In class on Tuesday, we discussed the sex/gender system in the context of Marxist philosophy. Marx believed that in capitalist societies there exist two social classes, one dominant over the other; from a feminist perspective, men are the dominant class and women are the subordinate, oppressed, drones of capitalism. The world is still waiting to see Marx’s proletariat class rise up and revolt against the oppressive bourgeoisie; likewise, women have yet to stage a full-scale revolt against our oppressors. This is due to one aspect of Marxian philosophy we did not mention in class: Marx believed that religion (namely, Christianity) was a social construct created by the dominant class and that the beliefs and teachings of Christianity were intended (and worked) to keep the proletariat complacent in their subordinate positions. Religion kept the workers from revolting, because it helped them to find satisfaction in their lives as they were instead of seeking to overturn the system; they were blinded by their own oppression.
Patriarchy, historically, has functioned in the way same. Women have always been oppressed, but not until this past century or so did we begin to fight it. This is due to the fact that patriarchy, parallel to religion in Marx’s capitalism, has created social institutions that have enabled us (women) to feel more complacent in our situation. Some of the very structures that have been put in place to oppress us seem harmless and even beneficial. The problem is that instead of refusing these small indulgences that make our situation appear more bearable and give us the illusion of having some degree of power, we accept them, thus making us complicit in our own oppression.
The indulgences that I am referring to are what we know as “chivalry”—gestures and acts that men do for women under the guise of honor and respect that, when we accept them, reinforce our image as “the weaker sex.” Now, there are those women among us who make an active effort to prevent men from doing these things on the pretense of total equality of the sexes; but, for every Molly Bombardi who insists on opening her own doors, there are dozens of other women who are more than willing to accept acts of chivalry.
This is not to say that accepting chivalry makes a woman weak, or even disqualifies one as a feminist. I myself am not immune to it; I have, on many occasions throughout my life, allowed men to open doors for me, buy me a drink, pay for dinner, etc. Why? Because I like when they do it, and I think a vast majority of women agree—some may even feel as though it gives them the upper hand. Indeed, there are some benefits to be gained.
To illustrate my point, I turn to the world of pop culture and a television show called “30 Rock.” For those of you who have never seen it, I will try to set up the situation as briefly and clearly as possible. The show is written by Tina Fey who also stars as the main character Liz Lemon, who represents a strong, successful, independent woman. In one episode Liz finds herself in conflict with Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan), the eccentric star of the SNL-like variety show for which Liz is the head writer. Tracy and Liz get into an argument because he receives preferential treatment as a celebrity, and she as a woman. Both agree that they want to be treated like everyone else; thus, Liz begins to be treated like “one of the boys” by the other men on the show. This results in humorous situations from which Liz (as a woman) had previously been excluded, such as Liz’s first trip to a strip joint and her first experience with the male staff’s flatulence (yes, I mean that they stopped holding back farts in her presence). She realizes that she wants no part of these things, and she and Tracy agree to return to the natural order of things in which both gets preferential treatment. (The episode is titled, by the way, “The Natural Order.”)
[You can watch a two minute clip here http://www.hulu.com/watch/70864/30-rock-role-reversal or the full twenty-minute episode here http://www.watchfreeonline.net/watch/30-rock-season-3-episode-20-the-natural-order. Sorry, I don't know how to create a link, so you have to cut and paste.]
The point I am trying to make is this: even the strongest of women can appreciate the “special” treatment afforded her by men due to traditional beliefs and standards fabricated and perpetuated by our patriarchal society. Marx famously wrote, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Our chains are the chains of chivalry, and losing them brings us one step closer to egalitarianism between the sexes. Yet true equality and freedom comes with a price. As women we must acknowledge that we are treated unequally and that we are as guilty as allowing oppression to persist as are the men we blame for creating it. Ladies, are we ready to give up the small privileges we experience when men give us preferential treatment in order to live in a society free from oppression?