Lucille Clifton

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How can I apply the theory of feminism to the poem "There Is a Girl Inside"?

To apply the theory of feminism to the poem "There Is a Girl Inside," you might consider the ideas of philosopher Julia Kristeva. Kristeva talks about how women's bodies are stereotyped as chaotic and tumultuous. She believed women could harness that characterization to subvert patriarchal society. Likewise, Clifton's girl seems to see a benefit in destruction. She's "randy as a wolf." You could also apply Judith Butler's theories about gender performativity.

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“There Is a Girl Inside” could be seen as a feminist work in that it challenges the prevailing notion in society that older women are somehow not sexual beings. This is unequivocally a feminist statement because the same standard does not apply to older men.

In terms of feminist theory,...

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“There Is a Girl Inside” could be seen as a feminist work in that it challenges the prevailing notion in society that older women are somehow not sexual beings. This is unequivocally a feminist statement because the same standard does not apply to older men.

In terms of feminist theory, one could apply the insights of Jeannette King, Emeritus Professor of English at Aberdeen University in Scotland. In her book Discourses on Ageing in Fiction and Feminism: The Invisible Woman, King deals with the way in which older, post-menopausal women have been overlooked in Western culture and academia. The marginalization of the older generation of women has inevitably fed through into works of literature, where women of a certain age have all too often been rendered all but invisible.

In putting forward such a life-affirming, assertive vision of mature womanhood in “There Is a Girl Inside,” Lucille Clifton goes some small way towards redressing the persistent imbalance that King identifies in her book. The speaker of the poem is far from being invisible; indeed, she positively revels in her visibility as a mature woman with the soul and sensibility of a much younger woman. Among other things, the speaker's unabashed celebration of selfhood makes it much more difficult for her to be marginalized and ignored like so many other women of her age group.

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There are many kinds of feminist theories, and there are many ways to apply those theories to Lucille Clifton's poem "There is a girl inside."

When I first had to read this poem in school, I assumed it was about childbirth. The title made me think it was about having a baby. Then something happened: I actually read it.

While this poem isn't about childbirth, you could argue that it's about a different kind of birth: the birth or liberation of a kind of wildness and chaos.

Several feminists advocate that women can embrace their wildness, even though that wildness is sometimes turned against them by misogynists. For instance, Julia Kristeva, a French philosopher, believes women can harness the alleged tumult of the female body and use it to undercut patriarchal ideas. Her theory involves a kind of transformation. She turns a negative sexist trope—that women and their bodies possess a lack of control or organization—into a positive one. Why not use that force to force society to be less parochial and misogynist?

We see similarities to Kristeva when Clifton describes the "girl inside" as "randy as a wolf" and waiting to "break through gray hairs." As with Kristeva, Clifton seems prepared to engage in a kind of benevolent destruction.

To Clifton’s poem, I might also apply Judith Butler's theory that gender is a performance. Butler says that people identify gender based on gestures, looks, and acts. We might think someone is a girl by how they walk, by what they wear, or by what they say. Gender is like a character in a movie, TV show, or play.

How is the girl in Clifton's poem reinforcing that performance theory? How is she performing a "girl" character? Think about all of the nature imagery: the green tree, the woods, the honey, and the thyme. These might reinforce typical representations or performances of girls as particularly connected with fertility and nature, but Clifton's girl doesn't seem disempowered by it. As with the female body/chaos stereotype, perhaps the girl/nature stereotype can be utilized in a pro-feminist way.

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Lucille Clifton is at her best, I think, when she's writing about the full range of experiences of the female body, both good and bad. Her poem "There is a girl inside" may seem at first to be quite different from her poems showing a female speaker who loves her own big hips or feels grief over her abortions, but it in fact it is much like them in how it, too, is closely tied to a woman's life experiences.

There is no one theory of feminism, of course, and the types of feminism that might best apply to "There is a girl inside" are perhaps ones (often called "radical feminisms" or "essentialist feminisms") that embrace the female body and see it as the foundation of female identity. Adrienne Rich and Monique Wittig may represent this sort of feminism.

The poem itself seems to challenge stereotypes about what girls and women should be, perhaps even by literally rewriting the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which has often been taken as a tale of female maturation (e.g. the red hood might symbolize menstrual blood and the wolf might symbolize rampant sexual desire). Indeed, the open lines of Clifton's poem calls this girl "randy as a wolf" and very different from a grandmother. If you follow this perspective, you may find it helpful to compare Clifton's poem to Angela Carter's prose rewritings of the same fairy tale.

The speaker in this poem is no longer willing to wait "patient as a nun." She embraces her sexuality, curses, has multiple lovers, and so on, but these developments are hardly presented as destructive. They afford her the opportunity to fully explore herself and her world.

 

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