Gender Roles and Relationships in “Water for Elephants”


Water for Elephants offers an interesting insight into gender roles during a unique time in US history. The film portrays several different types of character relationships (female dyads, male dyads, and opposite sex dyads) and we are shown how the different dyads interact with one another in their relationships. I feel that the gender roles in this film are extremely traditional and almost seem exaggerated compared to today’s standards. Marlena’s character is very submissive to the male characters in the film (especially August), while the male characters almost seem to be more animalistic in their fight for dominance.

The most prominent female-male dyads in this film would be those between Marlena and Jacob and Marlena and August. Although both relationships involve the same female, they are navigated very differently by Marlena’s character. When interacting with August, Marlena is extremely submissive and seems to almost “play dumb” as though she would be unable to function in the world without August holding her hand. As an audience member we are able to see past this act and realize that Marlena is very intelligent and would be perfectly capable of making her own way in the modern world. However the setting of the film in depression era US may offer an explanation into her behavior. At this time there were very few employment opportunities for women and after the depression hit there were very few jobs for anyone (Clark, Guilmain, Saucier & Tavarez, (2003), p. 440). In this case Marlena’s intelligence would be of very little use to her in finding employment on her own, so she may have felt it necessary to rely on a man to help her survive. Her sexual desirability in this situation seems to be more of a means of survival rather than her intelligence. I feel that Marlena seems to play up her femininity and helpless in attempt to draw male attention.

August is a particularly dominant male that exhibits very traditional masculine tendencies and seems to get pleasure in dominating Marlena’s life.  Through the movie Marlena follows August’s lead and walks and stands behind him. August is very possessive of her and usually has his hand draped on her, almost as if he’s afraid she’ll escape (Richmond, McCroskey, & Hickson,(2012),p. 223). This dyad is different from that of Marlena and Jacob in that it is unhealthy and abusive. This may be due to August’s more extreme adherence to a masculine gender role and a feeling of entitlement he has adopted after becoming the leader of his circus company. It has been found that men that display unhealthy forms of entitlement (which are associated with disrespect for the rights of others and a narcissistic tendency to exploit people) are less adapt at managing their anger and tend to be more abusive in relationships (McDermott, Shwartz,& Trevathan-Minnis,(2012), p. 52)

Although Marlena was able to be more dominant in her relationship with Jacob, it was evident that she still submitted to his dominance. Jacob’s display of masculine tendencies was much less overt and aggressive than August. Jacob was a lot more nurturing and caring with Marlena and with the animals which is associated with more androgynous behavior (Richmond, McCroskey, & Hickson, (2012), p. 229). He was very gentle in handling the animals and would allow Marlena to cry on his shoulder. However, Jacob still called the shots when it came to decisions that were made in his relationship with Marlena, he decided they would jump the train together. He came back for her and basically told her if she didn’t leave with him he would come back for her.  It is very interesting to me how Marlena played along with these men telling her what to do, because like I said I think she was probably more intellectually capable than both of them.  That demonstrates the great effect that cultural standards can have on how a person behaves. I think that in present-day Marlena’s character would be much less likely to submit to her male partners because she would have an opportunity to support herself financially. I also think that in opposite sex relationships it is less acceptable for men to be quite as domineering and August and Jacob. Men are expected to be more caring and supportive of their relationship partners, which could be attributed to the dissolving of gender roles.

This video demonstrates the degree to which gender roles are changing and dissolving among the Millennial generation

The male dyads in the film are lacking in warmth and seem to have a competitive nature about them. The most competitive and aggressive of all the dyads would be between August and Jacob. From the beginning August attempts to demonstrate is dominance to Jacob by basically making Jacob beg for a job and prove himself to August. Although it seems like the two are becoming friends in the beginning of the movie, August continues to demonstrate his power to Jacob. He makes Jacob feed the lions and then threatens him when he can’t find a cure for Marlena’s horse. Jacob tends to take a more submissive role which I attribute to the fact he is more androgynous in his gender role and depends on August for survival. We are able to see that Jacob has a nurturing side that August does not have; when Jacob fights he does so with a conscious.  I also feel that in this situation Jacob is more willing to put up with August’s macho behavior in order to get fed and have a place to sleep. It is only when Jacob realizes that he is an asset to the circus and could find a way to survive without August that he begins to fight back. He has Marlena escape with him and then comes back and fights August in order to bring her back with him. Between August and Jacob it seems that Marlena is the ultimate prize possession and the winner is in some way the ultimate alpha male.

