Themes of Compulsory Heterosexuality & Patriarchal Terrorism in High School Literature

Before starting two important terms pivotal to this post, compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchal terrorism need to be defined. Compulsory heterosexuality is the belief that the primary relationship a women has must be with a man. In other words compulsory heterosexuality holds heterosexuality as the norm in society and all other behaviors as deviant. While patriarchal terrorism is the use of violence as a way of controlling women.  Patriarchal terrorism establishes a double standard, which blames women for defending themselves, and then again blames them if they chose not to defend themselves. Adrienne Rich elaborates on eight characteristics of male power in archaic and contemporary societies given by Kathleen Gough. They are:

“Men’s ability to deny women sexuality or to force it upon them; to command or exploit their labor to control their produce; to control or rob them of their children; to confine them physically and prevent their movement; to use them as objects in male transactions; to cramp their creativeness; or to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.” (Rich, 638)

Often patriarchal terrorism is used as a tool to enforce compulsory heterosexuality. Globally, the use of patriarchal terrorism is a huge issue. The implications of compulsory heterosexuality can be seen in all aspects of life.

The implications of compulsory heterosexuality observed through the examination of popular literature read by adolescent teens in high school. The literature we read whether it be from books, the Internet, newspapers, or magazines has a direct impact on the shaping of our thought process.  As Rich eloquently puts it, “The ideology of heterosexual romance, beamed at her [young girls] from childhood out of fairytales, television, films, advertising, popular songs, wedding pageantry, is a tool ready to the procurer’s hand and one which he does not hesitate to use…” (Rich, 645). It is obvious that girls are targeted more by the “ideology of heterosexual romance” than their male counterparts, and in this light I agree with Jane Caputi that men have a wider range of expression than women (Reference The Sexual Politics of Murder).  The following pieces of American literature will be briefly examined in this post to show prevalence of compulsory heterosexuality in them: A Streetcar Named Desire, A Doll’s House, Of Mice and Men, and the Twilight book series.

Picture by: Matilda Battersby

The characterization of the women in A Doll’s House screams compulsory heterosexuality. The protagonist, Nora suffers from the internal conflict of being a good wife or speaking up for her rights. Deeply blinded by love, Nora constantly seeks her husband Torvald’s approval in hopes of achieving his idea of a perfect wife. Torvald is fully aware of Nora’s eagerness to please him, so he uses this as a means of exploitation (one of the characteristics of male power elaborated upon by Rich) to get away with acting selfish and cruel towards her. Torvald even goes as far as to dictate rules that govern the everyday behavior of his wife, from what she wears, to what she buys, and eats.  Torvald’s behavior towards his wife is a perfect example of patriarchal terrorism.

In Of Mice and Men Curley’s wife, who is  not given a name and simply referred to as Curley’s wife throughout the novel is characterized as a provocative wife of little intelligence.  She is often disregarded by her husband Curley, who wants her to remain in the house and performs the duties of a doting housewife. More patriarchal terrorism.  Curley’s wife seeks the attention of the ranch hands, like Lennie, Slim, and George because she receives little acknowledgement from her own husband.

Picture by: ssuyaba

In A Streetcar Named Desire sisters, Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski feel the pressure of compulsory heterosexuality forced upon them by Southern Society, which holds the view that a woman is incomplete unless married to a man.Blanche at the tender age of 16 eagerly marries a young man (who turned out to be a homosexual) in attempt to meet Southern society’s

standard of becoming complete and fulfilled. Many years later after her husband commits suicide Blanche continues to look for a new husband (for most of the novel she pursues Mitch) in hopes of ending her loneliness and insecurity.

Picture by: Rose Lucia

Blanche’s sister Stella though married to Stanley submits herself to marriage that is very unhealthy.  Stanley is vindictive, controlling, and abusive. Stella is scared to stand up for herself and frequently finds herself bending to her husband’s will. Ding ding ding another husband employing patriarchal terrorism.  Furthermore, the Southern society she belongs to only makes it more difficult for her to leave her husband, because without a husband she will only be made to feel incomplete (compulsory sexuality). Stella’s and Stanley’s relationship is solely one of lust and desire, and there is nothing more to her relationship with Stanley beyond the physical.  Stella’s desire and lust for Stanley blinds her from seeing the reality and severity of the relationship she is.

One instance in the book Stanley beats Stella for yelling at him for standing up to Blanche.  Another instance Stanley seizes Stella by the arm then throws a cup and plate to the floor.Because of Stella’s indecisiveness and unwillingness to defy society’s rules she finds herself trapped in a permanent relationship that can never be aborted especially with her becoming pregnant with Stanley’s baby.  With Stella pregnant and having Stanley’s baby there will always be a linking factor between her and Stanley even if she decides to leave him. Worst of all Stanley rapes Blanche while Stella is in the hospital.

Last of all, the Twilight book series. The female protagonist Bella Swan is subjugated to the pressures of compulsory heterosexuality.  Often she describes herself as empty and incomplete when not around her eventual lover Edward Cullen. Bella is partially attracted to Edward, because of his “bad boy” persona, you know the typical James Dean, pop culture archetypal Rebel Without a Cause . Bella is helpless without Edward or Jacob to protect her.  She is the typical archetypal “Damsel in Distress”, her character is almost like an ode to a fairytale with the exception being this story has a few modern updates. A vampire and a werewolf replace the prince. Bella at one point is so desperate to be with Edward, when he leaves that she jumps off high cliff above dangerous water, in hopes of Edward coming to save her. Eventually, Bella with her obsession convinces Edward to turn her into a vampire.

I might turn this into a series where I examine other instances of compulsory heterosexuality…MAYBE highly unlikely

Thanks for reading If you want to hear more you can follow me on Twitter at DemelioU or subscribe to my RSS feed (orange button) in the menu on the left.

Demelio U.

Signing OFF

[Last Updated: 10/3/12]


2 responses to “Themes of Compulsory Heterosexuality & Patriarchal Terrorism in High School Literature

  1. Honestly, this is by far one of the most disappointing and laughable articles I have ever read. You find excellent examples for your phrases, but you’ve left out the most important part – whether or not the book actually encourages it. There are countless examples of book antagonists who strive for genocide, or of main characters with corrupted ideals, but none of these books ACTUALLY ENCOURAGE THESE PRACTICES. In the first two books you site, it’s obvious that you’re not supposed to approve of the actions of the two men you cite, and in the third book, it’s a cheesy teenage romance novel. You’re acting as if these books are enforcing ‘Patriarchal Terrorism’ as an acceptable practice, but that’s just blatantly wrong. If you actually had any evidence of the inverse, I’m sure you would have cited it. But, since there is none, I can see why you didn’t.

    Your disappointed friend,

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