Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Feminist Epistemologies in A Woman Under the Influence

Heather Stewart
Louisville, Kentucky, United States


Cover of the Criterion Collection edition of director John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrative presents a woman presumably driven to the point of insanity by her gendered social role and restriction to the domestic sphere. This story represents a fictional account of the problems of pervasive and unchallenged gender norms, problematic gendered stereotypes of women, and the role of men in reinforcing androcentric standards and subjugating women’s interpretations of their experiences. While this particular short story is a well known and vastly cited fictional account of how gendered roles and assumptions influence perceptions of women’s mental health and subjective knowledge of their experiences, many works of fiction engage with similar themes.

An example of another work of fiction that brings to light the influences of gendered subjectivities in interpreting women’s experiences, particularly of their mental heath, is John Cassavetes’ 1974 drama film A Woman Under the Influence. I argue that depicts a narrative that reflects on the gendered epistemologies of women’s experiences, especially since they pertain to women’s mental health. Gendered assumptions and stereotypes underlie the epistemic interactions between the characters, and function to privilege the epistemic authority of the men (primarily the husband, Nick, and the psychiatrist) while undermining the wife’s understanding of her situation. Further, I argue that an understanding of feminist standpoint theory of epistemology, as well as an account of Alison Jagger’s concept of “outlaw emotions,” can reframe the female character from an exclusively passive victim of circumstance to an active resister of her domination. In these ways, we can learn important epistemic and ethical lessons from fictional narratives.

In A Woman Under the Influence, it becomes apparent that the female lead character, Mabel, is incredibly restricted by the roles she is expected to fill: that of devoted and subservient wife, caring mother, and productive homemaker who cooks and cleans upon command. It is also evident that the men around her control her actions; when her husband, Nick, orders her to do something, she does it immediately without objection. When Mabel begins to grow resistant, Nick attempts to restrain her through violence, often smacking her or grabbing her to reinforce his authority. It isn’t only her husband, however, who exerts dominance over her and treats her in degrading gendered ways. At the beginning of the film, a man who takes her home from the bar forces himself upon her sexually, despite her repeated shouts of “NO.” When her husband brings his friends from work home for a meal, one man grabs Mabel’s rear end as if it is perfectly normal and acceptable. Those scenes demonstrate Mabel as if she has no role but to be a sexual object for the men (as reinforced by her short dress and done up hair and make-up) and to prepare their meals and clean up after them.

In light of the conditions described above, one might consider Mabel’s sadness, anxiety, withdrawal, and at times, seemingly erratic behavior to be a justified response to her social situation when viewed from her perspective. Her emotional and psychological responses to her environment might be epistemically informative, to the extent that they might represent a legitimate response to her subordinated position. Understanding Mabel’s emotional and psychological states could help to shed light on what is wrong in her environment, not merely what is assumed to be a flaw in her. A framework for understanding how the emotions of the oppressed can be used to develop a critical social theory, and to generate knowledge about the problems of hierarchical, patriarchal power dynamics, is Alison Jaggar’s concept of “outlaw emotions.” Jaggar describes this as conventionally unacceptable emotions held by subordinated individuals that challenge the status quo. Jaggar claims that analyzing a subordinate person’s outlaw emotions can help shed light on situations of “coercion, cruelty, injustice, or danger” (Jaggar 1989, 167). Further, Jaggar argues, that the emotions of subordinated persons might be more appropriate in a given situation than the emotions of the dominant class. On this analysis, one could consider Mabel’s outward reactions, which might seem extreme at first glance, to be legitimate reactions to her situation, which might offer an appropriate emotional appraisal of the violent, gendered situation she is in.

