In another example of gender reversal, Garp is forced to attend his own mother's funeral in drag because it is the "first feminist funeral" and men are not admitted. After he is recognized, he must run to escape the outraged feminists at the funeral. He catches a taxi to the airport and has to listen (dressed as a woman) to the cabby's sexist views about the female candidate for governor of New Hampshire who let her emotions about the assassination of Jenny Fields show in public and consequently lost the election. Garp gets into an argument with the cabby because he is annoyed at the driver’s sexist point of view:
Hilarious and serious at the same time, "The Word According to Garp" is among my top 10 favorite books. John Irving began writing it in the wake of the radical feminism of the early 1970's. Recently, Irving concluded that the book is about "a father's fears" but also acknowledges, "it had seemed at one time, when I was beginning the novel, that the polarization of the sexes was a dominant theme; the story was about men and women growing farther and farther apart."
A central theme is the difficulty men and women have in understanding and relating to each another. The character in the book best able to see things from both a male and female perspective is the transsexual former Philadelphia Eagles tight end, Roberta Muldoon. She calls Garp in the middle of the night after having been rejected by a male lover:
"Oh, I never knew what shits men were until I became a woman," Roberta said.
"I'll bet you could have taken him, Roberta," Garp said. "Why didn't you beat the shit out of him?"
"You don't understand," Roberta said. "I don't feel like beating the shit out of anyone, anymore. I'm a woman!"
It is ironic that Garp, reviled by the radical feminist Ellen Jamesians shows his inherent "open mindedness" about traditional gender roles earlier in the book when he happily stays at home to write, take care of his son Duncan, and make meals while his wife Helen earns a living as an English professor:
"... she had agreed to have a child only if Garp would agree to take care of it. Garp loved the idea of never having to go out. He wrote and took care of Duncan; he cooked and wrote and took care of Duncan some more. When Helen came home, she came home to a reasonably happy homemaker."
"In my opinion," the cabby said, "it took something like that shooting to show the people that the woman couldn't handle the job, you know?"
"Shut up and drive," Garp said.
"Look, honey," the cabby said. "I don't have to put up with no abuse."
"You're an asshole and a moron," Garp told him, "and if you don't drive me to the airport with your mouth shut, I'll tell a cop you tried to paw me all over."
Next, when he gets on the plane to Boston he first finds himself seated next to a man who tries to pick him up:
"Perhaps, when we're in the air," the man said, knowingly, "I could buy you a little drink?" His small, close-together eyes were riveted on the twisted zipper of Garp's straining turquoise jump suit.
Garp felt a peculiar kind of unfairness overwhelm him. He had not asked to have such an anatomy.
"That's some suit you got," said Garp's leering seat partner.
"Go stick it in your ear," Garp said.
Ultimately, the narrow-minded vicious side of radical feminism is parodied in the Ellen Jamesians. The brutal ridiculousness of their gesture shows what Irving thinks of them. These radicals mutilate themselves by having their tongues cut out in protest over a young girl named Ellen James who has been raped at age 11 and then had her tongue cut out by her assailant so she cannot identify him. Late in the book, after the assassination of Jenny Fields, Garp's view of the Ellen Jamesians is described:
"It was madness that had killed Jenny Fields, his mother. It was extremism. It was self-righteous, fanatical, and monstrous self-pity. Kenny Truckenmiller was only a special kind of moron: a true believer who was also a thug. He was a man who pitied himself so blindly that he could make absolute enemies out of people who contributed only the ideas to his undoing. And how was an Ellen Jamesian any different? Was not her gesture as desperate, and as empty of an understanding of human complexity?"
Garp finally meets Ellen James on the plane to Boston when she ends up seated next to him, and the reader finds out what she thinks about the Ellen Jamesians, and it is no surprise:
"I hate the Ellen Jamesians," she wrote. "I would never do this to myself." She opened her mouth and pointed to the wide absence in there. Garp cringed. "I want to talk; I want to say everything," wrote Ellen James.