<u>Herland Explorer “Manly” And Making Progress </u>
Despite the fact that Herland was invented and described nearly a century ago, the ideas are not yet obsolete. The main themes are not dependent on fleeting technologies. The setting is fantastical and imagined, but the portrayal of males is still relevant. The text, and century since its writing, show that time has not distorted expected performances of manliness. The three performances of masculinity described and explained in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland remain relevant today, and illuminate an idealistic approach to binary coexistance.
The focus of Herland is split between the main characters, Van, Jeff and Terry, and the society they are exploring. Even before the three men enter the exclusively female society, they are identified by their varied, yet masculine, traits. Van’s understanding of their company is summed up on page 8: “Jeff’s ideas and Terry’s were so far apart that sometimes it was all I could do to keep the peace between them.” He goes on to describe how Jeff idealizes women “in the best southern style,” chivalrous, sentimental, and idealistic — “a good boy.” Terry is said to be “a man’s man,” generous, brave, and clever. The main difference between Jeff and Terry is that, while Jeff glorifies women, Terry considers them to be more like games than people, a disrespectful and unpleasant view, according to Van. Van doesn’t describe himself in depth, aside from claiming he held a highly scientific middle ground.
What is Masculinity ?
Planned Parenthood’s “Gender & Gender Identity” article provides an extensive list of words to describe both masculinity and femininity , many of which are present in Herland. Words associated with masculinity today include aggressive, competitive, self-confident and hard. Even before the three men enter the world of Herland, we see these traits, most visibly, in Terry. While Jeff is less obviously masculine, by these terms, he is accommodating of feminine traits, defined as sensitive, innocent, soft and weak. By putting himself on the opposite side of femininity, he is defaulted to masculine. Van’s one feminine trait, being accepting, is accompanied by the masculine traits: independent, active, self-confident, and non-emotional.
Terry’s notions about Herland are immediately clear and he fails to become a part of their society when he refuses to learn and change. Terry’s self-confident, competitive side comes out the second he hears of Herland (4). He is all in favor of going to see what he calls “Feminisia,” where he believes he will be welcomed by the multitude of women, as he is popular among the women in his own society (6). He sees this all-female society as his for the taking (7). The only thing in his way is the men he believes must be there, once he sees how advanced the society is (10). Terry sticks to his assumptions throughout their exploration of Herland, when he uses a necklace as bait for the girls (14), consistently insists that there must be men (39), and presumes his own rights as a man (112). When he oversteps his bounds and tries to violate his partner, Alima, he “explained in definite terms that they were incapable of understanding a man’s needs, a man’s desires, a man’s point of view. He called them neuters, epicenes, bloodless, sexless creatures” (113). Terry’s inability to understand and adapt to the society of Herland eventually get him expelled from the community.
Jeff’s approach to acclimatization in Herland is notably less forceful than Terry’s. Before entering Herland, Jeff’s tenderness is illustrated through his expectation that Herland would be just “blossoming with roses and babies and canaries and tidies” (6). Jeff is very respectful to the women of Herland, bowing to them when they meet (13, 24), acknowledging their strengths (26), and attempting chivalry (79). Jeff is the most adamant about the importance of marriage, explaining it to be a joining of two together, where wife and husband belong to one another, not just one way or the other (100). Jeff’s appreciation for the women of Herland got him a home there. He fell easily into the lifestyles of Herland, feeling no need to return to America or expose Celis to the rest of the world.
Van most effectively assimilated into Herland while maintaining an interest in his own society, and instilling a similar interest in his wife, Ellador. Van often describes himself as “scientific” (8), and later describes Ellador as being similar (108). Throughout the book, Van describes the reactions of Terry and Jeff, and then goes on to describe it in the most objective way of the three — his (8, 105). He says “I think I had the habit of using my brains in regard to behavior rather more frequently than either of them” (105). He manages to relate their experience in Herland to illustrations of other conceivable scenarios. Van’s outlook and curiosity presents him with the opportunity to leave Herland with his wife and go explore the rest of the world, likely from their shared scientific method of perception.
The One-Sided Approach
The ultimate experiences of both Jeff and Van are seemingly positive. Jeff’s approach, however, would not be as successful in the binary world. He is perfectly content to surround himself with women, but not all men would be. The society he ultimately finds himself in is as disagreeable to contemporary society as Terry’s ideal would be. Both Jeff’s and Terry’s ideal worlds perpetuate very unequal concepts of societal gender binaries. Jeff idolizes women, which stifles his masculinity, and he encourages stereotypes of women being weak and needing to be taken care of. Terry idolizes the female sex , but marginalizes women regarding almost all other matters. Neither of these men’s experiences or approaches to Herland provide a positive example of men and women’s equality. Not only that, but they represent exactly what forms of masculinity restrict positive gender relations, not only in Herland, but on a larger scale as well.
While there is no perfect approach to equalizing the genders and easing their communication processes, Van’s experience reveals some positive methods of bringing men and women closer to equality and understanding. The scientific approach Van and Ellador both take helps them to understand each other’s different worlds and consider them objectively. Jeff and Terry had a lot of expectations, going in to Herland. Van, while not completely without preconceived notions, was willing to learn about the differences and take them in without losing all sense of who he was before Herland and where he came from. Granted, he faced some opposition from Ellador and was forced to compromise for her sake, but they both endeavored to learn, understand, and adapt.
In a binary world such as this, “with our masculine tradition of far more than two thousand years,” (104) there exists a challenge in joining the two genders. In the contemporary world, the lines of those genders are being blurred, but the binary is ever-present. Van’s character in Herland illustrates how important an open mind is in furthering the connection between the two worlds belonging to the two genders. As people courageously cross the borders between these two worlds, it becomes more difficult to say where those borders are. What Gilman accomplishes in Herland is that she gives a model, Van, of what approach is best to attempt escape of the social confinement those thousands of years of history have put us in to. The active and confident approach to open-mindedness — learning and sharing new information — provides the possibility of crossing the gender lines to create a truly inclusive and equal community. Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores this through the world of Herland, a speculative representation of real-world women, and the opportunity of men to see things outside of their historically reinforced patriarchal perspective.
"Gender & Gender Identity." Gender Identity. Planned Parenthood, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.