Used in a broader framework of feminist standpoint theory, Jaggar’s concept of outlaw emotions and their application to Mabel’s experiences can help further the claim that her oppressed view has a unique perspective on the social situation and power relations at play—a perspective which is epistemically useful for analyzing and challenging the social status. Heidi Grasswick’s description of feminist standpoint theory is the epistemological theory that privileges the perspective of the oppressed, due to their “dual vision” of the social world, which requires them to have knowledge and understanding of the dominant position as well as their subordinate status (Grasswick 2014, 8). With the claims of feminist standpoint theory about the epistemic privilege of subordinated persons, it can be argued that this privileged understanding of the social world on the behalf of oppressed individuals should be taken seriously by the dominant group. Those in the dominant position can, and might even be morally obligated, to gain moral insight by listening to the testimony of oppressed persons (Grasswick 2012, 318). Chesire Calhoun argues that gaining moral knowledge through the testimony of the oppressed is important in what she calls “abnormal moral contexts,” where ignorance is typical, and agents cannot rely on shared knowledge for moral direction. In these abnormal contexts (i.e., sexist societies), Calhoun argues that we must “rely on moral experts who have a better grasp on the relevant moral knowledge” (Calhoun quoted in Grasswick 2012, 318). Since the household, and furthermore the overall society, that Mabel finds herself in are clearly sexist, those in the dominant position (namely, the men around her) could gain moral insight through listening to, as opposed to silencing, Mabel, and by taking seriously her “outlaw emotions” and resistant behavior. As Naomi Schemen points out, the disenfranchised have a unique role to play in bringing injustices to attention (Schemen 2011, 46).

Gaining knowledge from Mabel’s understanding of her social position, as well as her psychological and emotional responses to it, would require the men around her to overcome a dichotomy that deems her “feminine” knowledge as emotional, irrational, and subjective, and their “masculine” knowledge as objective and guided by reason. As Lorraine Code articulates, what counts as knowledge is gendered and the sex of knowers is epistemically important (Code 1991, 67). When Mabel is silence and discredited, others’ knowledge are privileged over her own, a circumstance that results in her being committed to a psychiatric institution while the men around her who talk to themselves (the man from the bar) or have violent outbursts (Nick) remain unquestioned. There seems to be nothing “purely objective” or scientific about the choice to commit Mabel while her violent husband is left at home with their children. Rather, this appears to be a decision guided by subjective biases of those granted the status of the knower in the situation (particularly the psychiatrist). As Lorraine Code notes, knowledge is neither value-free nor value-neutral (Code 1991, 70). The psychiatric interpretation of Mabel’s emotions and behavior are far from objective—they are infiltrated with gendered bias and the subjectivity of the male psychiatrist.

Fictional narratives, such as those presented in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and A Woman Under the Influence, present us with a unique opportunity to analyze how gendered assumptions and stereotypes affect who is taken seriously as a knower, and how one’s behavior can be interpreted in conflicting ways by differently situated observers. Observers can identify with fictional characters and draw connections with real world experiences in a way that is less disconnected and impersonal than abstract theory, allowing them to gain knowledge from fictional accounts regarding how things can go wrong both epistemically and ethically and to critically reflect on similar real world scenarios.


Works Cited:

  1. A Woman under the Influence. Dir. John Cassavetes. By John Cassavetes. Perf. Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, and Fred Draper. Faces International Films, 1974.
  2. Code, Lorraine. “Knowledge and Subjectivity.” What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991. Print.
  3. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and Dale M. Bauer. The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Bedford, 1998. Print.
  4. Grasswick, Heidi. “Knowing Moral Agents: Epistemic Dependence and the Moral Realm.” Out from the Shadows: Analytical Feminist Contributions to Traditional Philosophy. By Sharon L. Crasnow and Anita M. Superson. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
  5. Grasswick, Heidi. “Understanding Epistemic Normativity in Feminist Epistemology.” The Ethics of Belief (2014): 216-43. Web.
  6. Jaggar, Alison. “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.”Inquiry SINQ 32.2 (1989): 151-76. Web.
  7. Scheman, Naomi. “Feminist Epistemology.” Shifting Ground: Knowledge and Reality, Transgression and Trustworthiness. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.



HEATHER STEWART is a current Masters student in Bioethics at the University of Louisville. Before beginning her MA program, she completed degrees in Biology and Philosophy. After completing her Masters, Stewart intends to pursue doctoral study in Philosophy, focusing on her many areas of philosophical interest. She is currently working on issues about epistemic injustices in health care, microaggressions in clinical medicine, and theories of global justice.

Spring 2016  |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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