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Masculine Hierarchy in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1467 words Published: 9th Sep 2021

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Gender has developed as a social construct that dictates the expectations of a sexes’ actions. Men, for example, are “expected to emulate a hegemonic masculine ideal that emphasizes positions of authority, strength, and the accumulation of material goods” (Connell 1987).However, the establishment of a masculine identity does not depend entirely on possessing these characteristics. Gender is also a performance of sorts. (Kessler and McKenna 1978; West and Zimmerman 1987) . Without certain signifiers, people could have a hard time distinguishing a person’s sex. Men and women display gender and obtain information about what is an appropriate display in different contexts. Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest examines a delicate balance between genders as well as the emasculation of male patients within a mental ward, a social commentary focusing on Kesey’s concern of the gender dynamic of the world.

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Focusing on an emasculating female character and vulnerable, emasculated male characters, Kesey used the mental institution as a narrowed observation; a smaller more manageable look at the dynamic between people. The way men portray their gender often depends on the resources they have available, in this case, these men’s resources are severely limited and monitored. An example of the effect of resources would be men coming from relatively privileged statuses “can afford to take weekends off and construct an alternative world out in the woods” (Schwalbe 1996). The different and more limited resources available to less privileged can create a type of masculine hierarchy. Not only do the characters in Kesey’s novel come from varying social backgrounds, but they enter with differing levels of mental stability. These vulnerabilities coupled with supervised access to basic necessities could alter a man’s masculinity and the power dynamic of a landscape, and effectively does.

Nurse Ratched is described from the observant Chief Bromden’s point of view. Ratched “tends to get real put out if something keeps her outfit from running like a smooth, accurate, precision-made machine. The slightest thing messy or out of kilter or in the way ties her into a little white knot of tight-smiled fury.” (Kesey 1959). Chief then describes her to have a doll-like exterior, but a dry and manipulative interior with very calculated expressions. This harsh, feminine character is juxtaposed by men with limited control over their mental abilities. Nurse Ratched-a distant, oppressive, and sterile female influence who figuratively and psychologically castrates her male patients. This dynamic represented the fear of a cold war era that would foster a feminine masculinity in America through a climate of conformity and fear. This culture of fear that permeated the cultural landscape of the fifties came with gender and homosexual connotations (Meloy 2009). Americans were warned that they were becoming “pink” basically a negative term denoting this feminine masculinity. This was also related to homosexuality. Also within this decade was the circulation of theories warning Americans of their latent homosexuality, and Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male suggested that many more men than what was traditionally known either thought about or performed homosexual acts. Kinsey’s work undermined traditional notions of what was considered “normative sexuality”, contributing to a relatively national obsession with sexuality and more specifically, homosexuality. Sexual attraction was placed at the forefront of America’s thoughts on masculinity and the relationships between genders. Kinsey’s theories were aided by masculine figures of the 1950s like David Riesman and Hugh Hefner, who, in their own way, altered masculinity by participating in a cultural transformation in freedom of sexuality and the materialism and pageantry of secual attraction. They legitimized a sexualized conception of masculinity that privileged virility, sexualperformance, and sexual aggresion as the defining criteria for manhood.

Unlike the free sexual spirit these moguls portrayed, Cuckoo’s Nest showed restrictions set by government institutions within the novel and in actual mental wards can be material like doors. However others are ideological, like values or social norms. Some doors are locked, blocking access to staff rooms, the office from which Ms.Ratched observes the patients is described. There is also a lack of doors – entrances to a room, restricting the privacy of the residents. A small amount of people within the facility have the authority and power to uphold the interests of the institution, or what they believe to be the interests of the institution. This limited amount of people creates a hierarchy of power. They were protecting interests that did not necessarily benefit the residents. Interests of the residents were squashed because of this balance of power, creating social distance between those in positions of power and in positions of subordination. Staff in a mental institution most likely assume that residents are indeed insane; “this prognosis may or may not be agreed upon by the residents” (Rosenhan 1973). Unfortunately the residents are relatively powerless to achieve sanity. McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest does not see himself as insane, as he was admitted to serve time for rape, but he is being treated as if he is broken. He does not see himself in this way. Because of this disagreement there is already a difference between the staff and the patient.There is such a large amount of power held above the patients, and the power dynamic is so strictly enforced, that even the simplest of tasks must be complicated.

The book’s portrayal of mental disorders and disabilities is impressive in its avoidance of stereotypes. It represented characters as individuals, as opposed to merely characterizing the symptoms of their disorders. Through the novel’s investment in these characters, however, it becomes clear that disability and emasculation are intrinsically linked, at least within this novel if not fundamentally. This created a patriarchal underscore to the text: Nurse Ratched’s control is a “direct result of her continual emasculation and her de-feminized domination of the all-male patients” (Leach 2008). McMurphy is a stark contrast, a celebrated liberator in the eyes of the emasculated despite his grim reality of being admitted for rape. Using a character committed due to his execution of a sexual, it equates the rebellion headed by this sexual deviant have a sexual connotation. Ir almost compares the rebellion to rape. This seems to be a product of the fear of this mental castration, and a suggestion that this masculine and forceful rebellion was the best way to overcome subordination and effectively regain patriarchal power. These portrayals of characters show that a matriarchy abolished is a satisfactory conclusion to the plot, and is seen as a cure for the patients’ mental illnesses, one of the most troubling messages of this book. Whether this conclusion is spawned from the author’s fears, or feelings of hostility due to the fragile social landscape of mental wards, this division of gender is destructive.

Culture is linked with sexuality. Masculinity has become an industry itself. Perhaps more than ever before in American history, sexual behavior symbolizes one’s identity. Symbols and signs encourage sexual expression.Magazines of the fifties, such as Playboy and Esquire, are now the grandparents to countless publications glamorizing sexuality. Kesey’s work exhibits masculinity that can possibly help us understand the obsession with masculine virility and violence in our time, a new generation in which male sexuality and female sexuality alike have become products of conspicuous consumption.

Works Cited

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 40th Anniversary Edition.

Meloy, Michael. “Fixing Men: Castration, Impotence, and Masculinity in Ken Kesey’s One Flew

over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The Journal of Men’s Studies. SAGE publications, 01 Oct. 2009. Web. 02 Feb. 2017

Leach, Caroline. “Disability and Gender in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest |

Leach | Disability Studies Quarterly.” Disability and Gender in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | Leach | Disability Studies Quarterly. DSQ, 2008. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.

Connell, R. W. 1987. Gender and power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

West, C., and D. H. Zimmerman. 1987. Doing gender. Gender & Society 1:125-151.

Schwalbe, M. 1996. Unlocking the iron cage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University



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