Destroying the Female Character
Atekit is glued on the sofa reading a novel entitled “The Lion and the Jewel” by Wole Soyinka she is preparing to sit for her final UCE exams at the end of the year. The Concubine, by Elechi Amadi; ‘Things Fall Apart’ authored by Chinua Achebe are part of the set of books examinable by the Uganda National Examinations Board for the Uganda Certificate of Education. Atekit acknowledges that the stories she reads have influenced and biased her perception of female character. She says that women are always portrayed negatively; and thus questions and even disagrees with the way the female character is presented.
Many of us have read at least one African novels or play and will agree with me that; the stories are about what goes on in our surroundings; culture, experiences, attitudes; whether fiction or not. Literature experts assert that literature is an instrument for the creation of awareness and the propagation of culture among people and the literary artist is the mouthpiece of society.
This is reality; my days growing up as a child in the traditional rural settings of Soroti district in Uganda remind me of the satirical songs of praise and enchantment of personalities in the village, local music was composed to expose character and actions of the great, good, bad and ugly actions. Even a chicken thief, adulterous wife, hero, and witch where not left out. The praise songs of the brave hunters, boldness and potency were the hits in the village. The village belle, calico…was praised. Broadly speaking, the writing that reflects these experiences has also helped us understand a lot of events and has shaped our present; such as the crisis for independence and slave trade in Africa.
It is worth noting that literature is a mirror which reflects society’s feelings and thoughts. Literature has also had an impact on defining gender in the novels and poems we read. The roles assigned to female characters of the novels and plays have a message being communicated to the readers. The concern is what the readers learn from these characters as they strive to pass exams or derive pleasure. What implications does this have on them?
There is no doubt that the picture painted of a woman in the novels, plays we read, movies we watch is a reflection of what our society takes women and men to be. Naturally, there is nothing wrong in forming impressions of each other. However, most of the impressions formed are offensive. What a woman truly is contrasts sharply with what the world thinks of her. Often when I watch a Nollywood movie, I can predict how it will end.
One literature professor once analysed some writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo; one of the Ghana’s prominent female voices commented “To the man, the bride is: a sexual aid, a wet nurse and a cook steward and a general housekeeper, a listening- post, an economic and general consultant, a field hand, a punch ball. This is the typical house wife”.
Unfortunately, this is the picture of the characters we meet in most novels, movies and lyrics. The wife/mother is presented as a helpless victim that is expected to take anything and perform the magic of keeping a perfect home.
Elaine Showalter (literally critic and feminist) hits the nail right on the head when she says that “…….womanhood….is a fact of life….” If all a female character does in novels is grow, obtain a minimum qualification and get married, give birth. what do we expect our children to dream of? No wonder the average girl in Uganda does not aspire to be anything better than a good house wife and a mother. Catherine Biira argues that girls need role models to look up to. She gave an example of her sub county whereby for the last 20 years no girl passed UCE in division one. In 2011 she promised the best girl a scholarship for UACE. Indeed 3 passed excellently. Marriage has become a position of convenience when the UCE does not produce good results. It is not uncommon to find the period of agony taking over almost immediately for the remaining period of these marriages.
Chinua Achebe (literary artist) opines that the role of the writer is to “tell his people where the rain begun to beat them”. He considers a man who does not know where the rain begun to beat him will not know where to dry his clothes”. Literature then is a reflection of the society that produces it. And as we know, every generation produces its own artist that will reflect the root of that society.Analyzing how literary writers, movies makers, musicians have portrayed female characters in their works, and how this might help in positive development or otherwise of the readers and listeners is critical.
The movie and music industry is rich with actors with high intellectual abilities such as Juliana Kanyomozi, Namubiru in Uganda. These females are loud and sexy. I can bet you , It is almost impossible to watch a film without a sexual scene and where the female is subordinate. Again there are very few advertisements without women parading half naked bodies at the views of the screen. Thomas, Kyd (1558-1594) remarked that “For what is a play without a woman in it?” This tradition still exists both in reality and the fictional world. The question is: What is the purpose of this and who benefits from it? Of course women contribute greatly to the development of the family, and the communities.
