The Rhetoric of Beyonce’s Formation

Abstract: After its release on February 6, 2016, Beyoncé Knowles’s visual song “Formation” garnered a variety of responses from popular culture critics, scholars, and public figures. If one were to listen to the music and lyrics without viewing the video, the conclusion could be drawn that the song is simply a tribute to Knowles’s southern roots, a declaration of her personal preferences, and a celebration of her agency as an independent black woman. However, Beyoncé’s embodiment of the West African female deity Mami Wata in the video signals engagement in a discourse about history, spirituality, gender, sexuality, power, capitalism, and geography that sets “Formation” apart from the superstar’s catalogue of popular music.

Mami Wata represents the nurturing and destructive forces of nature; women as the purveyors and preservers of culture, and of life. She is a wily and beautiful sea goddess – a divine trickster—known for her ability to enchant men, her fascination with modernity, and her spiritually and materially restorative powers. The Formation video combines elements of Afrofuturist, womanist, and feminist principles to affirm the richness of Black American culture while reminding Black women of their power and the necessity that they use it to ensure black survival. This presentation explores Mami Wata’s (Beyoncé’s) call to action: “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” and why it is necessary for black women to do so.

“What are you doing if you are not reflecting the times? That to me is the definition of an artist?”

-Nina Simone

Breaking Down the Discourse of “Formation”

This paper focuses on the ways the lyrics, music, dance and visual presentation of “Formation”, along with Beyoncé Knowles’s ethos as a cultural icon, come together to provide a reflection on the socio-political climate at the time of the visual song’s release, as well as a snapshot of black history, within a coded format that is consistent with the African American tradition of emancipatory artistry. It is important to note that Trayvon Martin’s birthday was on February 5. He would have been 21 years old in 2016. The Lemonade visual album, which includes the song “Formation”, was released on February 6, 2016 and that year the Superbowl took place in Oakland, California, a city well known for its black activism. Additionally, 66% of the athletes in the NFL are African American men. What better way to celebrate Black History Month and black Americans than during, arguably, the most prestigious sporting event of the year, America’s game?

After its release, Beyoncé Knowles’s “Formation” video garnered a variety of responses from popular culture critics, members of academia, and public figures, including former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. In an interview with in 2016, Giuliani states:

Can’t you figure out who you’re putting on? I mean this is a political position, she’s probably going to take advantage of it. You’re talking to middle America when you have the Super Bowl, so you can have entertainment. Let’s have, you know, decent wholesome entertainment, and not use it as a platform to attack the people who, you know, put their lives at risk to save us. (par. 9)

If one were to listen to the music and lyrics without viewing the video, the conclusion could be drawn that the song is simply a tribute to Knowles’s southern roots, a declaration of her personal preferences, and a celebration of her agency as an independent black woman. However, when viewing the video while listening to the music, and conducting a close reading of the lyrics, it is clear the narrative Beyoncé presents is far more complex and deeply political, though maybe not in the way that Giuliani suggests. It is not anti-law-enforcement, but rather, pro-black-survival, a celebration of blackness. In her article “Critical Discourse Analysis – A Primer”, Sue L.T. McGregor asserts that:

Discourse analysis challenges us to move from seeing language as abstract to seeing our words as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political condition. Even more significant, our words (written or oral) are used to convey a broad sense of meanings and the meaning we convey with those words is identified by our immediate social, political, and historical conditions. (par. 4)

The musical style of the song is a subgenre of hip hop known as Trap Bounce. The term “trap music” refers to a specifically southern style of hip hop. The “trap” is the name given to the streets of poor black neighborhoods or the trap houses where cocaine deals are made. Southern rappers usually rapped about drug dealing in the genre’s inception. Bounce music is a style of hip hop which originated in the projects of New Orleans and is influenced by the city’s deeply rooted musical traditions. Producing a song in this musical style immediately signals entry into a creatively, chronologically and geographically black space, rife with suffering and full of triumph.

The language Knowles uses to communicate her personal/public narrative is what Geneva Smitherman refers to as Black Dialect, Black Language, or Black English. Smitherman writes:

Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African Heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression and life in America. Black Language is Euro-American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture. The Black idiom is used by 80 to 90 percent of American Blacks, at least some of the time. (2)

Knowles’s use of rhyme, current cultural colloquialisms such as “haters”, “fly”, “twirl”, “rock”, and “trick” (among others), as well as call and response, give the song a hip hop/spoken word quality. This distinction is important because it sets “Formation” apart from the rest of her catalogue of popular music. Hip Hop and spoken word poetry traditionally have been vehicles for black activist rhetoric. A common feature of these forms is their ability to entertain and inform simultaneously, with the goal being to “drop knowledge” while using a rhythmic mnemonic device that can be remembered and repeated.

The name “Formation” itself implies a planned arrangement or structure. This refers to the construction of knowledge about blackness, black womanhood, and black oppression. It also applies to the structure of Black Language, which has historically been associated with a lack of intellectual ability and education. However, this dialect with its regional variations, has a concrete set of grammatical rules that are understood by most black people to some degree due to a shared history and experience, yet more difficult for others outside the culture to interpret. A New Yorker article on the topic of Black English paraphrases the linguist John McWhorter: “…someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it”. The title of the song is also a call to action, a pledge of solidarity, and the establishment of a structure of protection against an ensuing battle, all of which Knowles directs toward black women as she repeatedly chants, “Ok, ladies now let’s get in formation” (cause I slay)” (“Formation”).

What Knowles seems to be requesting is protection against the decimation of black culture and black bodies. Her enlistment of women speaks to the power of the feminine principal: the role of women as purveyors and preservers of culture and of life. When she says, “Slay trick or you get eliminated”, she is not simply talking about a dancer getting cut from an audition if she does not “kill” the moves (“Formation”). She is imploring women to do what is necessary to save blackness, in all its forms, from being eliminated: historically, culturally, geographically and physically. In this case, the use of the typically misogynistic term “trick”, meaning slut or prostitute, is turned on its head. Knowles uses this as a code word to mean a cunning, or wily woman who can use her wits to outsmart those who underestimate her. This character creation is reminiscent of the trickster character common in African folktales, only in female form. Creating a female trickster is an indictment of sexism and an empowerment of women.

“Formation” was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who was interviewed by The New York Times in December of 2016. The journalist, Wesley Morris, made this comment: “It was exciting seeing the world re-engage with a music video as a formal work. We weren’t just talking about Beyoncé with “Formation”. We were talking about history, current affairs, art and politics” (par. 7). Matsoukas responded:

That wasn’t anything expected. I had no idea that it would have that reaction and initiate those kinds of conversations. That was very satisfying as an artist to be a part of that. I feel there’s been a lot of racial injustice in our community, and we’re hungry for somebody to say something and for somebody as strong as Beyoncé to say something and show value to people of color. (par. 7)

