How Language Treats Gender in Nights at the Circus


How Language Treats Gender in Nights at the Circus

Gender is socially constructed and this theory is backed up in Nights at the Circus as gender role stereotypes are reinforced here. The main character Fevvers is objectified and portrayed as this creature with wings and magical powers, who is also described as large and having a ‘face, broad and oval as a meat dish’, which would typically be more suited and to a degree even complimentary to that of masculine traits. This both reinforces and challenges essentialism as Fevvers is depicted as an object or an entity with these wings, which are believed to be essential to her stage character.

However this does not constitute to the typical essentialist categories of male and female, the idea of which is claimed in Bennet and Royle to have ‘dominated the history of Western Culture’. Instead of the stereotypical view of essentialism which is that the ‘phallus… is equated with power’ it is replaced by Fevvers’ wings which are empowering. Fevvers’ challenging of the phallus and masculinity can be thought of in what Bennet and Royle term ‘Decentring’ which is defined as ‘challenging the phallocentric’, whereby ‘there is alterity, otherness, a multiplicity and dispersal of centres, origins, presences.

Thus allowing a broader spectrum of options challenging this idea, which fevers fits into. Although being defined as an entity, through a potentially essentialist view as well as referring to herself as ‘the prodigal daughter’, the character Fevvers is depicted throughout the text as acting differently to the expectations of this view, when in private; ‘something fishy about the cockney Venus- that underlay the hot… sweat, greasepaint and raw, leaking gas that made you feel you breathed in Fevvers’ dressing-room in lumps.

This description further emphasises a less than glamorous, yet more realistic approach to such a character. This disrupts what Bennet and Royle refer to as ’one form of sexual difference’, in the context that Fevvers does not adhere to the gender stereotypes by breaking free from the image of ‘Weak, passive and irrational’. Fevvers instead uses her wings as an empowering image which ultimately results in gifts and status such as the King of Portugal giving her a ‘skipping rope of egg-shaped pearls’.

This is also further emphasised by her business minded attitude towards how Fevvers is perceived, rather than allowing herself to be solely objectified and exploited Fevver’s turns her status and public perception into financial gains ‘You’d never think she dreamed at nights, of bank accounts, or that, to her, the music of the spheres was the jingling of cash registers’. Begging the question of whether it is manipulation if the individual in question gains some form of success?

However the idea of Fevvers surpassing her exploitation could also be contended as she is described on p13 as possessing ‘an artificial smile…exhibited herself before the eyes of the audience as if she were a marvellous present too good to be played with’. Which clearly portrays an image of a character with unhappiness towards being exhibited as a mysterious entity and may explain her need to drink a lot, evident in her requesting of Walser to ‘have a drop more…Can’t have the ladies pissed on their lonesome can we? A Feminine agenda could be arguably interpreted in this text, which almost works in contrast to the un-attractive account describing Fevvers backstage, and even the name ‘Fevvers’ playing on the slang cockney dialect of the pronouncement of ‘Feathers’ takes away any mysteriousness, class and even lowering the standard of this magical entity by instead giving the name a more common sound and providing grounding to a character of this type, that may be typically held up on a pedestal.

It could also be argued that Fevvers is a pastiche, according to Jameson in Bennet and Royle’s chapter on The Postmodern both ‘pastiche and parody rely on imitation of other texts’. This is backed up with the use of inter-textual references such as the comparison to ‘Helen of Troy’. Which further support Bennet and Royle’s claim that ‘In parody there is an impulse to ridicule by exaggerating the distance of the original text from ‘normal’ discourse.

This could be interpreted as Carters intention to re-structure an approach to female characters in contrast to classic mythological tales whereby the female character is presented as desirable in contrast to a character who ‘let a ripping fart round the room’. This almost comical portrayal of Fevvers, works to great effect in satirising the historically accepted norms idea of a beautiful desirable woman.

Which is ultimately connected with the concept of desire as it depicts typically a male ideology of women which creates the accepted norm of a desirable character. However Bennet and Royle contend that there is ‘no such thing as a feminist…or a sexist work in itself: it all depends on how it is read’. Taking this into account it is arguably an outlet to restructure the reader’s stereotyping, the high regards as well as the norms, historically associated with Women in myths and tales of this kind hat Bennet and Royle claim has ‘dominated…Western society’ with the uses of parody and irony.

Fevvers challenges patriarchy and phallogocentric thinking in an equivocal way as she still serves as entertainment to appease patriarchal figures, yet clearly is more concerned with the outcome of these ventures on the basis that these figures, manipulated to her advantage serve as an empowering tool which will eventually be rewarded with financial success, though exhibiting herself could be considered degrading.

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