Over the years, representation of gender has played a vital role in stabilizing the stereotypical family structure. By society assigning different “roles” to males and females, we categorize them into what they should and should not do based purely on their sex. Cloudstreet by acclaimed Perth-born author Tim Winton addresses these issues directly.
Winton challenged the stereotypical gender roles of males and female in the 1940’s – 1960’s society of Western Australia by reflecting his characters upon his own family and the people in his life, and to relay to the reader his idea of what it means to be feminine and masculine as well as to make his characters more relatable with modern readers of today’s society. The 1940’s – 1960’s was a time of separation for Australian society, especially between women and men. Women were considered as house wives, who lived to serve the needs of the husband and her children, which is illustrated in Fascinating Womanhood by Helen B.
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Andelin. She takes an excerpt of the Feminine Mystique which informs women from the 50’s on how to behave and uses it to convey the jobs that women were expected to fulfil in society, some of which include “get your work done”, “have dinner ready for when he (your husband) comes home”, “prepare the children and wash their hands and faces”, “minimise all noise” and “be happy to see him”. Women were expected to “solve all the problems” on their own, before a husband returns from work, so that he feels as if he has reached “a haven of rest and order” where he has no need to assist in child care tasks, or housework.
Women were expected to derive pleasure from preparing the house and a meal for their husband, which is unrealistic seeing as even women of that decade would have been tired and busy after a day of looking after many children and cleaning the entire house as well as shopping to plan a meal by the afternoon. Winton, who lived in a female-strong household and was bought up in a two-parent household where his mother and female relatives were “the strong ones” believed otherwise and wished to challenge these social stereotypes through the characterisation of Oriel Lamb, the wife of Lester and mother of the Lamb children.
Oriel is described as the “sergeant major” in the novel, and fulfils this role explicitly through her ‘tough love’ ideals and the kind of lifestyle that she has lead before we as readers are introduced to her. Unlike Dolly Pickles, Oriel has had to work hard for everything that she has earned in her life, and has had to toil and sweat in order to afford the bare minimum in food, clothes and shelter for her children. She has been brought up as strong as any man, and is hard-skinned as a result of this.
She is represented as decidedly masculine, and although she does embrace some of the many womanly traits that include raising children, she does so without the motherly affection expected at the time. She wants to raise children just like herself, who are independent and who don’t need to rely on a spouse to support them. Unlike most women of that era, Oriel supports her family by opening and running the shop downstairs so that she can afford to pay the rent to the Pickles as well as afford an education, clothes and food for her children, husband and herself.
Women from the 40’s had little-to-no education and working rights, and were at best paid pitiful amounts out of their husbands work wage to perform household tasks throughout the day. She is a positive role model for women in today’s society because women have many more opportunities nowadays and are encouraged to live a life free of classifications due to something that is out of their control such as gender. Males, on the other hand, are defined in The Masculine Mystique as withholding “barely repressed violence” however they are not as vengeful as females.
Men used muscle and aggression to get what they wanted, while women used acidic tongues and sharp wits. Winton further discussed gender roles through the construction of Oriel’s husband, Lester Lamb. While most men of that time period were expected to be brutal with their words and actions, Lester is much more the submissive party in his marriage to Oriel. He allows her to emasculate him with her unfeminine approach to life, but he does not rise to compete with her, as he knows that any argument he starts will not be won.
While men of that time period were stereotyped to work all through the day and come home to relax, Lester is a man who embraces his feminine side through cooking for the shop that Oriel opened. The roles are cleverly reversed between the two, as it is the female who is handling the money, advertising and dealing with customers while the husband works behind the scenes where he is not seen or heard, labouring away all day to provide the goods for his shop. It is as if he is employed by Oriel, as her staff member, and that she is in charge of what he can and can’t do.
Winton decided to fully illustrate these differences by juxtaposing this couple with the Pickles family. Dolly Pickles, for example, is extremely comfortable with her own sexuality as a woman, and she uses it to her advantage. She often partakes in steamy affairs as she feels her husband is less of a man since he lost his hand and is not satisfied in her marriage to Sam alone. Winton does, however, give her a fondness for booze which was not common in women of that era because it did not enable them to be able to fulfil their motherly duties at home.
While Dolly may have clearly been a promiscuous woman, she was not much of a mother to her children, which is something that Oriel excelled at. Dolly had neither interest nor love for her children, and merely looked after them because she had to. The only reason Dolly married Sam was because of her pregnancy, and due to inadequate support for unwed and single mothers in society at the time, she was forced into a marriage she was not ready for.
Oriel, on the other hand, loved her children and worked hard to keep them healthy and happy, which is something that Dolly has never had to experience. Sam Pickles is a working-class man, who fulfils the masculine stereotypes with ease. His fondness for booze and gambling allow him to become a definite “male” figure in this novel, although he does lose confidence in himself when he loses his hand as he feels that part of his masculinity has been stripped away and that he has to fill the void left behind by gambling away all the money that he’s earned.
While he is aware of Dolly’s numerous affair, he does fails to mention it as it is presumed that he is quite in love with Dolly, no matter how drunk and disorderly she may become, and he doesn’t want her to leave him alone to raise her children as he feels as though he cannot support them by himself seeing as he can’t stop betting. In society nowadays, women have almost as many rights as men and are considered equals in most countries.
However, there are still some areas where this idea is still not accepted, and women live a life devoid of the basic right to education and to speak freely. Tim Winton changed the gender roles of characters in his novel Cloudstreet so that he could appeal to a modern audience of today, who are much more accepting of changes in what is considered “stereotypical” female and male behaviour.
The construction of his characters also convey his own personal context from childhood, where he used his own male and female role-models from his life to inspire and reflect themselves within each character to make them easier to write in depth about. The result is a group of characters who may be complete opposites, but who still manage to live under one roof and connect with the reader’s subconsciously so that our own opinions on masculinity and femininity is reviewed. Word count: 1,394