While reading Joan Riviére’s Womanliness as a Masquerade, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Sarah Jane from the film Imitation of Life. Constantly seeking approval from white society, the African-American Sarah Jane takes advantage of her fair complexion and throughout the film, passes as white to varying degrees of success. According to Riviére, this phenomenon is not only racial, but also occurs across the gender line with “men and women [who]…plainly display strong features of the other sex.” Both Sarah Jane and “women who wish for masculinity” attempt to project what society wants them to be, but women, Riviére argues, have become so skilled at this “masquerade” that they may seamlessly shift personalities depending on the situation. (132)
Riviére frames her essay by reminding her readers of a time when gender essentially determined the job one could do, and to engage in work not designated to one’s gender was nearly impossible. For example, a woman entering the world in intellectual pursuits had to be “an overtly masculine type of woman, who in pronounced cases made no secret of her wish or claim to be a man.” (132) This image harkens back to illustrious director Dorothy Arzner. A pioneer in the film industry for women, Arzner eschewed the mask of femininity Riviére claims women now adopt, choosing instead to wear her hair and clothes in the same style as her male colleagues. For Arzner, there was no balancing act, and her story begs all sorts of questions concerning gender play and how gender is perceived in society, like how did simply looking and acting like a man make a woman’s presence in the directing world suddenly acceptable? Was gender and job truly mutually exclusive?
Evidently, society has, to some degree, seen the folly of its former viewpoint, and as Riviére writes, a healthy dose of feminine energy has been injected into the previously masculine-dominated intellectual world, so much so that “it would be hard to say whether the greater number [of women] are more feminine than masculine in their mode of life and character.” (132) Riviére goes on to write of what sounds like an ultimate marriage between conservative and progressive ideas regarding woman’s role in society; she talks of women she meets “in University life, in scientific professions and in business…who seem to fulfill every criterion of complete feminine development.” All this sounds very encouraging; it would appear that, despite what one may have heard, women can “have it all,” so goes the old adage.
However, Riviére warns, things are not as pristine as they may appear. She recounts a story of a woman who balances the dual roles of “masculine academic” and “feminine homemaker,” yet underneath the facade of gender-balanced perfection, Riviére cannot help but notice the woman’s “need for reassurance [that] led her compulsively…to seek some attention or complimentary notice from a man or men” after having given a speech. Immediately, one is made aware of this woman’s rush of “feminine” energy on the heels of performing a “masculine” activity, like giving an academic speech. Instead of feeling empowered as a man would undoubtedly be in the aftermath of his success, this woman downplayed her obvious talents and reverts back to a more comfortable, more familiar role those of her sex are expected to play.
This leads Riviére to her thesis:
Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it –much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not the stolen goods.
Womanliness as a Masquerade, pg 133
Are then, women any better off than they were in the days of Dorothy Arzner? She who had to embrace a wholly masculine identity in order to function in masculine society? While it may now be possible for women to more fully explore their identities, one must tragically admit that women must maintain, at the very least, the facade of the subservient feminine in order to function in the still very much masculine-driven society.