What is the role of gender stereotypes in J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," and what are some strong examples of the use of gender stereotypes in this book?
In J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye the first person narrator, Holden Caulfield, expresses some strong opinions about other people. The reader needs to keep in mind that as a first person narrator, Holden’s observations and judgments are not above reproach—he is just as prone to prejudicial feelings as any other character in the book.
We see some gender stereotyping in the way Holden describes several characters in the story. Early on, in chapter 8, Holden is taking the train home. By chance, he happens to be sitting next to a woman who turns out to be the mother of a school acquaintance. Although she is one of the few people that Holden has a positive opinion of in the book, he still makes something of a sexist comment about her as a mother and mothers in general. In the following quotation, Holden is discussing whether or not this woman knows what her son is really like:
She looked like she might have a pretty damn good idea what a bastard she was the mother of. But you can’t always tell—with somebody’s mother, I mean. Mothers are all slightly insane.
To make such a statement about mothers in general is stereotyping.
Some of Holden’s stereotyping isn’t as obvious. When he gets back home he has disastrous encounters with several different people. One is an old friend named Sally Hayes. Sally comes to see him at the hotel he is staying at. Later in the evening she suggests that they go ice skating. He isn’t too crazy about the idea, and when Sally says she wants to rent “one of those darling little skirts” at the skating rink, Holden tells the reader:
That’s why she was so hot to go. She wanted to see herself in one of those little skirts that just come down over their butt and all.
Here Holden is making an assumption about what is going through Sally’s mind. He is becoming angry with her, and this comment shows that he isn’t looking at her person, so much as a female stereotype who cares more about how she looks than anything else.
Their evening will soon disintegrate, like everything else that is happening with Holden at this time in his life.
The gender stereotypes in The Catcher in the Rye include the idea that it is the role of men to be the family breadwinners and women to be wives and mothers who attend to the domestic duties of the home. This is seen in Holden's parents' marriage. Holden's father is a corporate lawyer who Holden describes as making a lot of "dough," and his mother apparently does not work. She looks after Phoebe and is depicted as a woman emotionally devastated by the death of her youngest son, Allie.
This gender stereotype carries over into Holden's fantasy of a life with Sallie Hayes in a New England cabin in the woods. Holden proposes that he could "chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all," and that Sally could just be his wife. His interest in her seems at this point purely physical, as he admires her outfits and physical attributes.
Holden's attitude toward Jane Gallagher also speaks to gender stereotypes, as he sees himself as her protector, specifically from Stradlater and her stepfather, both of whom Holden worries are "perverts."