Gender Stereotypes in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’
To fully understand the complex characters portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, one must take a flashback to the sleepy Southern town, Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. A flashback is defined as a transition to an earlier event or scene that interrupts the normal chronological order of the story. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee describes a small, Southern town in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Lee specifies the fact that gender roles and ethnical stereotypes are major themes that are tied together during the story’s time period in Maycomb, Alabama by painting vivid pictures of her characters that she creates.
Scout Finch, the narrator, holds the first complex gender role found in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout is a tomboy with feminine expectations pressured upon her. She often rejects and rebels against the proper teachings taught by her Aunt Alexandra, Mrs. Dubose, and the other white, upper-class, southern ladies of Maycomb County.
During the 1930s, the ideal little girl was an image of pure femininity. Great pressure was placed on her training to be a lady or “a proper Southern belle” (Johnson, 144). Training was mainly focused on language and dress. A little girl never wore slacks or jeans. Only skirts and dresses with appropriate hats and gloves were worn. Scout was very foreign to this type of attire. Posture was very important for little girls to observe. This meant that rough play was not allowed. Little girls typically played with dolls, played house, and had tea and dress-up parties. A proper young lady learned to dance properly in white gloves and a long dress and was part of the many socialite clubs of society. It was expected of little girls to be very soft-spoken and refined in their speech. No proper little girl should use coarse language or improper grammar, as Scout often did. The older women of the town often gave private lessons on how to speak properly. (Did Scout go to those lessons?)
Scout is often ridiculed by the other ladies, who were southern belles of society. One of the chief conflicts in To Kill a Mockingbird is over Scout’s failure to show much promise as a proper southern lady. She loves to play with the boys, fight like them, and dress like them. One of the few occasions when Scout wears a dress, rather than bib overalls, is a meeting at the Finch home with all of Maycomb’s Methodist ladies. This is symbolic of Atticus and Calpurnia’s failure to dress Scout as a proper young lady. (How is it symbolic?)
Scout’s major tormenter is her Aunt Alexandra, who argued many times with Atticus about Scout’s boyish attire as well as her behavior. Aunt Alexandra, and her friends from church, Miss Rachel and Miss Stephanie, happily look down upon poorer people that they considered trash. Their female role was to uphold their personal appearance and keep up with the status quo. Alexandra cared about Atticus, Jem, and Scout, which is evident after Bob Ewell’s attempt to murder the children.
Another tormenter is Mrs. Dubose, who first chastises Scout for speaking out in class and then about Scout’s habitual attire. Mrs. Dubose is racist, and she seems to be the stereotypical southern belle. (Meaning all southern belles are racist? ) In her old age, she becomes a morphine addict. Lee makes her readers wonder what happened in Mrs. Dubose’s life to lead to this addiction. Mrs. Dubsose was also ridiculed by her friends from church for being stingy with her time. Jem(Do you need to describe all of the characters or are you assuming the reader has read the book?) also has a part in calling Scout out because she does not act like a girl. Scout identifies with more male characters in the book: Jem, Dill, and her father, Atticus. She refuses and hates the frills and flounces of “proper little girls” (Middel, 1). She prefers her overalls, sneakers, games, and fights. She considers her Aunt Alexandra and Mrs. Dubose altogether useless, and she wants nothing to do with them.
Lee presents to both the North and South a picture of the African-American as a human being. Lee’s portrait of the African-American and the many situations the race faced opens the eyes of readers, many whom have stereotyped blacks themselves (I would leave out this statement). Harper Lee uses racism in To Kill a Mockingbird to show her readers the consequences of being racist. The sentence of Tom Robinson, Atticus defending Robinson, and Jem’s thoughts on African-Americans are all examples of Harper Lee’s purpose of including racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. Racism is the hatred or intolerance of another race. In this book, the African-American population is the target of racism.
Tom Robinson is a black man whose hand is crippled, and he is accused in 1935 of raping Mayella Ewell. Tom Robinson is an innocent, helpful, and unbiased man. Harper Lee spirals his act of kindness into a death sentence served by an unfair and racist jury. Tom Robinson was an innocent man with little power due to the color of his skin. He is also a man of good character and morals. Lee makes Tom Robinson’s life dependent on the goodness of Atticus Finch. Some black readers felt that black characters in the book were not portrayed as well as the protagonists that are white. What does this have to do with gender?
