Kurt Vonnegut, an author known for his satirical work and commentary on society, published his feminist short story, “Miss Temptation,” in 1956, shortly before second wave feminism flourished in the United States. Vonnegut’s short story satirizes the sexualization of women and their treatment as objects rather than people. In “Miss Temptation,” Vonnegut presents the idea that women aren’t sexual objects for men to degrade and abuse, but rather they are equal to men. In this particular short story, Vonnegut exaggerates the characteristics of the patriarchal and religious base, breaks gender roles and expectations, and uses the power dynamic between Susanna and Corporal Fuller in order to expose the vast hypocrisy of men from idolizing the beauty of women while condemning their sexuality to expecting women to serve as submissive objects of pleasure.
Vonnegut begins his short story by disregarding strict Puritan values in a small town, which would usually shun a woman for her enchanting, sensual presence in town. Puritanism typically aimed at keeping women in line and punished women who acted out, as shown by the infamous witch hunts lead by Puritans. Throughout the history of the United States, support for suppressing women and restricting their actions could often be found in religions such as Puritanism. Small towns such as the setting of the story would often be the pictured scene for such thoughts and strict attitudes. Instead of developing a stifling environment for his female protagonist, Vonnegut writes that, “[N]ot even the oldest farmer suspected that Susanna’s diabolical beauty had made his cow run dry.” Sudden and seemingly inexplicable bad luck such as cows running dry would typically send a Puritan town into a witch hunt, as seen in Salem’s history. Women were typically blamed for inexplicable hardships, especially those that may present their sexuality as brazenly as Susanna does. However, the author raises this Puritan town to be above such accusations of women. Thus, Vonnegut creates a supportive environment for Susanna and her beauty to exist without conflict, until Corporal Fuller, embodying the toxic, historical masculinity that smothers women, returns home. Throughout the story, the author then drops clues, indicating that Fuller represented the patriarchal, religious base that the feminist theory suggests society was built on at the time. Vonnegut makes clever reference to the history of witch hunts and their unjust destruction of innocent women, “[Fuller’s] indictment had reduced Susanna to washes of what she’d been moments before.” Exaggerations of history suggest that the Salem Witch Trials involved burning women at the stake. Vonnegut similarly uses exaggeration to expose the pretentiousness and ridiculous hold onto the past with Fuller’s verbal assault on Susanna. He even describes Fuller’s outburst as, “The wraith of a Puritan ancestor, stiff-necked, dressed in black, took possession of Fuller’s tongue… the voice of a witch hanger, a voice redolent with frustration, self-righteousness…” The author’s description of the army man demonstrates that he is representative of the oppressive patriarchal and religious beliefs on women. Fuller is all the worst aspects of Puritan men, “stiff-necked,” a “witch hanger,” and self-righteous with no redeeming qualities, thus an extreme hyperbolic allegory for the oppressive base of the society that Vonnegut attempts to critique, arguing that to view women the same way that Fuller does is to view them in an antiquated and dangerous manner.
The feminist theory recognizes the traditional, “good” female role in a patriarchy as “modest, unassuming” (Tyson 89). However, Susanna is presented as a sensual woman that inspires desire in men such as Fuller. She defies the traditional gender role of being a conservative woman that does not showcase her sexuality, blending into society’s expectations. Instead Susanna is a spectacle, “[h]er hips were like a lyre, and her bosom made men dream of peace…She wore barbaric golden hoops on her shell-pink ears…” Susanna represents the idea of a free woman, not bound by the restrictions of the patriarchy and their gender roles for women. Fuller, after publicly denouncing her as a tease, meets Susanna again and her appearance and status as a free woman has shifted. “[Susanna] was now dressed for travel—dressed as properly as a missionary’s wife.” However, even as her appearance matches the traditional “good” girl expectation, Susanna begins a lively and opinionated rant that demolishes the idea of her behaving as expected by the patriarchy, and Fuller is equally as intimidated and upset by the conservative Susanna. This reflects on the society that Vonnegut is experiencing as women are gearing up for the next swell of feminism and fighting for their rights to be viewed as more than submissive creatures. The scene suggests that even when women are pressured to suppress their bodies for men, their spirits will rise and demand the same respect that men take for themselves. Susanna’s long tirade regarding her feelings reflects the climate of society as women wish to express themselves and be seen as more than just wives or mothers. In analyzing the ignored gender roles that Susanna presents, the feminist criticism reveals the changing perspective of women, both in men such as Vonnegut and in the social climate as second wave feminism begins, and women begin to demand to own their own bodies. It also shows the fickle nature that is typically expected of women is reflected in Fuller, and more broadly in the oppressive patriarchy, who dislikes Susanna’s sensual expression of self, yet is equally as uncomfortable with her “proper” attire.
The power dynamic between men and women has historically favored men as the dominant and women as the weak and submissive. Initially, “Miss Temptation” follows this idea when Fuller critiques Susanna in front of his audience; however, the power dynamic does not remain in his favor. In fact, Fuller is never actually the one in place of power in his interactions with Susanna. It is because she intimidates him that he insults Susanna, exposing that he is not actually the “all powerful army man” that the audience initially assumes. Fuller, despite his low rank, is still an army man, such a role should give him a greater social standing than a civilian woman and he is expected to act as such. Instead, this idea is deconstructed quickly as his self-righteous opinion of himself is weakened. “Susanna, the golden girl of a thousand tortured daydreams, was now discussing her soul, passionately, with Fuller the lonely. Fuller the homely. Fuller the bleak.” Fuller, once again representative of the toxic patriarchy, is exposed as easily destroyed and brought down from his self-righteous throne of power. Rather than having control over the situation, he is put at Susanna’s level, creating an equal ground where Fuller cannot assert authority over her, as a man or as a part of the military. Instead he is forced to see that Susanna has feelings and is “not Yellowstone Park” nor does she “belong to everybody!” Susanna makes the comparison of being treated like public property or an attraction meant for men to look at and metaphorically tour. Women have often been treated as if their bodies belonged to men to gawk at and criticize. Her argument does not promote being viewed as private property, but rather for women to not be viewed as property at all and instead have standing as human beings capable of their own decisions. This scene reflects the possibilities that would be hoped for in the second wave of feminism as women sought equality and control over their own bodies and decisions such as access to birth control. Men such as Fuller expect to remain in power and dominate women, but the feminist theory would suggest that by analyzing this short story, written by a man around the time of a social movement, men were actually intimidated by the power held by women and sought to suppress them into their expected roles in the power dynamic between the sexes.
Reading Vonnegut’s “Miss Temptation” alone leads to the conclusion that he believed women were more than just objects for men’s visual enjoyment. Applying the feminist criticism takes this meaning from the satirical short story and exposes that while men place themselves as dominant figures over women, they are equally as sensitive, and the patriarchy can be demolished. Their hypocrisy runs deep in their inability to accept sensual women who own their bodies while also claiming the right to stare and project their desires onto these women.