Discourse Analysis

As it opens, the video has the grainy quality of a VHS tape and the words “parental advisory” appear like the digital print out on a desktop computer screen. The message warns adults there will be explicit language. This documentary-like introduction has the power to transport the viewer to the period between the late 1970s and 1990s when politicians; and others such as Tipper Gore were waging a freedom-of-speech war on rap music and any music that had any language or political message that went against “the establishment”. In this context, Beyoncé is bringing forth a powerful message that black people’s fight to speak and to be heard continues, and that she will not be silenced. The first words are uttered by Messy Mya, a queer Bounce rapper and YouTuber notorious in the New Orleans music and social media scenes, who was murdered in 2010. Beyoncé stands on the roof of a police car that is submerged in water, giving the impression that she is rising from the water. She is wearing a red and white dress. This image evokes the West African female deity, Mami Wata, who, according to Edward Chukwurah, “in her most modern incarnation, is sea-faring, openly gender-queer, and has a love of flashy and foreign gadgets. Her attachment to modernity and greater destructiveness are reflections of the scorn of tradition, as well as the cultural anxiety inflicted by Western influences” (par. 1). Mami Wata is also known for her beauty and power to enchant men, as well as her power to offer spiritual and material healing to her people. Messy Mya proclaims (0:04): “What happened at the New Orleans? Bitch, I’m back by popular demand!” Then, music plays as a montage of black bodies, violence, nightlife, black neighborhoods, the “Black Church” and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina appear and disappear. This song is as much a personal “shout out” to Messy Mya, as it is a statement about respect for all black identities, black resilience, outrage over the marginalization and oppression of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement and political officials of the city, and a declaration that black New Orleans is back. The feminist and spiritual aspects of this song/video are clearly engaging each other in a discourse about history, religion, gender, sexuality and power.

Beyoncé is stationary now reclining on the police car (0:21). Her demeanor is intensely focused and ripe with ennui as she describes the superficial red-carpet treatment and relentless criticism she receives, due to her stardom. She addresses the speculation about her marriage and her wealth when she speaks the lyrics, “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress. I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces” (0:33). All the while the music is a repetitive background beat. Then, as she gives what she believes to be her pedigree – her own understanding of who she truly is and where she comes from – the music builds: “My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas ‘bama” (1:37). The repetitive beat becomes Bounce dance music, a celebration, an indication that something very important is about to be said, and she is fully, energetically engaged.

Knowles uses metaphor and Black Language to create layers of meaning about her personal identity, female identity, and black identity in general. McGregor contends that:

“Even one word can convey strong meaning—connotations! These connotations are not always, or seldom, in the dictionary, but often assigned on the basis of the cultural knowledge of the participants. Connotations associated with one word, or through metaphors and figures of speech, can turn the uncritical viewer’s mind” (par. 15).

Beyoncé sings, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson five nostrils. Earned all this money but they never take the country out me. I got hot sauce in my bag swag” (0:45). She is responding to criticisms about her daughter’s natural hair that have surfaced in social media, but using the Black English practice of dropping the possessive indicator so she can be understood to be talking about her own hair as well: “I like my baby hair” instead of “I like my baby’s hair…”. In fact, she is talking about herself, her daughter and all black women being free to make their own decisions about what is beautiful to them, particularly pertaining to hair. This is evidenced by images of black women wearing a plethora of hairstyles throughout the video.

Knowles goes on to use language in the same way to address criticism that has long been present in the media about her husband’s physical appearance: “I like my negro nose” instead of “I like my negro’s nose…”. Again, though she is directly stating she likes the way her husband looks, she is also talking about her own nose, and black noses in general. She uses the metaphor “Jackson Five nostrils” to make a statement about black noses that is respectful and positive on the one hand, since the Jackson Five is iconic in black culture. On the other hand, she is also speculating on “post-Jackson Five nostrils” and the attendant internalized oppression and self-hatred that could be at the root of the surgical alteration of black body parts to resemble white features more closely. The verse ends with Knowles proclaiming that the money she has earned does not change her. The “hot sauce in my bag swag” line implies a secret spicy ingredient or hidden weapon she has but one that many black women, particularly black southern women, possess.

The bridge between the first and second verses returns to the repetitive background beat, but the precedent has been set. The viewer can sense that more knowledge is about to be dropped. Messy Mya is again featured (1:00) in a sample taken from the YouTube video “A 27-Piece, Huh?”, in which he is expressing appreciation for a woman’s hairstyle, as he randomly talks to people walking around the French Quarter. That sample is immediately followed by a brief commentary by queer Bounce artist Big Freedia, who makes it clear that she did not come to play and expresses an appreciation for “cornbreads and collard greens”, or what is known as soul food in the “Black Community”. Both performers speak in a variation of Black Language that is unique to New Orleans. Their comments make their presence clear and demand acknowledgement. These portions of the song serve to reintroduce Beyoncé, while asserting the right for black people of all identities to exist in a way that centers them.

Knowles uses language that is heavily laden with racist connotations, but she does so in an emancipatory way that requires requalification and redefinition of certain terms. Words such as “negro”, “bama”, and “yellow bone” have all historically been tools of categorization of black people, their level of intelligence and morality, and their proximity to whiteness. She creates a framework in which such language has uplifting prideful black meaning rather than the dehumanizing and denigrating meanings assigned to it by white racists. She says that when she sees something and wants it (2:00), she goes after it and she may use her “trickster” qualities to attain it. Her statement that “I stunt, yellow bone it” implies that she uses white assumptions about black people and complexion to her advantage. There has been criticism of this line as colorist and indicative of her “light-skinned privilege”. However, it is possible that Knowles recognizes the historical significance of this concept – known as passing – as a means by which black folks have been able to gain access to resources and opportunities they would otherwise be unable to access. For many black folks and their families, taking advantage of light-skinned privilege, or passing, has meant the difference between surviving or not. But, for Beyoncé, passing or taking advantage of her privilege as a black woman with a “light” complexion is not a permanent state of being embedded in secrecy or shame, but rather, a means to an end that centers black people of all appearances and identities as valuable and powerful by standards of their own making, as we see in the church pews, the second lines, beauty supply stores, and the family portraits on textured walls.

The second verse of “Formation” can be interpreted as a feminist commentary on women’s independence and sexual agency : “If he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster” (2:57). This line implies women’s sexual agency, their right to decide whether the sex with a given partner is “good sex” or not, and their ability to provide the man with a good meal as reward for his sexual prowess. However, considering the multiple layers of meaning in the song, this is just one perspective. Knowles is also making an economic and political commentary. Red Lobster, which is a moderately priced restaurant chain that originated in Florida, has become a cultural symbol among black Americans. Yet, footage in the video shows restaurants in black neighborhoods that have been closed down in the wake of Katrina. A take-out box of crawfish, which cannot be found on a Red Lobster menu, but is notorious fare in New Orleans, makes a cameo appearance. The reference to Red Lobster and the subsequent images of closed black-owned restaurants and crawfish can be interpreted as a commentary on how a capitalist system contributes to the demise of a self-sustaining black economy while it allows popular chain restaurants to thrive, although they do not meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Beyoncé goes on to state, “If he hit it right, I might take him on a ride on my chopper. Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some Js, let him shop, uhhh” (3:04). During the Hurricane Katrina event, both Condolezza Rice and George Bush were criticized for their failure to respond to the crisis in a timely manner. Paraphrasing a U.S. News and World Report article, contributor Kenneth T. Walsh reported that Bush flew over New Orleans in Air Force One to survey the area (par. 6-7) before returning to Washington D.C. from a vacation in Texas. Another paraphrase of illuminates the ides that Rice was shopping for expensive shoes in New York City (par. 4). Beyoncé’s lyrics are a codified way of alerting black people to the lack of care exhibited by the administration in dealing with this devastating event. In the video, she flips the double fisted finger. It is possible that those fingers were meant for Bush and Rice as a reflective look at their neglect of duty and obligation to protect the black citizens of New Orleans.

