Monday, March 22, 2010

Lit Crit: Girl by Jamaica Kincaid

What is a Girl?
(…with apologies for my Anthropology 1A take on this English 1A assignment)

‘Girl’ by Jamaica Kincaid uses an angry avalanche of predominantly female adult voices offering mainly criticism mixed with little pieces of advice carefully designed to instill self-doubt, destructive sexist expectations, and social fears into a young girl. The purpose of this symphony of condemnation is to disempower the girl, to hobble her sexuality, and to make her lot as a nursemaid seem dignified and noble. Only twice does the youngster answer (in italics). In both cases she responds defensively, but in each case she is ignored.

While the piled on statements in ‘Girl’ appear as simple instructions: “Wash the clothes on Monday,” “this is how you make a button-hole,” “this is how you sweep the yard,” “iron your father’s shirt,” these comments are deliberate designed to limit her options and diminish her sense of independence. Each statement reaffirms the communal mindset that works incessantly to restrictively define the feminine persona, both by setting forth her responsibilities, and by limiting her natural inclinations. Repeated three times are instructions to on how to smile; similarly repetitive are directions on how to set a table, clean a home, grow and cook food.

Where are the suggestions she might teach, run a business, defend her country from oppressive colonial capitalists, lead her people to freedom? Instead these voices insist she will become a wife and a mother, the alternative being that she becomes “the slut you are so intent on becoming.” Repeated three times directly and once more in inference in the very last sentence, the slut she is so intent on becoming represents the greatest social concern expressed in Kincaid’s story. Apparently suppressing a young woman’s natural sexual impulses requires the most effort, the most repetition, and the most intense condemnation.

Saying this young woman is going to become a ‘slut’ affords her elders a means to control her. All humans are intensely sexual, whether they act on their continuous and pervasive sexual impulses or not. To call a woman a slut, irrespective or her age, is to ‘animalize’ her into a powerless state. Her natural sexual impulses are used against her, destroying her sense of autonomy, controlling her behaviors, including her sexual actions. What purpose is served by prohibiting a woman, young or old, from acting on her ever-present sexual impulses? Are we successful at controlling these natural proclivities?

Repeated genetic studies have determined that as many as thirty percent of the children born in first world countries like the US, Canada and the UK, are not genetic linked to the man listed as father on the birth certificate (see The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Matt Ridley, 1993). It is reasonable to presume this percentage is similar in less economically established countries. This figure is more than a little ironic when we consider that it is men who are encouraged to ‘sow their wild oats’ with sly winks and ribald accolades from both genders.

“The view that it is permissible for a man, but not a woman, to commit adultery has persisted almost to the present day” says Reay Tannahill in Sex in History. Some studies show that infidelity by men married more than two years runs as high a 72% (Women and Love, Shere Hite, 1989). But that is not the end of the story, Hite found the same rates of infidelity for women: “70 percent of women married more than five years are having sex outside of marriage” (ibid). With the average act of coitus lasting only three minutes and with a lifetime average of 2,000 sexual acts for every pregnancy, the odds and opportunity for undiscovered infidelity are quite good.

The culturally accepted phenomenon of male infidelity is widely acknowledged, as are the benefits: genetically linked offspring. What is not as widely acknowledged are the benefits that accrue to promiscuous women. Those benefits include increased access to assets, more genetically successful offspring (the ‘Beautiful Son’ theory of sexual selection), and expanded social support-networks. A woman who has multiple sexual partners often also gains a coterie of men to protect and support her if her mate becomes abusive or rejects her, and similarly, increased likelihood of protection and support in the instance of her mate’s death.

Especially in matriarchal and/or deliberately non-monogamous groups there is great benefit for the offspring of sexually available women, especially in a group that is genetically similar. The child of such a woman could be the genetic heir of any of the men with whom she was sexual. Under such conditions nearly everyone in the community would have a genetic investment in the survival of her progeny.

While there are historic examples of temporary periods of sexual abandon, such as the bacchanalian practices of the Romans and Greeks, most modern people attempt to ignore, deny or discount similar social experiences we actively and enthusiastically participate in today. Carnival, Mardi Gras, disorganized ‘frat parties,’ carefully orchestrated wedding parties, organized orgies, Jack-n-Jill-offs, Power Exchange events, and The Exotic Erotic Ball are just a small example of the wide spectrum of orgiastic practices we casually and recreationally indulge in today without severe social stigma.

To further ameliorate negative social judgment, most modern acts of sexual abandon involve alcohol and/or drugs. This allows the participant to deny responsibility.

“I was drunk, I didn’t know what I was doing,” or “I was drunk and didn’t know what they were doing to me,” are frequent responses to deliberate acts of female sexual abandon.

That is not to say there aren’t risks, especially in our patriarchal society, though clearly not enough to substantially impede widespread ‘sluttish’ behavior. In addition to possible male violence on herself, children in ‘families’ where either of the adults is genetically unrelated to the child are 60 times more likely to die than in those where both adults are genetically linked to the child (Red Queen). A sexually active woman also faces the risk of destabilizing her current relationship and ending up in a more precarious financial circumstance. As women control more of their own assets, including employment opportunities, this becomes less of a constraint. In societies with high levels of government-covered family support, including the USA, today, the rates for out of wedlock childbirth have increased substantially. It’s no longer imperative for the modern women to wait for a male provider to begin her reproductive journey. Even more common is a form of ‘monogamy’ where the modern woman is likely to have children with one or more men, within a series of short-term marriages. Whether that’s her intention or not, it is the result.

That said it appears that the main purpose and result of the widespread practice of condemnation, criticism and fear-mongering regarding women’s sexuality is to disempower women. It remains perhaps the most effective means of denying and undermining their claims for self-sufficiency, while limiting their aspirations and options.


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