Lord of the “Guys”: A Feminist Reading of Lord of the Flies
CRASH! A plane crashes full of people near an island. The plane is full of grown-ups and children¾young boys to be exact. Surprisingly, all the grown-ups die and only the young boys survive and discover themselves on an island, in a jungle. Their survival lies only in their young, inexperienced hands. The boys form a society, an all male society. No need for girls right? WRONG! Many might think that a feminist critic would have little if any type of opinion in regards to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. However, this is exactly the opposite of what is true. Because there are no girls, this is even more of an area in which feminist criticism should venture and can venture. By examining the text Lord of the Flies, one is able to see through a feminist’s interpretation how patriarchy not only disadvantages women but also men as well.
The common misconception regarding feminism is that people believe it to be solely about women. According to Lois Tyson, “feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (81). While a major part of feminist criticism focuses on the various ways women are oppressed, the theory is not limited to only women. The theory also examines the ways men are oppressed. Feminist criticism investigates the traditional gender roles that are ascribed by society on both women and men. Tyson notes, “Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive” (83). As a result, it is important with feminist criticism to remember that women and men both suffer from living in a patriarchal society, “which can be defined, in short, as any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles” (Tyson 83). Lord of the Flies is a significant text that displays how destructive a patriarchal society and traditional gender roles are for young boys.
The character of Piggy serves as an example of how vicious a patriarchal society is when a person does not “fit” the traditional gender roles. The text portrays Piggy this way. It says, “his knees were plump [. . .] He was shorter than the fair boy [Ralph] and very fat. He came forward, searching out safe lodgments for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles” (Golding 7). The text differentiates the two boys, Ralph and Piggy, based on their physical appearance. From the very beginning, Piggy is labeled as fat and wears “thick spectacles.” Both of these features are “unmanly.” Even before, the reader knows his name, the text refers to him as “the fat boy.” The text says, “The fat boy looked startled,” “The fat boy allowed his feet to come down,” and “The fat boy shook his head” (Golding 8). If there is one physical trait the reader knows, it is that this young boy is fat. Ralph asks the boy what his name is. The text says,
“I don’t care what they call me,” he said confidentially, “so long as they don’t call me what they used to call me at school.”
Ralph was faintly interested.
“What was that?”
The fat boy glanced over his shoulder, then leaned toward Ralph.
“They used to call me ‘Piggy.”
Ralph shrieked with laughter. He jumped up.
Piggy clasped his hands in apprehension.
“I said I didn’t want¾.” (Golding 11)
Eventually Piggy accepts this name. The text says, “Piggy grinned reluctantly, pleased despite himself at even this much recognition” (Golding 11). Piggy does not meet the traditional expectations of the male gender due to his weight problem. As a result, the rest of the boys look down on him and ostracize him from the rest of the “normal” boys.
Piggy’s weight is not the only “unmasculine” trait about him. He also suffers from asthma and wears glasses. In a patriarchal society, men are assumed to be strong and able to do anything; basically men are assumed to follow after superman’s example. However, even a task like swimming Piggy cannot do. He says, “I can’t swim. I wasn’t allowed. My asthma¾” and Ralph interrupts saying, “Sucks to your ass-mar!” (Golding 13). The feminist critic observes how Piggy is labeled as being a “sissy.” Tyson notes, “Sissy sounds very much like sister, and it means ‘cowardly’ or ‘feminine’ (87). When males fail to live up to the standards created in a patriarchal society, they are labeled sissies or womanly. A vivid depiction is given in the text of a summary regarding the character of Piggy. The text comments, “Piggy was a bore; his fat, his ass-mar and his matter-of-fact ideas were dull, but there was always a little pleasure to be got out of pulling his leg” (Golding 65). Because Piggy does not meet the society’s ideal of a boy, he is labeled and marked as “other.” Lord of the Flies demonstrates how feminization occurs with the character of Piggy and how detrimental traditional gender roles are for men, including young boys.
