Political & Social Philosophy 363
May 1, 2006
Subsisting Oppression: Women’s Failure to Outsmart Modern Culture
Entangled in a web of loose netting may accurately describe how many women in modern society would describe their feelings concerning their freedom. The feminist movement first began in the early 1900’s and since then many has made considerable advances in women’s equality. Women have gained respectable amounts of autonomy with the ability to vote, increased freedom in the workforce, and an overall greater respect of capabilities. Women are no longer confined strictly to being a housewife or stay at home mother, but have the freedom to possess more career and goal oriented endeavors. Women are now corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, astronauts, and numerous other professions, originally restricted primarily to men. The culture we currently live in is more open to women participating in a variety of activities.
Although advancements have been made, many feminists adamantly agree that women still have a long way to go before they can claim equality with men. Women may by law are equal with men, but culture and society show otherwise. Susan Faludi, author of Backlash, a highly acclaimed feminist novel, explains that feminist movements have made advancements, but that the overall composition of our culture even today continues to impede and restrict women. Underlying impediments of sexual objectification, stereotyping, and cultural domination, continue to place restrictions on women. The oppression of women is still a prevalent reality in our culture that women must acknowledge and work to eliminate if they wish to obtain equality with men.
Such oppression isn’t always easy to identify and hence is difficult to correct. One must look through a macroscopic view to see the ways in which women’s oppression continues. Correcting oppressive aspects of our culture is extremely difficult and is a deeply rooted problem. The best solution, according to Young is a gender conscious approach of embracing the differences between men and women in a way that doesn’t subject women to inequalities. This is a tumultuous task that doesn’t have a simple answer.
Women are obviously oppressed by various underlying messages within culture, but the real question is what to what extent does oppression have on women’s autonomy? Oppressive measures are not enforced in any written form, but are implied in more informal ways. Many women are not even aware of the hidden pressures and restrictions that continue to oppress them and may feel that they are free to act in any way they choose. These oppressive factors complicate women’s lives in many ways. Many disorders, health problems, and overall unhappiness can be attributed at least partly because of oppressive causes. Body image problems and eating disorders can be attributed to the underlying message the media sends to women, setting ideals for how women should look. The media presents a certain beauty conformity in which women are expected to adopt. This ideal creates turmoil for women who do not fit this mold. Mental disorders such as depression can also be caused by some of the messages our culture.
Bartky in her article “Psychological Oppression,” affirms that women are indeed oppressed in a similar way as black people. Bartky equates sexism to racism, claiming that both define a person almost solely by their color or gender. Hence an authentic choice of oneself is not possible if oppressed by racism or sexism (128). Bartky examines how women are oppressed through cultural domination, stereotyping, and sexual objectification. Bartky carefully defines oppression as a restriction that “becomes habitually extended into every area of her experience,” thus attributing an aspect or part of a woman for her whole self. These “light forms” of oppression that exist are not “immediately [classified as] economic or political” (127). She adds that these “light forms” of oppression are further complicated by fragmentation and mystification, both forms of psychological oppression. Fragmentation is the splitting of the whole person into parts of a person, giving a false representation of a person, representing only part of them (128). Mystification is the systematic obscuring of both reality and types of psychological oppression so that a person’s sense of self is depreciated.
Our cultures languages, institutions, art, literature, popular culture, are all sexist according to Bartky. She says that this may sound a little extreme, but in actuality is not. The limits that culture places on women restrict the women’s opportunities. Since women have always lived in a male dominated, patriarchal culture, they haven not been exposed to any other potential influences. This patriarchal culture has greatly contributed to the static nature of progressive movement towards equality.
Sexual objectification or identifying women based solely on their physical and sexual attributes is prevalent in our continually male supremacist society. A synecdoche, or using part of an object or person and identifying it as a whole, is a form of oppression. A synecdoche can be associated with sexism and racism, since a person is being reduced to one particular attribute instead of the many that they are comprised of. Complications of sexual objectification often cause body image issues and sometimes an obsession with one’s appearance. Our culture suggests that women should always “make themselves as pleasing to the eye as possible” (Bartky 131). Such suggestions can cause preoccupations with one’s physical appearance, placing less emphasis on other aspects of one’s life. Women are restricted in this way, feeling they have to abide by certain ideals. Other attributes might have value more if women weren’t acculturated with expectations of physical perfection. Unfortunately, Bartky demonstrates that since women have never known anything other than these oppressive means, are socially acculturated to such expectations, and think nothing of continuing to support such behaviors.
Although such cultural pressures are not inherent laws or enforced in blatant ways, the effectiveness of such messages is undeniable. Women are constantly bombarded with messages from a multitude of sources, all conveying certain expectations of women. Women are expected to be beautiful, be proper, raise children, and provide for their husbands. Such messages are conveyed by parents, grandparents, the media, other women, and of course men themselves. This is undeniably an oppression that manipulates and greatly impacts women’s behavior.
Many women are not even aware that they are in any way oppressed by culture. Women have never known anything other than the expectations that are indirectly conveyed to them and do not believe that they are in any way restricted. Several weeks ago while in class I initially claimed that Bartky’s article on psychological oppression was quite harsh and that the oppression she was depicting was unrealistic and needed to be updated to our more modern and accepting society. I now assert that my claim was wrong and can clearly see that Bartky’s assertion fairly accurately conveys the realities of culture. This example of my initial thoughts demonstrates the ignorance many women continue to affirm. Women claim that they are free to do whatever they want with their lives, but unfortunately such freedom doesn’t truly exist in current culture.
