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Radical Gender Imprisonment

Gender Betrayal: Are men victims of their gender?

by David Foss

I was on my way to the main door of the library, my arms overflowing with books. I wondered why I hadn’t split the load in two. They must have weighed 100 lbs. altogether, and my elbows and wrists already ached. The sun was bright, and a clear blue sky held the breeze cold against the leafless branches of a nearby tree that swooned methodically like a practiced conductor. There weren’t many people crossing Wilder Bowl that afternoon, though a few figures cut across the channeled sunlight which fell from the library’s promenade. I hoped that someone would reach the door before I did. The doors were large, and heavy. Massive plates of glass, trimmed in brass and stainless steel, they would give way only under the most persistent urging. As I approached the doors, I could see a figure coming out. A small woman, with white hair and a blue overcoat, was fastening her handbag and pulling on a pair of glowing white gloves. I smiled in spite of the pain in my shoulders, and slowed to permit her immanent departure. But when she saw me, she smiled pleasantly and crossed her hands. She waited, looking only at my eyes. Huh? Oh, I thought, so thoughtless of me. I danced there, in front of that door, for what seemed a small eternity, and struggled to bring a hand free from my burden. Precariously, in pain and off balance, I pulled open a small channel between the thick glass and its frame. Instantly she was passing me, through the shallow space, “Thank you,” and a mechanical smile. I stood there, frozen against the door in uncomfortable solitude, a little humiliated and very confused.

There is something misleading in telling a story such as this. It is clearly not for my advancement, or self-esteem, that I must open the door. Indeed, in some cases the experience can be quite humiliating — giving the feeling of belittlement — as though convention prohibited kindness, or custom precluded the open reciprocity of giving, characteristic of authentic communion or sobriety. Admittedly, I am a young man, and was younger still when I found this pleasant woman emerging from the library. Normally, it might seem that common courtesy requires that I assist an individual who is clearly having difficulty, or might reasonably be expected to have difficulty, negotiating a door. I am prima facia able: young, strong, vibrant. But in this instance I was clearly unable to provide assistance without significantly jeopardizing my own condition. If anything, I was in need of assistance. It seems that “common courtesy” should require that she hold the door for me. So why did she wait? Why did I ultimately comply?

What this example suggests (or what it ought to suggest) is that behavioral conventions, such as the holding of doors by men for women, which we may ultimately identify as oppressive to women do not preclude an immediate context in which the self-esteem of the “oppressor” is diminished, while the self-esteem of the “oppressed” is complimented. The rigidity of an correspondence of lowered self-esteem with degradation is suspect. Likewise, to the degree that the characterization of particular behavioral norms as oppressive (as well as the general project of identifying structures of oppression) relies upon the reflective experiences of those persons who are thereby “oppressed”, too great a stake may be placed in the uniformity of discontent. Insufficient allowances are made for coping mechanisms which may even include finding pleasure in one’s diminished status. What if she enjoys being a “good woman”? Surely this cannot count as evidence that the role of “good woman” is not oppressive. Or, to speak beyond the immediate fold of feminist thought, to what degree should we allow the happiness of a slave to infect our assessment of slavery? How could this possibly rescue slavery from its injustice?

Fortunately, there are a number of ways around this seeming paradox. It is essential to a meaningful notion of oppression that it delineate between oppressive mechanisms and the pleasure or pain associated with their immediate application. This is not to say that pleasure and pain are irrelevant (I hear the Utilitarian knocking at the door), but only that a strict equivocation of pain with being oppressed is clearly misguided. Not every instance of experiencing pain is a case of suffering oppression. And not every instance of suffering oppression is immediately experienced as painful.

Feminists have a particular stake in providing a notion of oppression which makes clear where and how such a divergence occurs. The claim that women are oppressed, a claim central to feminism, must simultaneously account for how it is that the experience of femininity (whereby the female of the species is morally and socially marginalized) is often pleasurable, while preventing the attribution of “oppression” wherever structural barriers inconvenience individuals or groups, chaffing at the edges of substantive freedoms (which is the case of any civil statute, or even the experience of oppression for the oppressor). Marilyn Frye, as well as Sandra Lee Bartky, offer definitions of oppression which strive to capture the experience of women, while clarifying the interplay between suffering, oppression, and pain. While I will mostly attend to Frye’s definition here, Bartky’s will never be far from the discussion of oppression in general. More than Bartky, Frye insists that men do not experience gender oppression. For Frye, men do not experience oppression as men.