The female is usually presented as a lifeless being who must do their husband’s bidding at all times or be beaten to submission in the novels, movies and music. Their primary role is to keep the men going. Sometimes women are crafted as baby machines that are supposed to bring in children in order to be accepted. It is better imagined if she dares in-laws by being barren or even has a little delay in childbirth. Unfortunately, such cases are still prevailing in many societies today. The young reader of this text wants to see a character who would have perhaps acted differently to give some hope.
Another literary scenario is in Ant Hills of the Savannah where an expression is given about pressure most girls go through when it comes to the question of marriage in Africa. At only twenty years they panic and get embossed by the thought that time is passing them by. I have heard all sorts of funny talk from girls just like in the Ant Hills of the Savanna; ‘Better to marry a rascal; better an unhappy marriage than an unhappy single life, better marry Mr. Wrong than wait for Mr. Right in heaven, all men are the same.
On many occasions, the female is presented as the helpless victim. It is this helpless resignation to fate that the female gender has to wake up and deliberately walk away from. So how can there be any reasonable contribution to the development if she is categorized as an instrument for others’ comfort for sex? How does this impact positively on the lives of readers and young females that have read the text prescribed by UNEB for UCE and other exams?
It is this graphic description of sex in these novels that makes one’s heart jump. Did my daughters read this portion of the book in the class as a recommended text? How did they feel? How did the teacher handle this portion? Such text is been read by millions of youths across the globe. If we believe that literature is meant to effect change, this particular change may not be for our good. The study of literature cannot survive if it cannot illuminate human experiences, and human experience cannot today be illuminated without attention to the place of women in literature, in the sexuality of our lives, both in history and in the present. (Kessler-Harris & Mcbrein).
The influence of female character in fiction reflects her influence in society. We believe that every aspect of life should be covered by the literary artist. We are however alarmed at the stereotyping of the female character in most fictional texts. The male is always presented as a man in authority, responsible otherwise. He controls his environment and is his own master. Literature does not reduce the man to a shadow of his real self. It appears as if writers are extra careful when creating roles for the male character. When a female is created, she has to be seen almost always as a “weaker sex”. In movies and music videos for entertainment the male character does not dance naked. The female must be shown as a sexual partner who is ready to expose her parts in order to satisfy her audience.
If literature is indeed an instrument for creation of awareness, we must project characters we expect to reveal human lessons. This statement is pregnant and summarizes the helplessness of any female that lives in the past. Lessons like this motivate the young readers to aim at financial independence and self sufficiency. The author draws our attention to the several opportunities available for anybody who wishes to explore them. Instead of portraying the typical female character as a sex instrument she gives this advice through the narrative point of view. This indeed is progressive. If development is to affect us positively, there must be messages constituted in the texts we read, the music we listen to and the movies we watch. The thousands of readers that patronize our literary texts, music lyrics and movie images, must see directions to follow without anyone forcing rules down their throats.
Gender sensitivity, must also be reflected in our writings, music and movies. The girl does not always have to be portrayed as a cook, cleaner and fetcher of water from the top streams while the boys play football. The characters creation must show the female character changing bulbs and fixing simple repairs at homes. We must craft characters that protect females as well as male directors, principal officers and other related positions. We are proud of real heroes like Dr. Specioza Kazibwe, Maria Kiwanuka, , Syda Bumba who have been vice president and ministers of finance in Uganda respectively. This was an otherwise male dominated area. We expect that literature should reflect such characters in fiction to motivate the youths and create mentors they can emulate. Others such as Joyce Mpanga, Mbide, Miria Matembe who have lived heroic lives should be reflected in the character choices of future literacy works. That literature can become a viable instrument of gender sensitivity and this sensitivity points to the route of development effortlessly.