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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, men and women occupy very different roles. Women are not only considered the weaker sex, but they're fundamentally defined by their relationship to men. This is why marriage is such a big deal in the world of Hurston's novel: women can only gain power through marriage to powerful or ambitious men.
Because of this, women are confined by men to positions of passivity, pleading, domesticity, and as objects of desire. Men impose these standards on women by silencing their voices, limiting their actions with notions of propriety, and insulting their appearances and sexuality. When women show any traditional male characteristics—ambition, intelligence, and authority—they're stigmatized as too masculine and, thus, unattractive. Men, on the other hand, are expected to always be dominant. Male characters prove to their peers that they are real men by showing their wives who’s "boss."
Questions About Gender
- What are traditional stereotypes of men and women in this novel? In what ways does Janie fit the typical feminine stereotype?
- In what ways does Janie violate typical gender boundaries? How could some of her words or actions be seen as masculine? How might men view this as a threat?
- According to Nanny, what is a woman’s relationship to a man? Do her definitions of gender match up with those of Logan or Joe?
- In Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake, how do the two genders interact? How could this relationship be read as even more stereotypically gendered than Janie’s previous relationships? Conversely, how could this relationship be read as one where gender becomes irrelevant?
- In what ways do Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake fit or break out of the stereotypical masculine role?
- What’s up with Tea Cake beating Janie to show her who’s boss? Part of what Janie is attracted to in Tea Cake is his more egalitarian notions of gender equality. Is Janie wrong about him? At the end of the day, is he just like Logan and Joe?
Chew on This
Despite Nanny's, Logan's, and Joe’s attempts to put Janie "in her place" as a submissive and silent wife, Janie ultimately succeeds in breaking traditional gender roles.
In their love, Janie and Tea Cake each show a positive characteristic typical of the other gender, whereas Logan and Joe never do in their relationships with Janie.