Gender Roles in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“Exploding Enforced Gender Roles via Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Though usually viewed as a violent play about turbulent marriages, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should be regarded as an early feminist text. Bonnie Finkelstein writes that the 1962 play portrays and analyzes the damaging effects of traditional, stereotypical gender roles, particularly for women; the play serves to point out how unrealistic, useless and extraordinarily damning they ultimately are.

Finkelstein notes that the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique unofficially began a re-evaluation of gender roles in the United States (Finkelstein 55). Friedan explores the idea that women need more fulfillment in their lives than can be provided by the drudgery of childrearing and housekeeping. The book also carefully lays out what society has determined to be the ideal gender role requirements for women:

“They could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training…how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting…They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights…All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.” (Friedan 15-16)

And, more specifically:

The suburban housewife…she was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home. She had found true feminine fulfillment.” (Friedan 18)

Albee echoes this, noting by contrast what the ideal men and women in 1962 should be. In other words, his characters have failed at living up to gender roles and the play shows us how this quest has destroyed them. The most shocking thing Martha does is pack away the booze: “My God, you can swill it down, can’t you.” (16) She drinks straight, tough-guy booze, like whiskey and bourbon. She no longer favors the tastes of her youth: “brandy Alexanders, crème de cacao frappes…seven-layer liqueur things…real lady-like little drinkies.” Martha once behaved as a woman should, but no longer does and this is off-putting and unsettling to George. The reason women should drink sweet-tasting but really lethal drinks is because they make women more willing to serve men sexually, as pointed out in the Paula Vogel’s feminist (and set-in-the-early 1960s) drama How I Learned to Drive: “In short avoid anything with sugar or anything with an umbrellas…don’t order anything with sexual positions in the name…I think you were conceived after one of those.” (Vogel 44)

Indeed, the 1962 woman was not in tune with or even in charge of her own sexuality; according to Friedan, women would use sexuality as a means to achieve the fulfillment they were so sorely lacking:

“Are they using sex or sexual phantasy to fill needs that are not sexual? Is that why their sex, even when it is real, seems like phantasy? Are they driven to this never-satisfied sexual seeking because, in their marriages, they have not found the sexual fulfillment which the feminine mystique promises?” (Friedan 261)

While at an overprotective, women-only college (78), Martha was sexually active and chose her own husband. It was a real slap-in-the-face to her intelligence and identity when her father had her marriage annulled because it was not proper for a woman to be sexual or to make her own decisions. George himself comments on how Martha’s sexual expression is improper with lines like “your skirt up over your head.” (17)

The twenty-six year old “thin-hipped…simp” Honey is the incredibly stifling, unfulfilled result of what happens if a woman conforms to what 1962 society told her to be. In order to quickly show that Honey, the prefeminist-era ideal woman, is a farce, Albee makes her uninteresting, remarkably unintelligent and absolutely loathsome. She characteristically says boring, solicitous, giggly things like “Oh, isn’t this lovely” (21) and “Well I certainly had fun…it was a wonderful party” (21), even “put some powder on my nose.” (28). She is inoffensive, always agreeable, and, as Friedan points out, devoted to her husband, the ideal of femininity: “Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands.” (Friedan 18) Still, because she is the perfect woman and Martha is decidedly rebellious of the stereotype, Honey is everything Martha is not.

Similar to the Martha-Honey dynamic, Nick is the ideal man and is thus everything George cannot be. Martha tells George he is “a blank, you’re a cipher…a zero” (17) because of his lack of manly attributes, such as a commanding nature, athletic ability, good looks and ability to control his emotions. She berates him for sulking early on: “are you sulking? Is that what you’re doing?” (12) Men should not sulk; they must be stoic. Years prior, George refused to box his taunting father-in-law and was made to feel like less of a man because of it (56). Enter Nick, the macho-man, everything George is not. Instantly, he is commanding: “I told you we shouldn’t have come.” (21); he is also stoic– he dryly responds “I am aware of that” (22) when Honey tells him he’s being “joshed.” Most of all, Nick is far more attractive and athletic than old, pudgy George, described often as “about thirty, blond, and…good-looking” (9) and once as “quarterback.” (151) He was even a middleweight boxing champion (51). Martha has physical competition issues, too, with the young, skinny Honey: “I’m six years younger than you are,” (15) George says to Martha, implying that she is old and useless because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martha then foreshadows George’s inability to measure up against Nick: “Well…you’re going bald.” (15) Thus, George is ugly, unmanly and no longer virile. He feels threatened: “I said I was impressed, Martha. I’m beside myself with jealousy.” (49)

Albee uses George and Martha to show the effects when a society crams definitive, non-pliable gender roles down the throats of women and men. Nick and Honey’s presence shows that even those that strive to be the ideal cannot sustain the image without serious consequences. All four characters are damaged irrevocably and act out via violence, alcoholism and infidelity as substitutes for happiness and ways to forge identity. Engaging in this behaviors makes them feel something, anything when their gender identity feels nonexistent. Being seductive makes Martha feel like a woman and being violent lets George play out his macho fantasies.