Toward the end of the video (4:00), white policemen stand on the street, in “Formation”, donning riot gear, as a small black boy in black pants and a hoody dances in front of them. He suddenly stops and spreads his arms wide. The policemen raise their hands in the air as the words “stop shooting us”, spray painted on a wall, flash on the screen. This is at once a commentary on how young black males are viewed by white supremacist society as being a threat to “law and order” merely by their organic performance of blackness and of youth, and a statement that black emancipatory artistry is a performance of resistance against this system of oppression. In an NPR interview, filmmaker Dream Hampton shares her perspective:

I think that the image with the boy who’s basically conducting a police lineup is magic. This is about them being in a trance, and them having to do what they usually try to make him do, which is put their hands up. The next cut about “Stop shooting us, it’s not the black power moment that we got in the late ’60s and ’70s, which she referenced on the actual Super Bowl day, with the Black Panther beret, but it is absolutely a message that comes straight out of Ferguson: “Hands up, don’t shoot”.

I think it was incredibly powerful. I think it was also a nod to Tamir Rice, you know. It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful. (par. 8-9)

The video closes with Beyoncé standing on what appears to be the porch of a plantation mansion, dressed in black, as a group of well-dressed black men (also in black) stand watch around her. She says, “You know you dat bitch when you cause all this conversation. Always stay gracious. Bes’ revenge is yo’ paper” (4:30). As she, again, reclaims a word – bitch – her statement is not borne of braggadocio about her personal wealth. It is a statement about the necessity for black people, especially black women, to amass wealth as a form of resistance. Finally, Mami Wata (Beyoncé) sinks into the water reclining on the roof of the police car, returning from whence she came; taking with her something as payment for the injustice that has been perpetrated. From the documentary “Trouble the Water”, which chronicles the Katrina disaster, we hear a man exclaim, “Golly, look at that wata, boy!” Mami Wata was summoned to protect, celebrate, embolden, and incite her people. Now, her work is done.

“Formation” and Womanist Discourse

Aside from being a rich multimodal example of how thoughtfully arranged cultural symbols can create a discourse about Black American history, black culture, and racism, Beyonce’s “Formation” also creates a womanist discourse in which she establishes black female identity and spirituality as a set of qualities, behaviors, and beliefs that run counter to Western notions of feminism, black feminine identity and spirituality.  Womanism is a concept first introduced by writer Alice Walker. In their article entitled “Alice Walker’s Womanism: Perspectives Past and Present”, Izgarjan and Markov paraphrase Walker’s description of Womanism:

Walker defines a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color” who loves other women and/or men sexually and/or nonsexually, appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility and women’s strength and is committed to “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female”. She firmly locates womanism within black matrilinear culture deriving the word from womanish used by black mothers to describe girls who want to “know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for anyone” and whose behavior is “outrageous, courageous or willful” (305).

By positioning herself as both the wealthy powerful, professional woman and the “Texas ‘bama”, Beyoncé unifies  the concepts of inaccessible superstar and the down to earth southern girl from “around the way”. She is making a statement about the wide range of characteristics of black womanhood, many of which are ignored or diminished by a white supremacist society. However, these identities are not ignored within a Womanist context. The video centers women of multiple identities: women twerking, women presenting themselves as southern “ladies”, women as mothers, women with sexual desire and discernment, women as bitches, women as rich and poor, women as beauty queens, women of various sizes, shades, and shapes, women as ordinary and as goddesses.  All these depictions are celebrated, as are the identities of non-binary members of the “Black Community”, children, and men. The focus of Womanism is the well-being and validation of all members of the community within the framework of a holistic embrace of feminine identity and spirituality.

Mami Wata’s appearance in the video underscores Knowles’s message: the black woman as a macrocosm, occupying a place in this world and in the supernatural world. Mami Wata, is often depicted as a mermaid, a creature who is both human and otherworldly. According to Christey Carwile in hamanism: An Encyclopedia of Word Beliefs, Practices and Cutlures, Volume 1, the colors red and white are often used to symbolize Mami Wata’s influence (929). The red is symbolic of death, destruction, masculinity, and power, while white symbolizes beauty, creation, femininity, water and wealth. The combination of the two colors and what they represent is an indication of the complexity of black womanhood. Woman is not only soft, pure, nurturing, spiritual, and beautiful. She is also powerful, sexual, materialistic, and dangerous. There is no qualification of these traits as good or bad within the values of Vodou spirituality. They just exist as aspects of life. The confluence of these two aspects of Mami Wata’s identity shatter the long-edified essentialist stereotypes of black women as either Mammy, Sapphire, or Jezebel, as well as the archetype of woman (Eve) being responsible for original sin, and thus responsible for the evil in the world that Christianity asserts is the nature of womanhood.  Mami Wata’s existence maintains that black women have the ability to be many, possibly all, things in a way that is valued, respected, and sometimes feared – as those with power often are – yet, never sinful. Henry John Drewal describes Mami Wata:

An Efik sculpture portraying Mami Wata as a human-fishgoat-priestess handling a bird and a snake demonstrates her hybridity and powers of transformation. She can also easily assume aspects of a Hindu god or goddess without sacrificing her identity. She is a complex multivocal, multifocal symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances: nurturing mother, sexy mama, provider of riches, healer of physical and spiritual ills, embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. (62)

Throughout “Formation” there are scenes of a black male pastor preaching while the congregation, made up mostly of women, rejoices. The juxtaposition of African female cosmology and the traditional Black Church problematizes Christianity and the limitations it places on black women. In an article published in Time magazine in 2016, writers Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley and Caitlin O’Neill describe Beyoncé’s embodiment of the deity, Mami Wata, and the Conjure woman who summons her:

Yes, “Formation” evokes New Orleans’ Hoodoo and Voodoo traditions with Bey in witchy black before an abandoned plantation house. But I also mean conjure in the sense of marrying dreams, work and power to create a new world—a world where black women own their bodies, pleasures, and possibilities. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it,” Bey sings, and I believe her.

Conjure women have become important figures for black feminists who refuse to accept the world we’ve been given. “In societies in which race and class are defining attributes of one’s life, the conjure woman’s spiritual disposition affords her the flexibility and prerogative to manipulate such confining spaces…to create safe, protective spaces for other people of color,” said Africana scholar Kameelah Martin. (par. 11-12)

According to a nationwide study conducted in 2012 by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, black women are among the most religious groups in the United States. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, states that “black women’s strong faith is the result of the triple jeopardy of oppression caused by racism, sexism and classism” (par. 15). Yet, according to Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, “their experience of oppression and marginalization are very similar within the church” (par. 16). In the article “Womanist theology”, Emilie Townes states that “womanist theology seeks to address the systemic oppression of women of color, the oppressive appropriation of the Bible by patriarchal churches and issues of black sexuality, among other important issues” (159).

Knowles uses her position as an entertainer to engage in a critical public discourse which transports the ordinary lives and experiences of black women from a micro level to a macro level discourse about power dynamics within white supremacist culture, black heteronormative relationships and sexist religious oppression. She reverses what T. A. Van Djik refers to as the positive presentation of the ingroup and “the negative presentation of the outgroup to challenge existing notions of power as they pertain to race and gender”. Van Djik contends that “powerful groups can control discourse through content, as well as the structures [or Formation] of text and talk” (356). By invoking multiple cultural symbols within the contexts of film, music, song, dance, history, politics and religion, Knowles assumes power and control, which she captures in a definitively black space and invites black people – black women – to occupy with her.

