The 1950s was a decade plagued by traditional gender roles for women and men. It wasn't uncommon for a book to mention that the best career for every woman is, of course, taking care of her husband and home. Therefore, it isn't surprising that Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is a predominantly male occupied novel, where the few female characters fall under the category of “ball cutters” and whores. Ken Kesey delivers a touching ode of self-discovery and the power of society’s norms during the 1950s in his novel, but fails to expand on the ability of females as anything other than emasculating, dominating, or whoreish. The novel’s commentary on therapeutic goals at the hands of women and a power struggle between gender roles comes off as misogynistic and paints a picture of manipulative female antagonists. By demonizing female characters, Ken Kesey conveys that women should either be subjected as whores or shunned as emasculating and manipulative castrators.
With the exception of the prostitutes brought into the ward by McMurphy, the women in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest are depicted as threatening and cruel figures. Nurse Ratched, Chief’s mother, and Billy Bibbit’s mom, all fall under this category. Nurse Ratched, nicknamed the “Big Nurse” due to her overly sized bust, is introduced to the novel as our first unlikeable female antagonist. In the early pages of the book, a clear monarchy is established between the patients and Nurse Ratched. Naturally, the men are not keen on the overpowering femininity in the ward and feel that “We (the patients) are victims of a matriarchy here”. By illustrating a battle between confinement and freedom, Kesey elaborates on a deeper battle between femininity and masculinity. During the wards therapeutic meetings, Ratched easily manipulates the patients into criticizing each other by pinpointing and “pecking” at the things that make the men most vulnerable. Furthermore, Nurse Ratched is commonly compared to a machine, wheeling no human emotions or personalities due to her nearly mechanical precision whilst running the ward. She is described as Precise and automatic, with “smooth, calculated, and precision-made decisions” . By depicting Nurse Ratched as a ball-cutting and manipulative machine, Kesey is arguing that overpowering women are a destructive force, that throw otherwise normal men into insanity. Additionally, Chief’s mother is another character that demonstrates the castration of husband and son. Later on in the novel, it is revealed that Chief’s mom was behind the selling of the Columbia River to the government. Not only that, but she is also blamed for the emasculation of his father. By regarding Chief’s mother as a backstabbing woman, Kesey only further insinuates that all female figures are manipulative and dominating.
Another patient, Billy Bibbit, is completely emasculated by his own mother, so much that the thirty-one year old man appears childish. His mother’s grasp on his existence in the ward is so overpowering that he commits suicide at the thought of Nurse Ratched telling her of his first sexual encounter. The Nurse manipulates Billy by recalling how proud his mother is of his discretion, and how he “knows how ill the poor woman (Billy’s mother) can become, especially concerning her son”. By using Billy’s mom as a threatening figure in his life, Kesey brands feminine power as something shameful and degrading. Kesey's portrayal of powerful women is misogynistic at best and expresses that all female characters, aside from whores, are emasculating and manipulative castrators.
Whereas most of the women are characterized as antagonists, the two prostitutes, Candy and Sandy, are depicted generously because they empower men, rather than degrade them. The inclusion of these characters in the novel is purely sexual, and serve to make the patients more confident in themselves. Kesey portrays theses characters positively because, unlike Nurse Ratched and the other women, Sandy and Candy adhere more to traditional gender roles. Mcmurphy, being the ringleader of the patients, is praised for his crude sexual history, and claims that Ratched is unfit to run her ward because of her cruel therapeutic treatment and her overpowering control. Mac is so confident in his power, he declares that by the time he gets the upper hand on her, he could “put a bug so far up her ass, she don’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch”. This is yet again another example of a sexist idea that women in power need to be dominated. Feminine sexuality is not only shown threw the prostitutes but is also shown in Nurse Ratched’s “rape”. Chief explains that Nurse Ratched deserved to be choked and have the clothes ripped from her body because it was “a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not”. By condoning such a heinous act, Kesey goes beyond the constructs of misogyny and begins to condone inexcusable acts of violence. Another female character that is perceived adequately due to her sexuality in the novel is Judy, the girl that Mac lost his virginity to. It is revealed that Judy was around nine-years old at the time, but regardless, Mac doesn’t miss a beat when rekindling his memorable first time. Mac continues to praise the girl for his vivacious lovemaking, saying that “I am a dedicated lover...that little nine year old kid out of my youth is the one to blame”. By romanticizing underage sex, and accepting the use of derogatory terms such as “whore” when describing a child, Kesey promotes the idea that all women, regardless of age, should be subjected as such.
In conclusion, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest depicts feminity by subjecting women as whores or as emasculating and manipulative castrators. Although the social and political climate of the 1950s was no dought a driving force for Kesey’s anti-feminist outlook on the novel, his iconic story comes off as misogynistic and condones the use of force against powerful women. Kesey’s failure to accept a female protagonist into his novel that remains powerful without sacrificing her feminity is downright pitiful. Although this novel will live on through history, it will be best known for its heartwrenching story, and not for its multi-dimensional female characters.
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