Initially published in 1924, Colette’s story The Secret Woman was a mechanism for exhibiting the complicated concept of female sexuality despite it being a taboo subject in society. The Secret Woman took place during an era when women were expected to be subservient, pure housewives who were dependent on their male counterparts. However, Colette challenged this view by exposing the true nature of woman- the woman in her natural habitat, liberated by her control over her own sexuality. Irene, the wife of a wealthy doctor, is portrayed as a flustered, subservient woman while at home in the beginning of the story. Though when Irene is hidden behind a disguise at the Opera Ball, she is portrayed as being confident and empowered, in control of her sexuality. Irene has seemed to master the societal expectations of women while still holding onto her “native state” of self- sufficiency and control over her sense of self.
Colette’s critique on the crippling gender norms in society, though expressed just under 100 years earlier, are still applicable to this day. Harmful stereotypes have developed at the expense of women who take control of their own identities, especially publicly. The “ball-buster” is an example of a stereotype labeling independent women, especially in the business field- a woman who climbs the executive ladder by being irritatingly assertive; a woman who is self-absorbed and ruthless, unafraid to bring down those around her to make it to the top of the ladder.
Furthermore, modern feminism is a mechanism for women to fight against the grain of gender binaries, by promoting women taking control of their sexuality. However, the “feminist agenda” is highly unpopular by many people in society. Politician Pat Robertson claimed that feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”. While quotes like this may seem ridiculous to some, it truly does reflect the opinion of many people who view female control over sexuality as a threat to the social order.
Through her short story The Secret Woman, Colette does a fantastic job not only portraying a woman who is in control of her own sexuality and sense of self, but also the effect of the male gaze. While Irene seems fully in control of her own identity at the opera ball, she continues to live a double life as a subservient housewife. While it is admirable that she is able to feel liberated for even a night, the perspective of her husband and the male gaze connote the unyielding criticism that she will be met with for doing so. While freeing, removing oneself from the constraints of public opinion and socialized gender norms is extremely difficult. Colette understands this disappointing reality, conceding that as free as Irene is, she will return to her husband and cookie-cutter life of a housewife the next day.