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The women in French’s Billy conform to feminine constructs. Feminine women look for male security for the fact they are ‘dependent’ on a male construct. Women such as Helen Marks, Katey and Ginger Pasko are portrayed by French as feminine, making them gender stereotypes. On the other hand, Cinder’s characteristics neglect typical representations of a woman before and after she found out the fate of Billy. Cinder is a single mother without the support of a male figure. Therefore, from a feminine gender role, she needs to find a man for security: especially from the fact she is part of a minority group in a racist society. Both Katey and Cinder display motherly traits such as having ‘undying love’, ‘untold influence’ and ‘unfailing faith’ making them the typical roles of a mother. A post-colonial reading of Billy might have been the more obvious choice. However, I think that it is more interesting to explore how the women are constructed within the racially split society of deep south America.
Helen Marks of Banes County Times can be seen to be a social construct of the typical young woman from the way she behaves around Harvey Jakes. ‘Women in positive stereotypes are seen as cute but helpless’. This is clear when Helen asks for security when looking at the two ‘niggers’ in jail, ‘I wouldn’t want to just go by myself, can you take me down?’. Helen is requiring the masculinity of Harvey portraying herself as helpless without the support of a man. Her appearance of being young and beautiful conforms to gender expectations, ‘She comes in wearing the short skirt he likes to see her in’. This brings to light that the gender role of women has sexual reference, possibly due to the author being male. Never do we hear in Billy of Helen’s opinion on Harvey’s appearance. From this, it is clear that French has given Helen the gender representation of a young, sexually active woman being ‘probably the prettiest girl in town’. She hides behind the masculinity and security of men which, in a society which perceives the black society as dangerous, ‘fuckin killin bastards’, is what women her age should do. This is supported by male characters in Billy such as Deputy Hill, who doesn’t know ‘if it’s fit for women folks’ to see Billy and Gumpy in jail, bringing to light the discern and fragility of young women.
Although Ginger Pasko does not appear in Billy often, she represents motherhood in a stereotypical family of being caring and loving. Her first appearance is of her in the kitchen, ‘She moves away from the cooking stove’. Ginger’s position in the family perpetuates a stereotypical household mother. When Lori returns injured, French exaggerates the mother-daughter relationship between Lori and Ginger. It seems the only hope for Lori is to get her to her mother. This is clear from what Red says, ‘Mama can fix it’, David sees, ‘They saw the blood and their mother’s tears’, and the chosen bed Lori dies on being her mothers. After Lori’s death, her characteristics alter with her becoming more emotional, ‘Ginger Pasko sat quietly, tears seeped from her silence’. Ginger tries to make as much order to balance Lori’s death because she cannot control the disorder,‘She’s already done all the dishes she could find’. Her feminine trait of being delicate and vulnerable shines through in being incapable of coping with such an emotion. From conforming to the stereotypical gender role of a wife, she looks for male support, ‘Ginger sighed and reached for her husband’s hand’. Her approach to dealing with her daughter’s death sees her gain reassurance from her stereotypical masculine husband because individually she is not strong enough. From this, Ginger’s reaction to Lori’s death supports the typical mother role.
The gender role of black women in deep south America contrasts against the characteristics of Cinder before Billy stabs Lori. When first introduced to Cinder, the reader gains the impression of her independence from masculinity, ‘If one of them get too close […] she look at em with them eyes and stare them down’. Cinder approaches a relationship differently to the constructed gender role that, ‘She’ll make him come to her’. Being part of society saturated with racism, it should be an aim for black women to gain the support of a husband. Yet, Cinder would rather wait until the man needs her. Her lack of support brings her a masculine figure who helps her home after Sheriff Tom takes Billy, ‘laid beside the road until the man who called her by her mother’s name took her in her arms’. Cinder does need the reinforcement of a man. A feminist perspective would see Cinder as a woman who is reversing gender roles. Before the murder she, ‘kept to herself’. However, it is tragedy that makes her contravene traditional gender roles.
