Where in American Culture today do people struggle to construct their own identity?

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In Henry James’s novella, Daisy Miller is a young woman from the United States who is traveling in Europe. She tries to behave as she would have done in the United States, but several people criticize her behavior. In addition, Daisy’s mother fails to give her good advice. James primarily presents one aspect of the “environment” in which Daisy is acting: American expatriate society composed of people from the United States who are living in Europe. The primary characters who represent this society are Mrs. Costello, Mrs. Walker, and Winterbourne. James presents comparatively few Europeans, suggesting that their opinions are actually less important for Daisy than those of the Americans. Furthermore, there is a decided gender imbalance in their perceptions; Daisy is discouraged from certain behaviors because she is female.

Terms like “environment” and “society” refer to abstract concepts. As such, they lack “agency,” the ability to act, and so an environment cannot “want” to do anything. As James reminds us, individual people may play influential roles in any society, either reinforcing or changing commonly-held attitudes. If we look at 21st century situations, we can readily see human actions that are similarly supporting or challenging restrictive attitudes or laws.

One area in which different gender attitudes remain strong in the United States is in the area of employment, in both hiring and compensation. The gendered associations of numerous jobs persist, and, even when hired for similar positions, men are more likely to be promoted than women. This “glass ceiling” effect is especially persistent at the top executive level. Despite the enactment of federal legislation barring gender discrimination in wages and compensation, there remains a substantial gap between men’s and women’s earnings. Employers’s perceptions of different gender-based abilities and performance play a large role in determining wages.

Another area of gender-based discrimination pertains to transgender people. Transgender people face widespread social discrimination from those who reject people’s self-identification. The recent proposed changes in regulations pertaining to military service are one good example of social changes within only a few years and of divided opinion within the United States. More generally, issues such as restroom segregation disproportionately affect transgender people.

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