Performing Gender in Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"

Categories: Girl

Conversations around gender and gender roles have been existent since time immemorial. Gender roles refer to social characters that define actions, approaches, and conceptions that are considered tolerable, desirable, and suitable for people based on their alleged sex. Gender stereotyping roots from such definitions and has taken over the day to day cultures of individuals. It has become a tradition passed from generation to the next, even in the wake of liberal individuals. Girls and boys are taught how society expects them to behave from a tender age.

Many avenues are used to pass this tradition, including drama plays, stories, movies, books, and poems, to name a few. Jamaica Kincaid's poem "Girl," illustrates the differences between female and male roles, majoring on the feminine ones, set by the society at the time it was written and the present.

The author uses two main characters to explore different themes, a mother and daughter. Gender division is apparent as a subject in the prose poem (Gale, 33).

Get quality help now
Writer Lyla
Writer Lyla
checked Verified writer

Proficient in: Gender

star star star star 5 (876)

“ Have been using her for a while and please believe when I tell you, she never fail. Thanks Writer Lyla you are indeed awesome ”

avatar avatar avatar
+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

The mother advises her daughter on how a lady should behave so that she can earn respect in the society and not become a slut. The mother outlines so many roles that the girl should perform as they have been set out. For instance, she tells her how to iron her father's shirt so it is not creased, how to hem her dress, and how to wash her clothes (Kincaid, line 1). However, in other instances, the mother seems extreme with the things the girl should avoid. For example, she tells the daughter that she should not squat and play marble with the boys anymore (Kincaid, line 37).

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Write my paper

You won’t be charged yet!

She even exposes her not to talk to them also if she is giving directions. The division could harm how the girl interacts with society, including the men. Her interaction with them could, at times, be termed snobbish if she cannot help when someone needs it.

Family relationships are evident in the poem, as the author explores the interaction of two family members. The norm in most families is for the young ones to listen to the elders' instruction without any interdictions (Gale, 64). The mother gives the girl instructions on how to live and does not allow any objections from the girl. She uses subjective phrases such as "this is how" to show the finality of her instruction. When the girl tries to explain something, the mother cuts her short, ignores her, and continues with the conversation. In the instance where the mother tells the girl not to sing benna in Sunday school, she tries to explain that she doesn't do it even on regular days (Kincaid, line 18). The mother, however, moves on to a different topic in her instructions, about sewing in buttons (Kincaid, line 19).

The mother is judgmental and brutal as she already thinks her daughter will be a failure in society. She tells her daughter to walk with her head straight on Sunday and not in the manner she is walking because she can tell that she is bent on becoming a slut(Kincaid, line 13). In another instance, when the mother uses the metaphor of the bread and the baker, she mentions that the daughter's ways are wicked to the extent that the baker would not let her close to the dough (Kincaid, line 60). In her authoritative tone, she instructs the daughter how to behave in front of strange men lest they become aware of the slut she is. The mother immediately assumes that the girl will get married and goes to show her how to take care of her husband without considering the girl's feelings on marriage. The mother indirectly sends the daughter the message that a girl has no voice of reason in society and should follow pre-set traditions to avoid any conflicts. Nonetheless, this is not endowing, and the girl finds herself conflicted.

Besides, the mother teaches that the girl's sexuality and social perception are matters that are entirely dependent on her. She tells her how to wash her little clothes immediately; she takes them off, showing that she is aware of menstruation and maturity that the girl is about to experience. The girl is also instructed on how to smile to those people she likes and those that she doesn't (Kincaid, line 31). The daughter should not feel discouraged if the advice is given about loving a man fails (Kincaid, line 54. The mother is overtaken so much by the perception of the society that she misguides the daughter. The mother goes overboard when she shows her how to take medication for abortion should she get pregnant before marriage (Kincaid, line 46).

In as much as the mother seems extreme with her instructions from society, she is caring. She tries to explain to her daughter how to take care of herself, so she remains a lady. For instance, she asks her not to eat fruits in the street as flies will follow her (Kincaid, lines 16- 17). She intends to ensure that the daughter looks neat when she shows her how to hem a dress (Kincaid, line 21). The daughter is advised not to pick someone's flower. The mother here tries to warn her of becoming a thief. She further encourages her to evaluate things before judging as the example of a blackbird could show evil spirits close to her proximity (Kincaid, line 38). These instructions are to protect the girl from any harm and stigmatization that could result from the society should she behave abnormally. The mother tries to prepare her daughter for the cruel world that cannot accommodate her liberal mannerisms.

The mother is responsible as she knows she is the only one who can save her daughter from becoming a social misfit (Browdy, 28). The mother notes that the girl is slowly becoming an outcast from the behaviors she portrays. For instance, her walking style and sitting positions prove to her mother that she is careless. The girl sings benna, and traditional songs in Sunday school mean that the girl remains outdated and loses respect in the community. The mother warns the girl to make sure that she does not fall off the expectations. She passes her knowledge on cooking skills and homecare to her daughter so she can be a responsible girl. The mother does this to prevent her from being promiscuous.

