Since day one, women have been socialized into a world that has not yet been made entirely accessible for them. Harassment is a universal experience to the extent where it is no longer surprising and is in fact, expected. Female voices repeatedly being lowered, spoken over, or ignored due to their gender is an exhausting matter. Even today, it doesn’t seem to be improving much. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that of all women, women of color and women in the LGBTQ+ community are silenced double or triple the standard amount.
A piece of literature I find that describes the female experience effectively is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ Providing a glance into the world of a woman grappling with mental illness during the nineteenth century, the ways in which her husband dismisses her concerns and uses his status as a physician to attempt to ‘treat’ her have yet to age even in a modern society.
Plagued with ‘female hysteria,’ which was taken quite seriously as a medical diagnosis given to women for centuries, the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ accompanies her husband to reside in a new house for the summer. He’s told her the change of scenery will help her state of mind. She isn’t so sure, and describes the place to readers as a haunted house with hideous wallpaper.
As time passes in the narrator’s recovery, she begins to describe a sensation not unlike a phenomenon most women experience today. The male gaze is a key point in feminist theory. It discusses the interaction between the portrayal of women in media and the male, usually heterosexual and predominantly white perspective of such. The infamous ‘man behind the camera’ that endlessly and oftentimes incorrectly perceives women appears frequently in this short story. Barred windows and bulbous eyes create a trademark atmosphere where the main character is trapped. She descends into a more thorough description of the “unblinking eyes… up and down the walls.”
Whether it be walking down the street alone as the sun sets behind you with your stomach churning or struggling with the concept of self-objectification damaging your self-esteem, we have all, in some form, circled our own room of wallpaper that seems to gaze back at us.
The patterns in the wallpaper begin to come alive. A manifestation of the narrator’s own circumstances confronts her. As she watches the wallpaper, it begins to move and ripple as if something, something in the shape of a woman, is behind it. Just like herself, trapped in the vile room, the woman in the walls cannot escape. By the end of the story, she has torn it down completely in an attempt to free her imagined companion.
Though she was spiraling, the experience of desperately wanting to be free from the pre-existent expectations of womanhood are concrete. Ever-present in our lives are the suffocating necessities of making sure we look desirable to our own internal gazes coupled with the external gazes, the pressure to conform to gender roles that despite lessening over time, have a funny way of hovering close, and coping with the reality that some individuals are not comfortable with us taking up as much space as they do.
All of the above again is amplified for women who are not heterosexual, cisgender, or white. Not only do they have the connotations of their gender pitted against them, but in dominantly privileged spaces in which they are the minority, there is no safe or comfortable solace to be found.
Whichever lens you examine ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ with, you will find a part of you that identifies with the woman who has lost sight of which side of the wallpaper she really is behind. The creeping feeling of being watched and the sense of being undermined by men or other women is unavoidable. The metaphoric walls persevere through fiction and seep into our lives on the daily.
In any way possible, tearing down the wallpaper to break the barriers between us is necessary. Extend feminism to all women. Exclusively white feminism serves nobody. Reach out beyond the walls to the hands of marginalized women. Listen to their voices and lift them up.
illustration by staff gd: Ira SwatiManish