I find this claim puzzling, and even distracting. It seems that men do suffer a dehumanization at the hands of their gender caste. Shall we call this oppression? It seems rather odd to reject its candidacy on the grounds that women are oppressed. It seems even more questionable to reject its candidacy on the grounds that many men seem to enjoy being “real men”. It is, after all, the nature of such oppression that it obtains the ardent (and sometimes joyful) commitment of the oppressed to his or her own continued oppression.

What would happen if we were to admit that men are oppressed by their gender caste? Would, as Frye clearly suggests, oppression become a meaningless expression of cultural limitation? This does not seem to be an inevitable consequence. Let us suppose (as I suspect is at least nominally warranted) that men, as well as women, are oppressed by gender classifications; not merely by the context of a rigid imposition of cultural standards in terms of one’s sex, but also by the content of the standards themselves. This is not a claim that the oppressor is oppressed by his oppressing his victim. This is not a claim that men are oppressed by the oppression of women. It involves the claim that gender oppression presses a notion of maleness upon men which is inimical to their personhood. And this seems quite compatible with a definition of oppression which captures the robbing of a woman’s autonomy by her womanhood.

Intuitively, there seems to be something amiss in suggesting that men are oppressed by their gender. After all, is it not the claim of many feminists that gender oppression essentially involves the ‘liberation’ of the male at the cost of the female? Or, expressed even more paradoxically, how can men be oppressed as men in a patriarchy? How can the King oppress himself? There are actually two distinct problems expressed here. The first, and more troubling, is the notion that the oppression of women is grounded in a particular sort of liberty for men. The second, is the idea that somehow the oppression of men by their gender is under the control of men, as a gender, and can not therefore be truly oppressive. Control, after all, is not a characteristic feature of being oppressed. Complete control, however, is something no individual holds over the nature or content of gender roles. The indictment I receive for transgressing my gender boundaries is real and formidable, coming from both men and women. I am punished for clear non-conformity, even where conformity is impossible or seriously debilitating. I have no control, as a man, over the enforcement of my gender. The issue of this sort of control must ultimately have no part in the attribution of oppression. Rather, primary attention should be given to the costs of conformity and non-conformity themselves.

Much of this becomes clearer when we look to the manner in which women are oppressed as women in our culture. At some point it may be less important to play the game of pity and blame, and to permit a notion of oppression which does not require the strict identification of some individuals or groups as oppressor, in the sense of an omnipotent class (with regard to the oppression). Nor should we refuse a concept of oppression which can admit a notion of reciprocal oppression, where the apparent “beneficiaries” coincide with real victims. This may be the case in certain maladaptive coping strategies, where an abandonment of individual autonomy is normalized, and ultimately required, in response to a societal (and economic) context in which the deprivation of such autonomy is nearly unavoidable.

Whatever is said of the possible oppression of men as men, the notion of oppression must at least offer some insight into the plight of individuals who are prevented from achieving the “normal” range of opportunities available within a community, simply by virtue of their membership in some sub-class or sub-culture (which bears no rational relation to such limitations). At the very least, “...to recognize a person as oppressed, one has to see that individual as belonging to a group of a certain sort.”[1] Stereotyping is one form of this sort of oppression, and perhaps the most difficult form to socially transcend. But it is not obvious that stereotyping, or the naturalization of oppressive constraints, is essential to all manner of oppression. It is not essential to the practice of slavery that a community attribute to all slaves sub-standard personhood. This is clear from those cases in the ancient world where slavery was a common way of dealing with prisoners of war, and where individual slaves could eventually work toward their freedom. But this is neither our recent experience (Blacks in the United States certainly were attributed the nature of being slaves), nor entirely helpful in revealing the nature of silent forms of oppression, which operate internally to the very manner in which we see the world.

This last point is precisely where much of the oppression of women is located by Frye, as well as by most (if not all) feminists. This realm of the unspoken — of structural oppression — is the realm of stereotyped (substandard) personhood. But more is required of stereotyping than its mere presence to characterize it as oppressive. Oppressive stereotyping deprives the victim of her humanity in some fundamental sense. The content of the stereotype involved traps the person by a series of constraints which systematically hinders her capacity to participate in the public discourse. She is pigeon-holed outside the fold of full moral and social agency. Scarcely can such a battery of oppressive standards be better seen than in the norms which trivialize and marginalize the voice of women in “men’s business” (whether in corporate or political life). But even the realms in which the participation of women has been traditionally encouraged, are themselves granted a subsidiary status to the dominant cultural life of the community.

