You are on page 1of 9

"Knowing who we are, and finding a way to

tell ourselves: Carol Ann Duffy's

Revision of Masculinist Representations
of Female Identity.
Claire McEwen

arol Ann Duffy is one of the freshest and bravest talents to emerge in British
poetry any poetry for years', writes Eavan Boland (Duffy, 1994, cover). This
courage is manifest in Duffys ability and desire to revise masculinist representations
of female identity and her engagement with feminine discourse, a concept which, as
Sara Mills points out:

has moved away from viewing women as simply an oppressed

group, as victims of male domination, and has tried to
formulate ways of analysing power as it manifests itself and as
it is resisted in the relations of everyday life. (p.78)
It is these aspects of Duffy's work that I wish to address here by examining the ways
in which she subverts masculinist assumptions and discourses in the following ways:
by giving voice to previously marginalised or silenced figures, by re-presenting
stereotypes and power relations, through comic reappropriation of myth and by rewriting the canonical love poem.

The problematic nature of representation itself, its subjectivity and

unreliability, is a central concern of Duffy's poetry. Much of her work is
written in the form of dramatic monologue which serves to demonstrate
the fundamental inadequacy of language to re-present by undermining the
readers' expectations of traditional discourses. By using characters' voices
rather than her own, Duffy identifies with the speaker and confers
authority onto a voice which might otherwise be silent. The
foregrounding of this voice becomes a means of demonstrating the failure
of language to represent specific aspects of experience, particularly
female experience. The monologue, by giving voice to the previously
subjugated female within traditional discourse, threatens masculinist
constructs of female identity: the woman is given an identity of her own.
Ian Gregson comments on this when he states that:
Duffy explores how masculinist ways of seeing determine how
women are regarded, even by themselves, and how language
determines the experiences it is supposed merely to describe,
how representation makes dummies of us all. (p.101)

This notion of female identity as a constructed in masculine discourse but accepted by

all, is a recurring theme in Duffy's poetry. She stereotypes many of her characters in
order to foreground their incongruous place within a modern society. She also
highlights the inadequacies of language as a form of expression in the Lacanian sense
that 'no meaning is sustained by anything other than reference to another meaning'
(Lacan, p.83). Language, therefore, is an unreliable form of expression and, as such, is
deconstructed by Duffy through the use of dramatic monologues to represent speech
rather than written forms, and by her juxtaposition of seemingly random nouns and
adjectival phrases and her use of compound words. Language is used to create a
tension throughout her work, particularly in her insistence on foregrounding the
construction of the poem itself.

This tension is demonstrated in 'Recognition', from Selling Manhattan

(1987), where Duffy explores the fabrication of female identity and the
inability of language to re-present that identity by employing a dramatic
monologue voiced by a despondent housewife:
[] I love him,
through habit, but the proof
has evaporated. He gets upset.
I tried to do all the essentials
on one trip. Foolish, yes,
but I was weepy all morning.
Quiche. A blond boy swung me up
in his arms and promised me the earth. (9-16)
The woman here is constructed through a series of masculinist and limiting narratives.
Initially, she appears to have agency; she recognises that her love for her husband is
merely based on 'habit'. However, her power is diminished by her sense of
responsibility and self-deprecation. 'He gets upset' and she claims responsibility: she
was 'foolish' and she 'was weepy'; it was all to do with her hormones. The poem is
punctuated by a shopping list Claret, Cheese, Kleenex to reflect the way
her life has become a monotony of domesticity and to underline the absurdity of the
fairytale romance: 'everywoman's' dream is juxtaposed with 'Quiche'. The conflation
here of woman as inferior, guilty, self-deprecating, hormonal, domestic and
unrealistically romantic, presents a reductive portrayal of female identity. By
foregrounding the very stereotypes that she wishes to undermine, Duffy brings to our
attention the extent to which they are discrepant and outdated yet widely accepted and
understood. At the close of the poem she writes:

[] I had to rush out,

blind in a hot flush, and bumped
into an anxious, dowdy matron
who touched the cold mirror
and stared at me. Stared

and said I'm sorry sorry sorry. (27-32)

The woman does not recognise herself. She has no sense of her own identity because
it has been removed from her by masculine constructs of the female image. Again, she
is hormonal, indicated by the 'hot flush', and she is inept, banging into the mirror and
'anxious'. The repeated apology in the closing line underlines the woman's subordinate
position and the lack of punctuation highlights her panicked subservience.

