Speak Freely: Imperative Voice and the Performance of Womanhood

Speak Freely: Imperative Voice and the Performance of Womanhood

One short piece that most educators will recognize is “Girl,” by Jamaica Kincaid. It remains one of the most anthologized pieces of short fiction, and its brevity allows teachers to cover the full text in just one or two class periods. There are myriad teaching resources that center “Girl,” and it’s likely that many readers will have taught it at least once before. Personally, I’ve included the piece often over the years, usually with a focus on feminist writing. Kincaid provides a brilliant and succinct window into how femininity is defined and enforced across generations. I recently read “Old Wives’ Tales on Which I Was Fed,” by Jenny Xie, and it instantly felt familiar to me. Xie’s use of the imperative voice, intentionally or not, mirrors the language in Kincaid’s text, and both authors use the imperative specifically to convey expectations to younger generations of women.

First, let’s address imperative voice for those who may not geek out about nouns and verbs on the regular. Technically speaking, the imperative is a known as a “mood” in English rhetoric. We derive the term from the Latin imperare, which means “to command, to lead.” Roman military leaders were called imperators, from which we get the English word “emperor.” All this to say, the imperative is invoked most often when a speaker or narrator is directly addressing a person or persons and giving specific instructions or direct orders. There is an inherent sense of hierarchy attached to imperative language, with the speaker or narrator situated in a position of power. Power dynamics are a key element of sexism, and the use of the imperative in these two texts supports a reading that situates the respective narrators as sexist.

What makes this interesting in the context of “Girl” and “Old Wives’ Tales on Which I Was Fed” is that both speakers appear to be older women, and their respective audiences appear to be young women on the cusp of womanhood. A lot of feminist discourse in the classroom centers the role of patriarchy in assigning and enforcing gender norms. If your students are anything like mine, though, they struggle to understand the difference between “patriarchy” and “men,” so they often assume that only cishet men actively reinforce patriarchal expectations of womanhood. Xie and Kincaid provide excellent texts to help convey how anyone, including other women, can perpetuate oppressive gender norms and use sexist language.

Domesticity, Cleanliness, and Original Sin

Kincaid uses strong language and, at times, language that is intentionally hurtful. Readers understand early on that the speaker is most likely addressing her daughter, as she begins with a list of chores and then asks her audience a question about Sunday school. Within the first few sentences, the speaker establishes a direct connection between domesticity and womanhood, as the chores she directs her daughter to perform consist primarily of washing clothes. 

Centering laundry also introduces the connection between womanhood and cleanliness. Kincaid’s speaker tells the girl, “soak your little cloths right after you take them off.” We can infer that the “little cloths” refer to underwear, and emphasizing the need to clean them immediately subversively implies a correlation between the female body and filth. This continues later in the text, as the speaker emphasizes the proper way to interact with men and warns her daughter of “looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.” Finally, the speaker tells her daughter to “be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit.” Each image connects cleanliness and washing to some form of water or liquid, perhaps alluding to the practice of baptism and its ability to rid the body of sin.

Xie also seems to invoke the question of cleanliness in her poem. While the identity of the speaker is less clear, describing the advice as “old wives’ tales” in the title implies that the language is passed from older women to their daughters. Xie’s language is less explicitly inflammatory than Kincaid, but one couplet instructs the reader to “Never let your feet touch cold water from the bathtub or the sea/on days when you’re menstruating.” This advice correlates with Kincaid’s speaker and her preoccupation with washing the “little cloths” immediately. 

Both speakers reinforce the patriarchal characterization of women’s bodies as innately filthy, or impure, instilling in their respective daughters the belief that they must repeatedly cleanse themselves for the good of society. This is a valuable point of analysis across the texts, as it encourages discussion about how society pressures women to project an image of cleanliness that ultimately robs them of bodily autonomy. Presenting the female body, and menstruation in particular, as unclean also alludes to the concept of original sin, drawing a direct line between Christian ideology and patriarchal expectations of womanhood.

