Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” address the common theme of gender roles although in somewhat different ways; specifically, the play is certainly patriarchal, meaning male-dominated, yet there are indications of reversed gender roles, while the poem is not only patriarchal but also sexist.
Traditional gender roles are most easily identifiable in scenes concerning the courtship of Mr. Hastings and Miss Neville, and Mr. Marlow and Miss Hardcastle. However, predictably, the two people perpetuating the patriarchal custom are the fathers, Mr. Hardcastle and Sir Charles Marlow, which is unsurprising because their rhetoric indicates that arranged marriages were typical. For example, Mr. Hardcastle informs his daughter that, “I expect the young gentleman I have chosen to be your husband from town this very day” (Goldsmith 1.1.97-9). While he does assure her to “Depend on it, child, I’ll never control your choice,” he immediately attempts to guilt her by adding that Mr. Marlow is the son of a good friend (1.1.105-8). Similarly, Sir Charles has certain marital expectations of his son, though his are centered more on Mr. Marlow’s character than if he will marry his friend’s daughter. For example, after Miss Hardcastle describes the love and passion her suitor has for her alter ego he confesses, “. . . If I find [my son to] what you describe, all my happiness in him must have an end” (5.2.117-18). That is, Sir Charles is so concerned about the ways his son should behave with women, because he thinks it is the only way for him to marry a “good and virtuous girl” that, at first, he forgets about Miss Hardcastle (5.1.26). However, two scenes later, he anxiously asks, “What a situation am I in? If what you say appears, I shall then find a guilty son. If what he says be true, I shall then lose one that, of all others, I most wished for a daughter” (5.3.1-3). In other words, even though Sir Charles was temporarily more concerned about his son’s manners, his thoughts soon return to the arranged marriage. His word choice, particularly lose and wished, indicates that he was so confident in the arrangement that he had already begun to think of Kate as a daughter; therefore, if she did not become it, she would be lost and his wish would be unfulfilled.
Of the four younger characters, Miss Kate Hardcastle is the one who challenges the traditional gender norms the most, which is identifiable in her ironic interactions with Sir Charles in two ways. First, while he admires his son’s “modest and submissive” conversational skills, Kate is determined to “teach him a little confidence,” and later succeeds by asking Mr. Marlow, “Do you think I could ever catch at the confident address of a secure admirer?” (5.1.110, 2.1.472-73, 5.3.58-9). In other words, instead of complying with Sir Charles’ expectations of his son, she purposely pursues her original goal of instilling confidence in her suitor, which demonstrates her rejection of patriarchal English society. Second, Mr. Marlow’s newfound confidence comes from Kate’s intentional decision to “preserve the character in which I stooped to conquer” (4.1.239). That is, when she chooses once more to employ her alter ego that she deceptively created in order to win Mr. Marlow’s affections, it shows that she takes on the assertive, typically male role, while he bashfully slips into the submissive, typically female role.
On the other hand, Swift’s hilarious yet undoubtedly chauvinist poem is only concerned with Strephon’s story that is told via the male poet’s perspective. While reading, I imagined the poet telling the story to a group of men while embarrassed Strephon only contributes twice. Specifically, when the poet asks, “Why, Strephon, will you tell the rest? / And must you needs describe the chest?” he does not answer, and, in fact, only participates in the poet’s near monologue twice when he says, “‘Those secrets of the hoary deep!’” and ‘“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’” [Swift 69-70, 98, 118]. Therefore, we sensibly conclude that without the perspective of any women, the poem quickly turns into a one-sided sexist rant.