“I Was Born Defective”: What It Means to Be a Woman in Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations
“Regardless of what we might think of our gender, we can only live that gender through the body we have.”
Throughout Sharon Pollock’s play Blood Relations, the plotline focuses on the life of Lizzie Borden and her day-to-day experience as a woman who does not conform to feminine expectations. The play is set in the late nineteenth century, a time when women were viewed as a subordinate group within society. The bodies that people were born into determined the gender roles they were supposed to fulfill. Those gender roles, however, were created by the men of the society. In Blood Relations, Lizzie is pressured to conform to the feminine gender role simply because she has the body of a woman. The play chronicles Lizzie’s resentment of and rebellion against the male-structured ideology in an attempt to change what it means to be a woman in her society.As the protagonist of the play, Lizzie Borden is faced with the stereotypes of women during her era. She was born and raised in the nineteenth century, when women were expected to be complacent daughters and obedient wives and homemakers. Lizzie, however, refuses to conform to those societal conventions despite the body she was born into. She is very headstrong throughout the play; her constant battle against societal norms constricts her life and ultimately leads to the murder of her parents. Throughout the play, the convention of “being a lady” causes conflicts between Lizzie and those around her, especially Mrs. Borden: “She’s incapable of disciplining herself like a lady and we all know it” (Pollock, 22). Mrs. Borden constantly badgers Lizzie throughout the play because Lizzie does not conform to feminine gender roles. From the beginning of the play, it is evident that women faced well-defined boundaries that they were unable to cross. Mr. Borden, Lizzie’s father, refers to keeping women in line as a task like “training horses”:
Now Andrew, I’ve spent my life raisin’ horses and I’m gonna tell you somethin’ — a woman is just like a horse! You keep her on a tight rein, or she’ll take the bit in her teeth and next thing you know, road, destination and purpose is all behind you, and you’ll be lucky if she don’t pitch you right in a sewer ditch. (17-18)
Mr. Borden believes that men ought to keep their women in line in order to stop them from interfering with their “man’s world.” Being born into a woman’s body during the nineteenth century limited the options available to an individual — women were not allowed to do what men could. Lizzie, however, often refuses to do what the men around her tell her to do.The constant discord between Lizzie and her father makes it evident that she refuses to adhere to societal conventions. Lizzie is constantly forced to listen to her father bring up the idea of marriage: “Just listen to me, Lizzie… I’m choosing my words, and I want you to listen. Now… in most circumstances… a woman of your age would be married, eh? Having children, running her own house. That’s the natural thing, eh? [Pause.] Eh, Lizzie?” (34). Because Lizzie is a woman, it is only “natural” for her to conform to the convention of marriage even if she is not interested in the suitor, such as Johnny MacLeod, an old widowed man. That convention appears to be quite one-sided: Harry, Mrs. Borden’s brother, does not seem to be married, nor is he pressured into getting married. Instead, he is commended for not having to bear any children: “You’re lucky you never brought any children into the world” (32). Because Lizzie was born female, though, she is considered a failure for the very thing Harry is being praised for. Lizzie, however, refuses to marry someone just for the sake of doing so. It is not something she naturally feels, and ultimately will not do despite wanting to please her father. “Papa? … Papa, I love you. I try to be what you want, really I do, I try… but… I don’t want to get married. I wouldn’t be a good mother, I–” (37). The idea of being forced into motherhood is not something which comes naturally for Lizzie; she does not have the nurturing maternal instinct that she believes women meant to be mothers should have. When Mr. Borden speaks to Lizzie about marrying Johnny MacLeod, Lizzie refuses the idea and says that she does not want to be married or assume the role of a “housekeeper” (36). Lizzie’s natural instinct blocks her from “performing” what everyone else expects of her.Lizzie recognizes that something is different in herself compared to the other females around her. She sees that she is nothing like her sister Emily, who is completely complacent and often adheres to the social norms of what it means to be a woman. Because of the contrast between Lizzie, Emily, and even Mrs. Borden, Lizzie questions herself and wonders if something could possibly be wrong with her:
[D]o you suppose there’s a formula, a magic formula for being a “woman”? Do you suppose every baby girl receives it at birth, it’s the last thing that happens just before birth, the magic formula is stamped indelibly on the brain Ka Thud!! […] and through some terrible oversight… perhaps the death of my mother… I didn’t get that Ka Thud!! I was born… defective. (32)
This quote perfectly describes Lizzie throughout the play. She was born into a body and given a socially constructed role for which she is not suited. All of the women around her have a certain perception of what it means to be a woman. Lizzie, however, defies all of these social conventions — not out of spite, but because it does not come naturally for her to act the way society expects her to. Even if she tries to make her father happy, the part of her that rejects these social norms leads her to believe that she must be defective — that she can only be considered normal by adapting to the gender role she was assigned when born a girl. That quote leads the audience to believe that if those who do not fit into the neat categories of entirely male or entirely female are “different” and should be considered as “outsiders.” Lizzie is segregated throughout the play to the point where she is made to feel alienated by even the closest members of her family.This segregation by Lizzie’s family leaves her with more resentment and only pushes her further away from her assigned gender role. Naturally, during the late nineteenth century, women could not work, nor did they have the option to live on their own away from their families. In contrast, that is all Lizzie desires:
Lizzie: I want out of all this… I hate this house, I hate… I want out. Try to understand how I feel. Why can’t I do something… Eh? I mean… I could… I could go into your office… I could… learn how to keep books?
