Societal Entrapment and Gender Disparity

Blog # 1

by Caitlin O’Neill

When Nora and Torvald interact, the power dynamic is startlingly disturbing. The deeply seated power plays prior to Act 3 were rather hazy to me in my first few readings of the play. However, upon watching the exchanges between the actors as they puzzle through the psyches of their respective characters, the misogyny has clarified and morphed into a clear detailing of daily pressures by Torvald, which act to slowly belittle and stagnate Nora. Her opinions cannot find encouragement, or even purchase, in her own home. Rather, all must be in accordance with Torvald, the patriarch.  Socially he has been conditioned to act as he does—as she has been as well. Blame cannot easily be dealt out when the reality of their society has, in large part, led to their present relationship.

Nonetheless, this dynamic is, happily, not the only one put forth in A Doll’s House, because we see a strong contrast to it in the Act 3 reunion of Krogstad and Mrs. Linde, as they create the bounds of a mutually beneficial relationship where both are respected for their contributions. It should be noted though that Mrs. Linde had already undergone her own degradation of sorts through her marriage to a man with monetary prospects which could provide for her family. As Mrs. Linde says, she “sold herself once” (pg 94), and learned she could not ever do so again. Such a lesson undoubtedly accounts for a large portion of her self-assurance and consistent composure, which far outstrip that which is possessed by any other character.  Mrs. Linde parallels quite well with the present time and atmosphere, especially regarding the confidence of women and how it often requires some form of catalyst to crystallize and strengthen.

The general state of society does not produce such confidence in equal measures across gender lines. The aspect in today’s culture I find most disquieting is the way in which women are valued in society—and the similarities between Ibsen’s time and ours. This trailer put things in terribly clear perspective for me.

Gender disparity in powerful positions throughout industries is a direct reflection of how women are portrayed by media. The focus on the physical body of the woman matches the Tarantella scene of A Doll’s House because Nora’s goal is to beguile the men of her life, especially Torvald. Likewise, advertisements portraying women in piecemeal outfits seek to similarly fascinate and trap attention, never utilizing the intelligence behind the pretty face in that pursuit. Marian Wright Edelman, Founder & President of Children’s Defense Fund, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and this is unfortunately too true. Mrs. Linde escapes this norm following her experiences of falling into it, and Nora struggles to slip out from the trap, requiring her breakage from the only life to which she has ever been accustomed. Her final scene challenges me to take a difficult review of the media and messages I consume, and hopefully to begin to recognize the subliminal, as well as overt, messages which seek to stagnate society from gender equity in every plane.

1 Comment

  • Jules Odendahl-James says:


    I’m so glad you included the Miss Representation trailer in your post. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I saw it making the rounds on FB. Just FYI, there’s going to be a screening of the film at Motorco in Durham sponsored by Ipas on Nov. 29. Admission is Free, doors open at 6pm and show starts at 7pm.

    I’m a bit torn about the film. Not only because it debuted on OWN. To be honest, I’m a bit creeped out by Oprah’s vision of female empowerment because it seems utterly packaged, even if it is coming from an honest and generous space. It is being sold by a commercial enterprise that has an interest in making money. Not that there isn’t power in a corporation getting behind this kind of movement; however, it is still a business that contributes to some of the gendered imagery (if not the more horrific and abusive kinds depicted) and the institutional ways in which gender influences an individual’s self-image as well as that individual’s opportunities in the larger world.

    I’ve read and seen a lot of Jean Kilbourne’s work. The previous incarnations of Miss Representation went under the title “Killing us Softly,” which started in 1979 if I’m remembering correctly as a low-budget, power-point style video cataloging sexualized and misogynistic imagery in advertising. Over the years, Kilbourne’s gathered an impressive (and, sadly, worsening) body of evidence that illustrate all the ways in which women’s bodies are objectified in/by advertising. And shows like the oft mentioned Real Housewives franchise, not to mention Bad Girls Club, Jersey Shore, America’s Next Top Model, etc. etc. seem to point to a horrible confluence of real women selling their bodies, their *lives* as a sexualized product under the guise of economic empowerment.

    And while I think she’s got multiple compelling points, she has a tendency to speak in very broad terms about media effects, which are much more complicated than depiction and reaction. She is indeed persuasive about the pervasive nature of (certain) sexualized imagery sold to younger and younger girls and, how the visual rhetoric of ads (even and perhaps especially those targeted to male viewers) is extended and elaborated on in other mass media products (particularly mainstream television and film). BUT even as her films go a long way to persuading me that a problem exists, they don’t do much to outline counter-strategies that would stop the link of woman as/only body in a more structural fashion. “The Media” gets discussed as one “thing”, out there, as separate from other perhaps more innocuous and therefore more embedded gender inequities.

    I’m totally on board with the notion that the saturation power of these images (almost unavoidable even if you try try try to keep them out — and as the mother of a daughter I do!) is destructive to self-esteem and self-worth. BUT these images are supported and sustained by much more insidious structures of labor, education, reproductive control, that reap the benefits of gender inequality even if they look nothing like a Victoria’s Secret “Fashion” Show.

    In A Doll’s House Torvald is made into extreme case so that we, and Nora, can see in no uncertain terms just how controlling he has been. But critics (then and now) have also faulted Nora for being so invested herself in the fiction of the doll’s house that she has to be driven to the brink of suicide before she comes to and realizes she has to make a change. Ibsen hints at the larger social and political strictures that color Nora’s situation — she cannot borrow money without her husband’s permission, she cannot vote, she doesn’t even have access to her own home’s mailbox, but now as then, we might have a fair number of audience members who see the drama as one wholly unique to this particular dysfunctional couple, ignoring the ways in which women are still constrained (in legal, religious, and political terms) in ways that are unique to gender (not to mention race, class, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality). On the other hand, the outcry over the piece’s radical statement about marriage, shows how masterfully Ibsen weaves the larger social issues into the very DNA of his characters making it impossible for us to not see the political in the very personal dissolution of this marriage and the radical act of our heroine.