A commonly discussed ideology over the years has been the struggle for equality of the genders; a struggle caused by the male species’ certainty of their own superiority. During the1960s and 70s feminists all over the world fought hard for their right to equality. They were fighting against the typical image and expectation of women to be perfect, elegant and well ‘accomplished’ and achieved many legal successes. Since then the issue has mostly been put to the side and filed under ‘dealt with’, but has it really? There is no doubt the situation has changed and largely improved, however one look at a television, movie, book or magazine illustrates a new stereotype that is being enforced on women. By comparing the following two poems tackling the issue of women’s body image and stereotypes, with many decades in-between their being written, it is obvious the struggle of women isn’t over just yet.
I CANNOT DANCE UPON MY TOES
– Emily Dickinson
I cannot dance upon my toes-
no man instructed me
but oftentimes, among my mind
A Glee possesseth me,
That had I Ballet knowledge-
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe-
Or lay a Prima, mad,
And though I had no Gown of Gauze-
No ringlet, to my Hair,
Nor hopped to Audiences- like Birds,
One Claw upon the Air,
Nor tossed my shape in Eider Balls,
Nor rolled on wheels of snow
Till I was out of sight, in sound,
The house encore me so-
Nor any know I know the Art
I mention- easy- Here-
Nor any Placard boast me-
It’s full as Opera-
– Bruce Dawe
‘I had a dream that all those images
That tell me what I am or what I should be
(Madonna, goddess, Barbie Doll, Miss Pretty,
femme fatale, and Eve, and little Eva,
Barbarella, whore, and kitchen-maid)
All fell away like so much morbid flesh,
And there I stood, for the first time: taller, shorter,
Broader, thinner, fairer, darker, intensely other than
The me that posed forever in my life (Decore-blonded,
Berlei-moulded, Factor-ized, for sale).
I felt no guilt for being what I was,
no shame that I no longer fitted neatly
the Iron Maiden men had made for me.
It was as if I’d taken possession of
myself at last, the stranger in my skin,
and stood there in the dream-wind, shivering, free.’
In the poem I Cannot Dance Upon My Toes written by American poet, Emily Dickinson in the 1800s, she sets herself apart from the rest of her gender by writing with an ironic remorse to create a strong and blaringly obvious sarcasm which serves the purpose of criticising the expectation of a worthy woman.
Dickinson lived during a time period, written about by authors such as Jane Austen, when social events such as fancy balls were all the rage and young women were expected to dress up like dolls in large, restricting skirts and tight corsets that could make them dizzy and even faint, all in the name of finding a husband to raise a family with and own a house to slave away in. A time when young women were not expected to hold any other aspirations, or have much need of an education because of the male dominated society that wished for submissive and obedient females.
Throughout the poem Dickinson uses alliteration of ‘s’ which when read aloud, gives the poem many ‘sighing’ sounds, indicative of the submissive nature and dissatisfaction of the ‘perfect woman’ she is alluding to. She slowly distances herself from the social expectations by denying she has any of the talents of a ‘good’ woman. She can’t dance; she is not dressed in the correct and fashion and she has no knowledge of the arts. So why doesn’t she have any of these qualities? Line two clearly states it’s because “No Man instructed me”. The capital M for man emphasises her belief that it was men who shaped what women should know and look like. In stanza three she uses the simile of young women hopping to audiences “like Birds” which creates imagery of pretty performing animals, obediently entertaining onlookers.
Since the time of Dickinson, women have won the fight for equality, well, on paper anyway. Legally they gained all the same rights and expectations of men, but one would have to be incredibly naive to believe that was the end of it. Society still has a mould it wants women to slide into that only someone who was blind and deaf wouldn’t have noticed. Sure, generally women are no longer expected to be dainty, helpless creatures, but instead of abolishing a ridiculous expectation, recent times and strong media messages have just morphed it into a new and confusingly contradictive one.
The modern poem Stranger by Australian poet Bruce Dawe shows that even men can not deny the unfair pressure placed on women by today’s society. The first line of the poem “I had a dream…” sets the mood of the poem by alluding to the famous speech delivered by Martin Luther King and indicates the poets realisation that the awakening to oneself described by the poem and throwing off the shackles of personal image can never be achieved by females in real life with the constant pressures from society, epitomised in “all those images” of the media.
He cleverly shows the contradiction of what women are wanted to be from a virginal Madonna, which still fits the old stereotype of the pure and elegant woman, to the picture of a woman as a whore and the modern tendency for women to be treated as sex objects. Dawe leaves no room for interpretation in lines like “fell away like so much morbid flesh” using strong emotive language to carry the intense outrage of society’s expectations and describing it like a sickness. Once the persona of the poem frees herself from stereotype, and stands taller, or darker, or larger then the ‘perfect woman’, as described in lines seven and eight, she is intensely different to the person “that posed forever in my life”.
While the first stanza has a tone of anger at the pressures of society, the second takes a clearly different tone of relief and the persona is able to accept herself for who she without feeling guilty. As in Dickinson’s poem, Dawe clearly blames this new typecast of women on the men in stanza two, line three who created an “Iron Maiden”, an illusion to a medieval instrument used as punishment and thus producing connotations of torture. The final stanza again emphasises the fact that this feeling of freedom could only be a dream with the use of a simile “as if I’d taken possession of myself” rather then directly stating the persona had gained independence. The woman of the dream who is able to be herself is a stranger to the woman she usually presents herself to be.
So can the sexes ever be equal? Despite a whole feminist protest movement dedicated to achieving just that, really not much has changed. Shakespeare recognised the restrictions placed on women back in his day in his memorable line, cried in frustration by Lady Macbeth “unsex me now”. Women of the past, like Dickinson, felt the pressures of the controlling male society and, although the expectations have changed slightly, the same pressures are still obvious today, even to a male like Dawe. I would love to see a world where men are the ones featured in ads for cleaning products and young girls aren’t playing with dolls that imply that running around in next-to-nothing is a good idea. I have a dream…