Mr. Borden: For god’s sake, talk sensible. (37)
Lizzie strongly dislikes living at home around the very people who stop her from being herself; she is desperate to break free from the world in which she is confined. While Lizzie does appreciate the material comforts that her family provides to her, she ultimately craves the acceptance and encouragement to live her life freely. Instead, Mr. Borden constantly tells Lizzie to smarten up and “think sensibly,” as though what she is saying is completely ludicrous. At the time, however, Lizzie’s dreams were slightly farfetched. As a woman, she only had what her father or husband provided to her. Lizzie’s nonconformity hinders her ability to have what her father would naturally have given to her. She loses her property rights to Harry, and her inheritance slowly diminishes as she refuses the idea of marriage. It is as though Lizzie’s refusal of gender roles creates the necessity of punishment by her father as a way to shock her into conformity. Even Mrs. Borden, the woman who constantly quarrels with Lizzie, is aware of the inequalities between men and women: “You know, Lizzie, your father keeps you. You know you got nothing but what he gives you. And that’s a fact of life. You got to come to deal with facts. I did” (40). By saying “I did,” Mrs. Borden admits to having, at one point or another, questioned the gendered norms of what it means to be inside of a woman’s body; over time she inevitably learned to settle and conform to the societal conventions around her. The men surrounding Lizzie and Mrs. Borden are the ones who create meaning for the female gender. Therefore, Lizzie ought to listen to what her father tells her because, ultimately, he provides for her and financially supports all that she does, something she could not do on her own.It is evident from the play’s use of symbolism that the female body is controlled by the men around them. Lizzie’s freedom to be who she wants to be is constricted by Mr. Borden. That relationship can be seen through the symbolism of Lizzie’s birds, which represent the freedom she wishes to have but is unable to attain. The birds have the ability to fly away, but they are constricted by the cage in which they are enclosed. The cage represents society’s conventions, which restrain Lizzie from “flying away.” Lizzie’s father is aware of what the birds mean to Lizzie, and he tries to protect them from others: “It’s those little beggars next door. Hey! Hey get away! Get away there! … They break into the shed to get at my birds and Papa gets angry” (28). Similarly, Mr. Borden tries desperately to protect Lizzie’s “differences” from others who want to break into her cage. In a strange way, it is almost as though he understands Lizzie’s conflict and has sympathy for her. In many parts of the text, he scolds her for being the way she is and immediately after consoles her by saying, “There Lizzie” (38). The symbolism of such exchanges is that in a male-dominated society, women have only as much freedom as the men around them permit:
Mr. Borden: [I]f Lizzie puts her mind to a thing, she does it, and if she don’t, she don’t.
Harry: It’s up to you to see she does. (31)
Mr. Borden has the ability to constrict Lizzie because she is a woman, showing that females are a subordinate, powerless group. With the same power that Mr. Borden has to give Lizzie freedom, he also has the ability to take her freedom away. He realizes that although he may be able to protect her, the rest of society would ultimately not be able to understand her. Characters such as Harry and Mrs. Borden refuse to accept Lizzie and push Mr. Borden to constrict her. In fact, it is Harry who causes Mr. Borden to crack. After having an argument with Lizzie, Harry returns with an axe, saying that someone had gotten into the birds. Mr. Borden, furious with Lizzie because of their altercation, goes to the birds with the axe and kills them one by one (46) in an attempt to kill her freedom and shock her into conformity. As a female, Lizzie only had as much leeway as her father provided her; her “freedom” as a woman is constructed by a man. Sharron Pollock’s Blood Relations is a play used to show how women are expected to live out their lives according to a preset formula simply because of the bodies into which they were born. However, Pollock uses Lizzie Borden as a way to push those conventional norms of what it means to be a woman. Women are not all the same, just as men are not. Some will not marry, while others go on to have many children. Inheriting a woman’s body does not provide preset guidelines of how one ought to live. Instead, it provides a means to live depending on personal preferences. That is what Lizzie Borden longs for, and what she ultimately achieves only after the murder of her parents.
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