Compare and contrast tone and gender issues in "John Henry" (folk ballad) and "Property" by Bessie Head.

In Bessie Head's "Property," the girl lambasts her husband for not treating her with more dominance and force. In the classic folktale/poem "John Henry," John Henry treats the mountain with the utmost force and domination. In "Property," the man fails to live up to society's gender norms for males. In "John Henry," the hero adheres to gender norms for males, yet he adheres to them so strenuously that he dies.

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In Bessie Head’s short story “Property,” a girl is bought by a man for 12 cattle. The girl thinks of herself as her husband’s property. Yet the husband doesn’t treat her like property. He’s not very forceful or aggressive with her. He doesn’t try to dominate her. The husband’s lackluster prowess frustrates the girl. She wants him to be more domineering.

In “Property,” you could discuss the gender issues in the context of the husband’s failure to meet the expectations of society’s gender norms. The husband is not a strong-willed master. He’s quite mild. The gender norms of society could be traced to the assumptions of the girl. You could argue she internalizes the sexist norms of society by trying to get her husband to behave in a more rough, brutal manner.

I don’t think it’d be accurate to call John Henry rough or brutal. Yet John Henry, as he’s depicted in the legendary folk ballad/poem, doesn’t have a problem with harnessing his vitality or aggression. As the ballad makes clear, John Henry can “hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day.” His hammering skills are so extraordinary that even a steam drill is no match for him. Of course, all the hammering leads to John Henry’s death.

In “John Henry,” the adherence to masculine norms excludes him from society (i.e. he dies). In “Property,” the husband’s deviation from masculine norms make the girl feel excluded from society. She wants her husband to treat her badly as the other husbands do.

While “John Henry” doesn’t feature a woman (aside from John Henry’s mom), it might be interesting to think of the mountain as a woman or as the girl in “Property.” Perhaps what John Henry does to the mountain is what the girl wants her husband to do to her. Maybe the reason why her husband doesn’t act more authoritative is because he somehow knows that such a show of masculinity will only lead to his downfall (just like it did for John Henry).

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