The Presentation Of Female Characters In Real Women Have Curves And The House On Mango Street
Females rarely received a protagonist role in early Chicano literature and film-making, as writers and filmmakers opted to instead, highlight the male experience throughout the Chicano movement. In many ways, one can argue that it was a somewhat sexist movement, as it was a predominantly male dominated operation as women were generally denied leading positions, with the exception of certain women such as Dolores Huerta, who was a leading activist in the National Farmer worker’s Association. Fortunately, other Chicano pieces have since broken this trend and have presented life in Chicano society from a female perspective. An example of two Chicano works that have managed to achieve this and accurately capture the life of the Chicana is the film Real Women Have Curves directed by Patricia Cardoso and the novel The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
This essay will now analyse these two pieces, while discussing in particular the presentation of the female characters in both pieces. In order to do this, the focus will be directed on the themes of gender roles, and beauty and body image while also commenting on the personalities of the protagonists of Ana from Real Women Have Curves and Esperanza from The House on Mango Street. To analyse these themes, a contrast will be made on the similarities and differences in the way each theme is presented in both pieces. The essay will then continue to explain why one may deem Ana and Esperanza to be strong and aspirational female characters, and how they set themselves apart from other female characters that we encounter throughout both works.
Right from the onset of both Real Women Have Curves and The House on Mango Street, we notice that women are expected to fulfil certain duties in society, differing greatly to the duties of men. However, the idea of conforming to gender norms is more severely expressed in The House on Mango Street, as the image of leading a traditional life is portrayed in a more negative light, as many of the women who get married lead miserable lives, with a lack of freedom and are often abused by their husbands. This contrasts greatly to Real Women Have Curves, as Carmen is free to work outside of her domestic duties.
From the beginning of Real Women Have Curves, we immediately get a sense of the responsibilities expected of women in Chicano society, as the film opens with Ana getting into a heated argument with her old-fashioned mother Carmen over making ‘breakfast for the men’. Ana, however, strongly dismisses her mother´s orders and instead attends her last day of school. This becomes a reoccurring theme throughout the film, as Ana´s rebellious attitude, coupled with her ‘developing sense of self brings her into conflict with her mother’ on numerous occasions as she refuses to abide by traditional and dated Chicano norms whereby women get married young and whose primary role is to have children and tend to the needs of their husbands. She opts instead to pursue her studies in order to become an autonomous individual in charge of her own choices, and not those of a man. In this way Ana differs to her sister Estella, who seems rather unfazed by her mother’s demands, but at the same time seems to hold neither modern nor traditional views.
In The House on Mango Street, the idea of women complying to particular gender norms is very much so present, so much so that even Esperanza, at a young age, is capable of observing the injustices of Chicano society, and recognise gender differences, stating that boys and girls live in ‘separate worlds’. Yet, she is not like the other female characters that we meet in the story and is not prepared to settle for ‘a seat by the window’ like most other Chicana characters that we encounter who ‘stare out of windows, locked indoors waiting for their spouses to return or for something to happen’.
She instead strives to be different, to be independent without having to rely on male support, and similarly to Ana, strongly condones the roles that women are expected to play in traditional Chicano society. This desire to be self-sufficient and to break gender barriers is reflected early on as she reminisces about the miserable life led by her great-grandmother who was forced to marry and says ‘I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window’. This shows the intelligence of Esperanza at such a tender age as many other female characters her age such as Rachel and Lucy seem oblivious to these gender inequalities. [1: ] [2: ]
In both The House on Mango Street and Real Women Have Curves there is a strong emphasis on beauty and the presentation of the female body. In Real Women Have Curves, the female body is presented in an extremely negative light, as there is more emphasis on the female characters’ physical characteristics as opposed to other personal qualities that they possess. There is also this idea that women are nothing more than sexual objects, and that they need to be slim in order to attract a man, with the idea of women having ‘thoughts, ideas and a mind of her own’ even being dismissed by Ana’s own mother. Much of this body shaming comes from Carmen, who relentlessly criticizes and comments on the unattractiveness of her daughters’ bodies. She believes that by making comments such as ‘you’ll never fit into that one’ (referring to a dress) that she will be able to guilt Ana into losing weight, however her attempts are to no avail. This again, reflects the traditional ideology of Carmen, and highlights the generational differences between the two women.
In The House on Mango Street, there is also a lot of reference to beauty and the female body; in particular there is reference to female feet. I believe this sexualisation of women’s feet is best described by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama in Critical Insights: The House on Mango Street who states that ‘female feet and shoes are strangely and strikingly bound up with romance and sexuality. ’ This idea of women being sexualized is clearly illustrated in the chapter ‘The Family of Little feet’, where Esperanza and her friends Rachel and Lucy innocently try on high heel shoes and strut up the street, where they catch the eyes of many men.
Rachel interacts with a homeless man who offers her a dollar in exchange for a kiss. She ponders the proposal but Esperanza, knowing better, hurries her along. This is one of the first instances where Esperanza realises the threat that men pose to women because of their physical superiority and place in society. She also realises as she matures, that being beautiful and dressing beautifully can be a curse for women, and leave them more vulnerable, as many men see it as invitation to take advantage of them and abuse them. In addition, this scene exemplifies the poor decision making of many female characters in the book, as Rachel seriously considers the dollar.
What sets Ana and Esperanza apart from the other Chicana characters presented to us in these two pieces is their strong personalities, intelligence and determination to achieve their own success and pave their own path in life without relying on male support, which tends to be a common trend in traditional Chicano society. With regards Ana, she is both a strong and aspirational young woman as she decides to break gender stereotypes and pursue her studies despite the pressure put on her by her mother to lead a traditional life like hers. She is also inspirational in the sense that she refuses to alter her body shape in a bid to attract a man, as she believes that other characteristics and qualities that females have such as their intelligence should be held in higher esteem. What perhaps is even more admirable is that she is able to succeed in influencing the rest of the factory workers too, making them feel happier about their body shapes.
Esperanza is presented as being equally just as aspirational, and perhaps even more so than Ana, as she had quite an impoverished upbringing, and also because she had a lack of female role models to turn to for support growing up. Rather negative women who made poor life choices, such as Sally who married young and ended up living in an abusive relationship with no freedom, instead surrounded Esperanza. The only one real female figure that stood out and offered Esperanza any sort of guidance was her Aunt Lupe, who on her sick bed said to Esperanza ‘You must keep writing. It will keep you free’. It may well have been these words of wisdom from Aunt Lupe, and by learning from the mistakes of other female figures, that made Esperanza more determined to become a writer and create her own success. It is for that reason that one can consider her to be an aspirational female character, as despite not having a female figure whose actions she could emulate, she had to instead rely on self-belief and her Aunt Lupe’s words. [3: ]
In conclusion, we can say that both Ana and Esperanza are not presented as stereotypical Chicana characters, as they are both strong and independent young women, who are not afraid to fight for their dreams, break barriers and condemn injustices in society. In that way they greatly differ to the other female characters that we encounter in both pieces. They are also representative of the modern Chicana who seeks to pave her own path in life, and serve as role models to other young Chicana girls who continue to live in male dominated societies and who struggle to find a sense of purpose in life.
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