Saturday, January 23, 2010

Complacency: Enemy of Equality?

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 or the full twenty-minute episode here 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?


  1. If you fail to give these privileges up, does that mean you are building up the Master's House with the Master's tools for him? Men, I believe, are readily able to say, "Sure! Let's give this stuff up and embrace feminism." However, I think your question is a great one, Lindsay, and it brings me to ask myself this: is feminism easier for me to embrace because I already nothing to lose in the battle? I think the answer is that I have an awful lot to lose--the force of incredible women, equal and greater to myself, who have the power to shake the world.

  2. Lindsay, your discussion of 30 Rock makes me think of another episode that touches on the topic of sexism. Tracy is going to have a daughter so he wants to add a girl to his entourage. However, after she joins they dont do any of the normal things they used to do, like go to strip clubs and crack funny/sexist jokes. Tracy turns to "lame" things like game night in order to protect his female entourage member. Tracy cannot comprehend why he is now behaving this way. In the conclusion of the episode Kenneth explains to Tracy that he has learned to respect women and protect them from the world, and he will be a good father for his baby girl now. I think this illustrates that what is considered being "respectful" towards women can at the same time be sexism.

  3. I don't think most women are ready and willing to give up their preferential treatment from men. Although acts that are chivalrous usually have a sexist origin or undertone, in today's society these acts are important in preserving our American culture. We are conditioned throughout our lives to believe that men need to behave a certain way around women in order to attract women the same way that women need to act a certain role to attract men, and these socially constructed roles have become real to us. I can't imagine many women readily agreeing to go on a date with a man who waited on her to call, did not open the door or pull out her chair, made her pay for her own meal, etc. In our culture this scenario does not reflect the ways in which our social construct defines gender roles. Although I believe that we have a long way to go in terms of gender equality and that many positive changes can be attained in the future, I do not think women are yet ready to give up their "special" treatment as a compromise for attaining equal rights.

  4. I think you are exactly right, Lindsay. I think it is our acceptance with the system and our refusal to give up those delightful treats presented to us by men, that have further blinded us to the subtle and often invisible structures of oppression. Now, I don't know too many females who would volunteer to live in a society that inherently oppresses her and that trivializes her rights, but as viece points out, not all "women are ready and willing to give up their preferential treatment from men". How do we, as feminists against the continuation of said behavior, enlighten others as to the fact that allowing such "preferential treatment" is in fact, enslaving she and her hypothetical future baby girl?

    I would also like to point out that many women are thrilled to finally find a man who waits for her call, who refuses to open the door for her, and who encourages her to pay for her meal. I think it takes both the male and the female to actively acknowledge what he and she are doing in committing every act in his and her daily lives. If we can consciously reflect on those decisions perhaps we can consciously recognize the invisible forces that constrain her rights.


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