The Shaky Premise of Sexual Empowerment and “A Woman on a Roof”

Below is my reader response to “A Woman on a Roof” By Doris Lessing. I wrote this for a literary criticism class. I’m sharing because it covers a topic in feminism that I have real trouble with, the idea of sexual freedom as a form of power.

My essay:

My initial response to “A Woman on a Roof” was disappointment. There was a major buildup, but nothing came of it. I guess that is the novel reader in me expecting a climax. After a second reading, and after listening to input from class, and being enlightened about the bold act of Lady Godiva, my perspective of the writing changed, and the author’s core theme was revealed: society’s often negative response to a female’s freedom of sexuality. I do not agree with this stance. Not only is one’s outward appearance subject to aging – therefore is a weak foundation from which to seek empowerment, but the idea of sexual power plays on primal instincts, which often, and not surprisingly, prompts a primal response; in the case of the writing, sexual harassment. This predictable response often occurs in real life, as in the writing.

The idea of empowerment through sexuality is one thing, but the existence of an idea does not change human instincts. Stanley, Harry, and Tom each portray a degree of objectification of the woman on the roof. The woman, as a result, is made to feel uncomfortable. I have no problem with a woman tanning or wearing swimwear. My issue is with the presentation of this writing as a feminist allegory that revolves around the idea of sexual freedom as power. Who ultimately benefits? Not the men, or the woman. The woman on the roof tells Tom that he could get what she is showing at “ the Lindo”. She is not offering anything unique, rare or precious. Obviously, she has no monopoly of power. This is not empowerment.

Claiming strength from sexual expression is a poor choice in the fight for gender equality. If “A Woman on a Roof” is supposed to be a lesson on a woman’s right to freedom and expression of sexuality, then the protagonist’s characterization, like the idea of empowerment through sexuality, is too shallow to fit the bill. Unlike bold Lady Godiva, the woman on the roof is not particularly bold or powerful. She is the flattest character in the story. Her only worth is her sexual attractiveness. When she puts herself on display, in a supposed expression of empowerment, she does little to defend herself when duly harassed by observing men. Even when she is in a position where she can be physically harmed, when Tom hovers over her, she waits for him to go away. This is neither bold nor powerful, thus the reference to Lady Godiva falls apart – along with the theme. The story is ultimately a reflection on why the idea of sexual empowerment for the feminist cause is unstable, and thus solidifies my stance on the issue; sexual empowerment is a fantasy, unfounded in reality at worst, and unsustainable at best.

Citation: Lessing, Doris. “A Woman on a Roof.” 1963. Literature: Reading and Writing with Critical Strategies. Ed. Steven Lynn. New York: Pearson. 2004. 493-500. Print.

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