Gender Performance in Herland
We live in an imperfect world filled with violence, starvation, poverty, and inequality. In an effort to address these problems while escaping to a better world, many authors imagine a perfect society in which these problems to not exist. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s country of Herland is one such perfect imagined utopic societies: it represents an ideal country in which there is no violence, no corruption, no starvation, and constant peace amongst its citizens. Gilman saw some clear problems in society and, in an attempt to point them out, created a utopia in which the elimination of men from society is the answer to the elimination of imperfections. One of these imperfections that Gilman sees is the expectations for men and women to perform to certain gender norms that fall in the established, traditional, and “safe” gender binary. Gender performance is the way in which individuals see themselves, how society sees individuals, and in how culture defines gender (Foss et. al. 165). In Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gliman creates a utopic setting to challenge traditional ideas of gender performance, such as the notion that women must perform a degree of femininity, which implies both their mental and physical weakness.
Terry O. Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck Jennings enter the country of Herland with traditional, western, 20th century ideas of gender performance. The three men are quite different in how they approach women, but each reach similar conclusions. Jeff is described as a “tender soul” who believes that the country would be “just blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies, and all that sort of thing” (Gilman 6). Throughout the novel, he constantly offers to help with heavy lifting and makes a sincere effort to “win over” Celis. Conversely, Terry is described as a “man’s man” (8). He consistently shows his distaste and disbelief toward a world without men and treats women as beneath him. Vandyck, the narrator, takes the “happy medium” role and, as a sociologist, approaches his view of gender with the scientific method. Vandyck is probably the man whose views change the most. He comes in with very traditional views on gender, but adapts the most to the gender-ambiguous ideal. While these men have outwardly different views of women, they each, at least at first, conform to the ideals of women as ideally feminine, weak, and needing protection from men, by men.
The traditional view of women as weak and feminine is established immediately upon the first meeting between the three men and three women of Herland. In an effort to lure the girls to them, Terry immediately attempts to bait them with jewelry (14). In doing so, Terry is demonstrating the widely held belief that women have a “weakness” for things that sparkle. Vandyck notes that the interest of the girl “was more that of an intent boy playing a fascinating game than of a girl lured by an ornament” (14). By pointing this out, Gilman is establishing that the women are, at least in this way, rejecting the feminine stereotype. They have no “weakness” for things that sparkle and instead are described as reacting to Terry’s lure in a distinctly masculine way.
Later, as the men are exploring the country, they note how well engineered the roads are. “The road was some sort of hard manufactured stuff, sloped slightly to shed rain, with every curve and grade and gutter as perfect as if it were Europe’s best” (15). Terry’s immediate response is to assume that this was evidence of the existence of men in the country. In his view, there was simply no way that women could have the intellectual, creative, and physical capacity to build such roads, once again insisting on women’s inherent weakness. In this utopia, the roads are well-made, the grounds are beautiful, and things run smoothly: it is the perfect country. The disbelief expressed at the possibility that this could be a country of only women is Gilman’s way of expressing the prevailing attitude that women cannot create such beauty and functionality.
Another example comes when the women of Herland find out that only a small percentage of women in the United States were wage earners (53). The men explain that upper and middle class women were “loved, honored, kept in the home to care for the children” (54). To the men this was simply what was done and, in the view of someone like Jeff, this kind of reverence for women was an acknowledgement of their weaknesses and an effort to help them overcome their weakness with the help of a strong and capable husband or father. The women of Herland, however, had no men in their country and yet managed to take care of themselves. This kind of weakness that was implied to be inherent in womanhood seems absurd when looking at a land without men that runs smoothly and even much more positively than a “bi-sexual” culture.
Terry grows so frustrated with Herland and it’s citizens that he starts to make claims about the women’s lack of femininity. At one point, he exclaims that “‘They’ve neither the vices of men, nor the virtues of women-they’re neuters!’” (84). He then claims that “‘they’ve no modesty...no patience, no submissiveness, none of that natural yielding which is woman’s greatest charm’” (84). Terry is equating their womanhood with femininity, and men’s manhood with masculinity. By this point in the novel, both Jeff and Vandyck have grown to appreciate Herland, but Terry is stuck in his gender stereotypes and refuses to even see them as women because of their lack of femininity. They are neither weak nor what he sees as feminine. Because Terry is intent on asserting his masculinity, he needs to have femininity over which to assert it. He had always been a “man’s man”, athletic, dominant, and a bit of a womanizer. Without femininity, masculinity cannot exist: one only exists in relation to the other. Because he sees femininity as weakness, and submission, these women do not fulfill his view of femininity and therefore are stripped of their gender in his eyes.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman lived in a time of transition for women in America. She was a feminist ahead of her times and Herland is an expression of these ideals. The idea of women stepping out of their traditional roles was a radical one and her use of a classic utopic tale to convey these ideas made it easier to express these ideas. People were, and still are, expected to perform to what society tells them their gender identity should be. In traditional gender roles, women are seen as weak and unassuming, needing male guidance, and submissive. In creating a perfect society in which women have no need for men and are strong in their own right, Gilman is showing the problematic nature of expecting everyone to stay in their own traditional gender roles, and the absurdness of the notion that women are weak and unable to govern themselves without men.
-Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. New York: Pantheon, 1979. Print
-Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and MAry E. Domenico. Gender Stories: Negotiating Identity in a Binary World. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2013. Print.