In 'Psychopath', also from Selling Manhattan, Duffy uses the dramatic

monologue to present, and destabilise, the sexual power of men over
No, don't. Imagine. One thump did it, then I was on her,
giving her everything I had. Jack the Lad, Ladies'
Easier to say Yes. []
She lost a tooth. I picked her up, dead slim, and slid her in.
A girl like that should have a paid-up solitaire and high
but she asked for it. A right well-knackered outragement. (49-54)
While the voice of the woman is diminished by his 'Yes', he is essentially the weaker
character; he has to physically abuse her to achieve his sexual status as 'Jack the Lad,
Ladies' Man'. This is further problematised by the inference that he, too, is trapped
within a received notion of identity; he has killed her, but it is more important to him
that he lives up to the constructed image of a 'real man'. The inarticulate final line
echoes the incongruous nature of such assumptions: language, here, cannot describe
such perversity. Earlier in the poem, the character views himself in the mirror:

When I zip up the leather, I'm in a new skin, I touch it

and love myself, sighing Some little lady's going to get lucky
tonight. My breath wipes me from the looking-glass. (14-16)
His self-image is created by an object, the jacket, and it is this 'new skin' that he loves,
not himself. The sighed speech merges into the narrative suggesting his unwillingness
to become the person he sees: his own identity is 'wiped' by his image. Duffy, perhaps,
suggests that men are similarly constrained by masculine representations of their own
identity. Where the woman in 'Recognition' is punctuated by the shopping list, the
man in 'Psychopath' is labelled by the very title of the poem and the images of late
50s/early 60s popular culture that run through it: for example, 'Jimmy Dean' which
holds connotations of misunderstood, violent adolescence and the song 'Johnny,
Remember Me', whose lyrics are a parodic premonition of the womans death (p.28).
Through the poems setting Duffy signals the reactions to conformist notions of
identity and the, particularly sexual, awakening of this era. Gregson, in an analysis of
the poem, asserts that:

The juxtapositions [] in 'Psychopath' sex, gratuitous

cruelty, excrement suggest that what is being evoked is well

beyond the literary pale, the articulation of the inarticulate, a

naturalistic exploration of low life normally unheeded by those
who read poetry, the authentic voice of the eponymous
psychopath. (Gregson, p.97)
Simply by writing from this perspective, Duffy undermines certain masculine
assumptions. She can take on the role of the male figure, she can converse in violent
and sexually intimidating dialogue; she can operate within both masculine and
feminine spheres in order to examine the power relations situated therein. However,
Gregson's analysis is somewhat reductive: he does not take into account the lack of
agency afforded to the man, or the ironic function of the title which echoes the
judgmental use of delinquent in Rebel Without a Cause. Just as the delinquents
behaviour is explained in the film, we discover that the psychopath has also suffered
childhood trauma: Dirty Alice flicked my dick out when I was twelve. / She jeered
(25-26). So, although Gregson is correct to point out Duffy's appropriation of the male
voice, he fails to comprehend the full impact of this in demonstrating the universality
of masculine constructs of identity for both men and women, and in re-presenting
accepted stereotypes.

In her collection The World's Wife (1999), Duffy undermines

masculinist representations of female identity by giving voice to the
women behind successful or mythical men. She satirises traditional
discourses in order to re-present the women as the holders of power. In
'Mrs Darwin', she writes:
7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.
Its brevity, and the alignment, through capitalisation, of the Zoo, Darwin (or,
ironically, God, indicated by the capitalisation of 'Him') and Chimpanzee initiate the
ludic quality of this poem, which is reinforced by the rhyming of '2', 'zoo' and 'you';
'aping' the voice of the Chimpanzee. In 'Frau Freud', the psychoanalyst's wife lists, at
length, humorous colloquial names for the penis and then concludes:

[] I suppose what I mean is,

ladies, dear ladies, the average penis not pretty
the squint of its envious solitary eye one's feeling of
pity [] (12-15)
The comical quality of the poem is achieved by the juxtaposition of registers of
language: these hesitantly polite final lines follow lines such as 'dipstick and wick, the
rammer, the slammer, the rupert, / the shlong' (9-10). The sheer number of epithets for
the penis listed here foregrounds the Freudian obsession with the phallus and the way

in which the male body is so volubly expressed in language and literature whilst the
female body remains silenced and concealed. The suggestion that Frau Freud devises
vagina envy before her husband has even thought about penis envy, and the
presentation of Mrs Darwin as the real founder of the Theory of Evolution, comically
undermine and re-appropriate received notions of a male dominated history and
tradition. The use of comedy restructures received ideas of gender relations by
transferring authority to, and demonstrating the power of, the female voice.

