The Objectification of Women in “On the Road” A Feminist Criticism
In On the Road there is an ever-present objectification of women. As a result, the woman loses her human qualities and can be compared to an inanimate object. There are several ways in which this objectification takes form in the novel. It is achieved through the act of gazing at women. The woman can also be used as a means to achieve something else, in this case sensual pleasure. Since the culture described in the novel is highly hedonistic, pleasure in terms of sex is crucial to Sal and his friends. Treating women as objects also implies to me that they are “replaceable” in the same way as items are obtained, used, disposed of and replaced. It is not the woman herself that matters for the characters, but any female who is able to give them enjoyment. Men, on the other hand, are irreplaceable to each other and have important inner lives.
“The male gaze” is a term usually applied on gender studies. According to feminists the term suggests that the pleasure in looking is given to the active male subject while the woman is the passive object. Women are depicted as men want them to be, instead of displaying their real characteristics. This gives an overly simplistic concept of feminism which divides women into “good girls” and “bad girls” implying that women are defined from this masculine point of view, rather than taking into account their own actions and varied personalities. The concept of the male gaze can be applied directly to the book. In On the Road, Sal’s and Dean’s visual objectification of women can be argued to be a clear example of this sexist term. The narrator normally begins every characterization of a woman with a stereotype description of her physical appearance. It is obvious that when Marylou, Dean’s first wife, is introduced as “his beautiful little chick” (On The Road 7), she is given a typically objectifying label which implies that she is immediately reduced to a visual object of desire “owned” by her husband. The way in which Marylou is objectified in the quotation above could be compared with a man displaying his new and fancy car for his neighbors. Later on it is added that “Marylou was a pretty blonde […] But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things” (On the Road 8). As a result, she is incorporated into the category of “bad girls”; she is judged beforehand, no matter what her actual personality is. It must be remembered that the objectification of Sal’s women friends occurs again and again. When Dean’s second wife Camille is first introduced to the reader, Sal sees a “brunette on the bed, one beautiful creamy thigh covered with black lace, look up with mild wonder” (On the Road 44). In a similar passage Sal describes Dean’s third wife Inez only on the basis of her body: “a big sexy brunette […] and generally like a Parisian coquette” (On the Road 232). Here is an example of a woman being diminished to a body whose main features are color and ethnical origin. The simple description is charged with nuances of vanity and easy virtue and it can be argued that there is a touch of eroticism about her. Further on in the text when her habits are mentioned it is made obvious that she is a “good girl” (On the Road 235). Consequently she is opposed to Marylou, the “bad girl”, but the male gaze is nevertheless present in all three characterizations.
When Sal observes even his own girlfriends with his male gaze, it is easy enough to believe that his tendency to objectify is deeply rooted in a superficial, simplistic and sexist worldview. Terry, his poor Mexican girlfriend, is at first a victim of his objectification. When he notices her on the bus station, he says “her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great big blue things with timidities inside” (On the...
Cited: Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. London: Penguin Books, 1972.
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