During World War II, many British women had stepped into new roles in the labor force. After the war ended, most were expected to move back into their traditional roles in the household, but many still held jobs outside the home. The play takes a conflicted view of gender that parallels these shifting dynamics. On the one hand, Jimmy’s angry, destructive, and typically masculine energy drives much of the action and dialogue. On the other hand, women are given agency, and female characters act in their own interests, independently of men (most notably, both Alison and Helena leave Jimmy).
Femininity in the play is highly associated with upper class-ness, and masculinity with lower class-ness. This leads to clashes between the genders that also have an economic dimension. Sticking to conventional gender roles means sticking to the propriety and politeness of British society (which also means acting along with your class role). For example, in stealing Alison away from her family to marry her, Jimmy took on the traditional male role of a “knight in shining armor.” But, Alison says that “his armor didn’t really shine much,” subverting this traditional gender role by adding a class dimension to it. Jimmy was almost heroic, but not quite. There is clearly something attractive in Jimmy’s virile, lower class masculinity, as first Alison and then Helena are drawn to him sexually. Yet there is something destructive in it as well, as both also end up leaving him. Further complicating the gender dynamics, women, too, are portrayed as having a destructive power over men. Jimmy says he’s thankful that there aren’t more female surgeons, because they’d flip men’s guts out of their bodies as carelessly as they toss their makeup instruments down on the table. He likens Alison’s sexual passion to a python that eats its prey whole. At the end of the play, he says that he and Cliff will both inevitably be “butchered by women.”
The muddled gender roles in the play add to the sense of realism that made it such a sensation when it was first performed. Characters defy social convention. Alison disobeys her parents to marry Jimmy. Helena slaps Jimmy at the very start of their affair, and later walks out on him. An unmarried man (Cliff) lives with a married couple. He flirts with Alison, but Jimmy doesn’t particularly mind. The fluid and shifting gender roles in the play reflect the more fluid realities of post-War British society, portrayed for the first time in the traditionally staid and upper-class medium of theater.
Gender Quotes in Look Back in Anger
When you see a woman in front of her bedroom mirror, you realise what a refined sort of butcher she is…Thank God they don’t have many women surgeons! Those primitive hands would have your guts out in no time. Flip! Out it comes, like the powder out of its box. Flop! Back it goes, like the powder puff on the table.
Alison: He actually taunted me about my virginity. He was quite angry about it, as if I had deceived him in some strange way. He seemed to think an untouched woman would defile him.
Cliff: I’ve never heard you talking like this about him. He’d be quite pleased.
She’ll go on sleeping and devouring until there’s nothing left of me.
One day, when I’m no longer spending my days running a sweet-stall, I may write a book about us all…and it won’t be recollected in tranquility either, picking daffodils with Auntie Wordsworth. It’ll be recollected in fire, and blood. My blood.
I rage, and shout my head off, and everyone thinks “poor chap!” or “what an objectionable young man!” But that girl there can twist your arm off with her silence.