Works Cited

Beyoncé. “Pray You Catch Me.” Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment, 2016,

Beyoncé. “Formation.” YouTube, uploaded by Beyoncé, 6 Feb. 2016,

Carwile, Christey. “Mami Wata Religion.” Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, edited by Mariko Namba Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Cunningham, Vinson. “The Case for Black English.” The New Yorker, 9 July. 2019, Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.

Deal, Carl and Tia Lessin, director. Trouble the Water. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.

del Barco, Mandalit. “Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ Is A Visual Anthem.” All Things Considered from NPR, 8 Feb. 2016,”Formation”-is-a-visual-anthem.

Dijk, Teun A. ” Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis.” Discourse & Society, vol. 4, no. 2, 1993, pp. 849-283.

Drewal, Henry John. “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” African Arts, vol. 41, no. 2, 2008, pp. 60–83. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Labbé-DeBose, Theola. “Black Women are Among Country’s Most Religious Groups.” Washington Post, 6 Jul 2012, Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.

McFadden, Syreeta. Beyoncé’s Formation reclaims black America’s narrative from the margins.” The Guardian, 8 Feb 2016, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

McGregor, Sue L. T. “Critical Discourse Analysis: A Primer.” Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Messy Mya. “Booking the Hoes From New Wildin.” YouTube, uploaded by TheeHHGz, 20 Aug. 2010,

Morris, Wesley. “Melina Matsoukas Touched Nerves from Behind the Camera.” The New York Times, 28 Dec. 2016, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Ofosuah Johnson, Elizabeth. (2019, July 9). “Mami Wata, the Most Celebrated Mermaid-Like Deity From Africa Who Crossed Over To The West.” Face2Face Africa, 20 Jul. 2018, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Parker, Ryan. “Beyonce’s Super Bowl Halftime Show Criticized by Rudy Giuliani as ‘Attack’ on Police.” The Hollywood Reporter, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Rice, Condoleezza. “A Conversation with Condoleezza Rice.” About Campus, Vol. 20, no. 2, 2015, pp. 3-7. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/abc.21185.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha, and Caitlin O’Neill. “Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ Is Activism for African Americans, Women and LGBTQ People.” Time, 8 Feb. 2016,

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Walsh, Kennith. T. “The Undoing of George W. Bush.” U.S. News & World Report, 28 Aug., 2015, Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Ward, Jesmyn. “In Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,’ A Glorification Of ‘Bama’ Blackness.” 10 Feb. 2016 from NPR, 8 Feb. 2016,”Formation”-a-song-for-the-bama. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

Magistra 21.2 (Winter 2015): 51-80


In her article, Women in the Church? A Historical Survey, Magdalena Kubow begins her conclusion with “the argument that women have historically participated in sacramental orders does not wish to eliminate the apostolic tradition; however, it does not regard the exclusivity of males to the apostolic tradition as a timeless truth. It sees it as purposeful exclusion, acceptable in the past but no longer acceptable in the present” (76). This is a succinct, yet pithy summary of her work. Her premise is that women were, along with men, founders and leaders of the early Christian Church, and the focus of her survey is to demonstrate how this process of exclusion developed over time, slowly eroding away the female role until all traces of it disappeared by the Middle Ages. Unlike other writers on this topic, Kubow does not spend much time looking at what Scriptures say about it but concentrates on examining the historiography of more current Church documents and teachings. The primary underlying factors to which she attributes this erosion include the shift of church ministry from the private to the public sphere, the development of market economy, and the influence of Roman law on the formation and establishment of Church law. All told, this is a good overview of a variety of influences that led to the demise of female leadership roles over the first few centuries of early Christianity. And it is the perfect resource for an audience who knows enough theology, history, philosophy and cultural development to understand the implications of what she covers in it.

While I found the majority of Kubow’s composition interesting, creative and well-founded, her opening six pages were not as strong as they could have been. First, she offers an opinion that misconstrues a foundational Church document. Then she presents several of the Church’s current arguments against women’s ordination to the priesthood, to which she simply counters with historical evidence that women had once participated in the diaconate. And, to support a later argument, she includes a citation that misrepresents the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass.

To my first point, that she misconstrues a foundational Church document, Kubow offers an opinion taken from someone else’s work in such a way that it is clear she shares it. She references Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical of April 1963, which she notes was interpreted as “opening just a crack the door to the priesthood for women” (51) based on his conclusion that man and woman have a right to “follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life” (51). In my opinion, either Kubow or Margaret Sittler Ermarth, whom Kubow cites, or both, are stretching to construe that the Pope’s comment refers woman-to-priesthood in this statement. Although Pope John XXIII often wrote about the Church looking to the future, and the Church is always referred to in the feminine, the correlations in his statement are meant to be read as man-to-priesthood and woman-to-religious life.

To my second point, that Kubow offers evidence that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church to counter the current arguments against women being ordained to the priesthood today, she is not comparing the same role. There is a major difference between being an ordained priest and being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and while that has not always been so, it has been for most of the Church’s history. A priest holds the second highest position in Holy Orders, with the bishop taking first place. He assists the bishop, serves as a mediator between God and the human person, and confers all sacraments except for Holy Orders (only the bishop can do this) – which includes celebrating Mass and the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. The deacon holds the third position in Holy Orders, serves to assist the priest but reports directly to the bishop. Seminarians become transitional deacons on their way to priestly ordination, and as of Vatican II, laymen selected by the diocese can become permanent deacons. Their primary responsibilities include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching homilies at Mass, ministering the Eucharist, and serving the parish. They can baptize, as well as marry and perform funeral rites that do not include a celebration of the Eucharist. Consecrating the Eucharist is the realm of priests and bishops alone, and it is this action that renders the Mass Heaven on Earth.

As I continued to read, it occurred to me that Kubow may have been trying to make the point that evidence exists of women being ordained as deacons, or more accurately deaconesses, during the time before the structural hierarchy of the Church was established, when the only role of formal ministry that existed was that of the diaconate. And as the hierarchy strengthened, the role of deaconess met its demise. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, although I hesitated when I read the next few pages, as she cites dates that do not directly support the points she is trying to make. This tends to cause a bit of confusion and leads the reader to wonder which side of the debate she is advocating. This sense of uncertainty is disorienting and detrimental to the trust that should exist between reader and writer.

Kubow states in her opening paragraph that “the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith justifies their position by arguing that women have never been ordained into sacramental orders and that this has been the unbroken historical practice for the last two thousand years” (51). And she counters, but not for several pages, that “the constant tradition of which the Congregation speaks did not originate two thousand years ago, but was born in the twelfth century when the exclusion of women from the diaconate was formally established in canon law” (53). While her citations are factual, they are confusing as any student of Church structure knows the hierarchy was in place well before the twelfth century. And it is this hierarchy that eliminated the role of deaconess earlier than the twelfth century.

