Gender Ruining Identity
How it works
Men, women, and anyone in between all know what it feels like to have to do something that isn’t them because of their gender. The novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston follows the main character Janie throughout her life displaying the social pressures black women were forced to live by. The novel also displays what gender roles did to the men in her life and how they treated her because of it. In the lives of men and women, gender plays a large role in who they become as people, for women, forced gender roles diminish their identity while with men forced gender roles morphe their perception of the world.
Women’s forced role as being weaker than men and fundamentally defined by their relationship to a man leaves no space for who the woman really is, her identity. “You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine.” “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh. Git uh move on yuh, and dat quick” (Hurston 14). Janie thinks that both men and women have their proper places in a marriage; the man should be out in the barn scooping up the manure while the woman should be indoors, making meals. Logan, however, thinks that the woman should serve the man, no matter what place he wants to put her in. Essentially, a woman has no defined identity or role outside of what her husband gives her. “This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. And one night he had caught Walter standing behind and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others” (Hurston 94). Joe treats Janie like a trophy—a prized object, but an object nonetheless. He doesn’t think of her as a human being with her own thoughts and feelings, but as a coveted possession that he must guard against other men, lest they take it from him.
Men who already have power see the world as their land to make them richer and that everything should only be controlled by them. “You behind a plow! You ain’t got no mo’ business wid uh plow than uh hog is got wid uh holiday! You ain’t got no business cuttin’ up no seed p’taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you” (Hurston 17). On the surface, Joe has a different conception of a woman’s proper role than Logan. A “pretty doll-baby” should be treated like a queen, never obliged to work and always served by others. What the young, naïve Janie does not realize is that Joe doesn’t think that pampering a woman is necessary because she’s a valuable human being, but because she’s a valuable object.. For Joe, women are objects to look at. “The cruel deceit of Janie! Making all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same” (Hurston 103). Janie’s verbal assault on Joe’s manhood is perceived by him as castration, both physically and socially. Because men in this novel associate their sexual prowess with their reputation and worth as a human being, Joe is devastated by Janie’s comment. Interestingly, Janie doesn’t seem to be so diminished by Joe’s nasty comments. This seems to indicate that men care more about their reputations than women. Now, Joe not only refuses to have sex with Janie but also withdraws from society, choosing rather live alone than be mocked by his peers.
Men who don’t have power and are not in search of power see the world as a place to enjoy and not in ownership. “Tea Cake made her [Janie] shoot at little things just to give her good aim. Pistol and shotgun and rifle. It got so the others stood around and watched them. Some of the men would beg for a shot at the target themselves. It was the most exciting thing on the muck. Better than the jook and the pool-room unless some special band was playing for a dance. And the thing that got everybody was the way Janie caught on. She got to the place she could shoot a hawk out of a pine tree and not tear him up. Shoot his head off. She got to be a better shot than Tea Cake” (Hurston 130). The idea of a woman handling weapons is a scandalous idea in the post-Civil War South. Its shock value draws many bystanders to witness this breach of gender barriers. By wielding a gun, Janie is taking on a definitively masculine role since she can now attack others and defend herself. The fact that Tea Cake teaches her how to shoot shows that he, unlike Joe, is not afraid of Janie becoming more independent than the average woman. “So the very next morning Janie got ready to pick beans along with Tea Cake.
There was a suppressed murmur when she picked up a basket and went to work. She was already getting to be a special case on the muck. It was generally assumed that she thought herself too good to work like the rest of the women and that Tea Cake “pomped her up tuh dat.” But all day long the romping and playing they carried on behind the boss’s back made her popular right away. It got the whole field to playing off and on. Then Tea Cake would help get supper afterward” (Hurston 140). Here, both Janie and Tea Cake break gender boundaries. Janie, by coming out onto the fields to work like the other migrant men and women, shows that she can survive in a tough world, despite her prim and pampered life. By getting her hands dirty, Janie takes on the hard and dirty work often reserved for men. In return, Tea Cake “helps” her “get supper afterwards,” meaning that Tea Cake ventures into the feminine realm of cooking and serving. Both sacrifice typical gender roles for the sake of being with each other and expressing their love for one another.
Gender plays a large part in the growth and development of a person, it lays claim to a large part of a person’s identity, but no one should be defined by their gender. When gender is placed in importance before anything else it morphs and diminishes who the person is. In Janie’s life, she was suffocated by who she is as a person by two marriages with men she didn’t love and who wanted power. She was set free when she was taught she can be anything by a man she loved and who wasn’t in search of only money and power in life. Through this not only does Hurston display the corruptness of money and power but also the importance of not letting gender define identity.