For the second time in three years, several women from Saudi Arabia are protesting their country’s practice of forbidding driver’s licenses for women. However, this oppressive law is only one of several restrictions against women. Saudi women are also fully controlled by a “male guardian” which can be a father, brother, or husband, who has as much power over her as he would have over his own child.
As Jeffreys states in Keeping Women Down and Out, maintaining such “imbalanced power dynamics” in relationships between men and women causes women to be “subjected to men’s control,” therefore extremely oppressed in society. This terrible system of gender-based law makes it one of the worst countries for women, as they are denied rights based on their gender and need formal permission to travel, work, and even get medical treatment.
Making a woman so dependent on a male figure for everything is not only oppressive, but also inhumane in that it takes away her power over herself as an individual human being. This example of prolonged control and dehumanizing treatment of women embodies the word oppression. Being taught from an early age to approach the world outside their male guardian’s home with fear and shame is one of the most oppressive ways to grow up and live a life, regardless of ones gender. In the words of Jeffreys, though in reference to strippers, this type of behavior towards women “makes them feel disempowered and victimized” since they are not being treated as individuals, instead having their personal lives “consistently violated” by men who repress them. It’s concerning to think that there are cultures in which such “male guardians” are considered the societal norm, yet in actuality are easily comparable to masculine power-heads of the present day strip club industry. Are there men who support the oppression of strippers yet chastise the female oppression by “male guardians” in Saudi Arabia? How do they justify the difference?
Fisher, Max. “Saudi Arabia’s Oppression of Women Goes Way Beyond Its Ban on Driving.” The Washington Post 28 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Print.
Jeffreys, Sheila. “Keeping Women Down and Out: The Strip Club Boom and the Reinforcement of Male Dominance.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 34.1 (2008): 151-73. Print.
What does an oppressed woman look like? Is she a woman in the sex work industry that is there not by choice, but because of coercion or force? Definitely. Is she a woman who chose to enter the sex work industry in order to feel empowered, only to be bombarded by the misogynistic and exploitative practices of club owners and patrons? Maybe. Or is she a housewife who feels unfulfilled and depressed staying at home, yet is told by her male doctor that she is suffering from hysteria, that the only cure is to stay at home and rest? Maybe.
There is certainly ambiguity in many cases as to what constitutes oppression. In the business of stripping, which could be feminist and empowering in theory, with women taking ownership of their sexuality by their own choice and making a profit from men, we consistently see horrendous and oppressive working conditions meant to keep women subordinate and in line. As seen in the film Live Nude Girls Unite!, even the most progressive of strip clubs made it nearly impossible for the workers to unionize for standardized and fairer business practices.
The same goes for women who choose to raise children at home rather than work; in an ideal world, this would be a choice free of gendered ideas, but it is still seen as more common for a woman to leave her job to rear her children than it is for men. Just look at the labels society has conjured up: we have the universally known word “housewife,” but we have no equivalent word for men.
Are the roles women end up fulfilling inherently oppressive? Maybe some women genuinely want to be sex workers and strippers, and maybe some want to stay home and raise children. That is supposed to be the core of feminism: allowing women to make informed choices about what they do. However, what scares me is that these choices may be misinformed, that men have convinced women that stripping and staying at home is fulfilling just so they will stop questioning authority. Take off your clothes, it’s empowering. Run this household, that’s enough for you, right? I only hope that one day, women are not made to believe that they are empowered when in reality they are still be oppressed by the overbearing male-dominated customs in society. Maybe one day choosing to strip really will be feminist in practice.
When I first heard of privilege, I thought of the idea that my parents had taught me — of earning something. Something that is not a right, but rather something that had to be earned. Of course the definition of privilege in a feminist context is a near opposite to my former definition. Privilege describes not a particular earned ‘thing’, but rather what is unearned, Privilege describes the things given to those who fit the ‘norm’. The norm describes simply the ‘better’ or ‘natural’ category that society deems best. And the opposite of privilege, oppression, being the deviation from said norm.
The norm of heterosexuality, the norm of whiteness (in America), the norm of cisness, the norm of maleness; all of these describe a quality in which a person is deemed normal, yet this normal is deemed superior. Those who fit these characteristics don’t have to face the problems that many ‘others’ have to face (for the most part). Thus, this privilege is not something given, but rather something not taken away.
In media, we see those who fit the norm — or as close to the norm as possible. We see those who succeed overwhelmingly possess this attributes, even when considering population size. Their privilege, their closeness to the ‘norm’, is what allows them the opportunities to achieve these positions. So is privilege giving the opportunities? Or is oppression taking them away?