Can women conduct they lives freely? In theory women are free to choose whatever lifestyle and career that they desire. Unfortunately they may find that many times if women do not choose lives that are considered established roles for women, they may result in unpleasant complications. For example if a woman wants to become a corporate lawyer a prestigious corporation, they are legally eligible for such a position. Although a woman is eligible for such a respected job, culture still on some level associates men more often than women. Thus, for a woman to obtain such a job, she may have to work a little harder than a male counterpart would. Stereotypes such as this one impede or restrict women from obtaining high levels of success.
There are numerous examples in which I have experienced and continue to experience cultural oppression. Since birth I have been acculturated with certain expectations of how I should look, act, and exist. I accumulated such ideas from a variety of sources that all conveyed a similar message. These are all subtle forms of manipulation, giving specific instructions on how to fit into our culture. There are certain benefits that are more advantageous to success and happiness by being in congruence with one’s culture. To rebel against typical expectations is to face difficulties that conformists cease to worry about. In this way, women are subtly directed by our patriarchal culture to have certain ideals that have been established for centuries. Although more subtle than they used to be, such restrictions still continue to impede women’s freedom.
Interestingly in our culture, men are not the sole oppressors. Women in many cases enforce, enhance, and promote their own oppression. Women are one of the most critical judges of themselves and other women. Women are in competition with other women in relation to men, jobs, and appearances. Women are harsh judges and tend to embrace and enforce expectations, reducing other women to stereotypical roles. Women are in many cases cause impede equality to a greater extent than men.
So the question is what can we do to counteract the various forms of oppression present in our deeply rooted culture? Young suggests we take the gender-conscious approach of embracing differences within the sexes in a way that doesn’t give advantages to either sex. Young discourages assimilation of the sexes, claiming that establishing any universal standards will only perpetuate discrimination (457). Assimilation is like “coming into the game after it has already begun,” putting the newer group at a great disadvantage. Thus, Young supports the establishment of group-specific policies which would support social equality. We should embrace the ideal of a heterogeneous public and not ignore the differences present within the sexes.
One inherent question that cannot be overlooked is whether differences between the two sexes actually exist or if the differences initially resulted because of gendered stereotypes. Gender differences could have resulted because of cultural influence and may not actually exist without these deeply ingrained characteristics. Wasserstrom in his article “Racism and Sexism” claims that sex differences are neither natural nor necessary. He claims that we should develop and defend standards of equality among the sexes and apply universal standards to both groups equally. Hence, Wasserstrom questions the necessity of sexual distinctions within society.
Applying universal standards on both men and women is not without complications. One must consider the obvious physical differences present between mean and women which do exist naturally. Women are biologically made to produce children, while men are not. Women are built to supply their children with milk in their initial stages of development while men are not. Such physical differences cannot be completely disregarded. One may be able to overlook stereotypical emotional and personality stereotypes placed on particular genders, but one cannot overlook the differing physical attributes between the sexes. With such unavoidable differences in physical composition, is it possible to place universal standards for sexes? Placing universal standards on both sexes puts women at a disadvantage because they are unable to physically keep up with standards that associated with men. Thus, it is impossible to develop completely universal standards for both sexes if equality is the goal.
Young’s suggestion of embracing differences among sexes is a much more practical idea. Establishing gender-neutral parental leave according to Young, would allow women to take maternity leave to have children, while allowing fathers to participate in such tasks by also being allowed to take leave. Allowing both parents this opportunity to take leave doesn’t highlight the physical difference present between men and women and allows women to essentially be on equal ground as men. The only objection to the suggestion of gender-neutral parental leave is that while on parental leave women have a different role that men have. Women have the physical burden of delivering babies, while men are simply spectators in such endeavors. Men are at an advantage by not have physical obligations, which greatly tire and impede women. Men in a sense get a holiday while women are occupied giving birth. It may be slightly extreme to claim, but this could give men an advantage over women in recovering at a faster pace when conceiving children than women. This in turn allows them the ability to accomplish more work and places women on unequal status with men again. Although gender-neutral parental leave is not without complications, it does offer a solution to gender differentiating maternity leave that many jobs currently offer to women expecting a child.
A much more daunting task than finding a solution to the inequality of maternity leave is the how to solve the overall oppression women. What can be done to counteract underlying messages that have been ingrained in culture for centuries and have established a web of interlaced boundaries which women are expected to follow? The oppressive measures that are present are so intricate and difficult to illuminate. Given this, it makes it even more difficult to actually pinpoint oppression and find adequate solutions to do away with it.
Bartky suggests that the only way to successfully eliminate women’s oppression is to overthrow the whole cultural system. This claim isn’t discussed in greater detail so it is unclear exactly how Bartky formulates this claim and how one would actually overthrow the whole system. Such a task seems impossible to imagine, because so many aspects of life and culture would change instantly. Hoe does one overthrow a culture that isn’t a tangible or easily grasped entity? Although Bartky seems to have the right idea that the source of oppression is our whole culture, it is not realistic to suggest that we somehow overthrow an entity which is not tangible. Thus, one can claim that women still face various forms of oppression in our modern culture. One can see that these forms of oppression are not always obvious. The lack of blatant oppression allows for many women to be unaware that they are still in some ways oppressed. Women need to be made aware of the oppression that continues to occur and act to end such restrictions. Various suggestions have been made as to how to free our culture of oppressive measures, but there does not seem to be any one solution to absolve oppression. Thus, we are stuck with what the best possible solution is to stop the oppression of women.
Postscript: I am overall very certain that women are indeed oppressed within our current culture in many subtle ways, but I am sure how to mitigate this disturbing problem. I have thought about the various ways that one could potentially stop oppression and have found none that would adequately solve this problem. Thus I am left without a solution and this is troublesome. Of course, one must consider that is there was an easy answer to this question feminists would be rushing to carry out the solution.