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

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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 th...


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...s 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.


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