Women’s Evolving Role in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

April 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

The 1950s brought about a multitude of changes in the culture of the United States: “conservative family values and morals were threatened as the decade came to a close” (Literature and Its Times). What was unthinkable in the 1940s gradually became the norm in the 1950s. In Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, the character Connie represents the clashing of these decades. Having survived World War II, Connie’s mother is still very supportive of the 1940s women’s roles mandated by the male dominated society and the media of the time. Connie, on the other hand, is steadily adopting the more feminist attitude of the time. After American soldiers returned from war, the continued progression of this feminist movement was hardly welcomed with open arms. Instead, women were expected to slip back into their “rightful” places. While some women resisted this regression, many felt obligated to take back up their kitchen mitts and their brooms. Connie’s character and her experiences symbolize this conflict between women and men, women and society, and women and themselves. Oates’s piece defines the scripted roles women had been traditionally occupying in American history, suggests where they are going as a sex, and implies how this evolution will foster conflicts in an unreceptive society.During the time period in which the story is set, “it is [a woman’s] nature to be small and cozy, domestic and weak,” as Margie Piercy describes in her piece, “A Work of Artifice” (lines 12-14). Women were expected to quietly go back to the lives of homemakers after years of working in men’s places during the war. While some women, like Connie’s mother and her sister, June, embrace this reacquired role, others – like Connie – want to explore other possibilities. Connie’s mother is more a proponent of the proper lady, believing Connie should dress more conservatively and behave coyly as opposed to presumptuously or flirtatiously. In her mind, women are domestics who cook, clean, and serve their husbands. Connie’s mother is unsuccessful in passing this role on to Connie, who is more interested in herself and “becoming aware of her own sexuality” (Literature and Its Times 391). She does try to humor her mother, “[e]verything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home…”, but when her mother is not around she is who she believes she wants to be (291). Connie’s mother and her sister June both conform to the ideal attire of the proper woman, the nice conservative Sunday “dress….and high heels”, the typical face of a 50’s women (297). Connie, on the other hand, models the newer styles, “a pullover jersey blouse that looked one way when she was at home and another way when she was away from home…shorts and flat ballerina slippers…with charm bracelets jingling on [her] thin wrist” (291). Connie’s style showed more skin and was more form-fitting; it left less to the imagination than did the attire of her mother and sister. In addition, Connie’s mother would have never snuck away from the mall to see some boys, nor would she have made out with one in public or gone anywhere alone with one. One of Connie’s most frequent hobbies is to have a parent drop her and her friends off at the mall, and then sneak over to the drive-in restaurant across the way, where the older boys hang out. Connie has no reservations about following a boy to his car alone for a dinner date, nor does she have any for shameless flirting or kissing this boy she hardly knows. Connie knows her mother and her sister would not approve, but in a way that is the point; she does not want to be like her mother and her sister. She wants to feel sexy, strong, unattainable, and powerful. It’s evident that she knows what she is doing, her walk alone goes from “childlike and bobbing” to being “languid enough to make anyone think she was hearing music in her head” (291). She is attempting to seduce these boys, whose attention will boost her self-esteem. She feels less like a child and more like a woman when practicing the art of seduction, though this behavior was still widely considered “morally reprehensible” at the time (Literature and Its Times 393). This juxtaposition of the mother’s values versus Connie’s allows Oates to show readers where American women were before the multiple waves of the feminist movements. Oates continues to use Connie to imply to readers the direction to which women could be heading with the feminist movement, which was about achieving equality and women getting to have a say in what they could and could not do, just as men dictated the social norms for themselves. It was about allowing each sex to decide for themselves what their duties should be, how they should be represented, and who their role models should be. It was about men affording to women the same rights and pleasures they had so effortlessly afforded themselves. The feminist movement was about women becoming more independent and in control of their lives and their futures. These were the very ideals Connie pursued. When she is not home she does not feel oppressed by her mother, who is a mere puppeteer of male-dominated culture. She does not have to conform to her ideals or even humor them. She can wear what she wants to wear, act how she wants to act, talk however she wants to whomever she wants. She is free. When she is not under parental supervision she makes her own decisions. She is independent, her own woman. She is not just someone’s wife or mother. She is more than a personal chef and maid. Through Connie’s behavior, Oates relays to the reader where their gender is heading in the future.Heading toward a more egalitarian future unsettles men; some conservative thinkers argued that independent women gradually “unsex” men and that immodest attire such as Connie’s frustrates them and makes them all the more eager to dominate and possess such women. Connie flirts back to men such as Arnold, who expresses his “special interest” in her (295), but quickly realizes she does not want his attention. Connie “gradually dismantl[es her] first impressions” of Arnold, quickly becoming “creeped out,” but she has already dug herself a hole and Arnold knows it (261). Arnold sees her as a repository for his sexual frustrations: “I’ll hold you so tight you won’t think you have to try to get away or pretend anything because you’ll know you can’t. And I’ll come inside you where it’s all secret and you’ll give in to me and you’ll love me” (298). On multiple occasions he asks Connie to come out of the house and away with him, “I ain’t made no plans for coming in that house where I don’t belong but just for you to come out to me, the way you should. Don’t you know who I am?” (299). Connie is not equipped to handle this situation: she is terrified and wants independence, but does not want to handle this on her own. Having been raised in a society that was unreceptive to feminist attitudes, Connie does not possess the tools or knowledge necessary to overcome Arnold’s domination and threats, so she resorts back to the traditional female role and eventually submits to Arnold. Through Connie’s experiences, Oates wants to show where women are going by reminding them of where they had been. Many critics claim that Oates embraces feminism; while that may or may not be the case, perhaps the point of this short story is to warn women to proceed with caution – the independence they sought could become overwhelming, as we have seen the ambitious and often unachievable modern “super woman” ideal take shape. The future for women is still unwritten; the reader cannot know for certain what’s to come. Women are continuously headed to “land… [they’ve] never seen before and [will] not recognize except to know that [they] are going to it” (302).Works CitedBarnet, Sylvan, Morton Berman, William Burto, William E. Cain, and Marcia Stubbs.Literature for Composition Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Fifth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.Print. McMahan, Elizabeth, Susan X Day, Robert Funk, and Linda S. Coleman . Literature and the Writing Process. Backpack Edition. Boston: Pearson, 2011. 290-302. Print.“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them. Joyce Moss and George Wilson. Vol. 4: World War II to the Affluent Fifties (1940-1950s). Detroit: Gale, 1997. 391-396. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 16 Sept. 2013. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Short Stories for Students. Ed.Kathleen Wilson. Vol. 1.Detroit: Gale, 1997. 257-276. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 17 Sept. 2013.

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