Women Struggle Against the Patriarchal Society in Carol Ann Duffy’s Poem The World’s Wife

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’, arguably serves to illuminate and actively challenge the traditional dominance of male figures throughout both history and literature. Duffy inverts these traditions and implements her strong feminist attitudes within her work, through not only positioning typically ‘voiceless females’ as primary narrators, but by also having all characters actively challenge typical notions of a ‘cute but essentially helpless’ female (Bertens, H. 2001) through their confident, dominant and sexually promisicuous characterisation.

Duffy’s poems, ‘Little Red Cap’, ‘Salome’ and ‘The Kray Sisters’ in particular, combine to empower females through the eponymous protagonists’ apparent lack of concern towards keeping to the status quo and conforming to conventional ideas about women being typically sweet, submissive and docile beings.

However, Duffy’s overall success at challenging traditional stereotypes could actually be limited in that whilst female characters are generally empowered throughout Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife’ it is merely at the expense of male disempowerment. Not only are male characters subject to emasculation as a result of aligning them with typically feminine attributes and characteristics, but throughout the anthology male characters typically remain not only nameless but voiceless too suggesting that Duffy’s success at challenging the patriarchal system and the stereotypes within, could perhaps be flawed.

From the outset, Duffy makes emphatic that in many of her poems – like that of ‘Salome’, ‘The Kray Sisters’ and ‘Little Red Cap’, there is an atypical portrayal of women through the use of the eponymous first person narrative in the female perspective. Unlike in many other novels and poetry, where the female voice is often marginalised and silenced by the dominant and typically male voice, in these poems, Duffy purges these stereotypes by having the female characters as the primary narrators. This actively removes any influence that male characters could potentially have thereby purging traditional stereotypes as it is the female character who is able to give their perspective, as opposed to being spoken on behalf of by men.

Furthermore, Duffy continues to successfully purge gender stereotypes, as throughout the mentioned poems, the male character remains nameless through the use of the repeated third person pronoun and lack of direct speech; this in turn silences the male voice and puts the focus solely on the female and what she has to say – thereby subverting typical gender hierarchy and challenging traditional gender stereotypes. In doing this, however, it could be argued that Duffy’s attempts at purging gender stereotypes are undermined by a subtle level of misandry – as Duffy inflicts the same treatment of women on to men as opposed to outlining the flaws within the gender hierarchy, challenging them and striving for equality.

Ultimately, whilst having both a male and female perspective would perhaps be beneficial in providing more of an unbiased and in depth narrative, Duffy’s purpose in only including one perspective is to effectively expose and emphasise the unreliability of literature. Having Queen Kong make statements like ‘he was nervous’, ‘it was love at first sight’, successfully causes the reader to question the validity of these statements, thereby mirroring how literature in which women are spoken on behalf of should be questioned too.

Duffy continues to successfully purge traditional gender stereotypes as she deliberately fuses typically ‘masculine’ associated qualities – such as the laddish manner in which the Kray Sisters speak and dress, with the characteristics of the Kray sisters thereby obscuring gender boundaries and expressing the idea that women are just as able, in authoritative positions, as men are. Inspired by a second wave of feminists, not only does the dual narrative voice used within ‘The Kray Sisters’ create a sense of female empowerment and sisterhood as they work collectively to vocalise their story, but in addition to this, the way in which ‘any woman in trouble could come to the Krays (…) for protection’, strengthens the idea that female togetherness creates a force to be reckoned with, purging this conventional idea that women are merely innocent and fragile beings incapable of achieving anything without the help of a man. Nonetheless, this female empowerment and purging could perhaps be undermined in more ways than one. The emphasis on women being able to go to the Krays ‘for protection’ is laden with irony as it continues to portray women as these ‘cute but essentially helpless beings’ through the mere suggestion that they would be unable to protect themselves when faced with danger.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that by not fully purging gender stereotypes as a result of positioning the Kray Sisters as female anomalies, Duffy’s intention was never to fully purge gender stereotypes but instead to encourage women and inspire change by revealing the potential to break away from the stereotype of what it means to be a woman. Contrastingly, as the female characters must assume typically male associated characteristics and dress in a particularly masculine way in order to be taken seriously and respected to a high degree, Duffy does continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Not only are the Kray sisters described as wearing ‘Saville row whistles and flutes’ which in Cockney Rhyming Slang means ‘suits’, but their adoption of Cockney Rhyming Slang – a typically laddish narrative voice associated with individuals that were somewhat rough or perhaps crude, further emphasises this idea that these females are only respectable or powerful after relinquishing any femininity that they had.

Ultimately however, this could actually be counter argued in that Duffy intentionally positions the Kray sisters in this way to challenge this ingrained and rigid ideology thereby continuing to purge gender stereotypes as she exposes the fact that dominance and respect are not male exclusive qualities, but are actually androgynous.


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