An article titled “The Real Boy Crisis: 5 ways America tells boys not be girly” on Salon.com lists five behaviors that are unacceptable for boys because it diverts from masculine gender norms. The article reveals the notion of men and gender representation. Gender norms and its association with masculine and feminine traits create gender oppression. Gender oppression often focuses on the oppression of women in a patriarchal society because women are constantly encouraged to assert feminine characteristics. Women are seen as the oppressed gender and men are seen as the suppressors. However, gender oppression also has an affect on men’s behavior as they are constantly bombarded with images that tell them how to assert masculinity. Masculinity limits men’s ability to express their feelings. The idea of masculinity needs to be proven by asserting strength in the forms of aggression and independence. Being a man implies that a person is able to handle situations on their own without expressing any emotional empathy or vulnerability. These characteristics aim to devalue feminine traits men may obtain that are associated with being unmanly. Feminine traits are described as showing emotions such as compassion, love and sensitivity. Boys are told not to act like girls because it is shameful to their masculinity. These limitations allow men to be criticized when acting in a feminine manner. Men are encouraged to conform to these gendered stereotypes, which lead to an oppression of true thoughts and actions. Performing masculinity prevents men from being themselves. These ideas shape the way men and women treat one another because men are devalued for expressing the same traits women are expected to perform.
What is oppression? In the words of Bette S. Tallen, quoted in “Reading the Body Beautiful: Food, Dieting, and Recovery,” “the reality of oppression is replaced with the metaphor of addiction.” Often, the ways in which women are oppressed are insidious, made manifest in seemingly innocent ways that do not occur to consumers buying fashion magazines, weight-loss products, and beauty products. In “Reading the Body Beautiful,” Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber reveals the ways in which women are made to feel physically inadequate, which create a “fixable” problem that many women obsess over and that covers up deeper issues of inequality, poverty, education, racism, and sexism. Women’s issues are pushed to the side, secondary to the daunting task given to women by society of achieving the “ideal” feminine look. While women have gained considerable influence over the past few decades, the fact that their appearances are still scrutinized and criticized is discouraging. As Hesse-Biber says, current culture focuses the reason for women’s problems away from social forces and onto women themselves. This is a way of oppressing women, by creating bogus problems for our culture to focus on so that the injustices being perpetrated against women are not realized and so that action is not taken against maintaining a patriarchal society.
Hesse-Biber, Sharlene N. “Selling the Body Beautiful: Food, Dieting, and Recovery.” The Cult of Thinness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
One mechanism of oppression that produces highly pervasive damage and is difficult to eradicate is that of self-censorship. Every day, the entire population of American women uses it, usually unintentionally.
Over the last half century, the image of the ideal woman has morphed into one of genetic impossibility for 95% of the female population. The media’s images of women are often dramatically altered or even constructed. “But how does this negatively affect women?” you may wonder. The answer lies in how women respond to these images. Just think of how many times you, or a woman you know, steps on the scale each week, hoping that the number is lower than at the previous weigh-in. As Susan Bordo explains, obsessing over one’s appearance is a “powerful normalizing mechanism” that ensures “self-monitoring” and “self-disciplining.”
Self-censorship deflects from the reality that propagating one, unattainable version of normal oppresses the entire female sex by limiting expression of individuality and promoting harmful objectification. Moreover, for those who will never come close to the ideal image, like women of racial or ethnic minorities, the oppressive nature of these depictions is especially detrimental. Minorities are continually pushed further from the point of acceptance for who they naturally are. While some argue that the increasingly idealized slender body, “symbolize[s] freedom from rigid femininity,” the reality is that our oppressive image of female idealness serves the purposes of a patriarchal, oppressive world.  After all, society “confers” privilege according to one’s ability to achieve the ideal.
To overcome the adverse nature of oppression and discontinue self-censorship requires identifying and combating the oppressor, which in this case, is the media. Just think, “how would the media respond to mass consumer refusal to purchase or consume products that insist upon the unrealistic ideal woman?” More specifically, “what personal choices can you make to help mass action become a reality?”
Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, dir. Kilbourne Jean, Sut Jhally, and David Rabinovitz (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010), DVD.
 Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, “Selling the Body Beautiful: Food, Dieting, and Recovery,” in The Cult of Thinness, Second ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 65.
 Susan Bordo, “Reading the Slender Body,” in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 186.
Oppression is the rejection, often from a more dominant perspective, of a culture or an ideal. In modern Western society, this higher perspective is primarily that of white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Rejected elements include, but are not limited to, gender and sexual desire. Deviance to norms is denied through demoralization or assimilation as seen in Hill Collins’s analysis of African American masculinity. Black men who reject the White normative are labeled as threatening, while those who conform to norms are seen as weak within Black culture. Hill Collins claims White Americans justify this rejection by pointing to Black culture, thereby denying and oppressing its place among the normative (180). This oppression extends to those outside the heterosexual, cisgender normative through which Tsai observes the representation of bisexual women and trans women. Both are sexualized according to heteronormativity and binary gender. Bisexual women are depicted according to male heterosexual fantasy in which they have “the best of both worlds,” while trans women are characterized through their hyperfemininity, denying gender fluidity (Tsai 9-10). Their deviance to norms is rejected by assimilating their representation according to the normative. This rejection denies the place of people outside the norm, thereby oppressing them.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Tsai, Wan-Hsui Sunny. “Assimilating the Queers: Representations of Lesbians, Gay Men, Bisexual, and Transgender People in Mainstream Advertising.” Advertising & Society Review 11.1 (2010). Web.