I have often heard people claim that they don’t identify as feminists because they believe in “equality.” I am always perplexed by these statements. For example, recently Kareena Kapoor Khan claimed that, “I am not a feminist, I believe in equality.” I’ve often heard this statement from numerous women and men around me who hesitate to fully embrace the title of “feminist.” For them somehow, equality and feminism were antithetical rather than synonymous. This borderline men-inist argument stated that this heteropatriarchal system did not only disadvantage the woman but also them man who had to conform to a form of hypermasculinity in order to survive in this world. “Men are oppressed too” was the argument.
As an individual who defines herself as a feminist, this argument is filled with flaws.This argument allows “oppression” to expand its definition and ironically include the oppressor as the oppressed, in turn invisibilising the functioning of the oppressive system. For me, feminism allows women to acknowledge and name their oppression, an act that transformed my life personally. To put it simply, it creates space to say that our society is built in a way that masculinity is favoured over femininity, putting everyone associated with femininity at a disadvantaged position. While men too face disadvantages because of the heteropatriarchal system, can we tag these disadvantages as “oppression”? Is it wrong if women unapologetically claim that men are not oppressed?
Marilyn Frye in her work “Oppression” helps answer these questions by explaining the concept of the “double bind.” Frye argues that women are essentially caught in a double bind, one of the most “ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people” that men do not have to experience. Frye states that this double bind reduces the options in a situation to very few and each option guarantees a sort of penalty.
While men too face disadvantages because of the heteropatriarchal system, can we tag these disadvantages as “oppression”?
Frye cites the example of a common expectation asked of women – to look sexy, feminine or beautiful. This requires women to show skin, but not too much skin. If a woman wears revealing clothes she is often labelled a “slut” but if a woman covers herself up she can be called a “prude,” “ ugly,” or even “masculine.” Women experience such double binds not only on a small scale and at mundane levels but also on a larger, existential level where choosing an option that is not accepted by the patriarchal society could lead to fatal consequences. In the case of the example mentioned above, wearing short/revealing clothes is and could be used for grounds to justify sexual violence on women.
The Birdcage Analogy
Women are forced to live in such a patriarchal society filled with double binds and Frye explains this restriction on women’s activity through the analogy of a birdcage. Marilyn Frye says that women’s oppression can be understood by looking at oppression like a birdcage within which women are trapped. If you look at just one wire of the birdcage you will fail to see all other wires that are also formed the cage and restricting movement. Further, if you go inspect every wire individually, one will still fail to see why the bird can’t escape. It is when the cage is looked at holistically will one see that it is impossible for a bird to truly escape the cage. Similarly, Frye argues that oppression, like the cage is meant to be seen holistically with all its structures intersecting and creating the cage. A view of oppression that views its elements individually, like the birdcage, will fail to show you the elements of oppression that force you to stay in the cage.
This cage of oppression is one that does not encompass men. Openly and unapologetically saying that men are not oppressed does not point towards the fact that feminism does not stand for equality but rather it aims to create equality by centring the oppressed. Frye states that saying men are not oppressed does not imply that men do not suffer or aren’t miserable but simply means that they are not oppressed through structures that are designed specifically to limit their movement. They do not have to navigate a world with the double bind. Men in revealing clothes or men covered up, what they wear is none of society’s business. This same standard is not applied to women.
Further, one has to look at who these structures benefit. Marilyn Frye says that the argument that men are oppressed is often supported by the fact that men are unable to cry or express emotions. While this is true and while one can argue that this does affect the lives of men, one has to put into perspective that the restrictions men experience, like not being able to express emotion do not benefit anyone whereas restrictions put on women help shape the masculinity of a man. For example, an overly emotional woman helps create the emotionally stoic, strong, macho man by providing an antithesis to him. Femininity comes to be defined through masculinity while masculinity functions alone.
A view of oppression that views its elements individually, like the birdcage, will fail to show you the elements of oppression that force you to stay in the cage.
The word “oppressed” means “something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict, or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility.” Women in this heterosexist patriarchal world are restrained and restricted to prevent their mobility through institutional systems that do not affect men in the same way. Women are forced to conform to patriarchal standards of gender in order to survive in this world. Feminism then, is a fight for equality that takes place by centring the voices of the oppressed. It is a recognition of the institutional disadvantages faced by women. It is the visibilisation of the patriarchy that actively works to invisibilise itself in order to allow the oppression of women. By claiming feminism, by allowing oneself to freely claim one’s oppression and reject the notion of “the oppressed oppressor,” one can visibilize the patriarchal system, taking away power from it.