The lesser sex:
Exploring the portrayal of women in “Boys and Girls”
The role of females and males is a touchy subject for many. Added to this sensitivity and further complicating the topic of females and males are the values, beliefs, views and stereotypes associated with the two sexes. As some stereotypes go, women are often attributed to have ‘softer’, ‘caregiving-like’ qualities, and men are expected to be rough and always ready for the next adventure. Munro paints a picture of women as the lesser sex using overtones of absence of feminine voice, a strong focus on professional or occupational roles and value-laden statements of important characters.
An obvious argument in favour of women being the lesser sex is noted in the minimized voice the women appear to be given, including the narrator. One such example is found early in the story when the protagonist’s father and the salesman are speaking and the salesman remarks, “I thought it was only a girl” (Munro 494). The protagonist does not respond, but simply turns away. A second example is found when the mother approaches her husband to address her concerns about their daughter and the protagonist observes her father “stood listening, politely as he would to a salesman or stranger, but with an air of wanting to get on with his real work” (495). The obvious absence of the feminine voice in the story is noted; women do minimal speaking and appear to only speak about proper and improper roles of girls and women. This is reinforced during the grandmother’s visit as she reprimands the protagonist with “Girls don’t slam doors like that” (497). This minimized feminine voice reduces the sense of power and privilege awarded women and the reader begins early on to experience a sense of agreement with Munro.
Accompanying the minimized feminine voice is the strong focus on profession and occupation. The air of importance awarded the men in the family for their profession and occupation is effective in winning the favour of the reader; the air of disregard and disrespect targeted to the women is convincingly believable. The fact that the protagonist begins with “my father was a fox farmer” (491), suggests which gender the reader should ‘side’ with. As the story unfolds, the reader learns much about the profession of the father, where in fact the father’s work is so important he requires the helping hand of a second adult male: Henry Bailey. Later on in the story, the protagonist states “my father’s service, was ritualistically important” (495). This description is important in leading the reader to nod in agreement with the protagonist, namely following the declaration that “house work was endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing” (494). The mother’s work is awarded very little focus and emphasis is put on negating the mother’s presence to the reader, “It was an odd thing to see my mother down at the barn” (494). The reader begins to form a greater sense that men not only are placed first in the story, but experiences a sense of disappointment in regards to the mother’s work “She did not often come out of the house unless it was to do something-hang out the wash or dig potatoes in the garden. She looked out of place…” (494).
Throughout the story, the reader is accosted with value statements providing tell-tale pointers ‘confirming’ the superiority of men and inferiority of women. From the salesman’s remark to the point in which the little brother hurts his sister and Henry Bailey amused, calls out “Oh, that there Laird is gonna show you, one of these days!” (497), the reader is repeatedly presented with insinuated examples of the inferiority of females. The protagonist even uses the mother at one point “wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you’ll have a real help” (495) to add to the allusion of a lesser sex. The mother’s remark suggests the daughter’s work done with her father is not genuine in comparison to what the son’s work will be. As the story comes to a close and the family gathers around the table to eat, the actions of the protagonist become the focus of attention to which the young female has an emotional response bursting into tears. The protagonist describes how her father barely reacts explaining away her behaviour due to her being “only a girl” (502). She observes her father and how “he spoke with resignation, even good humor, the words which absolved and dismissed me for good” (502). The daughter and mother’s absence in voice, reason and opinion along with the father’s remark becomes the seal in determining who the lesser sex is.
Throughout the story, the reader is provided a point of view that relays a strong focus on masculinity and minimizes focus on the feminine. These versions and descriptions influence the reader’s attitude toward women in the story. The manner in which the story is presented and how the protagonist reports their early experiences and messaging received from the adults in her world sways the reader to concluding the author indeed, wants the reader to conclude that females are inferior to males.
Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls.”, Introduction to Literature, 5th ed. Findlay, et al. Toronto: Nelson, 2004. 491-502. Harcourt Brace Canada.