Cultural representation and social practice
As a Women’s Studies tutor in the late 1980s, I looked for accounts of western women’s experiences of bereavement in order to introduce students to aspects of gender and ageing. Little material about women’s grief seemed to be available. Closer examination of the ‘classic’ literature of death and dying which emerged from the late 1950s onwards revealed that many of its general statements about the nature of loss have an unacknowledged gendered basis in research among widows. There would seem to be a parallel here with much pre-1970s sociological and anthropological research which drew on interviews with men to provide a more general account of aspects of social life (Oakley 1974, Ardener 1972). What is different, however, is the gender of the interviewees whose testimonies are taken to represent both male and female experience.
This chapter asks why material pertaining to women rather than men might have been used to provide a foundation for accounts of grief in adult life. To explore this question, the early bereavement literature is examined alongside other representations of grieving women - for example, the image of the Victorian widow in full mourning dress, the weeping mother of Christ, the full-face newspaper photos of girls and women bereaved in major tragedies, nineteenth-century grave sculptures of women grieving with abandonment, accounts of women wailing during death rituals in traditional societies.
I will contrast these images and narratives of women with actual social practices associated with bereavement and go on to argue that neither women nor men are likely to grieve in public in the manner depicted in cultural representations of this kind. Both sexes are susceptible to the British imperative to conduct their grieving in private. In public, what is required is a display of signs that an appropriate emotional response is taking place, but elsewhere - in the private setting of the home (Walter, forthcoming). However, when it comes to cultural representations - media images of disasters, full-face photographs on the jackets of self-help books on bereavement, and paintings and statuary of the Virgin Mary cradling the corpse of her dead son - emotional expressivity is highlighted rather than hinted at. Furthermore, it is an arena within which women become prominent. They confront the viewer or the reader with an exposure of emotion which is not only unconstrained but also gendered. Thus, cultural representations of overtly grieving women stand in marked contrast with the social practice of providing no more than what Walter calls a ‘competent performance’ of grief.