When Mrs Bibbit cannot be present to keep her son in anguishing infantilism, Nurse Ratched adopts her role. When the Nurse, having caught Billy having sex with a prostitute, threatens to tell his mother, the threat, not of his own guilt, but the disappointment of his mother directly leads him to suicide. Like Mrs Bibbit, Vera Harding exemplifies the gender-ruling power reversal in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Mrs Harding preys upon her husband, Dale Harding’s insecurities about his sexuality, in order to assert herself as the dominant figure in their relationship, similar to the way in which men use their masculinity and strength in order to sexually domineer and domestically control women.
His participation in political matters in the hospital (He is president of the patients council) and his strong sense of education, are highly valued by the other patients. He is the only inmate to provide rational explanations. It is he who tells McMurphy how Nurse Ratched is capable of maintaining her power, how electroshock therapy works, and what a lobotomy really does to people. Potentially, he could represent the leaders of the feminist movement in the 1960’s America, the ideal politician able to provide direct honesty that citizens rebelling against society were seeking.
However this is all undermined by his wife, his possessor, Vera Harding. She herself is voluptuous and beautiful. She makes Dale feel inadequate, with her figure and sneering remarks on his effeminacy which is symbolised by his graceful unmanageable hands. According to Bromden: “He’s got hands so long and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap, and sometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him, free as two white birds, until he notices them and traps them between his knees: It bothers him that he’s got pretty hands.”
Combined with the terror of his wife and her accusations about his homosexuality and weakness, Dale Harding chooses to remain in the institution voluntarily, as any confidence he may have gained is eliminated. He chooses to adopt the role of the weak, suppressed and socially unconfident wife. The fact that Kesey grants him the more superior position among the patients acts as a comment on his homosexuality- ironically the woman with the ability to subdual her possessor, but lacking the confidence to diverge her intellect.
The most prominent example of woman adopting the male societal role in the novel, is that of the Big Nurse. Nurse Ratched is the ultimate dictum in the ward. She rules the totalitarionist institution with a tyrannical power, expressed bluntly in sexual terms. She is a symbol of beaurocracy and personifies the power and control exhibited by large government and businesses. Her sloe voice of authority, positioned from the “control room”, is asserted in a number of ways. Mc Murphy speaks about the way she controls through the suppression of laughter;
“The first thing that got to me about this place, that there wasn’t anybody laughing. I haven’t heard a real laugh since I came through that door, do you know that? Man, when you lose your laugh, you lose your footing. A man go around letting woman whup him down till he cant laugh any more, and he loses one of the biggest edges he’s got on his side. First thing you know he’ll begin to think she’s tougher than he is”
One is able to draw parallels between the suppression of laughter in the hospital and the infiltration of government propaganda commenting on the post-par censorship and the suppression of women’s right to entertainment. Ratched also asserts her authority by humiliating the patients, describing in inexorable detail, their personal and psychiatric problems at the ritual weekly confession, thus the men are encouraged to scrutinise and pick-apart their fellow patients. They are instructed to spy on each other, the nurse’s divide and conquer quest for obedience. The patients are functioning in a society where they feel they are being watched all day and every day. They share communal bathrooms and dormitories. Bromdens paranoia is intensified by these intimidation tactics.
When the inmates speak about Nurse Ratched she is often referred to in terms of sexual imagery, for instance Mc Murphy calls her a “ball cutter”. She is the manifestation of their sexual desires, with her doll-like features and almost-perfect appearance. Her only flaw are her large incongruous breasts, “A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what otherwise would have been a perfect work”. They are the source of much bitterness, and a vehicle for the materialisation for Mc Murphy’s non-conformance.
Mc Murphy is notorious in the novel for his non-conformist freedom-fighter role. Whilst on one level he is comparable to the feminists of 1960’s America, with his rebellious acts and refusal to become condition to the dehumanisation of the male gender within the restrains of Nurse Ratched’s domain, he is described in terms of a western cowboy, with his southern slur, non-commitance and quest for justice.
In a number of circumstances he challenges the authority of the big Nurse. He appeals and campaigns for the re-instatement of masculinity, not only for himself but also for the other men. He petitions for the men’s right to masculine sports, for instance the fishing trip and the baseball game.
These requests are often deprecating, although we do glimpse occasions when even the nurse must relinquish her control, and dignity. For instance, when Mc Murphy rapes The Big Nurse, which is notably the first example of violent, active defiance in the novel, her large breasts are exposed, her “only flaw of which she is so bitter” according to Bromden, she is incapacitated by his sexual assertion. In One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the poignant reversal of gender-based stereotypes reflect the conflict of sexual bias in society at the time.
The women in the novel adopt masculine-orientated positions of authority, they manipulate and possess the impassive men with their sexuality, their authoritative relationship status and explicitly in the case of Nurse Ratched, the enforcement of strict disciplinary measures, i.e. the lobotomy of Mc Murphy in the totalitarian-esque regime of the institution. The male societal position is dehumanised, as they become weak and constrained within the confines of the mental institution. They are bound by the manipulative tactics of the Nurse, consigned to the infiltration of their lunacy, and represent the post-war stereotype of the inertly submissive wife.