The 1970s in the U.S. was a pivotal time in politics and social change. Second wave feminism was characterized by the sexual liberation of women. As women began to become familiar with their sexual identities there was also the desire for them to define the rest of their identities. The hope to create a unique female voice carried over to to the political sphere. After major changes started in Washington women stepped up to fight for workplace rights and other opportunities that matched their male counterparts. However, this struggle to create equality began long before this new group of feminists arrived on the scene. The same attack on unequal opportunity and the push for legislation protecting against this can be seen back to the 1920s; where brave women forged on with their newly granted voting rights and tried to gain more ground. The second wave feminists held onto those old goals while also redefining the platform on which they stood by focusing on an additional aspect of oppression; the social paradox that women deal with in regards to sexuality.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is set during this critical era in feminism and follows the tragic lives of the five Lisbon sisters. Before they each committed suicide, the sisters dealt with pressure from both their mother and the boys who narrated the novel. This contrast between an overt sexualization of the Lisbon girls and the oppression to force innocence creates an inescapable struggle. The struggle that they face mirrors the larger pressures in society for women during that time. Each of the sisters rebelled in their own way, but Lux Lisbon was the most rebellious of them, openly flouting the harsh measures from her mother and the objectification by the boys. Lux’s rebellious actions through sexual liberation, a constant fight against boundaries and eventually her suicide are parallel to the major theme of second wave feminism.
Mrs. Lisbon had been oppressing Lux since she had begun adolescence; harshly punishing and banning anything that could lead her away from the innocence and purity that her mother so strongly desired. This constant beatdown of Lux’s burgeoning sexuality through the hiding of her body, removal of any makeup and the Biblical reminders that she would be additionally punished eventually pushed her to rebel in an extreme fashion. Her first act of sexual rebellion was having sex with the local heartthrob, Trip Fontaine. Not only pushing back against her mother’s oppression to keep her chaste, Lux also chose the societal definition of a bad boy, further adding to her rebellion. When her and Trip had sex after the homecoming dance it was the entering of a new world for Lux. She was able to explore what she had been so closed off from, “a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal,” (Eugenides 82). Her desperation to experience what had been so strictly forbidden epitomizes her rebellious spirit.
After being completely shut off from the world Lux increased her sexual rebellion by continuously having sex with strangers on the roof of her house. Over and over again the narrators saw men with her on the roof. She was so driven to rebel, to take control of her sexuality, that she braved the freezing winter to do so. “It was crazy to make love on the roof at any time, but to make love on the roof in winter suggested derangement, desperation, self-destructiveness far in excess of any pleasure snatched beneath the dripping trees,” (Eugenides 143). This shows Lux’s desire to have sex was not for the pleasure of it, but to attempt control over her life and her sexuality.
This mirrors the goals of second wave feminists who flaunted their sexuality in order to gain control of their sexual identities and establish their control in the situation, rather than merely being sexual objects. Lux also wanted control of the situation, seen in her encounter with Trip where she was forceful and voracious. She is also depicted as being controlling with the anonymous men on the roof by, “positioning the boys, undoing zippers and buckles,” (Eugenides 144). She did not want to be objectified by the boys, but wanted to prove herself as a master of herself. As an act of open rebellion Lux drew the name “Kevin” into all her bras and underwear. She was flaunting her sexual identity for her mother and reversing the typical role of men and women in bragging about conquests, as second wave feminists did in an attempt to decrease the fear of female sexuality. Once again, Mrs. Lisbon stripped her of that by bleaching them all until the name was gone. This repeated attack on sexuality by Mrs. Lisbon is a reflection of the larger opinion on it in society. She pushed so hard for the girls to remain pure because that was valued highly and sexuality was viewed as a dangerous thing. However sexuality proved not to be dangerous, but the fear and the fight against it by Lux’s mother proved to be deadly.
In addition to rebelling against sexual boundaries Lux also rebelled against the physical boundaries placed on her by her mother. Lux and her sisters had been confined to school and church by Mrs. Lisbon since the start of the novel, but after Lux breaks curfew returning from her escapade with Trip they are all pulled out of school. They were on complete lockdown, trapped in the decrepit house. Despite this, Lux is determined to escape the oppression by communicating with the boys and sneaking outside. She would leave notes for the boys and signal to them with flashlights. Sometimes she would even risk calling them.
Second wave feminists also fought against the control of the larger power in society, men. They worked tirelessly to extricate themselves from the separate class they had been born into; consistently proposing and pushing legislation that would put them equal with men in the workplace and society. Similarly, Lux craved getting away from the isolation forced by her oppressor, “A few weeks after Mrs. Lisbon shut the house in maximum-security isolation, the sightings of Lux making love on the roof began,” (Eugenides 136). She was rebelling against her mother’s control and constant threat of punishment by escaping to the freedom of outside.
Lux Lisbon’s final act of rebellion came in the form of her suicide. She died quietly and alone, a commentary on the death of spirit experience by so many women who were pushed down by society. “They found her in the front seat, grey faced and serene, holding a cigarette lighter that had burned its coils into her palm,” (Eugenides 281). She died by carbon monoxide poisoning in the car that was going to take her to her escape with the narrators. Her rebellion is expressed so strongly here; she would rather be dead than be controlled and continue to deal with constant social paradox she was living in. Taking her life in her getaway car reflects her decision to take her life as an escape from the isolation and powerlessness. Lux took control of her fate and resisted being a continued sexual object and an oppressed pinnacle of fear. This death parallels the death of the old attitude held by women prior to second wave feminism. That movement was exemplified by women taking control of their lives and not allowing society to dictate how they would be perceived or treated.
Throughout Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides Lux Lisbon reflects the social movement occurring around her in her rebellious actions. By engaging in her growing sexuality rather than hiding it she possessed control over her sexual identity. Second wave feminists did the same; confronting the fear of sexual women as well as the simultaneous objectification of women, they lead a movement to give themselves back the power over their bodies. Lux’s encounters always held her as the controller through initiation as well as being decisive and forceful. She also repeatedly broke out of the confinement set up for her by Mrs. Lisbon. She risked further punishment to try and remove herself from isolation. During second wave feminism many actions were taken to put women on the same level as men in order to help them join society as equals. Finally, Lux committed suicide by suffocating herself in her garage. Taking her life was the most control she had ever experienced due to the pressure that she was equally a sexual object and also needed to be pure. She rebelled against both by killing herself in a poetic manner; showing the reasoning behind her decision lay in the constant crushing pressure coming from both sides of the spectrum. Although her rebellion parallels the second wave feminist movement, which was successful, the continued objectification by the narrators and the pressure from Mrs. Lisbon is a strong commentary by Eugenide that feminists still have work to do in order to be truly free from societal discrimination.