Gender Roles in Literary Works

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From the beginning of man during the biblical era, there have always been norms that dictate the behaviors that are considered acceptable and desirable for an individual depending on whether they are male or female. These norms are referred to as gender roles. Different factors have influenced these societal norms such as politics, geographical location, culture, and literature just to mention a few. Most literature works are based on real life concepts or ideas that the author would deem suitable in society. It is due to the stated nature of literary work that they have become a tool of depicting the gender roles in society and introducing ideologies that have influenced gender roles over time. In this research paper, we look at the how gender roles are portrayed in traditional, modern and postmodern literary works. Furthermore, we venture into how these roles have affected the gender roles in the actual society. The research is based on the literary works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.Background of literary works and gender roles

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Behavioral norms with regards to sexuality have been there since the existence of man as earlier stated. However, the influence of literary works on these norms only can into existence much later; specifically after the introduction of literature. There has been great difference in how gender has been in different eras. In the medieval epic literature, the role of men and women are contrary to the modern and postmodern ideologies. For instance, during the medieval historical period, the classical hero in literary works was always masculine, violent and aggressive. The woman always assumed the role of the damsel in distress. In addition to being the damsel in distress, the woman was always depicted as the food wife, chaste maid. These characterizations always pointed to the norm that women are supposed to vessels of chastity, purity and goodness. However with the development of modern literature, for example, Victorian romance model, the role of men and women in literature takes a twist and turn. In modern literature, the man is not always the knight and shinning amour, while the woman is not always the damsel in distress. With the development of modern and postmodern literature, new gender roles developed based of behavior, communication patterns, the source of power and physical appearance. These will be discussed later on in the paper. One thing that remains constant though is that literary works have shaped the way society views gender roles despite the era they were written (Kay).

Essential Concepts

In this research, there are three essential terms that need to be understood: traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism. Traditionalism can be defined as the belief in traditions as a dictator of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in society. A traditionalist therefore deems and accepts traditions as authoritative. In the context of this study, we look at how literary works have reflected traditional roles of male and female in society (Kalb).

In the course of history, a dominant force that developed during the period of change is modernism. Modernism can be viewed as a movement that has touched all aspects of society; not only literary works and the concepts of gender roles. It forms a major cultural movement whose characteristics and beliefs have dominated all aspects of life. However, in this study, we narrow down to modernism about gender roles and literary works.

The introduction of modernism changed the way society viewed and addressed different issues in the day to day life. However, it was no guarantee that the change addressed all the philosophical questions in society; for instance, questions regarding gender roles in this case. Therefore, an extension of modernism was developed and termed postmodernism. This was a change that was first recognized by the cultural historian, philosopher, and literary critics. Postmodernism marked a great change in the different concept of literate and gender roles in society. Having influenced both of these aspects of the study, it also changed the roles males and females played in literary works (Copenhaver).

Gender Theory

Over the past several decade there has a great debate on the role of men and women and how they learn these roles. Researchers have come up with six theories to these two topics of interest. These theories are: biological, structural, functional, cognitive development, gender schema, social learning and symbolic interaction theories. It is important to look at these theories as they give an insight on how why certain gender roles are assumed by a given sex in literary works.

In the biological theory, it is proposed that role of males and females are inherent in their different biological characteristics such as brain structure, hormones or genetic makeup. The cognitive development theory, on the other hand, focuses on child developmental stage. It is based on the general stage of learning; contiguity, generalization, reinforcement and finally repetition. The assumption in this theory is that a child constructs a cognitive representation of the immediate environment. It assumes that gender roles are learned from a tender age from what we see. This theory aligns with the fact that most individuals to do not assume certain gender roles on their concept but a rather influenced by external factors (Copenhaver).

A unique theory is the gender schema theory. This theory focuses on the understanding of the gender difference rather than exploring the content of gender roles. The focus of these theories is the division between males and females rather than what constitutes the two sexes. Symbolic interaction is also a unique theory. It differs from the other theories as it characterizes individuals as involve in the process of learning and from their internalizing concepts of socialization; unlike other theories, it does characterize individuals as a passive agent in learning and socialization. Social theory is more like the cognitive development theory as it explains gender role and how they are learned by the development stages. It assumes that gender roles develop by action and reward; there is always a reward for the exhibit the right gender role. The final theory, structural-functional theory, proposes that gender roles develop by societal needs. This is a reflection of the traditional development of gender roles in society and hence in literary works (Copenhaver).

Gender Roles in Literary Works

To look at the different role that males and females assume in literary works, we are going to look at some of the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, especially The Yellow Paper'; a declaration of her feminist manifesto. Her literary works focus on the role of the woman in literary works and depicts roles that might be contradictory to the one assumed in the real life society. Her literary works cut across all the aspects of traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism; a factor that makes them suitable for use in this study (Lauter).

One of her great work is the Yellow Wallpaper. In this literary works, she forges female characters that go against the cult of true womanhood. The cult of true womanhood is a concept that is based on traditionalism and is mainly adopted in most traditional literary works. This ideology makes victimization of female characters legit; not only in literary works but also in real life. It is based on two tenets namely; the cult of domesticity and the cult of purity. In the former tent, women are seen as servants whose role is dealing with family needs, that is being a good wife to the husband and a good mother to the children. The latter tenet, on the other hand, makes it the obligation of women to remain virtuous and pure; women being portrayed as vessels of purity. Apart from these two tenets, the cult of purity is also based on the ideology of religious piety and submission of women (Kelly).

In the Yellow Wallpaper, we see that female characters are not constricted to the ideology of the cult of womanhood. For instance, the ideology of institution of marriage where male were dominant over the females placed the females under the control of their male counterparts. However, this author embraces modernism and postmodernism in her literary works where women are set free from the enslavement of such traditional ideologies. With the revolution against the oppression of women, womanhood could no longer be constricted to the cult of womanhood. It needed to be expanded to the public realm and hence the conception of new womanhood (Thomas).

Influence on Society

Literature uses its works as a means of communication to send messages regarding the society. This makes it an essential tool in changing society. How gender roles are portrayed in literary works has greatly contributed to how our current society views gender roles in real life. Looking at the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, we can see how they helped to revolutionize the ideology society had regarding womanhood. It is through her works that the role of a woman was no longer based on traditionalism but rather modernism and postmodernism. Literature was used to see the dawn womanhood base on the cult of true womanhood and the birth of new womanhood that include women in the public realm


From this research, it is evident that literature has influence gender roles in society. However, this is not the end as still many issues arise concerning gender roles in society. It is now up to the current literary work to portray ideology concerning gender roles that would provide insight on how to tackle the gender role issues still affecting our society.


Copenhaver, Bonny Ball. "A Portrayal Of Gender And A Description Of Gender Roles In Selected American Modern And Postmodern Plays". Ph.D. East Tennessee State University, 2002. Print.

Kalb, James. "What Is Traditionalism? | Turnabout". N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Kay, Anita. "Men And Women As Represented In Medieval Literature And Society". Saber and Scroll 2.2 (2013): n. pag. Print.

Kelly, Patricia. "WILLA V4 - Charlotte Perkins Gilman And The Feminization Of Education". N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Lauter, Paul. "Heath Anthology Of American Literaturecharlotte PerkinsiGilman - Author Page". N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Thomas, Deborah. "Gilman, "Yellow Wallpaper"". N.p., 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

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