Oscar Wilde is remembered today for his use of epigrams and his plays. Wilde wrote ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ in which many people argue that it appears Wilde subverts the typical Victorian gender role. Gender roles are cultural and personal, they determine how males and females should think, speak, dress, and interact within the context of society. Masculinity and Femininity refer to the dominant sex role pattern in the vast majority of both traditional and modern societies: that of male assertiveness and female nurturance.
It is very clear and evident that Wilde distinctively does subvert from these gender roles and in the process satirizes these Victorian values.
Upon reading the text, many people have concluded that even though it is clear that Wilde does subvert from the normal typical gender roles in the Victorian era ultimately he conforms to them in line with the structure of a well-made play. We are introduced to the characters and exposed to their behaviors, through this we see the subversion from society’s norms creating the disorder and confusion that aids the comedy within the play.
However, by the end of the play there is harmony and peace; Gwendolen and Cecily end up getting married to Jack and Algernon exaggerating many of the conventions of the well-made play, such as the missing papers conceit (the hero, as an infant, was confused with the manuscript of a novel) and a final revelation. It was thought in the Victorian era that if a woman did not marry and produce children she had failed her duties as a woman or was thought of as ‘abnormal’.
Marriage significantly signified a woman’s maturity and respectability as we see Lady Bracknell desperately tries to find companions for both Gwendolen and Algernon. It appears throughout the text that the women in the play have the upper hand but conclusively the men in the book win this gender ‘battle’ as the women end up falling in love with them and getting married, which is essential because comedies end in marriage to emphasize the idea of restoration and the cycle of life continues, additionally at the end of the play when Jack challenges Lady Bracknell over the marriage of Cecily and Algernon, “The moment you consent to my marriage with Gwendolen, I will most gladly allow your nephew to form an alliance with my ward’’ is of great significance because throughout the play, Lady Bracknell has the most power and in the end the power lies within the hands of Jack; the revelation at the end satirically undermines Lady Bracknell’s snobbish attitudes. One of Wilde’s main satirical targets in the play is the tendency of middle- and upper-class society to focus on the superficial trappings of respectability rather than examining what is really important, such as a person’s inner worth; this undermines Lady Bracknell’s power. This reflects that Wilde does indeed conform to the Victorian stereotypes as Victorian men had far more rights than their female counterparts.
Many rights were denied for women, such as voting and property ownership because of the Victorian attitude that men were superior in mind and body. This is seen through the character of Jack who by the end of the play we see dictating the events of the play “ she cannot marry without my consent…that consent I absolutely decline to give’’, Without Jacks permission both Lady Bracknell and Cecily cannot get what they desire, hence the reason why people argue that ultimately Wilde conforms to gender stereotypes as Victorian men were believed to be better able to make rational decisions than women of the same time. They were better educated and were strongly considered the heads of their families and this is observed in this part of the text. Jack here can be seen as superior and the ‘head of the house’ dictating what should/should not happen.
However, other critics argue that Wilde does subvert the stereotypical gender roles. William Archer expresses it’s a “play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely wilful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality”  and this is clearly seen through the character of Lady Bracknell. Women in the Victorian era were burdened with the characteristics of being timid, shy, sympathetic and caring with no sense of masculinity. Lady Bracknell controversially reverses this role as she is arrogant and speaks in commands, judgments, and pronouncements. We see the extreme insensitivity she possesses as she responds to the death of her friends husband “I’ve never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger’,’ Lady Bracknell goes against the idea that marriage should be the best thing for a woman, ignoring the delicate and sad issue of death she expresses how the death of her friends husband’s is beneficial to her.
Wilde uses inversion to create a sense of humour as Lady Bracknell expresses that single life is better than married life which is not the accepted value and his aim is to subvert conventional morality and satirize conventional society. We see Lady Bracknell take a lot of action in the play and we hardly ever hear of her husband who is supposedly the ‘head’. Wilde inverts the usual gender roles of Victorian literature by portraying the women as the sexual aggressors in relationships and the men as fairly passive. Gwendolen remarks that her father is “entirely unknown” outside their family circle, and reflects, “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate?”
