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According to R. W. Connell “when sex role theory provided the main framework, there was a fairly straightforward account of how people acquired gender. Babies were, from the start, identified as either female or male and put in pink and blue baby clothes respectively. Blue babies were expected to behave differently from pink babies – rougher and tougher, more demanding and vigorous. In time they were given toy guns, footballs and construction sets. The pink babies, by contrast, were expected to be more passive and compliant, also prettier. As they grew older they were dressed in frilly clothes, given dolls and make-up kits, told to take care of their appearance and be polite and agreeable” (94). This type of gender practice can be seen in Alice Munro’s story “Boys and Girls”. This is a story about a young girl’s resistance to womanhood in a society infested with gender roles and stereotypes. Munro makes the point that gender stereotyping, relationships, and a loss of innocence play an important, and often controversial role in the growing and passing into adulthood for many young children. This story takes place in the 1940s on a fox farm outside of Jubilee. During this time, women are viewed as second class citizens, but the narrator is not going to accept this position without a fight.
Alice Munro creates an unnamed and therefore undignified, female protagonist and thus she proposes that the narrator is without identity or the prospect of power. Unlike the girl, the young brother Laird is named – a name that means “lord” – and implies that he, by virtue of his gender alone, is invested with identity and is to become a master. This stereotyping in names alone seems to represent that gender does play an extreme role in the initiation of young children into adults.
R. W. Connell claims that “the socialization model recognizes just one direction of learning – towards the sex role norms. It is difficult, in such a framework, to understand the changes of direction that often appear in a young person’s life, coming apparently from nowhere.” Such changes can be seen in the story. Growing up, the young girl loves to help her father outside with the foxes, rather than to aid her mother with “dreary and peculiarly depressing” work in the kitchen. In this escape from her predestined responsibilities, the narrator looks upon her mother’s assigned tasks to be “endless,” while she views the work of her father as “ritualistically important”. This view illustrates her happy childhood, filled with dreams and fantasy. Her contrast between the work of her father and the chores of her mother, symbolizes an arising struggle between what the narrator is expected to do and what she wants to do. Work done by her father is viewed as being real, while that done by her mother is considered boring. Conflicting views of what is fun and what is expected lead the narrator to her initiation into adulthood.
The protagonist in the story begins to realize society’s views of her when her father introduces her to a salesman, while she is working outside, as his “new hired hand”. She is almost pleased until the salesman replies “I thought it was only a girl”. Even her grandmother bombards her with commands, “Girls keep their knees together when they sit down.” And “Girls don’t slam doors like that.” The worst is when she asks a question and her grandmother answers “That’s none of a girl’s business.” Even after that, she continues to slam doors and sit awkwardly because she feels that it keeps her free. In other words, she is not ready to accept and claim her gender identity – a tendency that disturbs her mother and it is at this time, that the mother, good intentionally shackles her daughter to her correct place in the world to prepare her for stereotypes later on in life. However, after talking with her mother, the narrator realises that she has to become a girl; “A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become”. Here, the narrator realises that there is no escape from the predetermined duties that go along with the passage of a child into being a girl and a girl into a woman.
“Boys and Girls” by Alice Munro highlights and emphasises the theme of initiation. The story depicts initiation as a rite of passage according to gender stereotypes and a loss of innocence. Conformity plays a vital role in determining the outcome of the narrator’s passage into adulthood. Throughout the story, the narrator is confronted with conflicting thoughts and ideas regarding her initiation into adulthood. Ultimately, she wishes to work with her father, and stay a ‘tomboy,’ but through a conflict with her mother and grandmother, she comes to realise that she is expected, like the women before her, to adopt the gender stereotype which comes with her growing and passing into adulthood. Similarly, her younger brother, Laird, is also initiated, but into manhood, something he yearns for. In conclusion, Munro’s story illustrates the struggles between the dreams and reality of the rite of passage and initiation, based on gender stereotypes society has placed on men and women.
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