While reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest I was struck by the novel’s overall messages about gender, and as I am a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies major I decided to conduct an analysis of the novel from a feminist perspective. In my research I found a number of sources to support my theory that the novel is very much a product of its time in its reinforcement of traditional gender roles.
The year 1962, in which the novel was released, was during the very beginnings of Second Wave feminism. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – widely credited with sparking the movement – was yet to be published. As such, women at this time remained ‘limited in almost every respect’ (Tavaana). Those who did not conform to societal expectations faced consequences such as mockery and ostracisation. Ken Kesey may have been projecting his own traditional views of gender in his portrayal of Nurse Ratched. The Nurse subverts gender roles by being in a position of power, but this is represented in a negative light due to her abuse of authority. The implication is that women must not be granted influence within society. In the novel’s climactic scene, McMurphy tears open Nurse Ratched’s shirt, revealing her breasts and thereby undermining her authority. The Nurse is unable to maintain her control after it is ‘exposed’ that she is in fact a woman, which elucidates the sexism of the era.
If Nurse Ratched is the overbearing matriarchal authority, McMurphy is the embodiment of patriarchal values sent to restore the ‘natural order’ and thus hailed as a hero. The reader is encouraged to feel empathetic towards McMurphy, despite the fact that he is a rapist. McMurphy uses his brand of aggressive masculinity to influence the other men of the ward to rebel. They consistently refer to the Nurse’s apparently ‘masculine’ appearance and attitudes, calling her ‘a bitch and a buzzard and a ball-cutter’ (Kesey 54). Kesey depicts McMurphy’s hypermasculinity as a positive influence that enables the other characters to break free from Ratched’s rule and assert their dominance as men. Part of this revolt involves the objectification of women, illustrated when McMurphy hires prostitutes Candy and Sandy to entertain the men. These women are the embodiment of female subservience and ‘[dedication] to pleasuring men’ (CliffsNotes). The men’s interaction with the prostitutes enforces that sexual drive is a natural aspect of masculinity. McMurphy’s characterisation and his influence on the other patients promotes aggression as a desired and appropriate expression of masculinity.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest conveys popular ideas of the early 1960s era in regards to gender. Nurse Ratched is depicted negatively in her nonconforming appearance and personality, while McMurphy is a promoter of supposed ‘positive’ masculinity. McMurphy’s attempts to overthrow Nurse Ratched can be read as a message about the ‘rightful’ place of masculinity within society.
CliffsNotes 2016, Critical Essays: The Role of Women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Available from: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/o/one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest/critical-essays/the-role-of-women-in-one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest. [29 October 2016].
Kesey, K 1962, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Viking Press, New York.
Tavaana 2016, The 1960s-70s American Feminist Movement: Breaking Down Barriers for Women. Available from: https://tavaana.org/en/content/1960s-70s-american-feminist-movement-breaking-down-barriers-women. [29 October 2016].