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  • Sides of the "Nagging Wife" Stereotype in Early Twentieth Century Jewish American Narratives1
  • Dana Mihăilescu (bio)

Gender imagery has been an established scholarly enterprise in the field of Jewish American studies2 for several decades now, especially under the stimulus of cultural studies and feminism and the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, the emphasis falling on the intercrossing of external and internal representations. Of these, the former dimension has focused on the way in which Jewish men and women have been represented by the norms of dominant American culture while the latter dimension has focused on how gendered Jewishness has been experienced by the ethnic subject.

Continuing in the direction of such theoretical approaches according to which ethnic and gender identities are historically conditioned constructs rather than essences, my intention is to broaden the discussion of Jewish women's stereotypes by suggesting the relevance of an almost ignored stereotype, that of the "nagging wife" in early twentieth century Jewish American narratives by immigrant writers Anzia Yezierska, Abraham Cahan, and Konrad Bercovici.

The theoretical framework of my analysis relies on Michel Foucault's seminal work on sexuality and the body seen as constructs in relation to normative power fields and on feminist philosopher Judith Butler's notion of gender as a cultural construct thanks to the concept of performativity. In this respect, this research is especially indebted to the two critics' complementary theses suggesting that the subject is born out of the relation between contextual conditioning, normative claims, individual agency and the call of the other.

The Gendered Self, Power Fields and the Other

In his three volumes of The History of Sexuality (An Introduction, The Use of Pleasure, The Care of the Self), Michel Foucault marks a breakthrough in cultural criticism by undertaking to "define the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse of human sexuality" in the Western world.3 In short, Foucault explores the so-called "polymorphous techniques of power," [End Page 47] namely the forms that power takes in relation to human sexuality by attempting to offer a "history of the experience of sexuality, where experience is understood as the correlation between fields of knowledge, types of normativity, and forms of subjectivity in a particular culture."4 His particular interest in these books is to analyze the sexual repression that has characterized Western society starting with the seventeenth century, furnishing a precious theoretical insight on how the birth of the subject is conditioned by the interplay between hegemonic normative claims and practical behavior. At the same time, in his works, Foucault explains how power can have both negative and positive connotations: it is negative if it ensures - through prohibitions and restrictions - that subjects conform to constructed norms; it is positive if it produces objects of inquiry and knowledge via norms, aspirations, and forms of behavior.

In relation to the criticism on ethnic gender imagery which is my interest herein, the value of Foucault's analysis is at least twofold: on the one hand, he indicates how the view on sexuality has been constructed within a masculine framework, an idea that would be later explored by feminist writers in order to foreground the high stakes of gender imbalance and the negative aspect of patriarchal power from women's perspective; on the other hand, he notes that the subject forms itself by relation to a set of codes, norms or prescriptions, therefore the subject is characterized by limitations pertaining to existence within a context of norms that exceed and precede the subject, and which are invested with power and the possibility of subversion, ideas that Judith Butler will later refine by adding the input of the Levinasian other.

Regarding the former idea of gender imbalance, in The Use of Pleasure, Foucault explains that the morality of sexual abstinence was actually "an ethics for men: an ethics, thought, written, and taught by men, and addressed to men."5 Even if it subjected women to strict constraints, this was a male ethics in which "women figured only as objects or, at most, as partners that one had best train, educate, and watch over when one had them over one's power, but stay away from...


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