To my last point, that Kubow includes citations that misrepresent the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass, she writes that women are not able to invoke the Holy Spirit for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. She also states that the Church teaches that women are “incapable” of doing so as if to suggest that we lack the actual capability. She rightly clarifies that it is the Holy Spirit “who alone transforms the bread and wine into the Eucharist” (54). But then she quotes Fr. Bernard Haring as questioning, when speaking about invoking the Holy Spirit, “‘how are women inferior to men?’ Saying ‘this is my body’ has nothing to do with the priest’s own masculinity as he is not speaking in his own name; therefore women ‘can cultivate Eucharistic memory as well as a man’” (54). What Kubow has done in this one paragraph is cobble together a series of thoughts that do not belong together, and I will attempt to untwist them.

To her statement about the Church teaching that women are incapable of calling on the Holy Spirit, incapable is not the correct word. The Church teaches that this is not a question of capability but a question of role, which is evident in Kubow’s correct statement that transubstantiation – the change of the substance or essence of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ – is the doing of the Holy Spirit. Then there are Fr. Haring’s quotes which look as if they are mixed in with Kubow’s own thoughts, and that makes me question whether she is trying to tie together bits and pieces of what he has said to support her point. The Church does not teach that women are inferior to men. While society may have been responsible at one time for that interpretation, bolstered by the misinformed teachings of a few church leaders, the idea of male-female complementarity – God’s deliberate design of male and female, which together comprise the covenant of redemption – is evident from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The inclusion of Haring’s rhetorical question is as baffling as it is and distracting.

When a priest recites “this is my body” during the Eucharistic liturgy, he is quoting the

words of Christ to his apostles during the Last Supper. Throughout the whole act of consecration, the priest is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and because Jesus was a man when he was on earth and charged his apostles, who were all men, with the power to sanctify, we believe the role of in persona Christi is inherently male. There is a reason God created men and women differently, but as that topic exceeds the bounds of this paper, allow me to simply say that as we are different, so are our gifts. To wrap up the dissection of the preceding paragraph and answer the last sentence, yes, women have the capability to cultivate Eucharistic memory, but it is simply not their role. The theology is deep and wide beyond this statement; suffice it to say those who protest to the contrary are not giving that theology the authority and detailed study it deserves. It is inaccurate to say what the priest is doing during the liturgy is merely reminding us of the Last Supper, when, in fact, what he is doing is calling on the Holy Spirit to bring us into the sacrifice of Christ.

Why did I keep reading after plowing through Kubow’s first six pages, which were wobbly at best? Because right in the middle of all of this, she made a statement that is at the heart of this and many other issues in Christianity: “Only since Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante spiritu, issued in 1943, have Catholic biblical scholars been liberated to use the tools of historical criticism to assess the biblical foundations of church teachings. This suggests that the question of the ordination of woman has been considered in its modern formulation for no longer than 63 years” (54). Bingo! So, while I would approach any commentary she presented on theology or liturgy with skepticism, I felt her command of history might prove to be stronger.

Kubow’s historiography focuses on two historical assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Western Church: that a female diaconate did not exist, or, if it did, it was not authentically sacramental. To address the first, she reviews the destruction of the wealth of ancient libraries over the centuries, which is enough to make any historian cry. And she points out that much of what has been used as source material for the Roman Catholic Church’s contention is what it decided to adopt when the Catholic Church split in 1054 A.D. The richness, the details, and most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers come from the Eastern Church, which is a subtle but important detail when one examines the history of the relationship of the two churches over the last millennium. At this point, Kubow gets into some of the New Testament evidence in support of the female diaconate, and also cites a bit of what the Early Church Fathers wrote in support of it. Then she reaches 325 A.D., when Christianity was established as the religion of state under Constantinople. At this point, “the Church began attracting members of municipal ruling elites who were professionally trained for public life and experienced in public politics… the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches. By shifting church practice and ministry obligations from a largely private sphere into the public sphere, which was largely patriarchal in belief, practice, and law, the role of women was drastically reduced” (60). This is a rather unique thread.

Kubow then follows a path I have seen elsewhere, which nonetheless intrigues me and is bound to provide rich detail on closer examination. “Roman law in effect during the time of Jesus shaped much of Church law in the Catholic Church… As the Church became publicly institutionalized, it adopted Roman law as its own and in spite of a slight relaxation in laws (in later years)… the overall inferior status of women remained in place” (61). She makes a pivotal observation that “during the Middle Ages priesthood was redefined as a role of privilege, power and authority, not a life commitment to ministry and service” (77). And as we enter the medieval era, when religion was the underpinning of daily life, we see the “changing social status of labour and a shift from a generally private to public economic market” (64), which impacted both the role of women in society and the practices of the Church.

The change in the market economy and its impact is an interesting dynamic to ponder. She writes that “the primary purpose of mentioning these complex changes in labor, production and gender dynamics occurring in the secular sphere… is to provide a general understanding of the framework in which misogyny has been built into the very foundation of the symbol systems of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as natural, hence it becomes invisible” (65). And Kubow ties up this section with “It was medieval thinkers who constructed the theological framework that underpins the structures of ministry and hierarchy that society continues to uphold. They moulded the sacrificial focus of the priesthood, the feudal power structures of the Church, the exclusion of women from all authority based on Roman law which they had made the basis of Church law” (67).

The rest of Kubow’s survey consists of familiar ground, covering some of the ancient texts and a bit more of the primary evidence. Within the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 380 A.D., we see that “the female ordination rite, when juxtaposed on the male ordination rite, is essentially identical. This aspect is crucial when addressing the question whether in fact the female diaconate was fully sacramental rather than a service which was merely blessed” (70). Thus, Kubow observes, “it is evident that the exclusion of women from sacramental orders is based on patriarchal tradition, which was strengthen by Roman law, rather than a clear and convincing argument based on historical tradition, Scripture, or theology” (72). She goes on to write about St. Olympias, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Sienna, women she sees as having been particularly influential within the Church during their time (400A.D., 1098 A.D. and 1347 A.D., respectively). While none were deaconesses, the latter two are Doctors of the Church, a rare and distinguished title conferred to saints recognized by the Catholic Church as having particular importance, typically in their contribution to theology and doctrine. There are thirty-six Doctors of the Church, only four of whom are women (the others are St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both Carmelite mystics – the former from the sixteenth century and the latter from the nineteenth century).

Kubow offers that “patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy” (79). She concludes that “without the wisdom and collaboration of women in leadership roles, the church, a sign and instrument of unity with God and among all people, is diminished” (80). This echoes my sentiments exactly when I have written in earlier pieces that without the inclusion of women in significant, material leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church, something will always be lacking.

In this article, Magdalena Kubow reiterated threads I am familiar with and introduced new ones. As this article is meant to serve as an overview, there is plenty of detail to uncover in the course of digging deeper. My only surprise in Kubow’s work was the absence of any commentary on the impact of ancient Greek philosophy on Roman law and society, as well as on the thinking of the Early Church Fathers. Regardless, Kubow introduces her readers to a handful of wonderful sources and authors, as well as presents several areas to consider when examining why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.

Discourse on Anxiety: An Analysis of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Discourse on AnxietyPDF icon


Stories exist to act as a sort of virtual reality of the mind allowing readers to interact with various ideas and concepts that may require alteration.  Altering the definition of what it means to be a woman in any society has become an important arena for consideration.  In her short story, “Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman captures the essence of this anxiety of definition in narrative journal format allowing a first person view of the inner struggle and thought the process of self-identity.  Discourse, in the story, can be observed to be divided in a very Platonic way in the conception of two social spheres representing the enlightened men and the ordinary women, doctor and patient, and husband and wife.  Rather than placing women in a position to explore a self-realized identity based on education, Gilman’s story divides men and women into distinct categories where dialog becomes the means in which to explore women’s identity.

