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The 1950s was a decade characterized by traditional gender roles of women as homemakers relegated to the domestic sphere and men as economic providers. With the advent of the 1960’s, however, stereotypical gender roles were contested as American society was swept up in the “drug culture, the Civil Rights movement, and the second wave of feminism” (Napierski-Prancl 229). While American society underwent a variety of social transformations, American authors, such as Ken Kesey, responded to the change through writing. Kesey’s response to the times was his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is not only a social commentary about mental illness but also a response to changing gender roles. By demonizing powerful women and uplifting powerful men, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest promotes sexism and ultimately holds the misogynistic stance that powerful women need to be subjugated.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, powerful female characters are demonized as “ball-cutters” (Kesey 54) because they do not adhere to traditional female roles and they emasculate the male characters. The negative portrayal of powerful women can be seen in the problematic relationships that the male patients have with their mothers. Bromden, the half Native-American narrator, has a mother who constantly undermines his father, the chief of the Columbia Gorge tribe and a once-powerful man. Bromden’s mother dominates her husband and her son by acting in non-traditional ways, such as using her maiden name for the family’s last name rather than using her husband’s, which convinces Bromden’s father that he is weak and helpless. Another male patient, Billy Bibbit, is completely emasculated by his mother who keeps him so dependent on her that even though he is thirty-one years old, Bibbit seems like a child and is unable to grow up. Bibbit’s mother’s grasp on his life is so strong that he commits suicide when Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother of his first sexual encounter because he would “rather die than have his mother disapprove of him” (Napierski-Prancl 228). Through such negative portrayals, Kesey argues that overpowering women are a destructive force that forces otherwise normal men into insanity.
Of all of the maligned powerful women in the story, Nurse Ratched is the head emasculating figure and the main “enemy.” The male protagonist, McMurphy, describes Nurse Ratched’s way of controlling the patients by, “gettin’ you where it hurts the worstâ€¦going for your vitals” (Kesey 54). She psychologically castrates all of the male patients in her ward by constantly minimizing them. For example, Nurse Ratched uses the therapeutic meeting sessions to manipulate the patients into criticizing each other and weakening their senses of masculinity. At the meetings, Nurse Ratched places special emphasis on a male patient’s problem with a female relationship, such as Harding’s issue with his wife’s use of her sex appeal to flirt with other men and Bibbit’s issue with a girl he loved and proposed to but was rejected by. Nurse Ratched’s powers of emasculation also extends to the Black male orderlies she bosses around and the mental ward doctors, who complain that “Since I started on that ward with that woman I feel like my veins are running ammoniaâ€¦[and] my wife won’t sleep with me” (Kesey 26). Nurse Ratched has the uncanny ability to feminize the men around her, which makes her monstrous.
Nurse Ratched is able to exercise so much power in the mental ward not only because she does not fit with traditional gender norms but because she actively represses her femininity. According to Napierski-Prancl, Nurse Ratched “falls into the category of “Iron Maiden,” an asexual powerful woman who dismisses traditional notions of femininity” (227), and this is depicted by her not carrying make-up and by her efforts to conceal her large breasts. Nurse Ratched is also usually described using images of machines or animals to further emphasize her disconnect from the traditional female role. Bromden compares Nurse Ratched to a truck, saying that “she works the hinges in her elbows and fingers. I hear a small squeakâ€¦she rumbles past she’s already big as a truck” (Kesey 85), mechanizing her and stripping her of any human warmth. McMurphy refers to Nurse Ratched as an “old buzzard” that pecks away at men’s “vitals” (Kesey 54) which, according to Meloy, “besmirches feminine power as something degrading and shameful – residing at the bottom of the food chain, feeding off of dead carcasses” (8). By repressing her femininity, Nurse Ratched is not only demonized but dehumanized, portrayed as a mechanical bottom-feeder with no redeeming value.
While powerful women are characterized as antagonistic because they emasculate men, the two prostitutes in the book are depicted favorably because they empower men. According to Meloy, “the prostitutes of the novel exist in a purely sexual way, making them less terrifyingâ€¦Their sexual availability encourages men to release their innate sexuality” (10). Prostitutes in society are usually looked down upon because of their line of work and are viewed as deviants who get paid for meaningless sex that is traditionally supposed to be sacred. However, the two prostitutes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Candy and Sandy, are sided with the protagonists because they encourage and help the male patients remember their masculinity. In a sense, the prostitutes adhere more to traditional gender roles than women like Nurse Ratched because they play a supportive role to the male characters, and they are rewarded by being portrayed positively.
While powerful women are demonized, the main protagonist, Randle McMurphy is looked upon as a hero and a savior because he is the only powerful male in the mental ward. Unlike Nurse Ratched who hides her sexuality in order to psychologically castrate the male patients, McMurphy is characterized as a sexually potent man who is able to empower the male patients through male bonding. According to Vitkus,
â€¦male bonding in this context can be founded on a shared aggression toward women: “strong men” assert their “heroic” male sexuality against women like the Big Nurse, Harding’s wife, or Billy Bibbit’s mother – aggressive, controlling women who are represented from the masculinist perspective as castrators. (79)
In the book, McMurphy constantly challenges Nurse Ratched, correcting her when she calls him by the wrong name and refusing to obey her commands, in order to remind the male patients what a man looks like when he is not emasculated. He restores the patients’ self-esteem by telling sexual jokes and teaching them how to rebel against Nurse Ratched. McMurphy is a natural leader to the group, not so much because he is charismatic, but because he stubbornly refuses to submit to female power.
Throughout the book, Kesey builds up the tension between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched in order to set up the book’s climactic attack, a sexist illustration that powerful women need to be dominated. At first, McMurphy’s final attack on Nurse Ratched appears to be a physical outburst, but according to Vitkus, “McMurphy’s attack on the Big Nurseâ€¦is not merely an attempt to kill Nurse Ratched – it is in fact a rapeâ€¦Only the sexual violation of the Big Nurse can guarantee a conclusive victory for the men of the ward” (82). Before choking Nurse Ratched, McMurphy tears off her uniform to reveal her large breasts which signifies her femininity, the one thing that Nurse Ratched tries very hard to conceal. By revealing Nurse Ratched’s breasts and forcing her femininity on her, McMurphy takes away her female power and restores male power to the male patients. The book actually condones the “rape” of Nurse Ratched, which is seen through Bromden’s remark that the attack was “a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not” (Kesey 275). By condoning McMurphy’s attack, the book moves beyond sexism to misogyny, representing an “attitude toward women that is atavistic and brutal” (Viktus 83) and ultimately inexcusable.
The male and female relationships in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest promotes sexist views of traditional gender roles in order to elevate male power. While the political and social climate may have influenced Kesey’s anti-feminist stance, it does not justify condoning men’s use of force upon powerful women like Nurse Ratched. In his attempt to voice his sexist opinions, Kesey only succeeds in creating one-dimensional characters that lack depth and substance. The one-dimensionality of the characters leaves the male characters as mere caricatures of men, powerful and dominating or weak and wispy, while the female characters are either sexless machines or submissive sex tools. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s failure to accept a woman who is powerful without having to sacrifice her femininity reveals his own paranoid fear of being emasculated. Perhaps if he were able to embrace changing gender norms, Kesey would not have only been able to live free of fear but also write a novel with multi-dimensional characters that the audience could love and cherish rather than just pity.
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