The motherly support Katey continuously provides for Cinder is a clear representation of the traditional gender role Katey perpetuates of having ‘undying love’ and ‘untiring sacrifice’. With Cinder becoming more detached from society, Katey emerges as more dominant, speaking on behalf of Cinder in deep south dialect, ‘She comes to see her childs. Can’ts she just see him?’. Katey is converting to a more active woman in society to defend Cinder. Her virtuosity shines through to the reader especially her religion, ‘Katey thanks her God’. Katey, unlike Ginger and Helen, has not got any male security. Therefore, she resorts to religion to give her the support she desperately requires. From Katey looking at religion as masculine backing, she continues the constructed gender role of being ‘dependent’. However, it is the elementary support she gives to Cinder and Billy, ‘Katey tries to get both Cinder and Billy into her arms’, which portrays her characteristics as one of a motherly figure. During and after Billy’s struggle for freedom, Cinder’s characteristics of being untraditional intensifies to a woman without any constructed roles. This is made clear when Cinder continuously answers Sheriff Tom’s questions with, ‘Silence’, and, ‘throws her eyes back into his’. Sheriff Tom maintains a male construct through resorting to violence, ‘his hand comes smacking across Cinder’s face’. Cinder cannot beat Sheriff Tom physically. Therefore, she resorts to challenging the Sheriff mentally through staring using eyes that ‘glowed the color of her burning soul’. It could also be seen that from French making Cinder silent and inactive, he has agreed with what female constructs should be. From being passive and silent, Cinder has maintained an active characteristic. Active women are seen as ‘dangerous’, in the sense of being dangerous in confronting the masculinity and power in men. Although Cinder stays physically conservative, her attempt to mentally challenge Sheriff Tom can be seen as an act of defiance against male masculinity. As the linear novel progresses, so do Cinder’s emotions to that of more depression, ‘Cinder’s thoughts drift into darkness, but there is no color in her mind’. She has been mentally crushed by the execution of Billy. Unlike Ginger, she has expressed her emotion, ‘Cinder sat and cried all night. Mississippi’s sky stayed dark’. The pathetic fallacy of Cinder and the Mississippi’s sky reflect the ‘color of yesterday, but none of tomorrow’ that the absence of colour in Cinder’s life is a metaphor for a deficiency of happiness. The lack of a future for Cinder perpetuates her inability to move on from such disorder. However, unlike Ginger, she does not attempt to rectify the problem and create order. Instead, she gives up leaving the sky in her mind permanently dark. For this reason, Cinder does not support the typical gender roles. Her untraditional characteristics at the start of Billy magnify, resulting in a broken and disconsolate woman who although is alive, internally, is a ‘soul seeking death’.
Ultimately, the women in Billy do perpetuate the conventional social constructs except for Cinder. The tragedy she faces, without male support like Ginger had, leads her to neglect female conventions such as to be, ‘naturally timid’. French states Cinder read, ‘about a river and how it flows home to the sea. In her way she has never been home’. From this imagery, a reason why Cinder doesn’t maintain a traditional gender role is because she hasn’t found her role in society yet which is clear from French’s Cinder where it’s still, ‘dark in her mind’. For Cinder, time is no healer for her tragedy like it has been for Ginger. This could be because Cinder is no longer a mother. Therefore, she is finding it difficult to adapt away from having motherly characteristics. Billy features a traditional, white, male dominated society. Thence, even the white women have little power in society. Cinder is the only woman that challenges the gender hierarchy in society. Therefore, all but one woman conserve traditional gender roles making clear French is successful in perpetuating the constructed representation of women in 1930s America.
Word count – 1,494
Bertens, H. (2001) Literary Theory: The Basics, (The Politics of Class: Marxism), (pp 94-5, 97-99), Abingdon: Routledge.
Further and independent reading, Chapter 18: The pre-released critical anthology, 2 Feminism and gender.
‘Four Characteristics Of Motherhood’ [online] available at http://www.brfwitness.org/?p=501 accessed 27/11/12.
‘Gender Identity – Stereotypical Masculine & Feminine Traits’ [online] available at http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/sexual-orientation-gender/gender-gender-identity-26530.htm 28/11/12.
Albert French, 2008, Cinder, Vintage Books
Albert French, 1994, Billy, Minerva original by Mandarin Paperbacks