Study Guide

Major Barbara Gender

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There's a lot of interesting "battle of the sexes" stuff going on in this play. When we first meet the characters, Lady Brit clearly rules the roost, which seems a bit unorthodox given the time period. However, all that changes when her estranged husband comes back into the picture (albeit at her request). The family goes from being a matriarchy to a firm patriarchy in the blink of an eye, and Lady Brit butts up against the reality that her husband really has all the power in their marriage by virtue of his wealth (and his gender doesn't hurt, either, of course).

Then there's the transition that Barbara makes from being an empowered "major" to a girl-like creature who clutches at her mother's skirts and begs for advice on how to buy a house—there's definitely something significant going on with Shaw's presentation of gender there as well.

There's a lot of room for debate or interpretation in the journeys the female characters take, but it seems pretty clear that feminism isn't exactly the play's primary concern . . .

Questions About Gender

  1. How are gender relations portrayed in the play? Are they antagonistic? Friendly? Somewhere in between?
  2. Would you say the play is feminist in any way? Why or why not?
  3. At the end of the day, the opinionated and bold Barbara is reduced to crying "Mamma!" and clutching at her mother's skirts. What does this moment do for your understanding of the play's treatment of gender?

Chew on This

Through the character transitions of Barbara and Lady Brit, in which both women basically end up "defanged" and far less powerful than they start out, Major Barbara actually ends up being pretty anti-feminist in its presentation of women.

By maintaining her individuality and commitment to her cause (with some adjustments here and there), Barbara ends up being a powerful figure and, as such, a kind of feminist one.

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