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How are the girls treated like objects in A&P?

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This short story is a great short story for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that it is a good example of sexual objectification in literature. The narrator, Sammy, is guilty of treating the three girls in the store as sexual objects rather than people or even sexual subjects. When I teach about sexual objectification, I use basic grammar definitions to help illustrate the concept. The subject of a sentence is the "doer," and the subject performs an action on an object. The object of a sentence is the receiver of the subject's actions. An object can't choose anything. It is acted upon, so saying something is a sexual object means that it exists for sexual things to be done to it or with it. Sammy treats the girls in this manner, and we are alerted to this attitude very early on in the story. One of the dead giveaways for whether or not an image is a sexually objectifying image is to ask if the image only shows a part of the sexualized person's body. Showing a scantily clad woman from the neck down is a dead giveaway for this concept because it sells the idea that the woman only exists for her physical body. Her mind and emotions are irrelevant and unnecessary. This is exactly what Sammy gives readers in the story's opening paragraph.

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

Notice we get narration of the girl's lower butt. Later in the story, Sammy will again call reader attention to this particular body part of this girl.

Queenie's blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back—a really sweet can—pipes up, "We weren't doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing."

Another key question regarding sexual objectification is to ask whether or not a woman's sexualized parts stand in for another object. Calling the girl's butt a "can" is a decent example of this. Sammy will again use this form of objectification when he refers to Queenie's breasts as scoops of ice cream.

I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known there were.

The girls in the story exist for Sammy to fantasize about and perhaps "rescue" with his actions at the end. He doesn't focus on their personalities hardly at all. He focuses time and time again on how they look. That's objectifying. It makes sense that Sammy does this. He is a young male, and the story is told from his perspective. His objectification of the girls makes sense for his character; however, it does show a sad cultural training of young men as to the purpose of what women and girls exist for.

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John Updike's A&P uses a first person narrator to show how men, especially young men, sometimes objectify women in terms of their appearance and intelligence. It goes beyond simple stereotyping to demonstrate a misguided hero-complex that males sometimes indulge in. A few quotes from the story will serve to illuminate Updike’s theme.

The narrator is a cashier at the A&P. He sees three girls walk in wearing their bathing suits. He and several other employees watch the girls move about the store. Every other paragraph or so, the narrator reveals his attitude with a little comment.

He manages to question the mental ability of every female on earth with this thought:

You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?)

In the next quote, the narrator actually compares one of the girl’s chests to a piece of metal:

With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.

When one of the girls pays for her item using a dollar bill pulled out from her bathing suit top, he compares her breasts to two scoops of ice-cream:

I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known there were.

One of the girls isn’t as attractive as the other two. Look at how he describes her, referring to her as “raw material.”

Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad).

When the store manager chastises the girls for coming into the store underdressed, the narrator tries to be a hero by quitting on the spot. However, the girls don’t even notice what he’s done and it’s all for nothing. At the end of the story we see that he is completely unaware of his attitude toward the girls, as he actually claims them as his own:

I look around for my girls, but they're gone, of course.

It’s important to note that the narrator does all this without intentional malice. The attitude is ingrained, it’s part of him. If you could ask him how he felt about the girls he’d probably say something positive. He’s not aware of his chauvinism.

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