How are feminist themes represented in On Beauty by Zadie Smith?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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On Beauty by Zadie Smith is full of thematic issues. In this novel Smith clearly (and powerfully) comments on academia, class, political views, and sexuality; in the midst of all these things is the discussion of women: their roles in society, the expectations placed on them, and their self-doubts. Each of the women in this novel demonstrate aspects of these elements. 

Kiki is Howard Belsey's wife, and she is a grand woman, overweight and grounded in family and love. She is a professional woman (a hospital administrator) and is connected to her husband's academic career at Wellington, as well. When she discovers that her husband has been cheating on her, she forgives him--until she realizes his transgression was not a one-time "slip-up." She then allows Howard to live in the house but without any marital privileges. It is obvious she still loves him, but she cannot abide his cheating. 

Despite her husband's and son's disdain of the Kipps, Kiki is drawn to Carlene Kipps, a woman who lives a primarily domestic life. Carlene is "the ideal 'stay-at-home' Christian Mom." Perhaps because she is a rather mysterious woman, Carlene is revered by others. She tells Kiki that her goal in life is to care for her husband and children. Kiki, in contrast, believes her job is to do what is best for the family but only as it suits what is best for her, too. 

It is interesting to note that the daughters of both women are not particularly virtuous women. Victoria Kipps is quite promiscuous, even begging Howard Belsey to make love to her after her mother's funeral. Zora Belsey is manipulative and uses her father's affair--along with some guilt and some veiled threats--to force her way into a class. Later she misinterprets Carl's flirtation as love. Both girls have a rather skewed view of love and self-respect, so neither type of mother was particularly successful at instilling their views into their daughters.

Both women try, however. Zora is never content with her appearance. 

This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn't be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman's magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki's knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies--it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it. 

Kiki is a conundrum of feminist and anti-feminist ideals. Though she is a career woman, Kiki is the embodiment of domestic life. Her ancestors were slaves, yet she and her family are living in a home which her mother bequeathed to them. Eventually she moves out of the house because of Howard's cheating ways and seems to be doing quite well for herself. At the end, however, it seems as if Kiki is going to relent and resume her marriage (or at least the relationship), as she sits in a lecture Howard is giving with an adoring look on her face. 

Carlene is also an interesting blend of feminist views. On the one hand, she is a purely domestic woman; on the other, she treasures a painting of Erzulie, a voodoo goddess--and bequeaths it to Kiki in her will. Though it is not explicitly stated, we infer that the sale of this painting is what allows Kiki to live a comfortable life after she leaves Howard. 

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