To streamline the examination of Gilman’s dialog this essay will be divided into three distinct parts.  First, the historical context of the place of women in the nineteenth century will be reviewed to better understand the place of the narrator as well as the purpose of the diagnosis.  Secondly, a review of previous interpretations of the story will be considered in light of a Platonic interpretation of the story.  Finally, the essay will examine discourse as a means of understanding the place of women as being the domestic sphere which acts as a metaphorical cave.

Historical Context

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reading any work of literature is to understand the social and cultural contexts in which of a story is set.  While autonomous projection can serve a useful purpose for a contemporary interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” understanding the place of women in the late nineteenth century can also provide insight into understanding the story.  Essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the story was not written directly for a contemporary audience, and that can change the overall meaning within the story.

The story, published in 1892, during an era that promoted the concept of “separate spheres” where men and women were moral, ethically, and politically divided (Hughes).  The ideology tended to rest on hard definitions of “natural” characteristics of men and females.  Women were considered physically inferior to men, but they were also considered morally superior to men as they never left the domestic environment (Hughes).  Moral superiority was the quality that best-suited women to care for the “domestic sphere” where women would raise children, care for the home, cook, and clean.  They also acted as a ballast to ensure that when men came home, they would not also bring the taint of the immoral public sphere with them (Hughes).  Along with the duty of raising children, a woman who may have been middle or upper class would ensure that the servants were doing an adequate job in taking care of the domestic environment.

Women’s rights did not exist in any meaningful way during this era.  Both law and public opinion supported the family as a patriarchal institution in which the husband, and father, was considered the only legal “person” in a household (Goodsell 13).  While this may have operated to make the family a robust and coherent unit, it also legally recognized men as the land owners, property owners, and the owner of his wife and children (Goodsell 13).  In fact, women’s rights could only be considered within the framework of separate spheres.  There were many tracks, embellished with easy to remember poems, which encouraged the subservient behavior.  It was audaciously titled “Women’s Rights.”  These rights consisted of:

The right to be a comforter,

When other comforts fail;

The right to cheer the drooping heart

When troubles most assail.

The right to train the infant mind,

To think of Heaven and God;

The right to guide the tiny feet

The path our Savior trod.

The right to solace the distressed,

To wipe the mourners tear;

The right to shelter the oppressed,

And gently chide the fear…

Such are the noblest women’s rights,

The rights which God hath given,

The right to comfort man on earth

And smooth his path to heaven. (Hughes)

Women’s rights, then, were solely guided by the domestic sphere, and their foremost duty was to their husbands as they “smooth his path to heaven” in a “cheerful” manner (Hughes).  It also highlights an economy where the woman’s cares and concerns come last.  Her first duty is to her husband, next to her children, then to God, and, finally, the oppressed.  Not having any time for herself, the woman acts as a slave to her husband and the domestic environment.

Apart from being enslaved by social and cultural norms that dictated their vocation as raising the next generation, it was assumed that women did not seek sexual or emotional satisfaction.  As William Acton declared, “the majority of women (happy for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (112).  When young women were finally married, they were united with men who were at least five years older.  This served a dual purpose.  First, it allowed a man to pursue an education that would provide a foundational income for raising a family (Hughes).  Secondly, the age difference reinforced the perception of the natural hierarchy between the sexes allowing the man to maintain headship over a younger woman (Hughs).

While these marriages were essentially the enslavement of women, many women believed that they belonged in the domestic sphere.  Graves wrote in 1841 that, “Fathers should be the patriarchal sovereigns, and mothers the queens of their households…The sanctuary of domestic life is to her (the wife) the place of safety as well as the ‘post of honour’” (45,60).  The French thinker Alex De Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the fact that in America, “the independence of women is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony” (245).  While the single girl “makes her father’s home an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the wife lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister” (245).  Overall, women could be viewed as little more than property designed for the particular purpose of serving a husband as a nun might serve God.

Masculine Definition of the Narrator

Within the framework of the two spheres dichotomy, Gilman’s story becomes a recognition of two separate worlds in the form of the physician or scientist, and patient.  Contained in the title of “physician” is the complete history of Western Civilization.  All man-made philosophy has elevated John, and all those who remain unblessed by Enlightenment education are those who live in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall.  It is from his position as a “physician of high standing” that allows John to authoritatively diagnose and, thus, define his young wife.  He diagnoses the narrator with “temporary nervous depression” with “slight hysterical tendencies,” but found nothing physically wrong with her (Gilman 138).  In the absence of physical evidence of a malady, John subjected his wife to the “rest cure” pioneered by Weir Mitchell and applauded the world over for its innovation, seemingly only be men who would have dominated the medical field.  The “cure” would only work, however, if key elements were followed:

…isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician.  All physical and intellectual activity is to be prohibited.  A patient is to be lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and her doctor. (Mitchell)

Based on the conception of women as inferior in every way to man, the concept of the rest cure was designed to provide respite from regular domestic duties that had become a source of stress and anxiety.  The removal to a neutral environment was intended to take all that was stressful from the woman’s life.  However, by the second page of the story, the narrator already feels helpless and frustrated in light of her husband’s diagnostic declaration:

If… one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?…I take phospahtes or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.  Personally I disagree with their ideas.  Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (Gilman 138-139)

John has defined his wife, apparently, very publicly, and he has done so in such a way as to veto any self-identification from the narrator.  If the unexamined life is not worth living then, John has examined the narrator’s life for her and has decided that she requires more restriction to heal.  Further diagnostic definition becomes necessary on John’s part to restrict the narrator as a thinking and creative being to relieve her anxiety.

Despite the fact that the narrator may know what is best for herself, she allows her husband to exercise his authority over her out of social obligation to her husband but also out of a sense of inferiority.  Given the public nature of the diagnosis as being both declaratively professional and masculine, the narrator must adhere to the regiment despite the fact that she feels that something is wrong, but she is unable to contradict her husband.  The narrator then becomes “unreasonably angry,” but she reminds herself that she is overly sensitive given her condition further allowing her husband to tighten the chains that enslave her to his person (Gilman 139).

The narrator reacts to the diagnosis by striving to define John.  Her definition of her husband describes him as extremely practical to the point that he has no patience for faith, and he also has an “intense horror of superstition” (Gilman 138).  She initially identifies him as a cold scientist, that believes only observable fact and cares nothing for feelings and less for imagination (Gilman 138).  While John is representative of early modernist Enlightenment thought, he also embodies all of the Western philosophy.  He is the Platonic prisoner set free from the cave through education, and he no longer looks at the world as shadows cast on the wall (Bloom 194).  John can look at and contemplate the light of the sun believing he pursues the source of all knowledge (Bloom 195).  All is illuminated and bright for John, and he is the enlightened man of science.

John’s diagnosis of his wife’s sickness as a nervous disorder is indicative of Enlightenment concepts of women.  Her disorder is a product of the very fact that she is a woman and not a man.  Rousseau said of women, “Consult women in all bodily matter, in all concerns of the senses; consult men in the matters of morality, and all that involves understanding” (59).  Women, according to Hegel, also lack self-conscious reflection which would necessarily mean that women were weaker than men both intellectually and self-consciously as they would have not a human consciousness (Kant 78; Hegel).  Finally, Kant describes women, while beautiful, as being intellectually inferior to men and not cut out for the work of exercising logic or engaging in complex thought (77-79).  All of these definitions of women serve to illustrate the belief that not all were designed to crawl out of Plato’s cave, and, in fact, only a handful of men would achieve the prestige of coming into the light.

