Study Guide

Farewell to Manzanar Women and Femininity

By Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

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Women and Femininity

From the wharf we waved good-bye—my mother, Bill's wife, Woody's wife, Chizu, and me. We yelled at them to have a good trip, and after they were out of earshot and the sea had swallowed their engine noises, we kept waving. Then we just stood there with the other women, watching. It was a kind of duty, perhaps a way of adding a little good luck to the voyage, a warding off the bad. (1.1.4)

This is just a basic set-up of how things are at the beginning for the Japanese women in Jeanne's family. It's their "duty" to see the men off on their fishing voyages… which might not be so different from their white female counterparts in this era.

In the barracks facing ours there lived an elegant woman who astounded me each time I saw her. She and her husband both came from Japan, and her long aristocratic face was always a ghastly white. In traditional fashion she powdered it with rice flour every morning. By old-country standards this made her more beautiful. For a long time I thought she was diseased. (1.5.16)

"Diseased" is a pretty strong word, right? It says a whole lot more than I-don't-like-it. What might we deduce about Jeanne's relationship to traditional Japanese femininity from the use of this word?

Two more white faces stand out in my memory, a pair of nurses I saw from time to time in the clinic. They wore white shoes, white hose, and white dresses. Above their bleached faces their foreheads had been shaved halfway over their scalp's curve to make a sharp widow's peak where starched black hair began to arch upward, reminding me of a cobra's hood. Their lips were gone. Their brows were plucked. They were always together, a pair of reptilian kabuki creatures at loose in the camp hospital. (1.5.17)

If there was any doubt about how young (and perhaps even adult) Jeanne feels about the traditional image of Japanese female beauty, this passage ought to put everything to rest. These women are not beautiful—at least, not to Jeanne. They are clearly one step away from being labeled as demon succubi ("cobra's hood" and "reptilian kabuki creatures" really aren't appealing descriptors).

But what kept me coming back, once I started, were the tales of the unfortunate women like Saint Agatha, whose breasts were cut off when she refused to renounce her faith…. I was fascinated with the miseries of women who had suffered and borne such afflictions. (1.5.22-24)

Here's a question: Is Jeanne's early fascination with martyrdom in any way related to the way she tells her own stories, especially when she's an adult returning to Manzanar?

On my way home, I would hike past row upon row of black barracks, watching mountains waver through that desert heat, with the sun trying to dry up my very blood, and imagine in some childish way that I was among them, that I too was up there on the screen of history, in a white lace catechism dress, sweating and grimy, yet selflessly carrying my load.

Is internment not enough suffering for Jeanne? Is that why she fantasizes about more suffering? Or is she fascinated with this different kind of suffering—one that's completely specific to Catholic women?

I had found another kind of inspiration, had seen another way the church might make me into something quite extraordinary. I had watched a girl my own age shining at the center of one of their [the Catholic nuns] elaborate ceremonies. It appealed to me tremendously….She was dressed like a bride, in a white gown, white lace hood, and sheer veil, walking toward the altar, down the aisle of that converted barracks. (2.13.25-28)

Okay so maybe Jeanne isn't all about the tortured suffering of Catholic woman saints. Maybe it really is all about that bride-like white gown, or the idea of getting married to some male figure, whether that be God or some (Caucasian?) guy. Or maybe she really just wants to be like a celebrity on the red carpet. Is this a possible factor in her decision to write an autobiography (definitely not the most humble of literary genres)?

I never wanted to change my face or to be someone other than myself. What I wanted was the kind of acceptance that seemed to come so easily to Radine. To this day I have a recurring dream, which fills me each time with a terrible sense of loss and desolation. I see a young, beautifully blond and blue-eyed high school girl moving through a room full of others her own age, much admired by everyone, men and women both, myself included, as I watch through a window. I feel no malice toward this girl. I don't even envy her….Once or twice a year she will be there, the boyfriend-surrounded queen who passed me by. Surely her example spurred me on to pursue what now seems ludicrous, but at the time was the height of my post-Manzanar ambitions. (2.21.6-7)

Here's how excluded Jeanne feels about this all-American vision of teenaged beauty: In her own fantasy, she isn't even in the room admiring that "blond and blue-eyed high school girl" floating by—she's watching "through a window." Clearly, Jeanne's obsessed by this whole "queen" thing, but what does it mean that she doesn't even feel included in her own fantasies?

I knew I couldn't beat the other contestants at their own game, that is, look like a bobbysoxer. Yet neither could I look too Japanese-y. I decided to go exotic, with a flower-print sarong, black hair loose and a hibiscus flower behind my ear. When I walked barefooted out onto the varnished gymnasium floor, between the filled bleachers, the howls and whistles from the boys were double what had greeted any of the other girls. (2.21.11)

In other words: Jeanne decides to feed the Caucasian male fantasy of the exotic Asian woman. She uses a stereotype to define her beauty. We wonder though: is this any different than when girls dress up as Playboy bunnies at costume parties? And is there another way to be beautiful (and Japanese-American) without having to fall back on the same stereotypical looks?

"Don't laugh! This is not funny. You become this kind of woman and what Japanese boy is going to marry you? Tell me that. You put on tight clothes and walk around like Jean Harlow and the hakajin boys make you the queen. And pretty soon you end up marrying a hakajin boy…" He broke off. He could think of no worse end result. (2.21.31-32)

Papa's flipping out about Jeanne becoming carnival queen, which leads him to this tirade about how Jean might end up with a white boy since no self-respecting Japanese boy would ever date a girl who decides to show skin. We're just wondering: Can Jeanne really be Jeanne if she's wearing a super-conservative outfit that doesn't fit her sense of beauty or style? How much does fashion help create our identities anyway?

Lois Carson, the trustee's daughter, was one of them. She wore a very expensive strapless gown and a huge orchid corsage. Her pool-browned shoulders glowed in the harsh bulb light above the lockers.

"Oh Jeannie," she had said, as we took off our coats. "What a marvelous idea!"

I looked at her inquisitively.

"The high neck," she explained, studying my dress. "You look so…sedate. Just perfect for a queen." (2.21.44-47)

Is Lois being catty or is her compliment genuine? Either way, she gets into Jeanne's head because Jeanne all of a sudden doesn't have confidence in her dress or how she looks. (She later starts wishing she had her sarong on.) Mean girls…

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