Gender Dichotomy Reinforcement in Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
McCarthy reinforces the mind/body and culture/nature gender dichotomies proposed by Sherry Ortner through character presentation. She aligns mind and culture aspects with male characters, and bodily concerns and natural occurrences with the female. She exhibits traditionally feminine qualities of writing by using a more circular rather than linear style, giving attention to details of food, clothing, and body appearances.
In her book Making Gender, Ortner argues that women's different bodily functions may cause them to be closer to nature, place them in different social roles, and give them a different psychic structure than men (27). Along with the woman-is-to-man-as-nature-is-to-culture analogy come other dichotomies associated with masculinity and femininity. Women's writings are traditionally more circular than linear and women are more concerned with their bodies than men. The opposite can then be said about men; they write in a linear style more often and value their bodies less.
McCarthy aligns most female characters, including her grandmother Preston and her great-aunt Margaret, with bodily concerns. She describes her grandmother physically, giving details about her high-bridged nose, and hair that "was naturally black, black as a raven's wing and with a fine silky gloss, like loose skeins of embroidery thread" (202). McCarthy furthers the importance of her grandmother's body by stating that "this body of hers was the cult object around which our household revolved" (225). Her body is on display, not any aspect of her mind or personality. Mrs. Preston is most concerned with the presentation of the body, her own as well as McCarthy's. Due to its importance, she keeps properly clothed so much so that it becomes a garish sight whenever exposed. She often reminds McCarthy to pull her skirt down, even in the private home. This concern with coverage adds to the dramatic scene when her grandmother learns of her sister's death, goes into hysterics and her nightgown exposes her thighs. McCarthy remembers wanting to pull down the gown as a first impulse rather than comfort her. This thought reveals that body presentation is the concern that overrides the mental state of the woman. It also reinforces the idea that women are more concerned with bodies than minds.
McCarthy presents her grandfather Preston more abstractly with illustrations about his character rather than details about his physical appearance.
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