Gender Role Reversal

A Woman In A Man’s World…And Vice Versa

paris_James-Joyce--Sylvia-BDominance is argued to be a biological trait of the male species in which the larger size of males  as well as their higher levels of testosterone lead to their “aggressive and dominant behavior” (623).  In contrast, females are described as being more timid and shy which lead to them being more nurturing.  The dynamic duo of Sylvia Beach (author of Shakespeare and Co.) and James Joyce (author of Ulysses) are two friends who experience a swap in their gender roles.  As has already been noted, the typical role of the female in a relationship is as the subordinate while the male role is as the dominant.  In the case of Beach and Joyce however these roles are reversed.  Through the simple act of a handshake, Beach is described as being more masculine than Joyce:

“We shook hands; that is, he put his limp, boneless hand in my tough little paw–if you can call that a handshake” (35).  

The wording of this quote provides clues to the roles in which Beach and Joyce are to play in their future relationship.  By describing Joyce’s hand as being limp and boneless, it can be read that the rest of Joyce is also limp and boneless, with specific reference to his “masculinity.”  For a man to be limp or boneless indicates a failure to perform sexually which would fit the description of Joyce as the feminine member of the duo.  While this is not accurate–Joyce being married with children–one can not help but wonder on the suggestive wording used.

In the following paragraph, Joyce is described as appearing more feminine than Beach in that he wore jewelry on his narrow hands, had beautiful blue eyes, fair skin with a flush, freckles, narrow and fine-cut lips, and think, wavy hair (35-36).  Beach also described him as giving “an impression of sensitiveness (36).”  These feminine descriptions continue to reinforce that fact that Joyce performs the role of the “female” in their relationship while Beach performs the “masculine” one.


The TV persons being compared to Joyce and Beach are Penny and Raj from The Big Bang Theory.  Penny is a farm girl from Omaha, Nebraska who moves to Pasadena, California to become an actress.  Raj is an astrophysicist from India who moves to Pasadena to work at Caltech.  Penny, while beautiful is constantly being undermined as a feminine character through her many sexual conquests and ability to perform masculine tasks such as fixing cars and watching football.  For example, in “The Love Car Displacement,” Sheldon describes Penny in the following way:

Amy: Yes! He had you in the other car, but I got you upgraded.

Penny: Yay!

Sheldon: She made the case that if we break down in the middle of nowhere, your Nebraska backwoods skills and brawny hands will give us the best chance to survive in the wild.

Penny: Brawny?

Leonard: They’re bigger than mine.”

It is interesting that the two females being compared are both described as being masculine based on their hands.  Beach with her tough little paw, and Penny with her brawny hands are both seen as possessing a desirable masculine trait, however they are both females.  Through their obvious lack of strength, the women being compared are going against the list of traditional female stereotypes I listed in my first post.  It is the men who are supposed to use their hands while performing “dirty” jobs, while women are supposed to keep clean and be less active than men.  It is interesting how it is through the use of their hands that these characters are viewed as masculine, not through their looks, clothing or attitudes.

Just like Beach was placed in opposition to Joyce, so too is Penny placed in opposition to Raj, a masculine character who loves to bake, watch sappy movies and has a Yorkie Terrier.  Many of the episodes involving Raj show a joint confusion among outside characters as to the sexual preference of Raj based on his feminine traits.  His relationship with his best friend, Howard, is often confused for a homosexual relationship by both Raj’s parents as well as Leonard’s mother.  Rajs feminine characteristics are so prominent that while attempting to find a new girlfriend, Raj ends up dating a lesbian in an attempt to appease his parents…

Joyce may not be described quite as effeminate as Raj, however the two do still share similarities.  Both characters posses feminine character traits when compared to their female counterparts.  Raj and Joyce are happy to allow Penny and Beach to take on the dominate role in their relationships–Beach as Joyce’s publisher, and Penny as Raj’s matchmaker.  Both Joyce and Raj do provide input into what they are looking for, however it is Beach and Penny who succeed in making these desires come to life.

The relationships shared by Beach and Joyce, and Penny and Raj show the differences in gender roles based on dominance and subordination in which it is not always the male who must perform in the dominant role.  For some men, all they really want is a girls night out…

Works Cited:     

Beach, Sylvia.  Shakespeare & Company.  United States of America: First Bison Book, 1991.

Ryckman, Richard M.  Theories of Personality 9th ed.  United States of America: Thompson Wadsworth, 2008.

Lorre, Chuck and Bill Prady.  “The Love Car Displacement.”  The Big Bang Theory.  Season 4, Episode 13.  20 January 2011.  Warner Bros. Television.


7 thoughts on “A Woman In A Man’s World…And Vice Versa

  1. I love this comparison between Joyce and Beach and the Big Bang Theory! I never actually considered Penny as bieng more masculine than the male characters, but it is very true now that you point it out. For me it shows the fact that these kind of gender associations have continued from Beach’s time and are perpetuated still in our media today, despite the fact that our society still expects us to adhere to certain gender roles.

    • Thanks! I think Penny is a mixture of feminine and masculine because in some episodes she is dressed very feminine and loves having girl time, but in other episodes she is presented as the most masculine of the group (of men) especially when compared to Leonard who knows nothing about football, Howard who still needs his mom, Raj (see blog) and Sheldon who can’t open a jar without help. But I think this is how most women feel–sometimes feminine and sometimes masculine, which is why these labels don’t always work when describing men and women.

  2. That connection between Joyce/Beach and Raj/Penny is pretty amazing. Big Bang Theory is one of my all-time favourite shows and I wouldn’t have put the connections together that you have. The facts you found about the hands in both works is amazing. While the moment was highlighted about Beach’s work in class, that moment in Big Bang Theory (as a whole) at least in my opinion was quite small. I also read your post on Moll and Barney and if this is a theme you are doing throughout and not just a fluke of the two posts I have read so far I must say I really like the concept.

    • Thanks! There are actually a bunch of shows that portray gender roles, both in the traditional sense as well as the nontraditional. I find it’s interesting to step back and examine what we are watching as usually we are so entrenched in the story line that we neglect to see the hidden messages or clever innuendos that the writers added to the show.

  3. Reblogged this on We Are Who We Are: Gender Performativity and commented:
    The comparison of Sylvia Beach and Penny both as taking on a masculine role is brilliant! Well done Devyn on using examples that both portray the hands of the women as masculine. Women are meant to be doing ‘dainty’ things according to society, so writing the female characters as doing ‘male-oriented’ tasks shows how they are swapping gender roles. Additionally, James Joyce and Raj swap gender roles because they are written/described as effeminant. Though some of these characters are not necessarily homosexual, they are entering into territories of the opposite sex due their physicality or mannerisms.

  4. Pingback: “Masculine women and feminine men”:’s queer postcards. | What's My Role?

  5. Reblogged this on Who Wears The Pants? and commented:
    This post focuses on comparing Sylvia Beech’s ‘Shakespeare and Company” and the hit TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ It is interesting to see the ways in which the characters struggle to understand who they really are and try to find what is socially acceptable for them in society and their friends group.

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