Louis May Alcott plays with the social construction of gender and sexual attraction in her story by using the first-person narrative of an English gentleman and his incorrect perceptions and assumptions of what constitutes a lady. On a trip to see his dying sister, George Vane shares his train cabin with a “charming little mademoiselle.” Vane admires her “long curled lashes,” “rosy mouth,” and “golden hair” and is reminded of his first sweetheart. Her behavior is read also as feminine: She curls up “like a kitten” and appears to be a “poor little thing.” Vane sees himself as her protector and feels strongly attracted to her, choosing to pose as her husband since “the idea of passing of her father disgusted” him.
In fact, when she asks him how she can thank him for his help, he asks for an “English good-by,” a kiss on the lips. When he finds out that he has mistaken a lady for a young man, Vane unconvincingly tries to hide his attraction behind the guise of acting a part. The author intentionally blurs the boundaries between genders and affection- related bonds, thereby challenging one of the traditional stereotypes – that of proper dressing and behaving as a lady.
It should be noted that due to such author as Wharton and Alcott, a trend from patriarchal and traditionalism toward liberalism may be observed. More urban women report joint family decisions and husbands’ eventual collaboration with some traditionally feminine chores. Society as a whole, however, could still be considered as putting political, economic, and religious power, almost exclusively, in males’ hands.
In the developing cultures, life cycles with stages of specific responsibilities may be found in coastal populations of Westernized culture. In contrast, in the highlands and jungle, for example, despite rites of passage, it is usual to find children assuming important adult responsibilities and roles regarding younger siblings, land, or cattle. This means that at one stage, characteristics of other stages overlap or prevail.
There is a clear link between each life stage and the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Social masculinity–for example, aggression, dominance, leadership–is expected in young boys; femininity–sensitivity, tenderness, warmth–is expected in young girls. Internal masculinity–assertiveness, independence, self-confidence, self-esteem–is not ascribed to young boys and girls. As evident in the character of Wythorn, men are taught to always be harsh in the lives and deeds: “In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life” (Wharton 15).
While young girls are not expected to differ from little girls in this respect, young boys are ascribed more internal masculinity than little boys. Adulthood seems the turning point for social and internal masculinity. Femininity is mostly attributed to females, but when reaching adulthood, women are also attributed masculine traits and behaviors. Nevertheless, men are attributed significantly more masculinity. Lesser masculinity is expected in older persons, but only old females are believed to be feminine.
Both racial exclusion and male gendered privilege participated in maintaining white solidarity, and both sustained the proto-right to work. Since the measure of manhood lay in self-sufficiency and independence, white men closely guarded their employment prerogatives. For if women’s wage work competed with that of white men or threatened to undermine men’s wages, it simultaneously challenged men’s access to citizenship. White women, who expected to participate in the polity through their menfolk, increasingly shared the expectation that any wage work women did would be a response to economic necessity and in subsidiary positions.
Wharton illustrates that toward the end of this life period, some children are expected to help with family chores. At play, with their peers, they reproduce adult chores and sex typing. It is said they learn that mother corn tends the crops, and father mountain is both father and mother of plants and animals; that stars are females that seduce young boys; and that the sun is the jealous protector of his sister, the moon.
Finally, the discrepancy between the numbers of women who participate in wage work and the widespread notion that women’s lives would continue to rotate around the home requires exploration. How is it that so many women of all classes and races sustained an ideology that excluded them from wage work’s most lucrative forms even as they continued to seek employment? How is it that both men and women supported a culture that located male prerogatives at home and in the polity in unrealistic conceptions of men’s opportunities in the workplace? Ideas about men as real workers and rationales for excluding women, constructing them as marginal members of the labor force, grew in tandem.