As John is dedicated to reason, he decides to remove his wife from the stressful environment of the home and moves her out to the country.  However, his choice of location for respite is worth exploring.  John rents a “secure ancestral hall for the summer” that the narrator also describes as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and, even, a “haunted house” (Gilman 138).  Considering that women are part of the domestic sphere, it would stand to reason that remaining at home where everything would be familiar would have been a healthier choice.  The narrator does not seem to appreciate the new surroundings, and she believes that there is “something queer about it” (Gilman 139).  John shrinks her world to a minuscule cocoon meant to envelop and heal, but in so doing he has condemned her to the impossible task of recovering without thought or vocation enshrouded with the vestiges of the shadow of patriarchy.

The “hereditary estate” can also serve as the idea of secluding the narrator in the darkness of Plato’s cave.  To this point, John has provided every definition by his education and gender.  Now, as she has a kind of existential crisis he prescribes a remedy that would take her away from her home and into the country.  Like the cave, the colonial mansion represents repression for those who are too uneducated or unworthy to be left to the steady upward slope toward the light of truth.  The ancestral halls embody the shadow of patriarchy that casts shadows upon the wall to allow the narrator some little understanding of why the rest cure is necessary.

Not only has John chained her to a metaphor for the cave, but he also uses condescending childish language as a way to explain why she must stay in the house.  He belittles her as a thinker and writer as he explains:

…that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. (Gilman 144)

He also, out of frustration, reminds his wife of the domestic hierarchy:

My darling…I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.  Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman 147)

John not only controls the light of her life, but he also manipulates the statues that cast shadows upon the wall to help his wife understand what is best.  She is not to imagine, but to be practical and willful, both tendencies that suit the masculine.  When the narrator claims she is not feeling better, he tells her that she must get better, not for herself, but for him, their son, and that she just needs to trust him as a doctor.  There is no appeal for his sake as a husband, and she must become more like him if she is to heal.

The majority of healing in the narrator’s case also means identifying within her domestic sphere.  She is anxious and stressed because she may be trying too hard to be selfish and independent.  The diagnostic relationship, rather than being therapeutic, serves to reorient her to the established social order.  She does not belong to herself, and John not only continues to remind her that she does not belong to herself but he also never refers to her by name.  He refers to her by very simple pet names such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 141), “darling” or “dear” (Gilman 145,147), and “little girl” (Gilman 146).  By not using her name, the narrator’s identity must attach to John to have an identity.  Treating her as a child also serves to allow John the advantage of continual definition to the point that narrator can only identify herself by John’s dictates.  While the narrator reacts negatively to these definitions, they still make self-definition much harder as she has undergone extensive re-description by the light of her life.


While John defines the narrator using scientific language, the narrator fights to understand her personal identity.  Given the rigid definition of women in her day, the narrator struggles to understand who she is.  The conflict makes any definition bipolar as she swings from one extreme to the next in the space of a few sentences.  One moment she describes how much she disagrees believing that “excitement and change” would be better than resting (Gilman 138-139).   Above all, however, she strives to conform to her husband’s wishes, but there is no rest in conformity.  At first, she aims to become the expectation of her society, but the exertion is overwhelming:

… I take pains to control myself- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired…Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able- to dress and entertain, and order things… (Gilman 139, 141)

The act of conformity to please her husband is a heavy burden that contradicts John’s edict as a physician, but the narrator seems to recognize that it is the only way she will be declared cured and released.

However, no matter how hard the narrator strives to conform, she has nothing to occupy her mind except the contradiction and confusion of defining herself.  The narrator allows the contradictory nature of her husband’s definition to oppose her desire for self-actualization.  Ford notes that “but,” the conjunction of contradiction, is used fifty-six times in the short space of the story (311).  Other words such as “and, so, only, besides” are also used as substitutes for “but.”  Even though her thoughts are written secretly on “dead paper,” the narrator seeks a small internal rebellion as a means of identifying separately from and contradicting her husband (Gilman 138).  Having nothing else to occupy her time, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper as it reflects the confusion she feels.

With no other stimulation, however, the yellow wallpaper covering her room becomes her focal point.  She reads it as she might read a book, and she wishes to interpret it as she is interpreting her life.  However, she finds that neither makes sense.  Just as the narrator is to be domestic, so too is wallpaper domestic and humble used to decorate a room or hide drywall or cover blemishes.  Outside her domestic environment, however, the wallpaper becomes a nightmarish symbol of being trapped in her domestic life. Both become:

Repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.  It is dull yet lurid orange in some, a sickly sulfur tint in others (Gilman 140).

Just as the yellow wallpaper has been warped and faded, so too has the narrator personified and projected her confused feelings onto that wallpaper.  She feels repelled, revolted, and she smolders against the definition that John has assigned her, but she still finds no self-definition since she can only describe what she is not as John provides her singular self-conception.

Confusion over who she is can also be examined in the simple nature of her confinement. Her prison is a nursery, with rings on the walls, and bars on the windows (Gilman140).  The only piece of furniture in the chamber is a large bed that is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor (Gilman144).  Here rests another absurdity suggesting that she is a child, but the bed fixed to the floor also defines her sexual life regarding being beholden to her husband.  The nursery has become a place of childishness as well as sexual slavery designed to keep her ignorant and subdued making her recovery an extreme return to Plato’s cave.

Given the contradictory nature of her existence, and having no intellectual stimulation, the narrator studies and observes the wallpaper:

…by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind…it changes with the light.  When the sun shoots in through the east window- I always watch for that first long, straight ray-it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it…by daylight it is subdued, quiet…in the day time it is tiresome and perplexing. (147,148-149)

While the sun subdues the wallpaper, it also becomes confusing to behold.  What makes the pattern complicated may stem from two similar reasons.  First, it could mean that the narrator is being exposed to the light of knowledge too soon and has no idea how to self-identify apart from John.  Just as in Plato’s cave, exposure to the light too soon may cause disorientation and confusion as the prisoner’s eyes are not yet accustomed to the light and must only receive definition from her husband.  Secondly, the wallpaper may be the narrator’s confusion as she realizes that she is a separate self, and is uncertain how to proceed without a voice.  During the day, in the absence of her husband, she can relax, her journal serves as her voice, and she writes with some certainty of opinion.  There is no burden to conform in the same way as when John is present.  In John’s absence, the narrator seems to use the wallpaper to reflect on her identity and what it means to be an individual.  In any case, the wallpaper becomes tiresome and perplexing as the narrator tries to force a definition of conformity upon it so that she may subdue it in the same way that she is subdued and wishes to overcome herself (Gilman 149).

While the narrator is unable to make sense of the pattern of the wallpaper under the light of the sun, she does discover that under certain dimmer lights she can make out a pattern.  The moonlight, however, becomes the most helpful light as it reveals the true nature of the pattern:

By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon- I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.   At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, it becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind them is as plain as can be. (Gilman 148)

Just as in Plato, Gilman uses the moon to illuminate what cannot be observed during the day.  The narrator, then, can see the truth of the wallpaper, and the wallpaper’s true nature is that of a prison.  It may be the prison of her identity or freedom of choice based on the concepts of family and social structure that trapped so many married women of the nineteenth century.  The moonlight unveils the nature of wallpaper identifying by night what becomes impossible to fathom by day.