'Pygmalion's Bride', is a somewhat darker comic re-appropriation of

myth. The poem refers to Pygmalion, a first century sculptor and the King
of Cyprus, who fell in love with a statue of his 'ideal woman' which he
had carved from ivory (Room, p.956). Aphrodite gave life to the statue
and Pygmalion married her: the woman is, physically, a masculine
construct only given life to satisfy the man, she is Pygmalion's possession
as indicated by the title. The statue, the voice of the poem, describes the
ways in which Pygmalion tries to mould her, physically and mentally,
into the woman he desires. Again, the use of idiomatic language threatens
the man's power by comically confounding the readers' expectations: he
gives her 'girly things' and she 'played statue, shtum'. In addition the
absurdity of the statue 'playing statue' is comical but also implies the
vulnerability of her ignorance of her own identity. However, her silence,
rather than being a symbol of her passivity indicates her desire to 'play'
along; in order to avoid 'real' physical contact, she clings to the relative
security of her existence as an object. The sexual undertones of the poem,
in which Pygmalion's 'clammy hands' seem offensive and intrusive rather
than loving, come to the fore when the statue comes to life:
So I changed tack,
grew warm, like candle wax,
kissed back,
was soft, was pliable,
began to moan,
got hot, got wild,
arched, coiled, writhed,
begged for his child,
and at the climax
screamed my head off
All an act. (39-49)
The rhythm of this stanza of the poem mirrors the progression of the orgasm; the short
words and lines, the lack of capitalisation and the changes in assonance all contribute
to the build up of tension. However, in the end, it is 'all an act': she has only slept with
him because she had failed to be free of him by being silent, and she has faked her
orgasm. The closing lines: 'And haven't seen him since. / Simple as that' indicate her
success, she is now free of him. Ultimately, the woman has rejected her constructed

identity but she has had to prostitute herself to do so. In her poem, Duffy rejects the
literary tradition of Pygmalion, as portrayed by Ovid and George Bernard Shaw
amongst others, and mocks their assumptions about female identity. By giving the
woman agency and deriding the man as a lustful fool, she re-writes the myth and represents the female figure within it.

During the run-up to the

1999, there was great press
position: Carol Ann Duffy,
Andrew Motion, the 'white
Guardian asked:

announcement of the new poet laureate in

speculation about who would be given the
the 'people's poet' (Guardian, 10 May) or
male toff'. (Guardian, 25 September). The

does Carol Ann Duffy fit the bill? Well, she's young-ish, was
born in Glasgow to left wing parents and brought up in the
Gorbals, is highly regarded, brilliant at readings, a feminist,
combines wit with bleak realism, and has been described as 'the
characteristic poet of the 80s and 90s'.
So what's the obstacle? She's a lesbian. (10 May)
Whether or not Duffy's sexuality influenced the appointment, it is certainly something
that informs her work. Her love poems, for example, are frequently concerned with
the inability of language to accurately express emotions and homosexual
relationships. Deryn Rees-Jones states:

Highly regarded for her many love poems, Duffy has, however,
spoken of the difficulties of working in a genre that, perhaps
more than any, depends traditionally on a division of power
between lover and beloved, male and female. [] She refigures
heterocentric representations of desire both to affirm and
problematize identity, throwing into question ideas of sameness
and difference in the relationship of the lover and the beloved,
and the inadequacies of language to articulate the nature of that
experience. (p.30)
The difficulty of forging a language that can express any love is compounded by her
efforts to express female homosexuality in her poetry: she has no literary tradition to
look to, only a predominantly masculine discourse of heterosexual love. She has to
'refigure heterocentric representations of desire' to fit in with her own notion of desire.
In 'Words, Wide Night', from The Other Country (1990), she writes:

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say

it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.
La lala la. See? (4-7)