We see a softer side of male relationships when it comes to Jacob and Camel. Camel befriends Jacob and takes him under his wing in a fatherly manner after Jacob hops the train. He protects Jacob by offering him advice and guidance on how to navigate the circus in order to survive. There doesn’t seem to be any type of power play going on between the two men like there is between August and Jacob. I feel like each has a respect for one another, Jacob respects Camel’s wisdom and Camel respects Jacob’s physical dominance. They aren’t in competition with one another for a power position either which I also think allows them to be more relaxed in interaction with one another. They disclose more personal information with one another and show more care and concern than any other male characters.

In my opinion today’s males are much less aggressive with one another than they are demonstrated to be in this film. There are situations in which men do fight and try to dominant one another but I feel like that type of aggression usually reserved for sports or the occasional bar fight. The male relationships that I observe regularly are much more similar to that between Jacob and Camel. Men seem to be much more open about caring for one another and expressing their friendship openly than they used to be in the past. I think this could also be contributed to the fact that our society is evolving and puts fewer constraints on what gender roles are supposed to look like.

One thing I noticed about this film is the lack of female dyads displayed. Marlena doesn’t appear to have any close female friends or even any sort of confidant that she interacts with. This is interesting to me because women are very social and depend on one another for emotional support more than men (Benenson & Christakos, (2003), p. 1123). The only female relationships that we are even given a glimpse of are those between the “peep show” dancers. Those relationships have a lack of depth and seem to play into the feminine stereotype that women have no thoughts of their own and simply exist to fill the desires of men. We don’t see any conversations about how the women are worried that the circus might be going under or how they are being forced to compromise their morality in order to make a living. I think this was intentional to show the lack of voice that women had during this time period. Women were probably having these conversations behind closed doors but wouldn’t dare voice these opinions to someone like August who could quickly take away any hope for survival.

This film offers a view into how interpersonal relationships were dictated and constrained by gender roles during this time period. It seems that society as a whole had a much stricter definition of what was considered feminine and masculine behavior. I think it is evident when examining the relationships in this film that those gender roles served as barriers that kept people from being able to relate to one another on a real level. I feel like today people are much freer to express themselves with less constraint because we are not as strict as a society about adhering to traditional gender roles.

Works Cited

Benenson, J. F., & Christakos, A. (2003). The Greater Fragility of Females’ Versus Males’ Closest Same-Sex Friendships. Child Development74(4), 1123-1129. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00596

Clark, R., Guilmain, J., Saucier, P., & Tavarez, J. (2003). Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Presence of Female Characters and Gender Stereotyping in Award-Winning Picture Books Between the 1930s and the 1960s. Sex Roles49(9-10), 439-449. doi:10.1023/A:1025820404277

McDermott, R. C., Schwartz, J. P., & Trevathan-Minnis, M. (2012). Predicting men’s anger management: Relationships with gender role journey and entitlement. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity13(1), 49-64. doi:10.1037/a0022689

Richmond, V.P., McCroskey, J.C., & Hickson III, M.L. (2011). Nonverbal behavior in interpersonal relations (7. ed.). Boston:Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.


2 responses »

  1. It is of the upmost importance to examine the gender roles in this movie. They were a key theme in Water for Elephants and shaped each character. I loved your post, it was so academic and insightful. Well Done!!

  2. Great post Eden. I really liked your take on Marlena and how you felt she’s a lot more intellectually capable then she gives off. I’m glad you also addressed the dyad between Jacob and Camel. We get very focused on the relationship between August and Jacob because they are the two main male characters but there are other men and relationships in the movie also and I like that you brought that up. I agree, I think the male dyads are much more like Jacob and Camel’s relationship today versus the aggressive relationship Jacob and August had. Overall very insightful and I liked the touch the video added with the take on current male female relationship dyads.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s