In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, how do Albee and the character of Martha challenge the traditional understandings of gender?

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Albee uses Martha, with her "braying" laugh and incisive mind, to challenge traditional 1950s and early 1960s stereotypes of femininity. Martha is nothing like the typical women, such as Honey, who are (or pretend to be) sweet, docile, supportive of their husband's egos, and none too bright. Martha is nasty,...

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Albee uses Martha, with her "braying" laugh and incisive mind, to challenge traditional 1950s and early 1960s stereotypes of femininity. Martha is nothing like the typical women, such as Honey, who are (or pretend to be) sweet, docile, supportive of their husband's egos, and none too bright. Martha is nasty, combative, rips into George's ego, and is very intelligent. She is not afraid to be who she is and refuses to play the game of femininity. If women are trained to be insincere dolls, Martha, in contrast—even through all her fictionalizing and fantasizing—aims for authenticity. For example, she says to George:

Oh, I like your anger. I think that's what I like about you most. Your anger . . .

Traditionally, women are supposed to shy away from anger and be the peacemakers.

Martha is "unladylike" enough to curse, and she is honest enough to admit that both she and George are unhappy. In this way she challenges 1950s notions of domestic bliss. She says:

We both cry all the time, and then what we do, we cry, and we take our tears, and we put 'em in the ice box, in the goddamn ice trays until they're all frozen . . .

Then, she says, they drink their unhappiness in the cocktails that lower their inhibitions.

Through Martha, Albee catches the wave of a time when women were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their roles. If Martha often speaks cruelly, hitting George below the belt, she also articulates the unhappiness and rage experienced by women who couldn't fully use their talents.

In the end, Martha might be doing exactly what she wants when she goads George into finally shattering her fantasy of having a teenage son. This exposure will force her to live more authentically.

Interestingly, when George asks "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Martha emphatically answers that she is. Woolf, an early feminist, challenged women to find a room of their own in which to achieve: it may be that Albee is saying that Martha is afraid but needs to take that next step towards liberation and independence.

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In Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe, Edward Albee wrote Martha as a loud, vulgar, and aggressive woman who is not afraid to ridicule her husband about his job. She also drinks rather heavily and is prone to volatile mood swings. These character traits were highly unusual in a female character at the time, so by daring to write Martha in this way, as a rather masculine character, Albee was challenging society's expectations of and for a woman.

Albee wrote this play in 1962, at a time when the US was experiencing a lot of change, and therefore a lot of anxiety surrounding that change. The first forms of hormonal birth control had been created a decade before, but abortion was not yet legalized. Women had the right to vote but did not make up a large part of the workforce. Given this context, Martha is a unique character who challenges the gender expectations of her day and age.

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