The daughter is reckless, as illustrated by her mother. She does not walk with her head high on Sunday and plays marble with the boys. She eats fruits in the streets just as the boys do while a girl is supposed to eat in the privacy of her home. The girl does not know how to sow her hem among other ladies like roles. If the girl was organized, she would have copied what her mother does to make sure that she do them right? The girl is rendered powerless in the story as she lacks control over everything she should do with herself moving forward. She only tries to object to her mother twice in the conversation showing that she agrees with everything she is being asked to do. She learns to practice silence over matters she perceives are out of her control instead of trying to change her fate (Powers, 57). She accepts her mother's idea of marriage even at such a tender age where she understands nothing of the matter.

The mother's character has been used by the author to develop different writing styles. The author uses repetition to emphasize the points that she intends to pass across. For instance, the phrase "This is how you" and "don't" highlight the mother's concern about the girl's upbringing. They also bring out the tone in which she says them setting the mood to a serious one. The repetition of others such as "slut" brings out the girl's character as she seems rebellious to object to such accusations. The mother's character develops the girl's person and identity.

The author uses the title to sway the audience into the intended message. It gives the reader a definitive age of the woman being advised, which is younger than an adult but older than a child. As well, the title dictates to whom the society puts more tension on morality, behaviors, and attitudes. The title girl changes the perception of the reader to look at the work as an informative piece. The tone sets the mood for a disproving one that is stern, meant to change bad behaviors that the girl has adopted. If other titles such as mother were used, the tone would have switched to a calmer, warm, and soothing sound. If a father tone were used, the audience would expect that the addressee would be a boy and hence would change the message being sent.

The title as well shows the struggle the daughter is having living in her mother's shadow. The interjections she makes while the mother deflects are an indication that she is younger. The girl has nowhere to belong, and thus she could get confused in her growth and therefore needs to be guided by a woman who has gone before her. The girl's responses as well show the fear that her mother's instructions and misjudgments instill in her. The mother has the final say in the girl's life as she feels that she incapable of making her decisions (Gale, 78).
The set of rules given to the girl seems compassionate but is unfair and demeaning. The directives specified to the girl mean that her place in the society is a homemaker. She should cook well, wash the clothes on time, and plant the dasheen appropriately lest it becomes irritating (Kincaid, line 28). The advice given to the girl does not demonstrate and empowered woman. It ties her to the ancient binds of chauvinism, where a man was meant to be superior over the woman (Power, 134). It does not demonstrate a woman that is ready to take on challenges that men take on. If the girl can play marble, the mother should encourage her to become better than the boys and beat them at a game that the society instituted for men.

The girl is taught how to act to impress other people while inflicting on herself. She is prepared to smile in a differential way toward people she likes and those she doesn't like. The girl is not taught to smile when she deems right for her. She should set the table differently for diverse people (Kincaid, line 32). She is trained to walk differently on Sunday than she does on other days. If the mother wanted to make her a strong woman, she would advise her to hold her head high every day. The girl is supposed to be a lady in all her doings every day with or without people watching. The use of terms such as the slut she's bent on becoming depicts the girl in a derogative manner. Enabling words such as lady would make the girl view herself differently.

The illustrations given go to show how deep the society is rooted in pre-set rules to the extent of harming its members. When the mother gives abortion techniques, she promotes vices such as murder, all in the name of looking right by society. The setting of the poem in the Antiguan times is a depiction of the current world. The organization limits what games gender should play, the jobs they should assume, and the pieces of clothing they should wear. The drift between females and males is expanded by the tensions imposed on the girl child by society not to become a slut. The culture dictates that set laws should be followed without objection lest there are consequences. In as much as the mother (society) comes from a considerate point, measures should not be let to spill over to extreme ones.

Even if we have grown from the oppressive ancient times, we are still bound to those traditional practices. Habits that are inhibiting any human being, whether male or female are prejudicial. It wants as these habits are taught from a young age so that one grows with them at heart. What is more worrying is that the gender that fought so hard to get recognition is still the same one that propagates gender disparity. The women bring each other down rather than motivate one another. They do so by finding a means to illustrate why they shouldn't enjoy privileges that men enjoy.

Radical feminism, as illustrated by the monologue, can be subjective, depressing, and the same time is enslaving to the people it intends to set free. Thus, it is not right to dictate a person's responsibility. Instead, letting them do what they find comfortable is better and redeeming. A girl should be allowed to play marble with other children as no play is gender-based. A man should also be let iron his shirt should he need one without waiting for the woman to so. A liberal society is where an individual islet to choose what best works for them rather than having to live by ancient set decrees.

Works Cited

Top of Form
BROWDY, Jennifer. Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean. Beacon Press, 2017. Print., Cengage L. Study Guide for Jamaica Kincaid's "girl.". Detroit: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2016. Print. of Form
Top of Form
Kincaid, Jamaica. Girl. San Francisco: San Francisco Examiner, 1991. Print.
Top of Form
Top of Form
POWERS, SUE. Surprising Measure of Subliminal Sadness. Place of publication not identified: ATMOSPHERE Press, 2020. Print. of Form
Bottom of Form
Bottom of Form

Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Cite this page

Performing Gender in Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl". (2020, Sep 09). Retrieved from

Performing Gender in Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" essay
Live chat  with support 24/7

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment