Sofia Mancz ’26
The Expectation That Women Conform Is Timeless: An Analysis of Works by Jamaica Kincaid and Kristen Roupenian
Over the course of history, women have faced constant discrimination and torment. Women are expected to uphold several domestic duties and keep their households afloat while simultaneously being expected to stay proper for the male gaze. In addition, women are expected to perfectly adhere to the wants of society because if they don’t, they will be denounced as “bitches,” “sluts,” or even “whores.” Due to the profound effect of this oppression on women of every era, many pieces of literature embody this pain and frustration. “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian is a short story that exemplifies the struggle young women face regarding trust and the navigation of the early stages of romantic relationships. “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is a brief narrative that follows a mother’s advice to her young daughter on how to survive in a patriarchal society. Throughout both, the strict expectations placed on women, like how they must conform to the male gaze or others expectations of their perfection, negatively affect women and their ability to be themselves.
Women are constantly patrolled by men; this surveillance does not allow women to live freely. Jamaica Kincaid touches on this subject in “Girl,” as she details what young girls should and shouldn’t do. From the mother’s point of view she writes, “…on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming” (Kincaid 1). With this, the mother in the story is attempting to prepare her young daughter for the criticism and discrimination she will face from men in her lifetime. The mother is attempting to show that even the way one walks will be surveyed by men and provide proper ammunition for derogatory insults. How will a young girl learn to be herself when she will grow up surrounded by men demanding things of her?
Kristen Roupenian touches on similar negative and harmful effects on women in “Cat Person.” When the main character Margot is alone in a dark car with Robert, she suddenly starts to worry. Roupenian writes, “Before five minutes had gone by, she became wildly uncomfortable, and as they got on the highway, it occurred to her that he could take her someplace and rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all” (Roupenians 5). The fact that Robert is watching Margot with a slim possibility that he might not like what he sees, causes Margot to worry for her safety. This speaks volumes to the way that women feel around men in society and how if they do not appeal to the view of men, the consequences could be lethal. Towards the end of “Cat Person,” Margot and Robert are no longer on the best of terms and Robert happens to see Margot speaking to another man at the bar. He begins to text her, “‘Are you fucking that guy right now’ ‘Are you’ ‘Are you’ ‘Are you’ ‘Answer me’ ‘Whore” (Roupenian 23). Margot no longer seeing Robert caused him displeasure, and in turn he felt she deserved to be labeled a “whore.” Men often feel that because a woman has made them somewhat vulnerable, they can disrupt the power dynamic with offensive and unjust insults. Because of this, women are afraid to not comply with the wants and expectations of men, which stops them from living the life that they want to live. Throughout both of these short stories, male expectations and their constant surveillance are detrimental to the lives of these women.
Furthermore, women are imaged to be perfect in every way, and when they are not, men will be significantly disappointed. In “Girl,” Kincaid, through the mother, describes how to iron clothes in a fashion that prevents any noticeable flaws or small wrinkles. She writes, “…this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease…” (Kincaid 1). With repetition, Kincaid emphasizes not only the importance of ironing without creases, but also that young women are responsible for manufacturing perfection. If the clothes contain creases, others will manufacture an image of the young girl as flawed and a failure. Later on in the story, the mother explains how a baker who does not let anyone touch their bread must feel compelled to allow the young girl. The last line reads, “…you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?” (Kincaid 2). By this, the mother means that the daughter must appear irresistible to men and must appear perfect enough to become an exception to all rules. The mother is subtly telling her daughter that in order to progress in life as a woman, she must conform to the stereotype that women are perfect, pristine creatures without a single flaw.
In “Cat Person,” Roupenian also refers to the idea that women feel valued by men when they are perceived as perfect. While having lack-luster sex with Robert, Margot’s internal monolouge is the only thing allowing her to somewhat enjoy this moment of intimacy. She starts thinking of how Robert views her, “Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless…I want her so bad I might die” (Roupenian 14). With this thought, Margot’s character becomes extremely relatable for present day women during sex. The only reason she is enjoying intercourse is because she is thinking of how perfect and desirable Robert must see her, rather than actually having fun. While it is common, this construct is extremely harmful to women because instead of being themselves with men, they act in ways that provide validation to mask common insecurities. Both “Girl” and “Cat Person” display the harmful consequences of the male gaze and the unrealistic expectations of perfection placed on women.
Both “Cat Person” and “Girl,” prove that strict expectations about how women must conform to the wants of men and to others’ expectations of perfection negatively affect women and their ability to be themselves. Although the content of these stories is vastly different, they both explore the oppression of women, and its repercussions. Women must cook, clean, birth children, and cater to the men in their lives while simultaneously staying elegant and poised. It is utterly impossible to juggle these overarching expectations while also making room for women to stick to their own personal values and personalities. Due to this, it’s extremely harmful for women to adhere to these outlandish expectations. Women should not dedicate their lives to male validation and they should not be expected to conform under the male eye. Overall, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian dive deep into the harsh repercussions of the male gaze and the undeserved insults thrown, and their harm to women everywhere.
Roupenian, Kristen. “‘Cat Person.’” The New Yorker, 4 Dec. 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “‘Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 1978, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1978/06/26/girl.