Another common practice on the island is categorizing the boys by their physical size. The text says, “The smaller boys were known now by the generic title of ‘littleluns.’ [. . .] nevertheless no one had any difficulty in recognizing biguns at one end and littluns at the other” (Golding 59). Here again, one sees the influence of patriarchal society. Men are assumed to be bulging with muscles and strong. The leaders or the more macho men are called “biguns” and hold power over the “littleluns” due to their size difference.
Another example of the influence of a patriarchal society is the struggle between Ralph and Jack. Both of these characters wrestle to be the “chief” of the society. In the view of the group of boys, Ralph and Jack appear to be the most masculine of all¾the strongest boys who bring intimidation on the rest of the boys. From society’s view (the boys’ view), Ralph and Jack exemplify what they believe to be masculine. However, upon examining the two characters, one sees again the prevalent patriarchal ideas. This is seen with Piggy’s fear of Jack. The text says, “He [Piggy] was intimidated by this uniformed superiority and the offhand authority in Merridew’s voice” (Golding 21). Ralph can build fires and huts, which supports the stereotype that all men are “great outdoorsmen.” Jack is also idolized as the brave “outdoorsmen” when he goes off and hunts wild boar, brining meat back to the rest of the boys. Jack’s character is portrayed as an “unflagging super-provider” that Tyson says is a “debilitating effect of [a] patriarchal gender role on [. . .] men” (87). The text does not go into depth as to the emotions of Ralph or Jack. The only reference made is about Ralph when he cries at the end of the novel. It is appropriate to assume that Ralph and Jack, as well as the majority of the boys believe the lies of the traditional gender roles and sadly enough also receive the oppression that comes with it. They are looked down upon as being weak or unmanly anytime they demonstrate “feminine” characteristics (the classic example is Piggy).
Furthermore, the text also portrays how these feminine characteristics and the labeling that occurs are arbitrary. This example is seen when Ralph debates as to whether he should or should not pull his hair back. Piggy, who is feminized, suggests a very logical idea because it is hot and Ralph’s hair has grown since being on the island. Piggy says, “We could find some stuff, [. . .] and tie your hair back.” He is rudely interrupted by a boy who says, “Like a girl!” (Golding 172). Ralph does not pull his hair back, which concludes for the reader that he has succumbed to the “feminine” label ascribed to pony tails. However, why is it considered feminine to tie one’s hair back? This action is labeled feminine because the boys are from a patriarchal society. In society, they are told what is feminine and what is masculine. If a boy acts outside of his traditional gender role, he will be taunted, teased, and labeled like Piggy. Even though Ralph, at first, believes tying one’s hair back to be feminine, the text reveals this issue further. Later on, Ralph sees Jack (they have been enemies now for a time) and notices Jack’s hair. The text shows that Jack and his followers “tied their hair back and were more comfortable than he [Ralph] was.” After seeing this, Ralph “made a resolution to tie his own back afterwards” (Golding 178). Why is it permissible to tie one’s hair back after Jack does? This is a powerful demonstration of how the feminine and masculine labels are arbitrary. What is considered to be feminine in one situation changes with a shift of power to be masculine or “cool.”
Tyson says that “patriarchal gender roles are destructive for men” (86). Lord of the Flies portrays the effects of a patriarchal society upon men and women quite vividly. The boys have pseudo concepts of what is feminine and masculine based on their male-dominated society (both in their real homes and the island). As much as Ralph and Jack struggle to be “lord,” it is evident there is another “lord of the guys”: patriarchal society. Who tells them what is manly or womanly?¾society. The reader notices how these labels are also arbitrary. One instance an object or action is feminine and the next instance it is “cool” for boys to participate in. This shows how subjective many of those labels are in society. This challenges the reader to consider his or her own opinions regarding what is masculine and or feminine. Tyson is right when she says that feminism “holds a mirror not just to our public lives but also to our private lives as well, and it asks us to re-assess our most personal experiences and our most entrenched and comfortable assumptions” (113). Lord of the Flies serves to further reveal those areas where there are misconceptions and assumed stereotypes of men and women and also to educate people about the destructive patriarchal ideologies they have and that also exist within society.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1954.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.