Jamaica Kincaid is one of the prevalent writers of the twentieth/twenty-first century. Well known for tackling the subjects of racism, class, gender and how they are exploited, and culture and conveying them to a wide audience in a book. Her most remembered work is a prose-poetry called Girl, a child following the instruction of a sharp-tongued mother teaching her how to become a woman, in contrast, what it is like for a woman growing up in Antigua. Most importantly, how the theme of morality encompasses the detrimental measures of gender roles imposed upon young girls breaking into womanhood.
The Antiguan mother is immediately introduced into the story to establish her directions for morality in her daughters every decision. Seeing how she is narrating the setting by giving her daughter cisgender instruction on how to behave like a lady in public and in the private setting of her home. For example, differentiating clothes to wash by color and day, covering her head when it is sunny, soaking salt fish overnight, staying away from the homeless boys who she refers to as wharf-rats, how to smile, how to plant and so much more (Kincaid). Meanwhile, she is referring to her daughter as a “slut” as she is giving these instructions, even though, there is no sign of the daughter promiscuity, let alone her even realizing her sexuality.
Moving onto the daughter, here she carefully listens to her mothers’ forewarning on what she needs to do as a woman. Her mother, as I mentioned before, harshly instructs that when she buys cotton make sure it does not have gum on it, how to iron her fathers’ khaki shirt and pants so they would not have creases in them, how to sweep the yard and the house, sew, how to eat your food that is not appalling, not to squat and stop playing games that is associated with boys, not to pick other people's flowers, how to make pepper pot, how to wash up, grow okra etc. (Kincaid) It is any wonder if she was able to processes all these directions, something tells me not so. Afterwards, her mother says “squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh” only to reply what if the baker does not let me, showing signs of her immaturity of how sexuality is used in womanhood.
So it is pretty evident that this short-story took place in the twentieth century, it is only assumed that the setting is stationed in St. John's, Antigua. This happens to be Elaine Potter Richardson (Jamaica Kincaid’s real name) homeland before immigrating to America at the age of seventeen. Looking into Jamaica Kincaid's history she did not have a good relationship with her mother by the age of nine when she became a big sister to three younger siblings.
Until this day, Jamaica Kincaid has not given exclusive details on how she felt betrayed by her mother, however, she did say this on BBC "I don't know if having other children was the cause for our relationship changing—it might have changed as I entered adolescence, but her attention went elsewhere. But then I got more of things I didn't have, like a certain kind of cruelty and neglect." The parallels of her earlier life and the story Girl contrast each other heavily that it cannot be denied, especially not playing into the gender roles of her country as she got older.
Antigua itself has become a symbol of oppression for encompassing the western culture forced upon the British government, and the people who were brought against their will or natives of the land stripped away of their culture. In return, they repress each other by mimicking a custom that was not originally theirs, and set ground rules for the community to follow for day to day life. Women are still expected to follow the ‘norms’ of their position in the community. Even now it would seem as though nothing has changed for the progression of women in Antigua. UN Women have reported a high percentage of women in the state of poverty especially the ones who are disabled. If any woman is a subjected to abuse at the hands of any man, her going to the authorities would be in vain with the case being seen as a hindrance. Again, the damaging treatment of women has a long way before it prevails:
As social being who need support from each other, and knowing that achievements made in life are not based on individual efforts, the cry from women to have the support of other women in society is a cry for help and if attended to will foster an environment of growth, where one can flourish to their fullest potential. Assertive women felt shunned by other women who sometimes perceive them to be masculine while vulnerable women felt there was an absence of safe spaces for them to share, vent and get support to continue their journey. (UN Women: Antigua and Barbuda National Review, p.14)
Going back to the story, the mother teaches her daughter how she will be perceived in the eyes of her peers. So, what will happen if she does not? Being ostracized by one's culture is a heavy effect, but why do women submit to these abuses? More importantly, why do women tear each other down? According to Rosjke Hasseldine, an educator of women studies came to the conclusion that women tear each other down because women are internally misogynistic. Girls are taught by our mothers who were taught by their grandmothers and so forth what acceptable way of a woman is. To ignore it one would, again, risk being labeled as a ‘bad’ woman. She then says “internalising the language and beliefs of patriarchy was an economic necessity. After all, you cannot burn thousands and thousands of women as witches without it having an effect on women for generations after. It creates a ripple effect that invokes fear around being your own person.”
Next is the discussion of benna music and why the mother forbids her daughter from listening to it. Following the nineteen sixties, benna was taking a new height amongst the public and drifting somewhat away from its conservative values. It was the polar opposite of being a call-and-response type of music seeing how it featured the subject of gossip, sex, violence and raunchy words. Being that this was the decade of redefining the subject sex and how it played its part in society it did not sit well with most, and one would think it would not to sit well with women either.
Music artist in this genre write derogatory things about women, making objectifying remarks about their bodies and place emphases on abuse. So why is it symbolic? Years after being ‘told’ what to do by your community someone is bound to rebel against effects of sexual repression, in this case, it was done through music which is presently popular in carnival fairs in the West Indies. The mother put a stop to this not because it was slut-shaming but was not seen appropriate for a woman to listen to music of that nature.
The first line in the story of Girl reads “wash the white clothes” the mother then scolds her daughter for singing benna at Sunday school. Antigua has been a Christian state since it has been colonized, and one of Christianities symbolic features is the color white. Michael R. Morris, a writer for LDS, and Henry Dreyfus a Japanese artist both stated that the color represents cleanliness and purity, which is contradicting because throughout this whole piece the mother is verbally abusing her daughter into following these unwritten rules of womanhood. How can she be seen as holy if she is a slut so to speak? The daughter clearly has no understanding of the sexual undertones her mother refers to, or as to why she has to do things a certain way nearly because the mother says so. Ignorant, yes but is she that sinful in the eyes of her mom or did the mother see a mirroring reflection of her daughter?
Lastly is the symbolism of the bread mentioned in this story when the mother says “always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh.” Anyone who is not reading the prose critically would assume that she is referring to her daughter knowing how to make bread. Wrong. Another contradictory on behalf of the mother and her ‘morals’ is that bread in the Christian faith is supposed to symbolize the body of Christ, him dying for the sins of others yet in this context ‘bread’ is being used as a sexual undertone.
Although the mothers approach could be seen as bullying, she is preparing her daughter not only for wifely duties but to look appealing for the opposite sex, grooming her if you well. Because when her daughter naively asks if the baker would let her feel her mother replies “after all you are really going to be the kind of women who the baker won’t let near the bread?” It is pretty clear of the intentions the mother has for her child. So the intent on the mothers tactic is for her daughter to be a proper lady not only through her eyes but amongst the peers as well, and a future husband.
Reading the story the first was comical, but analyzing it broadens the perspective of reading this piece. Teaching young girls that it is okay to bow down to patriarchy by shaming her into following these rules of hypocrisy is pure insanity. Telling girls through the media what is considered beautiful, what will get the boys attention, and what not to do or else you will be called a slut or a bitch for being out-spoken. This is why we need feminism so it can teach our girls to love themselves and not fall victim to the oppression or our peers.