Womanhood as Performance

Kincaid stresses the specifics of how to behave throughout “Girl,” which centers the idea of womanhood as a performance. The speaker instructs her daughter on “how you smile to someone you don’t like too much…how you smile to someone you don’t like at all…[and] how you smile to someone you like completely,” as well as “how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well.” The speaker clarifies which men are acceptable to engage with and how to project propriety in various situations. She further explains how to treat a husband or lover, though she does warn that it’s acceptable to get discouraged if nothing works.

In addition to direct interactions with men, Kincaid’s speaker provides a number of instructions about how to set the table, how to manage the household and how to prepare various dishes. Again and again, the emphasis is less on the type of woman her daughter will be and more on the way that others will perceive her. The speaker hints at this early when asking if her daughter sings benna at Sunday school, introducing the notion of gossip as pervasive and potentially dangerous. The text ends with the daughter understandably worried that the baker will not let her squeeze the bread before buying it. Though the question itself is not necessarily coded in performance, the speaker’s response again centers perceptions of womanhood as paramount: “you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?”

Xie’s speaker does not provide direct instructions about how to behave, but several couplets do describe how to attract a lover. The poem opens with a pearl that draws a comparison between the number of rice grains left in the bowl and “how many pockmarks will appear on your lover’s face.” The following couplet provides information about how to sleep in order to “flatten your head’s shape,” presumably to make oneself more attractive. As the poem nears its end, another couplet instructs the (young female) reader to “Pinch the nose before age six when the cartilage is pliable/so the nasal bridge will grow narrow and high,” and warns against going to sleep with wet hair. Each of these images emphasizes the importance of appearing feminine, from eating properly to shaping the skill and bridge of the nose.

Interestingly, Xie’s poem introduces a contradiction between being intelligent and appearing intelligent. The speaker first tells the reader that “Eating the fat inside the crab sharpens the mind/so too the roe extracted from the steamed fish.” This advice clearly suggests that intelligence and wit are important to the speaker. However, the final couplet of the poem instructs the reader not to “[pore] over pages in low light” lest she destroy her eyesight, but rather to stare at “all things green from a distance.” If we unpack the image, the tale appears to warn against women studying, instead encouraging them to fixate on their natural surroundings. Thus, young women should acquire wisdom not from books, but from their lived experiences.

Extending the Conversation

These two pieces are rich with language that invites analysis and discussion. Written almost four decades apart, they also help expose students to shifts in feminist thinking and feminist discourse. It would be easy to write another couple thousand words on how these pieces invite comparative analysis, but instead I’ll simply close with some discussion questions that should spur discourse among students:

  1. Consider the phrases that lead with imperative verbs and those that do not (eg. phrases that begin with ‘this is how’ or use participles in place of imperatives). What is the effect of framing some instructions as commands or expectations, and others as simple advice? How does this affect the power dynamic in each text?
  2. Why do you think both authors feature speakers who are (presumably) older women addressing their daughters? What does this imply about how, where and when young women are introduced to societal expectations of womanhood?
  3. Both pieces address long-term relationships as inevitable; however, Kincaid speaks specifically of a husband, while Xie only mentions a lover. What happened between the 1970s and the 2010s that might account for this shift away from explicit heteronormativity? Is Kincaid implying that a proper woman cannot be a lesbian?

Lastly, I want to share a potential writing prompt and/or discussion prompt:

Think about what young men are taught about masculinity and manhood from their fathers or father figures. Using either Kincaid’s or Xie’s text as a model, write a set of instructions for a boy. Reflect on what instructions you include, how they differ from those Kincaid and Xie assign to girls, and how assigned gender roles reinforce a gender binary. How does these expectations work to exclude or ostracize certain identities? Are there less visible sets of instructions for young people who do not identify as either a boy or a girl?

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