Gender Roles Portrayal in A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, narrates the plight of African-American families in the 1950s. As Hansberry tells the story of the Youngers, she brings to light gender roles in such families, the way they stuck to the social gender binary, and their difference from the ideal gender role stratification of the time. The 1950s were the prime of the traditional family type of the male breadwinner and the nonworking wife. However, to sustain such a family, the breadwinner required a stable income to cater for the family without a supplement income. For African Americans, most of whom had few or no academic qualifications, such salary was almost impossible to find. All the same, there were no employment opportunities for women in the mainstream job market. Nonetheless, black women had to work, mostly as domestic workers in white households to supplement the low salaries of their male partners. Hansberry’s Younger family was one such family, with a male breadwinner and other supporting earners. Therefore, Hansberry presents gender roles which reinscribe and disrupt the gender binary of the time.
Firstly, Hansberry starts with showing the importance if the male breadwinner to the Youngers’ family. The play opens as the family awaits a check of $10,000 from Mr. Younger’s insurance. Mr. Younger was the family’s main breadwinner. His death was a blow to the family, which had to manage with less income to provide for their needs. However, as a man, he had an insurance policy, which his family would benefit from after his demise. The worth of his policy reveals his importance to the family (Weiner 108). In that case, Mr. Younger was fulfilling his role as the family head and main breadwinner even after his death. In the time of the play, the main employment was prevalent, and only men were eligible for some benefits such as insurance among others. In accordance with the social gender binary, Mr. Young was the main family provider, entitled to benefits from his job (Weiner 174). It was his duty to ensure the family’s security, financially and socially, and he thus shared with his wife the dream of buying an apartment. The plan to purchase an apartment was Mr. Younger’s lifelong dream, which his family wanted to fulfill with his last income. This gender role portrayal reinstates the social gender role arrangements of the time.
Secondly, the desire for Walter Lee, the son of the family, to dispense the duties of the head of the family, reinforces the gender binary. Walter holds dreams of investing the insurance money in a wine shop, which would ensure the family’s financial security (Copenhaver 158). He considers himself as the family custodian, who should guarantee the safety of the family and their escape from poverty. After his father’s death, Walter wants to shoulder responsibility for the family the way his father used to. Running the family requires a lot more money than what he gets from his job as a chauffeur, therefore, he reveals the desire to operate a wine shop which he considers a lucrative business. Socially, as the man in the family, Walter should its head, the role left by his late father. As a result of this perspective, Walter wants to make the decision regarding the insurance money, something his mother does not allow him to do. The interests and plans of Lena Younger, Walter’s mother, differ from those of her son, since she wants to buy the family a home. According to Walter, that would be putting the money to sleep, whereas investing it would produce an income that would guarantee the family’s bright future. When he learns that his mother has already made a down payment for the apartment, Walter withdraws from the family and spends time in alcoholic lounges. Walter withdraws because he feels that he is useless to the family with the little salary he has, and his dream of operating a business has been doomed. This behavior reinforces the social order which requires financial stability for men, to fulfill their masculine gender role. Walter could only realize his self-worth if he had a stable salary and could manage to invest the insurance money successfully to earn a high income for the family (Burrell 12).
Thirdly, Hansberry shows that gender roles are socially instilled and passed down from generation to generation. By Lena Younger’s decision to entrust Walter with the remaining money to assure him of his masculinity, Hansberry suggests that it is the society that makes, reinforces, and demands the gender roles played by men and women. This suggestion is all the more reasonable when at the end of the play Mrs. Young says that at last Walter has attained masculinity. Besides, Ruth, Walter’s wife, feels frustrated when Walter refuses to listen to her news about her unexpected pregnancy. Ruth’s frustration results from the gender role Walter should fulfill as the husband and the father of the expected child. Ruth attaches a lot of importance to Walter listening to her, simply because he should fulfill his role as a husband. On the same note, when Beneatha decides to cut her hair and dress in the African attire that Asagai gave her, she demonstrates the importance she places on him as a male friend and a possible spouse (Burrell 16). Beneatha even feels offended when Asagai mocks her perception, shows the value she attaches to him and the way he sees her. Hansberry uses Beneatha’s reaction to Asagai’s gifts, comments, and views to demonstrate the value of men in the family and the society as well. The contrast between the value the family attaches to Asagai and Walter illustrates the expectations of the society as to what a masculine man should be like. Through such different value attachment, the family was pushing Walter to become more responsible and in control of his life and that of the family in order to perform his masculine role. Another incident through which the family instills in Walter the idea of what he should do as the head of the family is when they require of him to handle Mr. Linder and uphold the family’s honor. It is not that Mrs. Lena or Ruth or even Beneatha could not talk to Mr. Linder and express their disagreement with his proposal. Nonetheless, the family wanted Walter to perform his duty of solving the family’s problem the way the head of the family should do (Weiner 97). Through demanding certain behavior and instilling expectations, the society shapes the gender roles which each family member should assume.
Conversely, Hansberry presents gender roles which go against the social order. The women of the family appear to be stable and decisive, contrary to the common notion of female submission and dependence (Copenhaver 164). Mrs. Lena takes a decision of what she would do with her late husband’s insurance money. Without consulting with the rest, she makes a down payment on the apartment she plans the family to occupy. She also demonstrates courage and decisiveness when she dismisses the comments and advice of a neighbor against going to an all-white neighborhood. The family acknowledges her authority, when they report to her about their decision made in her absence that they would not accept to be bought out by Mr. Linder and his Association not to occupy their new home. Secondly, Beneatha makes her life decisions, building her dream of being an independent woman (Copenhaver 157). She disagrees with the idea of assimilation into the white culture and is determined to maintain her African cultural heritage. In connection with her stand, she dismisses her lover George as a fool, because he is obsessed with white assimilation and acceptance in the white society. She is also adamant about her career, which she considers as her way to independence and service to humanity. Furthermore, Ruth takes a decision to terminate her pregnancy, which, she speculates, would add financial pressure and burden to the family. Ruth takes this decision without consent from her husband, an act which defies the social order of wife submission (Copenhaver 169). Moreover, she supports Mrs. Lena on her idea to buy a home against her husband’s will. She also accepts the idea of living in an all-white neighborhood, something her husband did not approve of. Lastly, with the death of Mr. Younger, Ruth and Lena become the main breadwinners since Walter is unstable at his place of work, with a low salary and attendance problems. The female breadwinner situation was an inversion of the gender binary. Through the authority, independence, and decisiveness of the women in the family, Hansberry demonstrates the role reversal resulting in inverted gender roles in society.
In conclusion, Hansberry brings to light the gender roles which contradict the social order and, at the same time, reinforce it. Job offers with low salaries for African-American men necessitate their women’s entry into the job market. Since women were getting much lower incomes than men and were not entitled to job benefits, men were the main breadwinners. However, in some cases, where men could not secure considerable incomes or even employment, women became the family providers. The death of Mr. Younger and Walter’s frustration rendering him an absentee in his low-paying job made Mrs. Lena and Ruth the main breadwinners of the family. The decisive nature of Younger women demonstrates the role reversal. Even having considerable authority, the women of the family acknowledged Walter as the head of the family and had to instill it into him, molding the head of the family he should have been. The family’s insistence and acknowledgment of Walter as the head of the family reinforce the societal gender roles while the dominating nature of the three women disrupts that order.
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