This is a comic reversal of the strong expectation in Victorian times that a woman’s role was in the home. Showing women as strong and dominant figures we could argue that perhaps Wilde is reflecting that women cannot be the ones to determine the direction of others. We would expect the audience to laugh at such remark as it has no true basis, allowing people to ridicule and dismiss this idea of women taking any form of charge. However, other people may argue this point as Wilde could be criticising just how narrow minded society was and true mockery lies within the fact that society has given such ridiculous stereotypes to people. Second Wave feminists would argue this point that Wilde is not subverting from gender roles and Lady Bracknell is using her freedom to express her mind as the movement encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized, and reflective of a sexist structure of power.
In Wilde’s works, the dandy is a witty, overdressed, philosopher who speaks in epigrams and paradoxes and ridicules the cant and hypocrisy of society. Algernon has many characteristics of the dandy, even Jack echoes the philosophy of the dandy when he asserts that “pleasure” is the only thing that should “bring one anywhere.” Wilde extends this idea of a ‘dandy’ to the women in the play when Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell assert the importance of surfaces, style, or profile. Gwendolen even reveals that “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” Everthing tells us that Gwendolen has it backwards. In fact, this is one of the lines that make us question the title of the play, if “style, not sincerity is the vital thing,” then what exactly is the importance of being earnest? This line encapsulates the genius of the play.
For the Victorians, appearance was everything and style was much more important than substance. Again the women in the play assert these masculine characteristics and roles supporting the idea that Wilde subverts from typical gender roles. Ellen Moer’s examination of “dandiacal” behaviour supports this idea of subversion as the dandy convincingly shows that his existence depends on not so much a determination to place himself in conflict with society’s values but an ability to stretch the limits of public tolerance and sidestep the censure of those who see him as someone whose behaviour threatens to subvert established communal structures.2 We could argue that this dandy style of behaviour is extended to the women in the play as they ‘’stretch limits of public tolerance’’ by taking matters into their own hands adopting male roles.
Others argue that Wilde only subverts stereotypical gender role to an extent. Cecily is dominant and masculine by proposing to Algernon, yet when he throws compliments at her referring to Cecily as “a pink rose”, she is easily flattered. This simile aids in painting a picture of Cecily being beautiful and is associated with her appearance. We can see this as Victorian value of women being dominated by their sexuality and their expectance to fall into this social class. Wilde gained favour with social critiques such as Camille Paglia who glorified this “male dominance”, shown by Algernon controlling Cecily, in Wilde’s plays in her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990). Furthermore, at the end of each act Algernon seems to have acquired female characteristics as he is seen to be ‘depressed’ and he turns to food for assurance and comfort “When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me” This is as close to slap-stick comedy as Wilde gets, it’s hilarious that the men fight over muffins when the loves of their lives have just left them.
The comedic effect is created by Algernon’s power to take such a serious issue and turn it into a discussion about food. Even though Algernon conforms to his stereotypical masculinity he also subverts from it, supporting this view that Wilde only subverts gender roles to an extent. Wilde could also be inviting comedy as the Victorians were seen to eat abundantly could be satirizing the fact that they eat so much that they would eat in any situation. Algernon eating at the end of every act highlights the subtitle of the text itself “trivial comedy for serious people” reflecting how society was so obsessed with trivial things, so as well as satirising society he sends a message across to these ‘serious’ people.
In conclusion, there is evidence that Wilde subverts from the typical Victorian gender role by appearing to give the females in the play more power, allowing them to appear more aggressive and adopt the normal male characteristics ultimately conforming to these stereotypes. The way the play is in itself structured, and also the idea that men are superior to women is upheld in the play. Even where Jack is proposing to Gwendolen, it seems she has the upper hand in the proposal she says to him ‘’well aren’t you going to propose to me properly’’ she automatically shifts the power back into the hands of Jack ‘the Man’, establishing that men were the superior and dominant gender that women had to submit to.