Tom Robinson’s trial is a direct allusion to the Scottsboro Trials. Lee uses an allusion so that the reader can easily relate to the times in which a story takes place. An allusion is a reference to a place, person, event, or idea existing outside the literary work. Both the fictional and non-fictional cases take place in the 1930s. Harper Lee describes the root of all injustice in the court room as purely racism coming from the townspeople, the judge, jury, attorney, and most definitely the supposed victims and defendants.
The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash (Lee 260).
Lee goes beyond law and helps illustrate these problems with religion, ethics, and philosophy. Lee also writes to an audience of not only the legal system, but to normal citizens.
In another court case, The United States, Appellants, v. Cinque, slaves are put on trial because they escape and kill their captors. This case happens in a period where slavery still exists and there are many mistrials about who technically owns the slaves. This is a trial of white vs. black. In this case, the slaves win. Like The United States, Appellants, v. Cinque, Tom Robinson’s trial is white vs. black, but white wins. Consequently, Tom Robinson is killed for something he did not do. Lee uses this example to show readers how “racist, judgmental, and stereotypical” (Johnson 17) most Southern whites were during this time period. (I think you are putting too much about racial issues and not concentrating on gender issues)
Common stereotypical names of the ’20s and ’30s include: “toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks” (Johnson 109). These refer to a very helpful tool of racist white people. These tools were portrayed in novels, dramas, and film. Calpurnia does not fit the stereotypical “mammy.” Lee uses exaggeration and delirium to create situations surrounding African-Americans. Calpurnia is maternal, caring, and hardworking. Atticus’ late wife died two years after Scout was born, and Calpurnia takes the matriarchal role in her absence. She is African-American, but her character also defies the stereotype of being ignorant and uneducated. She is actually the complete opposite. Calpurnia teaches both Jem and Scout to read. The teachers are not happy, but Calpurnia is determined to influence the children positively. She has strength and independence, and gives the children a different view of African-Americans. She is not swayed by other town members. She is not racist toward white people, and she is not a Southern belle. She portrays Atticus Finch in a female body, and she is feminist like Scout.
Mrs. Pecolia Barge was an African-American lady, born in 1923 just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. She grew up around the same time as Scout did in To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Calpurnia, she defied all stereotypes after graduating with a college degree and sending her three children on to college and then to professional jobs. Northern readers find old predjudices about the South replaced by the more modern characters Lee portrays. Many Southerners finally start to see the African Americans that had lived among them all their lives as complex people.
Wayne Flynt, in his study Poor but Proud: Alabama Poor Whites (1989), believed Harper Lee had not avoided the stereotype of the poor white Southerner. The poor white Southerner is a constant character in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Ewells are poor and disheveled with a father who is constantly drunk fully. These characteristics fully illustrate the poor white Southerner stereotype. The Cunnighams also fall under the stereotype. They pay their debts and work hard, but earn no extra money for themselves. Jem and Scout often have frequent discussions with their father about the Ewells and Cunninghams. Atticus wishes to give his wisdom on the people of Old Sarum, but Aunt Alexandra forbids Atticus to discuss the poor whites of Maycomb around Scout.
Mayella Ewell is a poor girl who kept the house and cared for her younger brothers and sisters. She suffers from abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. Her life is consumed with work and poverty, not school, friends, or any hope. She kisses Tom Robinson because of an emotional need to feel loved. This act angers her father. Consequently, she receives a beating and is raped by her father. Mayella’s role is a true account of what many young women faced during this time. Despite her arranged lies that convicted Tom Robinson to his death, the reader usually feels some sadness over the terrible role that Mayella Ewell has.
Fictional portraits of poor whites gave the world a view of them. In William Faulkner’s short stories, “The Long Hot Summer” and “Barn Burning,” he wrote about a family that was a prime example of poor whites. The first excerpt was the account of a son of a Southern sharecropper. This man lived through the reality of being white and poor in the 1920s and 1930s. Faulkner wrote about the treatment of the poor white Southerner. He created characters hated by both whites and blacks, and that were generally known as “poor white trash” (Johnson 157).