Besides the bars imprisoning the woman, the yellow wallpaper is also festooned with other designs.  The first designs that she makes out are the heads of many women, strangled, necks broken, and bulbous eyes that stare at her (Gilman 142).  Those women who tried to escape the bars by forcing their heads through it were strangled and killed.   It may be that this accounts for the rancid smell connected to the “yellow” of the wallpaper:

It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.  But there is something else about the paper- the smell!  I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad.  Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.  (Gilman 149).

The smell and the color may be tied to the idea of Gilman nodding to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre as the segregation of the “other” where “yellow” can mean anyone who is not white (Lanser 428; Owens 77).  While this is an excellent interpretation of the color yellow, I would suggest that the color yellow becomes so pervasive because it is emanating from the narrator.  It’s in her clothes, her hair, and she notices it even when she is out riding in the open air (Gilman 150).  Perhaps it has always been her natural smell, and it was accepted because she took her role and definition in society without question.  Understanding that her definition does not come from her self-consciousness has allowed her to realize that she is part of the “yellow.”  Perhaps the whole world is yellow apart from the patriarchs of the West who form the definitions of not just their society but the world.  Women, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian, and any who do not fit John’s misogynist definition may be yellow.

While this may generalize the color yellow, it also includes all those who would continue to be yellow even today.  Rather than making it a single group such as women or designing a concept of the Orientalization of the world from the color, it seems that any whose definition could be inhibited by a rhetoric of conquest and definition would fall into the category of the wallpaper.  In the case of the narrator, just as in the event of all who may be yellow, a new self-conception takes drastic action.  When the author finally does tear down the wallpaper, she liberates the shadow woman behind it, and they are united.  She becomes so convincing that she bends John to her will.  Having been out all night, John returns home to find the door locked, and no key.  He calls for an ax, but the narrator stops him:

“John, dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under the plantain leaf!”  That silenced him for a few moments.  Then he said- very quietly indeed, “Open the door my darling!”  “I can’t,” said I, “key is down by the front door under the plantain leaf!”  And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course and came back. (Gilman 154)

Being free of the norms represented by the wallpaper, the narrator can stay the hand of her husband from destroying the door with an ax.  While it takes a repetition, John eventually leaves to find the key and uses it to open the door.

Finally, the door open, the discourse ends when John observes his wife creeping around the room.  Creeping is an interesting word that means to go without being noticed.  Throughout the story, the women of the wallpaper have crept, sometimes on all fours, but always the creep.  They do so, it would seem, in order not to be noticed.  Once they escape their prison and realize that they are human and intelligent, they have no desire to return.  However, lacking a definition, the narrator seems to have gone mad.  Finally, she has come from the cave, but she is just as confused as when she was confined, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.  And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 154).  John faints.  Patriarchy has been temporary reversed, but she creeps over him (Gilman 154).  She must continue to creep over him until he wakes.  There is the idea that he will wake at some point since he’s only fainted.  Patriarchy is only temporarily suspended, and while he cannot put her back behind the bars of the wallpaper, at some point, she will have to be contained to return her to the healthy society of her day.


Gilman’s story represents an ongoing struggle for women as they seek to identify themselves separately from preconceived notions of the masculine social convention.  Language can become the chains that constrain and require conformity to social conventions.  One area that is rife with a similar dialog as Gilman’s is the concept of extreme complementarianism.  One such example is John Piper and his conception of living as a Biblical man or woman.  On his radio show, he was taking phone calls answering questions and providing a view of what it meant to live as a Biblical man or woman.  Piper accepted one particular call that interested me, and that was a woman who was interested in becoming a member of law enforcement.

Piper listened to the young lady, but his response to her was similar to reading the dialog of John as he berated and belittled his wife in his sarcastic, condescending fashion:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationships.  The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way the husband will, but he will be a man.  At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to woman’s differing relationships. (Piper)

Just as the wallpaper reflects the confusion of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so too does Piper use a language that confuses the identity of women trying to live in the public sphere.  Just as the poem “Women’s Rights” suggests, Piper draws a list of acceptable behaviors for women as, “the heart of a mature woman is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper).  Piper seems to suggest that all men are entitled to if the postman, who is not the woman’s husband, has natural authority over a woman because he is a man strikes me as being very similar to the way in which John belittles his wife as if she were a child.

Despite the fact that Piper began his comments with a disclaimer that he would never make a declarative category that would divide people into distinctly male or female groups, he still felt that there was a difference between masculine and feminine jobs.  Police officers, doctors, lawyers, or, basically, any position where a woman would have authority over a man was unacceptable:

Some influence is very directive, and some are non-directive.  For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in a platoon.  And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant- hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private- over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood. (Piper)

Again, Piper uses words to bind the authority and ability of women.  A woman should never have authority over man as “it would violate his sense of manhood makes men seem weak in the first place” (Piper).  However, his language is also the language of definition intended to shape the future.

Patriarchal language begins developing the minds of people when they are mere children.  Lately, my ten-year-old daughter has experienced subjection to afore-mentioned language and practice of patriarchy.  She loves to play sports, but recently she was told by a group of boys at school that boy’s sports were all that mattered because their dads said so.  They told her that nobody cared “about girl’s sports.”  She came straight home and asked me if that was what everybody thought.  When I explained to her that was not what everybody thought, she seemed happier, but she informed me that she was going to prove all those boys wrong.  She would outplay any of them any day if they let her play.

Gilman masterfully captures these ideas in her story.  John embodies the social conception of women as being substandard.  Much like Piper and the boys at school, John mostly treats his wife as if she were complaining, and Rousseau suggests, “Women do wrong to complain of inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of more prejudice, but of reason” (571).

Even more than just complaining, however, Gilman represents the flawed logic of her day as well as the advice given by Piper.  There is a suggestion that men are necessary as logical beings to bring definition to women.  Piper’s language is indicative of the same linguistic category suggested by Gilman, namely that the justification for dominance over women through medical definition, family position, and social roles is due to women being merely creatures rather than fully formed adults that can reason and desire without outside definitions.

The dialog between John and his wife oversimplifies women.  He treats her as a child using language that would be more appropriate for a child.  He lords his scientific prowess and high reputation over her as if he were a god and her his creation.  The narrator strives to fit into the conception of what it means to be a woman for her husband.  She struggles to admire him, she obeys his orders as a doctor and a husband, and she struggles to appease him even when she has done nothing wrong.  The dialog has changed since Gilman wrote this story, but it has not changed so drastically to erase the image of the yellow wallpaper from out of the hearts of women in Western society.  The urge to perform according to the social standards still exists, and that desire can still be tyrannical.

In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman provides an astounding commentary on the desire of women to define themselves as individuals apart from social convention.  Just as masculine identity does not depend only on a profession, so women should not be defined by the social tendency to categorize women as “other.”  The concept of what it means to be a woman must not continuously and continually find definition through patriarchal cultural institutions; instead, women need the freedom to explore and identify who they are without the interference of so many overarching interpretations.  In the end, an institutional definition serves to confuse individual identity both socially and privately.  The idea of the yellow wallpaper provides a discourse on how women can be trapped desiring to know who they are and how they should act or be.



Works Cited

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