The collection of short stories entitled Missing Women and Other Stories by June Spence was heralded as being a popular discussion of modern behaviours in men and women. In practice, the stories detail the measured and controlled approaches that individuals take towards life and stand starkly juxtaposed with the excess lifestyles of so many living in the modern world today. This idea of ‘excess’ is regularly presented throughout the book; a feminist would view this as being an attempt to control the female form. In short, the stories which address female protagonists who are attempting to control their urges are examinations of how a patriarchal society affects the decisions of women everywhere: they must fulfil a certain role and a particular image – they cannot be who they are inside as they must fit in with social expectations as designated by a male-driven society. Equally, the stories which feature male characters as protagonists, still present modern men as being caught up in an older, more-established patriarchal society. In short, Spence has written a collection of stories which directly address the controlling patriarchal society and the infringement it has on the choices we all make.
This idea of excess stands opposed to the reassuring routine that the characters strive to achieve. In each story, these routines allegorically represent the idea of society’s expectations and the character’s own struggle to reconcile themselves to the patriarchal-instigated issues. For instance, Penny and her ability to think of herself and her body in terms of a man’s touch: “Awake, Penny would squeeze her excess flesh he strokes between thumb and forefinger, as if it were evidence.” (Spence, 1999, p29). In this instance, Penny is clearly a larger woman whose body image preoccupies her mind. In patriarchal society, women’s bodies are the subject of male minds – women’s breasts, curves and other features is the object of male attentions and in the modern world, social expectations of ‘what is attractive’ depends on size – the smaller, the better. In this story, Penny is presented as being the product of a patriarchal society: her body and its excess flesh is defined in terms of ‘his’ touch and by default, ‘his’ perception. In this one sentence, Spence has aligned “her excess flesh” with his “thumb and forefinger” – immediately coupling the two things and not allowing herself to stand independently of him and his opinions and touch. Equally, the choice to refer to her ‘excess’ of flesh is poignant in terms of the patriarchal society – women should be slim, tidy, well-kept and pretty (for the purposes of pleasing the male oppressors) and in one word, Penny is dismissed as being this figure of idealised womanhood and, in reality, she represents the majority of women who are not perfect.
The measures of control and restraint are regularly portrayed through the means of food, alcohol and sex; mostly notably with the latter. Many of the female characters, like Penny, define themselves via their relationships with men and are concerned with how they are perceived with regard to their indulgence in sex. Spence litters her work with comments such as “she felt it dangerous to get to know any new men” (Spence, 1999, p3) implying that there is some kind of ‘acceptable quota’ for the number of men a woman is allowed to know or be involved with in some way. This harks back to the age-old idea of women who enjoy sex are whores – this a patriarchal institution and a double standard: men are allowed to have as much sex as they like but women must be restrained and fulfil a social expectation as a pure and delicate individual. Another character, Isabelle, dwells on the idea of meaning nothing to her sexual partners: “She is afraid the indifference is real, afraid of just barely seeming to exist to someone who has touched her” (Spence, 1999, p66). In short, this is the essence of all female fears in a patriarchal society: the idea that they are just sexual objects to their male counterparts. However, in truth, women are only ever the sum of their parts and if they allow themselves to be sexual objects then that is what they will be. It is this idea that undercuts the whole collection – throughout it, women only ever define themselves by the appreciation (or lack thereof) that they feel from men.
The concept of ‘love’ in these stories is a superficial one which seems mostly concerned with the act of sex or gaining something from another individual. So rarely in these stories are individuals treated equally with their counterparts – Penny who is objectified by her partner and in her own thoughts, Isabelle who defines herself by the opinions of her sexual partners, and then there’s Emile who thinks of love in terms of sex: “Emile has made love to women who would now be Daphne’s age, and he wonders if that possibility has ever occurred to her or Stu.” (Spence, 1999, p27). Emile is a symbol of patriarchy; he contemplates the women in his life in terms of whether he has slept with them or not. He uses the term ‘made love’ but the sheer use of the plural noun, ‘women’, it indicates that his sex life is not directly consistent with his ability to love. This is another patriarchal institution – women as the objectified sexual objects of men, defined by their attractiveness and in turn, their appearance and their age. Emile is used to personify this concept.
June Spence’s Missing Women is a collection of stories that directly addresses characters who are preoccupied with control, restraints and excess. These are individuals who are determined to fulfil the priorities and ideals of a patriarchal society. The men are individuals who think of sex as something that is synonymous with the women they know – the two ideas are heavily intertwined, as demonstrated by the character of Emile who contemplates his past female associations in terms of their age and whether he slept with them. Equally, the female characters define themselves by their appearance and the opinions of their lovers. They do not consider themselves in terms of their intelligence, wit or charms – instead, they are preoccupied with how they are perceived by others in terms of how well they ‘fit in’ with patriarchal society ideals.
Penny, for instance, who as a larger lady, considers herself in terms of her excess and by the touch of her lover who toys with her flesh – she is objectified by him and allows herself to be in lieu of a greater confidence to override the expectations of a male-driven society. Overall, the collection presents modern life in a stark fashion which demonstrates how, even in the advent of a surge in feminist belief, society’s expectations are still determined by patriarchal belief systems.
Spence, J. (1999). Missing Women and Other Stories. New York: Riverhead Books.