Harper Lee totally avoids the typical Southern gentleman stereotypes with her character, Atticus Finch. Atticus is not a man of quick action or adventure. He does not wish to go back to the past, and he would never fight to keep the South segregated any longer. Throughout Atticus Finch’s life in Maycomb, he knows about the constant humiliating and stereotyping of African-Americans in the community. He tolerates it, and when needed, he overlooks it. He hopes the struggle for justice will not come during Scout or Jem’s lifetimes. For Atticus Finch, the worry of the civil rights era comes in the 1930s rather than in the 1960s. Atticus Finch wants to instill in his children the morals and values of non-bias and anti-racism. The reader finds that Lee wants Finch to portray a very cool, calm, and collected man who is an ideal role model for his kids. Atticus Finch wants segregation and racism to end immediately. Many Southerners found in Atticus Finch a kind of man who had been there among them all along, but remained unknown and unseen.
In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the upper class Southerners and the Southern gentleman is evident like many other works of this era. In Gone with the Wind, Rhett butler is a brave and romantic gentleman who loves high adventure. He was a man of chivalry and had a temper at the slightest insult. The second view of the upper-class Southerner is one that became known in the 1950s. This image is a man who resists change and progress and who holds strongly on to values and ideas that have passed. He clings to the “good ‘ole days” (Johnson 144) which makes him a figure of ridicule. Atticus Finch is more like the stereotype from the 1950s.
Boo Radley’s character is labeled with many names: outcast, different, witch, and vampire. One of the main plots of the book is when the children are overwhelmed with the mystery exemplified by Boo Radley. Although he first fulfills the outcast stereotype in the beginning, he becomes a savior in the end to the children. Boo Radley killed Bob Ewell while protecting Jem and Scout. His character was “like a mother lion protecting its cubs” (Middel, 2). This simile gives a true picture of how Boo Radley truly was and how he felt about Scout and Jem. A simile is a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds. The reader comes to like and know more about Boo Radley than his own community does.
Many readers of To Kill a Mockingbird compare the eccentric outcast of the community to the Salem Witch Trial?. In The Crucible, those accused are placed far away from the “normal and conventional” (Johnson 179) people of the community, as was Boo Radley. Boo Radley is clearly outside of the upscale and more refined part of the society in Maycomb, even though the Radleys have lived in the same house as long as most people can remember. The children find the Radleys mysterious and witchlike at first due to their position in society. In the novel, Lee is trying to put an example of Boo Radley in the reader’s own life. She wants to relate with the reader on this level, because it is universal among many people. The differences in this type of people is an unsettling and frightening.. It takes a long time for the children to warm up to Boo because of the mystery and fright associated with this individual. The children begin to differentiate between themselves and others. Scout comes to know Boo Radley by realizing that she too, is an outcast in school because of her tomboyish ways.
During the 1920s and 1930s, most people acted as a group of followers, not leaders, to make decisions and form opinions. The mockingbird is usually called a “mocker” because it copies the different songs of other birds. Harper Lee uses symbolism by comparing its mimicking of other birds’ songs to the way that many people of this era gave up their own voice to follow the common gender or racialstereotype or status quo. Harper Lee gives tribute to this “copy-cat” action of the mockingbird with this passage:
High above us in the darkness, a solitary mocker poured out his repertoire in blissful unawareness of whose tree he sat in (it was Boo Radley’s tree), plunging from the shrill kee, kee, kee of the sunflower bird to the irascible qua-ack of the blue jay, to the sad lament of Poor Will, Poor Will, Poor Will. (Lee, 105)
To Kill a Mockingbird clearly depicts a time where gender and racial ?stereotypes were very common in many communities. Harper Lee clearly tries to defy most of these and show her readers what stereotypes are like in the communities. Does she try to convince the reader to give up their own stereotypes? She also has characters that fit right in to the stereotypes which show how the community intereacted with one another.. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee describes a small, southern town in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Lee specifies the fact that gender roles and ethnical and racial stereotypes are major themes that are tied together during the story’s time period in Maycomb, Alabama by painting vivid pictures of her characters that she creates.