Additionally, each of the four characters has ways in which he or she loses any sense of gender identity (they don’t feel like real women or real men) because of certain events. As Friedan repeatedly notes, the sole purpose for the 1962 woman was to be a good wife and produce babies: “All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.” (Friedan 16) Martha is unable to have children and is thus incapable of fulfilling her only supposed purpose in life. Finkelstein points out that:

Martha reveals to us the emptiness and loss she feels when, childless, she is an outcast at sex-segregated faculty parties and is tempted to mention their imaginary son…Martha feels that she doesn’t exist: she had no other dreams but to be a mother, and then she couldn’t do that. (Finkelstein 55)

For all intents and purpose, she feels she is not a woman and it eats her up. Conversely, we have Honey, who embodies all the attributes of the perfect early 60’s woman. She rebels against the path by refusing to have babies. Laura Julier points out this juxtaposition, that Martha cannot be a stereotypical woman and Honey to refuses to be the stereotypical woman.

Since he doesn’t fit the manly-man image, George feels almost non-existent: “Don’t I sort of fade into the backgrounds…get lost in the cigarette smoke?” (32) Though he agrees, other comments from Martha emasculate George further: “he’s not completely sure it’s his own kid.” (71) Here, Martha overpowers George to humiliate him and elevate herself, but there are fewer things more threatening to manhood in 1962 than by claiming someone’s (albeit imaginary) child is not their own; a man does not want to be a cuckold. Albee uses George’s emasculation once more to make a clear parallel to the lack of options for women in that period of America: “I did run the History Department, for four years, during the war, but that was because everybody was away. Then …everybody came back.” (38) George’s colleagues essentially see him as the then-current idea of a woman: useless, but able to fill in at a job of prestige in an absolute emergency. This is exactly like the woman-dominated home front workforce of World War II because the regular male workers were in the armed forces. George, like the enraged female workers of 1941-1945, was degraded when he was forced to return to his proper place.

Also, both George and Nick married their not out of love or because they were sexual conquerors, which would be preferable. Nick married Honey for money: “GEORGE: Sure, I’ll bet she has money, too!…NICK: Yes.” (102) George married Martha in an ultimately futile attempt to rise in the hierarchy of the college. Julier notes that the revelation that both men married their wives for money is ultimately an emasculating and embarrassing revelation because it shows they are reliant on women for their livelihood, a big no-no for a true macho man. (Julier 36)

Nick’s relationship with Honey is tenuous at best. They first knew each other as children, playing doctor (104). “A scientist even then,” (105) as George points out. Nick goes on to speak of their loveless marriage: “I wouldn’t say there was any…particular passion between us, even at the beginning.” Nick reveals that he had to marry Honey mostly because they thought she was pregnant. It’s almost as if Nick, who was forced to marry Honey and doesn’t particularly like her is harboring a latent homosexual nature. This is simply unacceptable in 1962, as Honey quietly notes: “Two grown men dancing…heavens!” (124)

In order to prove, or fake his manly, heterosexual nature, Nick engages in a quick, lurid sexual encounter with Martha (163). In fact, it is their problems with identity and self-expression within a sexist culture that lead the four characters to act out via near infidelity and heavy drinking. Alcohol is a social lubricant and a social liberator; alcohol gives Martha courage to say what she wants, it gives Honey a personality and proactivity, it gives George wit and Nick a dark side. Only through drinking and possibly by blaming it on the booze later, can these characters ever communicate and express themselves openly.

Though what the foursome do (making up a son, drinking, violence, “hysterical pregnancies,” latent homosexuality) isn’t necessarily the real-life result of gender roles, they are examples to get across Albee’s point that gender roles destroy the ideas of “man,” “woman,” and make determining personal identity difficult for those who don’t fit the mold. It’s also highly prescient and protofeminist that Albee structures this analysis of gender roles within a marriage. Finkelstein theorizes that marriages cannot stand under such highly regulated gender role circumstances and that marriage is thus outmoded because women are given so few options in their lives. (Finkelstein 51)

The most telling prophecy lies in Nick’s genetic project that aims for the perfection of the human species, a clear reference to 1962’s quiet, forced demand to conform to the images of the ideal woman and man. George notes: “we will have a civilization of men, smooth, blond and right at the middleweight limit.” (65) There will be no room in society for the unfit (George), the unintelligent (Honey) or female (Martha). Only Nick remains, and even he is flawed, proof that these gender roles are impossible to emulate. As Finkelstein notes, all four characters are afraid of Virginia Wolf, because she is, in 1962, the only icon of female equality society had. (Finkelstein 64)

Works Cited

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Atheneum House, 1962.

Finkelstein, Bonnie Blumenthal. “Albee’s Martha: Someone’s Daughter, Someone’s Wife,

No One’s Mother.” American Drama (5) no. 1, Fall 1995. pg. 51-70.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: WW. Norton & Company, 1963.

Julier, Laura. “Faces to the Dawn: Female Characters in Albee’s Plays.” Edward Albee:

Planned Wilderness. Interviews, Essays and Bibliography. ed. Patricia De La

Fuente. Edinburg, Texas: Pan American University Print Shop, 1980.

Vogel, Paula. How I Learned to Drive. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1998.

2 thoughts on “Gender Roles in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  1. Wonderful analysis; this helped me a lot formulating some ideas for an essay I have to write. Thanks.

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