By foregrounding the act of writing, Duffy draws attention to the failure of words to
inscribe emotion; they themselves are representations. She closes the poem with: 'For
I am in love with you and this/is what it is like or what it is like in words.' There is a
clear distinction made between the 'real' emotion and its representative. The poem
also suggests the failure of the traditional love poem, she asserts one thing, 'this is
pleasurable', but is not sure if that is the correct way of presenting love within the
traditional, masculine precepts. 'Oppenheim's Cup and Saucer', from Duffy's first full
collection Standing Female Nude (1985), attempts to include lesbian love within this
tradition and does so by employing an intertextual reference to Oppenheim's famous
surrealist work, Dejeuner en fourrurei[1]; a fur covered cup, saucer and spoon. Duffy,
like Oppenheim, plays on the image of women and undermines it by juxtaposing the
domestic with the erotic, the surreal with the ordinary; the domestic image of the cup
is subverted by the fur's implication of pubic hair (Rees-Jones, p.32). The cup,
representing the female genitalia, becomes an important symbol of the rejection of
masculinist imagery; it is no longer a tool of the kitchen, the cup implies female
sexuality and power. Having invoked Oppenheim in the title, the first stanza initiates
the relationship between the lovers in the poem but also indicates a dialogue between
poet and artist, a collusion of intent and a dismissal of artistic patriarchy:

She asked me to luncheon in fur. Far from

the loud laughter of men, our secret life stirred.
I remember her eyes, the slim rope of her spine.
This is your cup, she whispered, and this mine.
We drank the sweet hot liquid and talked dirty.
As she undressed me, her breasts were a mirror
and there were mirrors in the bed. She said Place
your legs around my neck, that's right. Yes. (1-8)
The formal structure of the poem, four couplets, mirrors, like the women's bodies, the
cup and the couple. In addition, the internal breaks in the lines, occasioned by
commas and full stops, and reinforced by the internal rhyme surrounding the
punctuation, separates the 'secret life' from the public one: the lesbian relationship is,
although articulated, done so surreptitiously. The only full end-rhyme, in the second
couplet, of 'spine' and 'mine', foregrounds this secrecy and promotes the image of
sameness, covertly drawing attention to the sex and sexuality of the lovers.
Oppenheim and Duffy, in art and poem, build their own female identity far from the
uncomprehending and contemptuous 'loud laughter of men'. The relationship between
the two female characters is explicitly sexual, but the repeated use of pronouns in the
poem imbues an overwhelming sense of tenderness. The women recognise each other
in their physical similarity and gain agency from it, indicated by the closing 'Yes'.
Female agency, here, is asserted by a bond with another female artist, and the capacity
to write coherently, as opposed to 'Words, Wide Night', about a female, sexual

The limitations of representation is a theme which recurs throughout

much of Carol Ann Duffy's work, demonstrated most effectively by her
insistence on the use of the dramatic monologue: giving voice rather than
constructing images. In this way, she challenges the masculinist
representations of female identity that pervade historical and literary
discourse, and women's lived experience. Her writing examines power
and gender relations and accepted stereotypes, ultimately foregrounding
the unstable and erroneous identities that they foster. As a result, Duffy
recovers the voices of previously marginalised and silenced figures, reinscribing mythic and historical discourses with a vocal female figure in
order to reject the rendering of woman as an aesthetic construction.
Finally, by re-writing the canonical love poem to demonstrate its
ineffectiveness to express, and to include, female homosexuality, she
undermines this traditionally male arena and claims it as her own.

[1] Oppenheim, Meret, 'Dejeuner en Fourrure' (1936), Museum of Modern Art, New

Works Cited
Duffy, Carol Ann, Standing Female Nude (London: Anvil, 1985).
, Selling Manhattan (London: Anvil, 1987).
, The Other Country (London: Anvil, 1990).
, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1994).
, The Worlds Wife (London: Picador, 1999).
Gregson, Ian, 'Carol Ann Duffy: Monologue as Dialogue' in
Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and
Estrangement (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1996).
Lacan, Jacques, 'The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious' in
David Lodge, (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader
(London: Longman, 1988).
Mills, Sara, Discourse (London: Routledge, 1997).
Pass Notes, Guardian G2, 10 May 1999, p.3.
Room, Adrian, (ed.), Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
(London: Cassel & Co, 2001).
Viner, Katharine, 'Metre Maid', Guardian Weekend, 25 September
1999, pp.20-26.