitzgerald’s representation of rebellious women like Jordan in ‘The Great Gatsby’ may suggest that he himself had a critical view of women becoming more equal as he emphasises the disadvantages of being an independent woman defying society’s expectations. He calls Jordan “incurably dishonest” and when Nick talks about his own perspective on Jordan’s psychology he states that she has a superiority complex that has led her to start “dealing in subterfuges” showing the moral sacrifices an independent woman has to make.
Like Fitzgerald, Albee presents unconventional gender roles through Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’. A 1960s audience may have described the portrayal of Martha as vulgar due to her open sexuality and her dominance over both men throughout the play. The ideal woman in the 1960s was a traditional suburban housewife who was meant to only be concerned by their children, husband and her home which is the antithesis of Martha. The first stage direction in the play states that “Martha enters, followed by George” symbolising both Martha’s strength as well as George’s submissiveness as he follows her around tidying up after her. As well as this, Martha insults and dehumanises George calling him a “flop” and “muckmouth” which exerts even more dominance over George, lifting her status up. Martha’s strength is also embedded in her status within the university because her father is the president of the university. This shows that despite her appearing to contradict the traditional roles of women, her power is still embedded in a man’s authority and status which she relies on when trying to bring George down. She acts as a prize to be won by Nick leading her to openly commit adultery in front of George even telling him that she is “necking with one of the guests” which not only highlights her dysfunctional and unique marriage with George but shows how her sexuality is key to her identity. Martha also has many attributes that the audience would expect a man to have, for example, she is a heavy drinker and no longer drinks “ladylike little drinkies”. Instead she favours “rubbing alcohol” and is met with shock when Nick says “My God you can swill it down can’t you”. This shock demonstrates how rebellious Martha is against gender norms and how unsettling it is to the men around her. However, another side of her character that is still unconventional in a different way is her emotional instability. When Martha is talking about her marriage she uses multiple questions, interrupts herself and uses vague language like “whatever-it-is” demonstrating her confusion and mental instability that she doesn’t even try to hide. This open display of vulnerability is just as unusual for women at the time as they were meant to be calm and collected and mental health was a taboo topic. Martha’s dominance and sense of rebellion is heightened by being contrasted to Honey who is often referred to as a ‘mouse’ due to her meak and overly-polite disposition. She often fades into the background or isn’t even in the scene as she’s being sick in the bathroom. This makes Martha appear stronger, more powerful and more equal to the men in the play rather than the women. You could argue that Martha and Jordan Baker in ‘The Great Gatsby’ both serve a similar purpose of demonstrating how a strong controversial woman can function in a traditional society with fixed values despite the time differences between the texts.
Both Fitzgerald and Albee look at the relationship between gender and power. Tom is arguably the most powerful character in ‘The Great Gatsby’ due to his typically masculine attributes, including his physical and financial strength. This is seen in the beginning of the book when Fitzgerald writes that there was a “boom” when he shut the window leading to “the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor”. The use of the syndetic list suggests that the women are another piece of the furniture that have no power and are objects. As well as that, they are the end of the list insinuating that they are an afterthought and are not important enough to grab Nick’s attention. In addition, the use of the word “boom” demonstrates Tom’s physical power that him closing the window almost causes an explosion. Another example of this is when “Tom Buchanan broke [Myrtle’s] nose with his open hand” which suggests that when Tom feels that his power is threatened he reacts in an aggressive way to regain it. This aggressive display of strength highlights the relationship between traditional masculine attributes and power. In contrast, Fitzgerald presents Jordan as having power over men due to her unconventional femininity. Jordan seems to exert a certain type of power over Nick as he was “almost surprised into murmuring an apology for having disturbed her by coming in” that is the antithesis to the conventionally vulnerable appearance of women. The fact that Nick was “surprised” shows how shocking and unsettling the idea of the ‘New Woman’ was to men as their independence often represented their power. However, this idea of women being powerful isn’t displayed throughout the whole of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Male narration, especially Nick’s, dominates the book giving their opinion and judgement on what’s happening and the other characters, therefore influencing the reader. This means that women have a complete lack of control over how their story is being told and how they are being perceived. This may show a critical view of Fitzgerld’s towards women as he doesn’t allow them to include their own story or opinions into the novel.
Unlike ‘The Great Gatsby’, there isn’t a one sided power dynamic in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ as character’s change their status from victims to victors. Due to the play being based on an American style Theatre of the absurd, there is a level of ambiguity throughout the play and there’s no clear cut power figure. While Martha may seem like she has the most power due to her unconventional display of sexuality and loud openness, her vulnerability at the end of the play when she admits she is afraid of Virginia Woolf seems to undermine this sense of control. Martha’s power can be argued to be similar to Jordan Baker’s in ‘The Great Gatsby’ as it is her nonconformist attitude towards gender roles and stereotypes that gives her control. Martha’s power in the play often comes from degrading others, in particular George. For example, she tells everyone that he is an “old bog in the history department”, highlighting his failed career as well as potentially emasculating him in front of Nick. It is through these frequent insults that Martha is able to divert attention away from her insecurities and secrets, like their son, and lift her status up so she appears powerful and in control. It is when George reveals that their son isn’t real that Martha’s power crumbles and the roles are reversed because George is suddenly in control of their story and what they present to not only Nick and Honey but also to the audience. George builds his dominance over his wife and guests slowly throughout the play so it is often undetectable to the audience. However, by Act 3 George’s authority is clear as he directs the other characters in games like “bringing up baby”, tearing down everyone’s illusions and secrets until they are vulnerable and powerless. Martha and George may also seem to balance each other out in power as they could be seen as both not having any. This vulnerability is seen when discussing children. When Martha and George are explaining how they couldn’t have children Martha’s stage direction says “A hint of communion in this” demonstrating that there is a level of unity between them through their lack of ability to have children. It also could be argued that men and women aren’t equal in their power in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ because ultimately a man ends the play with complete control over the other characters, the constant dynamic power shifts between them suggest that Albee believed women and men can be equal and used this play as an example of that.