Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Women and Femininity

By Thanhha Lai

Women and Femininity

Now I am ten
learning to embroider circular stitches (1.1.7)

Many girls in many cultures have the task of learning to sew and to make decorative embroidery.

… I pouted
when Mother insisted […]
… only male feet
can bring luck. (1.1.8)

This seems to be a superstition that excludes women, but instead of teaching us much about what femininity means to Hà's family, it tells us more about what it does not mean. And unfortunately, lady feet aren't associated with luck.

Mornings free,
Mother trusts me
to shop at the open market. (1.10.2)

Interestingly, in Saigon Hà and her mother seem to handle the shopping and cooking, but once they are refugees, Hà's brother cooks the food.

…looking pretty
and writing poetry
were her only duties. (1.14.6)

In wealthier families all over the globe, this kind of role for a woman is common. Not convinced? Pick your favorite Real Housewife—she might not write poetry, but chances are more than decent that she treats looking pretty like it's her job.

Wish I could do what boys do
and let the sun darken my skin,
and scars grid my knees. (1.15.2)

This shows us what girls in Saigon are not allowed to do (read: run around and get dirty), though we're not told why.

Mother smells of lavender
and warmth;
she's so beautiful… (1.16.4)

An aspect of femininity that spans cultures is that it is soft, warm, floral, and maternal, so it makes sense that Hà sees these things in her mother.

Who can go against
a mother
who has become gaunt like bark
from raising four children alone? (1.27.11)

In Hà's family, her mother is both the mother and father, so we do not know how much power she would have in the house if her husband were there, though in this stanza we see how much she has as a single parent. Mother may look worse for the wear, but she commands complete respect from her kiddos.

We follow Mother
who follows Uncle Son
who leads his family… (1.33.2)

Maybe this would be Hà's mother's role if her husband were around? At least we see that women in this culture may tend to follow their husbands, at least in high stress situations like fleeing your country.

Other girls
must be made
of bamboo,
bending whichever way
they are told. (2.1.6)

Hà might be right about how girls are expected to behave, but it doesn't match up with her personality. Does that make her less feminine?

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