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In the past, the role of men in society was to work and be the breadwinner, while women were required to be housewives and be the caregivers of the children. Men were given all the power and authority and women were forced to be obedient and thankful. These roles were very present in those times and went beyond the household. It was in the society of that time in education, politics, and work.
Sandy and Candy are two of the few women in the novel that give the patients confidence and hope. Kesey highlights that their behavior, however, only enforces the idea that inherently they’re not independent women at all but the fruit of man’s ideals. They’re both prostitutes who are willing to succumb to man’s desire for the right price and for their work they both never much speak out against the men and will do anything for them.
There is only one woman who is shown as an ideal middle ground between a “ball cutter” and whore. This is the woman who bandages McMurphy in the Disturbed Ward. She was kind and nurturing to him yet still rejected his sexual advances.
Nurse Ratched is one of the key figures of emasculation and lack of confidence at the Ward. She has full authority and control over the patients. She is a power hungry monster with only weakness being her sexual assets which Bromden described as, “A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what otherwise would have been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.” Her control can be seen by the way in which she has suppressed the patients’ laughter.
“. .The first thing that got to me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh you lose your footing. A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him down till he can’t laugh any more, and he loses one of the biggest edges he’s got on his side. First thing you know he’ll begin to think she’s tougher than he is. . .”
The extent of her authority can also be seen in the fact that she is able to control people who would normally be considered her superiors. This is seen in the way she rules over Dr. Spivey.
“â€¦exactly like the rest of usâ€¦completely conscious of his inadequacy. He’s a frightened, desperate, ineffectual little rabbit, totally incapable of running this ward without our Miss Ratched’s help and he knows it. And, worse, she knows he knows it and reminds him every chance she gets.”
“We are all victims of matriarchy”. This line by Harding indicates that all the patients have some level of Nurse Ratched and all women they have encountered in their lives.
Mrs. Bibbit, Billy’s mother is also a figure of dominance over Bibbit. She treats Billy as an infant even though he is 31 years old. She tells Billy that he can put off mature things such as going to college or partaking in sexual intercourse. It is in this way that she has power over Billy because she prevents him to become a functioning adult in society. When Billy reminds his mother that he is 31 years old, she says, “Sweetheart, do I look like the mother of a middle-aged man?” When Mrs. Bibbit cannot be present to keep her son mentally young and innocent, Nurse Ratched does the task for her. Mrs. Bibbit’s absolute power over Billy is shown when Nurse Ratched, having caught Billy having sex with a prostitute, threatens to tell his mother. The threat of his mother’s displeasure and disappointment lead him to his untimely suicide
Vera Harding abuses her husband, Dale Harding’s lack of masculinity with her sexual assets in order to manipulate and belittle him.
Chief Bromden’s mother is another clear-cut example of a “ball-cutter”. It is through her that the government gains rights to the Indian land on which the dam is built. Once the family returns to civilization, both husband and son begin to lose their identities. Chief’s father begins to “shrink” in size after taking his wife’s last name as his own.
“You’re the biggest by God fool if you think that a good Christian woman takes on a name like Tee Ah Millatoona. You were born into a name, so okay; I’m born into a name. Bromden. Mary Louise Bromden.”
In the end, she turned a big, strong chief into a small, weak alcoholic.
Throughout the novel, Kesey predominantly shows women in stereotypically male roles with few showing their existence through their femininity. Kesey is possibly trying to display women in power as negative.
In the end, “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” shows to the reader the reversal of gender roles and the negative side effects from that. It shows how biased society was back then because of how it portrayed women in power in such a negative light.
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