Here is an analysis of Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, which defies the stereotypes women are often faced with today. The poem appeared in Angelou’s third volume of poetry, And Still I Rise, which was first published in 1978. In Phenomenal Woman, Angelou celebrates her body and the uniqueness that separates her from other women. Angelou, who died at the age of 86 in 2014, is one of the most celebrated poets and memoirists in American literature. Her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first U.S. bestseller ever written by an African American woman, and it catapulted Angelou into instant fame in the literary world. The majority of her work deals with both the racism and sexism she experienced as an African American woman.
Summary of Phenomenal Woman
The first-person speaker of the poem (click here to read the poem), presumably Angelou, is describing the allure she has as a woman. Throughout each stanza, Angelou exposes the attributes she possesses that deem her irresistible to others, particularly to those of the opposite sex, despite the fact that she does not fit into society’s definition of what makes a woman beautiful. The first stanza includes the physical traits that make her stand out, from her hips to her smile. As the poem continues, Angelou extols the inner mystery that makes her so attractive to the men around her. At the end of the work, she describes the confidence and pride she has in herself, which radiates from her. In essence, this is Angelou’s anthem about her pride in being a woman.
Angelou breaks her poem into five stanzas. While there is some evidence of rhyme, she mostly uses an unconventional rhyme scheme. She begins her poem with a couplet in the first two lines: “Pretty woman wonder where my secret lies/I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” While her use of rhyme is sporadic, Angelou does, however, repeatedly end her lines with words that end in “s.” This adds to the sultry, sensual tone of the poem, particularly when it is read aloud.
Just as bees are naturally drawn to that sweet substance, men are just as enchanted with Angelou, even though she defies all conventional beauty standards. “I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,” she writes. This comparison also highlights the primitive side to human sexuality. The bees have an innate, uncontrollable desire to be near the honey; likewise, the men cannot help but flock towards Angelou.
Angelou relies heavily on repetition throughout her poem, ending the majority of her stanzas with “That’s me.” In addition, the phrase “phenomenal woman” is repeated throughout the course of the poem, once again emphasizing Angelou’s unconventional beauty and appeal to the opposite sex.
Structurally, Angelou breaks her poem into four major stanzas, with two smaller, yet still significant stanzas in between.
In the first stanza, Angelou bluntly tells her reader that other women wonder what she has that they are missing, even though she lacks the traits that society most often judges to be beautiful; she intuits that the other women are jealous of Angelou. She writes, “They think I’m telling lies.” She continues on, telling the reader her appeal lies in her arms, hips, and lips.
Her constant use of the word ‘phenomenal’ is twofold. One most often defines the word as meaning extraordinary and impressive, and Angelou is certainly reveling in being an extraordinary and impressive woman; however, the word phenomenal is also synonymous with unbelievable. By consciously choosing to call herself phenomenal, Angelou seems almost incredulous that she is lucky enough to be a woman.
In her second stanza, Angelou moves away from discussing women and begins to discuss the spell she seems to have over the men she encounters.
Her attractiveness goes beyond the physical: it is something innate inside her that makes her so irresistible to men. While women can change the way they look, Angelou insinuates that they will never be able to replicate what she naturally possesses inside herself.
This idea continues into the third stanza, where Angelou discusses the fact that even men cannot pinpoint what it is about her that is so irresistible.
Her answer to them is that she’s a woman. She is saying, “Unbelievably, I’m a woman. I’m an extraordinary, amazing woman. That’s who I am.”
In the last lines of the poem, Angelou speaks directly to her reader, after explaining her appeal to her audience.
Angelou explains that she does not need to draw attention to herself; the attention is naturally given to her because she is a woman. Her last line, set apart in its own stanza, simply says, “That’s me.” Because she is a woman—a phenomenal woman—she has the confidence and pride to walk with her head held high.