Matriarchies and Masculinity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestcritiques matriarchies. Written in 1962 by Ken Kesey, the novel follows the narrator, Bromden, and his experience being in a mental hospital with other men. Nurse Ratched, the machine-like, no-nonsense ex-army nurse commands the patients. She runs the ward with no mercy and humiliates the patients with no remorse. The men feel emasculate because of the way Nurse Ratched treats them in the ward. To the reader, these emasculate men appear both feminine and weak; while the female nurse projects power and dominance, two adjectives typically associated with masculinity. Why does Kesey chose to equate femininity with weakness, but matriarchy with masculinity?
While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows readers that men in mental institutions can be rehabilitated and function in society; the novel also suggests that if men do not fit society’s definition of masculine, there is something wrong with them. Kesey implies the men’s disabilities by making the men in the ward effeminate. In Caroline Leach’s paper “Disability and Gender in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,”she acknowledges that the novel does break down the stereotypical portrayals of disabled people. Yet, she argues that to break down the disability stereotypes, Kesey reinforces gender prejudices, by associating disability with emasculate men. The second part of her argument is that Kesey blames women for the men’s emasculation. Leach quotes sociologist R.W. Connell who says that society favors “men who are strong, courageous, aggressive, independent, [and] self- reliant” (Leach). The majority of the men are in the ward because they appear to be lacking the masculinity society expects from them (Leach 2). Both Bromden and Billy struggle with their mothers emasculating them, while Harding’s wife emasculates him for being homosexual (Leach). In group therapy Harding breaks down and tells the new patient, McMurphy, “this world … belongs to the strong, my friend,” implying that he is not one of the strong (Kesey 54). He goes on to compare all the men in the ward to rabbits because they cannot “adjust to [their] rabbithood,” therefore they “need a good strong wolf like the nurse to teach [them their] place” (Kesey 54). Harding’s comparison of the men, including himself, to small weak rodents shows how he does not believe he is a man. Kesey makes the men in the ward look weak and fragile, two adjectives typically used to stereotype women. While nurse is compared to a “wolf,” a predatory animal that hunts small rabbits. Kesey makes the Big Nurse look strong, powerful, and masculine. The gender reversal of the disabled men and aggressive woman cause for a new perspective on gender stereotypes and society’s expectation of the two genders.
Kesey follows society’s gender stereotypes by equating femininity with weakness. The only way Nurse Ratched can hold onto her power is by suppressing her femininity from the patients in the ward. Kesey portrays Nurse Ratched, the “big nurse,” as a machine-like ex-army nurse who lacks the qualifications to be a woman; as proven by her purse, which only contains “gears” and no “woman stuff” (Kesey 3-4, 53; Leach). One can infer her experience as a woman in the army adds to her askew concept of what it means to be a person in charge. She treats the men on the ward harshly because she feels the only way to gain the respect from the patients is by asserting her dominance over them. To further the point, when McMurphy reveals her womanhood by ripping her uniform, she loses control of her ward. Bromden acknowledges that “[Nurse Ratched] [can’t] rule with her old power any more” (Kesey 273). Once McMurphy exposes her breasts, the patients couldn’t fear her like they did before she is feminized. Her rule ends because Kesey associates matriarchies with masculinity.
Kesey chooses to equate matriarchies with masculinity. Manuel Muñoz points out that in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest matriarchy represents law and authority (Muñoz 670). Muñoz builds on Leach’s argument by saying that the misogynistic lens of the novel impacted both the way matriarchies are seen in the book and later, in the making of the movie. Muñoz argues that the masculine portrayal of Nurse Ratched causes actresses, who are expected to play the role, to decline the role (Muñoz 669). The actresses decline out of fear that the role could define them off camera. The reaction of the actresses shows that society feels Nurse Ratched still represents a masculine woman that society does not approve of. Amy Fatzinger critiques the portrayal of Native American history in the novel. She says that “Kesey’s critics have highlighted the offensiveness of his extremely negative portrayal of blacks (the aides) and women (particularly Nurse Ratched) in Cuckoo’s Nest; certainly these characterizations are not palatable for the contemporary reader” (Fatzinger 126). She argues that the readers of the novel are already aware of the sexist characters and dialogue in the novel. She believes that the underrepresented Native American history is more important to recognize Bromden’s connection to Celilo Falls. Yet, Muñoz’s point that high profile actresses decining to play the role of Nurse Ratched is direct evidence that the underlying sexism in the novel is still playing a large role in the perception of the book. Leach points out that “Kesey [inverts] the doctor-nurse relationship usually found in asylums at the time” because typically the woman is the subordinate to the male doctor, while in the novel it is Nurse Ratched who is running the show (Leach). Leach believes “the novel reinforces traditional gender norms; the result is that Nurse Ratched represents what the novel sees as ‘abnormal,’ an aggressive matriarch, a female with masculine traits: the ‘Big’ Nurse” (Leach). According to Muñoz, the masculine female character is not a desirable role because of the way society still believes in reinforcing stereotypical gender norms.
Kesey chooses not to associate matriarchies with femininity. Instead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey shows a matriarchy paired with women like Nurse Ratched, who’s described as a masculine machine. The claim shows where society places its values at the time. Interestingly, Muñoz points out, Nurse Ratched is a one-dimensional character because if Kesey was to elaborate on her character any more than he is, he leaves Nurse Ratched “too susceptible to self-justification” (670). Yet, McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched. He rips her uniform and exposes her as a woman to the ward (Kesey 271). Nurse Ratched knows she he can never rule the men with the same power she had before looking so vulnerable in front of them (Kesey 273). Nurse Ratched’s vulnerability gives her a multi-dimensional character worth a little sympathy from the reader. But, making Ratched a sympathetic character goes against Kesey’s desire to blame the matriarchy for the disabilities of the men in the mental hospital.
Kesey presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest like a futuristic novel with a warning sign. Kesey associates femininity with weakness because of the stereotypical social norms; but he chooses to associate masculinity with matriarchies to remind society the dangers of matriarchies. He warns that if women are to be in control, men will become emasculate. Now, if society is overwhelmingly ruled by matriarchies, there may not be a standard where masculinity is equated with power in the first place. Yet, masculinity would not be lost completely; similarly, to how femininity is not lost in today’s masculine-dominated society.