The Gender Issue in 1950’s During the post war period, the American society saw many changes. The society faced several after effects of war. Before war, the American society had fixed gender roles: the male was the bread winner and the female was the house keeper (Dauphin, 2006). These roles had so long been a part of the family structure in America that any change in them was treated like a deviation (Dauphin, 2006). The society saw crisis after World War II and it affected all social institutions, including family. As the post war society shifted from joint to nuclear system, there appeared a transition in sex roles (Weiss, 2000). Racial issue was also on the rise during the same period. America began to see a trend of sexual equality. Self supporting women, who were often colored, faced more criticism since they were forced into unconventional gender roles (Weiss, 2000).This shift in gender roles was felt by the citizens of society and is evident in literature and art of that period. A sun Raisin in the sun responds to this gender role conflict in an explicit manner; gender discrimination and role conflict are apparent in dialogues of the male as well as female characters throughout the play.
Gender Discrimination and Drift in Gender Roles Portrayed In the Play
In the opening act of the play, the main male character of the story, Walter expresses his biased beliefs regarding the opposite sex and his frustration about losing authority in these words: ‘You don’t understand about making men feel like they can do something’. This clearly expresses the conflict and insecurity that the male members in sex role transition face. There are many instances in the play that reflect prejudice against women, for example, at one point, Walter comments on women generally: ‘The world’s most backward nation of women!’ Similarly, stereotyping is also evident in the second act, where Walter is sitting with his friends, talking about women: ‘If there is anybody you cannot persuade to take a larger view of life, it is a woman.’
The play also reflects the biased attitude of male members of the 1950’s society towards a woman seeking a professional education, since it was not in accordance with the typical role. Walter says in the second act: ‘Ain’t many girls who decide to be a doctor’, and he also mentions in the third act that he clearly wants his sister married as soon as possible and he doesn’t care whether she becomes a doctor or not.
The other main male character in the play, Asagai, despite being romantically in love with Walter’s sister Bennie, expresses his biased opinion of women in second act by stating ‘Just being loved should be enough for a woman’; implying that a woman should desire nothing more out of life.
Female roles in the play are very strong and all three of them express the gender discrimination and sex role conflict in the society via different dialogues. Mama for example despite being a mature and strong willed person, is reluctant to travel alone to Europe and starts comparing herself with stereotyped white women who roam around, unaccompanied by their males. Ruth, Walter’s wife who is a bit more modernized than mama, shows the typical determination of a 1950’s woman by mentioning in the last act, that she will work hard to pay the installments no matter what: ‘I’ll work in all the kitchens of America, ill strap my baby at my back if I have to’.
‘A Raisin in the sun’ also depicts the power and strength of the predetermined gender roles. The women themselves find it difficult to place their selves or other women out of that prescribed gender role. Like at one point in the second act of the play, Mama says to her daughter ‘What do you mean by leaving the house looking like this’; which implies that the older woman finds it unconventional that a woman should go out while leaving the house in a mess, while the younger woman thinks it is normal to do so.
The frustration of not being a good bread winner, insecurity and self rejection among the male members of 1950’s society, undergoing a gender role transition is quite apparent throughout the play. The protagonist, Walter, expresses at various points in the play, his helplessness and dissatisfaction with his own earning potential. ‘I’m thirty five years old and I aint nothing…eleven years of marriage and my son still sleeps on the couch (for he has no bed).’ Due to economic pressures he has come to treasure money, for money was typically, solely the department of the male members of the family in those times: ‘Because money is life, it always was’. Walter, playing the typical male of 1950’s is also unthankful towards his extremely compromising wife: ‘What has she ever done for me?’
Women in general did not enjoy many rights in those days and justice was a privilege that women could not afford, let aside the black women (Weiss, 2000). The play contains a classic example of this. Mama places the daughter’s share of the money in the son’s hands for safe keeping and the son blows the money away, because to him, his sister’s education is not a priority, becoming financially stable and becoming a better provider is.
Finally, the main female character, Mama also portrays a typical strong willed black woman, who is trying to adapt to the changing roles. Asagai comments: ‘For all her backwardness; she still acts, she believes she can change’.
In light of above discussion and quotations, it can be concluded, that ‘A Raisin in the sun’ by Hansberry Lorraine (1959) is a true depiction of many social issues prevalent in the post World War II period in the new world, especially the main issues of gender discrimination and frustration faced by both sexes due to gender role transition and resulting prejudice and stereotyping.
Dauphin, Mirja. The presentation of gender in Diane Abus’s work in context of cold war era. Norderstdt: GRIN Verlag, 2006.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1959.
Weiss, Jessica. To have and to hold: Marriage, baby boom and social change. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.