Clybourne Park explores conventional gender roles, the bonds between women, and the dynamic between husbands and wives over the course of a half century. Conceptions of womanhood and manhood are different in 1959 and 2009, and those differences are played out onstage. In the first act especially, men are loud, women fragile, and motherhood highly valued. In the second act, these tropes are extended, but take on slightly different, 21st century forms. From the first act to the second, then, the play explores certain familiar stock characters across time (e.g., the delicate, pregnant wife and the clueless, insensitive husband), and while it never suggests that all men are one way and women are another, it makes use of archetypes to explore gender dynamics across the decades.
Men in the play assume their wives and children need to be protected, both from unpleasant language and from potentially unsavory changes in their environment. In Act I, Karl is always looking out for Betsy. He’s worried that Russ will get her sick, upset that Russ is swearing in her vicinity, and anxious when she goes to the kitchen without him. His love and protectiveness of his wife is good-natured, but ultimately infantilizing. He also uses Betsy and her pregnancy as a weapon in the war he is waging against the encroaching Younger family, imploring Russ and Bev to consider his unborn (white) children before they let a black family move into the neighborhood. In Act II it is Lindsey who is concerned for the safety and wellbeing of her child and her family. After they discover that Kenneth committed suicide in the house (a detail that had not been disclosed to them when they purchased it) Lindsey becomes agitated. Steve wonders, “why d’you have to make such a big deal outa” the suicide, to which Lindsey responds that “your child” and “our family” will be living in the house. In this way, the second act disrupts the dynamic established in the first act, in which men are portrayed as the protectors of their families.
Nevertheless, men and women are represented in this play as having different personality traits, and the differences between them remain constant across time. Men, and especially husbands, are portrayed as less emotionally sensitive than their wives, and have less of a sense of what is and is not appropriate to say in public. Women and wives, by contrast, are portrayed as more aware of how they’re perceived and more willing to try and maintain peace with their neighbors. Russ and Bev fit this dynamic, as do Lindsey and Steve, and Karl and Betsy. In each couple, the wife is a peacemaker and a diplomat, frequently apologizing for her husband’s behavior. The husband, in contrast, is loud, offensive (sometimes accidentally, as in Steve’s case) and frequently aggressive. Notably, the two African-American couples have opposite dynamics. Albert and Kevin are much more ingratiating and sociable than their wives, Francine and Lena respectively. Whereas Albert and Kevin seem to be genuinely interested in forming or maintaining positive relationships, Francine and Lena are not. Francine is fed up with the performative politeness she must put on at work, and Lena is unwilling to pretend that she is happy to have Lindsey, Steve, and their renovated house as neighbors.
Bev assumes that she and Francine have a special connection, perhaps because of their gender. Although Francine is her employee, Bev insists on acting like they’re friends, and pretends there is no power imbalance between them (except, of course, when she needs something from Bev, in which case she makes it clear she is the boss). Bev’s behavior is well-meaning but misguided. She and Francine have very little in common, and their shared gender cannot make up for differences in their lives based on race or class. Nevertheless, Bev assumes she and Francine are genuinely close, often calling on Francine to recall moments they shared together and using their relationship as an example of how white and black people can get along. In reality, she can think of few shared memories of friendship with Francine, calling an example of a time when a squirrel came into the house through the window and she and Francine had laughed together. Francine, however, clearly thinks of Bev as her boss and nothing more. Near the end of Act I, she tells Albert, “they’re all a buncha idiots,” continuing, “let ‘em knock each other’s brains out for all I care. I’m done working for these people”. Bev sees that in some ways she and Francine share a gender-based struggle. Life was difficult for women in the 1950s: both Bev and Francine have access to fewer opportunities and are treated with less respect than their husbands. Of course, Francine’s life as a black woman is significantly more difficult than Bev’s, so it follows that Francine would be more interested in honoring the race- and class-based commonalities she shares with her husband than the gender-based bond she shares with Bev.
Oftentimes, men assume that women are weaker than men, while women assume men are less socially adept than women. These generalizations are harmful for the characters within the play, who see each other as gendered stereotypes, which prevents them from acknowledging each other as full, complex human beings deserving of empathy, appreciation, and understanding.
Men, Women, and Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Men, Women, and Gender Roles Quotes in Clybourne Park
I tell you, I don’t know what I would do without a friend like Francine here, and on a Saturday, I mean she is just a treasure. What on earth are we going to do up there without her?
Bev: Francine and I have, over the years, the two of us have shared so many wonderful—remember that time the squirrel came through the window?
Francine: Yes, I do.
Bev: That was just the silliest—the two of us were just hysterical weren’t we?
Russ: If you honestly think I give a rat’s ass about the goddamn—
Jim: Okay. Okay.
Russ: —what, ya mean the community where every time I go for a haircut, where they all sit and stare like the goddamn grim reaper walked in the barber shop door? That community?
Karl: My wife is two weeks away from giving birth to a child.
Russ: Where, Bev stops at Gelman’s for a quart of milk and they look at her like she’s got the goddamn plague? That the community I’m supposed to be looking out for?
Steve:… Are you “offended”?
Steve: Neither am I.
Lindsey: You can’t be offended, you moron —
Lindsey: — because you’ve never been politically marginalized, unlike the majority of people in the world —
Steve: How can a majority be marginal?
Lindsey: — and, by the way, all women, everywhere, and it’s your classic white male myopia that you’re blind to that basic fact.
Lena: Why is a white woman like a tampon?
Lindsey: Why is what?
Lena: It’s a joke.