Oppression, or the experience of oppression, is characterized by Frye as:

... that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction.[2]

The significance of “caging” is critical here. Such oppression, as Frye wishes to identify, is essentially underdetermined by each aspect of its enforcement. A single barrier or cultural norm participates in such oppression only to the degree that it conspires with a confederacy of norms, whose aggregated totality deprives the subject of substantive motion in any direction. By restricting the scope of examination to single norms or particular barriers, we risk missing the oppression altogether. This is perhaps the most striking difference between formalized practices of oppression (such as legal slavery), and informal practices of oppression. Whereas the flogging of a black slave was clearly part of the institutional oppression of blacks, it may not be so clear that the cat-calls and whistles inflicted upon women as they walk the streets of a modern metropolis are as much a part of a wider practice which diminishes the moral status of women generally.

Frye later refines the notion of oppression further, stating that it is:

... part of an enclosing structure of forces and barriers which tends to the immobilization and reduction of a group or category of people. One has to look at how the barrier or force fits with others and to whose benefit or detriment it works.[3]

We should notice the integral nature of substandardization in Frye’s account of oppression. Women are not merely partitioned into a category, from which they are unable to deviate without suffering social rebuke. The category to which women are exiled is itself given a derivative status. The measure against which women fall short, and in terms of which women receive detrimental treatment, appears to be the manliness of men. But is the “standard” truly “men”? The search for beneficiaries here, especially with respect to an examination of the “full” humanity women are denied by the standardization of a male model, can lead us to a dangerously deficient model of personhood.

Peculiar to modern gender stereotypes is the linking of the stereotype to a universal subclass. Contemporary femininity has consumed a subset of the characteristics previously ascribed to persons universally. Masculinity, by the polarization of gender content, has been left with an ideal of manliness that substantively cuts a man’s humanity short. The skills of intimate communication are purged from his virtue, to the extent that his gender demands that he not participate in its actualization willingly. Woman is robbed of her capacity to substantively rule herself, by directly purging such power from her virtue as would facilitate popular domination. But what autonomy is this, granted the man, by which he may “dominate” but not communicate? Such a “domination” as he is entitled to appears to be desired only in a wider context in which he normally expects to suffer subjugation, and comes to take his toleration of cultural or economic imprisonment as a sign of his manliness.

Hatred of the feminine can be seen as a measure of the degree of restriction imposed upon men by their gender. Inverting the equation: it is not necessarily the case that the restrictiveness of masculinity is derivative to the oppressive characteristics of femininity. It is quite possible that the content of femininity is in part derivative of a certain sort of masculinity, principally designed to “rescue” manhood from capitalism. In fact, the two gender castes, in their modern articulation, are probably better seen as attempting to “rescue” personhood from industrialism. This is a rescue whose explicit beneficiaries are men as men (thus further pressing women to the margin of even this revised conception of moral adequacy), but whose structure abandons or rejects fundamental notions of pre-industrial autonomy.

Essential to this process is the granting of symbolic, though substantially vacuous, types of empowerment. Like the “art” of cosmetics (which simultaneously grants women “creative licence” while frowning upon authentic innovation), the powers granted men as men, by virtue of their gender, can conceal a wider deprivation. As a result, man is least of all willing to abandon his gender, for fear that the benefits he attributes to his caste are the only benefits open to him. He is coopted by his gender, into believing that the surrender of its powers, even for the sake of authentic being, is fool-hardy. But not every man “enjoys” his gender.

Is the man who complains that he is restricted from enjoying the tasks gender slated for women merely wanting to be woman-like, under the false presumption that life is easier “on the other side”? Frye clearly thinks this is generally the case:

Thinking they might like the simple nurturant life (which they may imagine to be quite free from stress, alienation and hard work), and feeling deprived since it seems closed to them, they thereupon announce the discovery that they are oppressed, too, by “sex roles.”[4]

There was a claim against feminists, during the late 1960’s and 1970’s, that women simply wanted access to the “men’s room” — that women simply wanted to be able to use the urinal. These are parallel absurdities. And they are born of a common error concerning the nature of the modern system of gender casting.

Historically, gender casting functioned largely as a mechanism for the division of labor. To women were allocated the tasks of maintaining the household: which entails a duty for those things necessary for subsistence on the personal level, e.g. nutrition (cooking), hygiene (cleaning), and even cosmetic ‘correction’. This may, without exaggeration, be described as a sector of human society characterized by servitude. Women were, and significantly remain, assigned the task of satisfying existent and enduring needs; needs built into the very fabric of our being in the world. In contrast, men were allocated the supervenient tasks, without which we may certainly continue to live, but would fail to, in the words of Aristotle, live well. Man was given the “higher” faculties of art and industry. He was, in a very important sense, responsible for the manufacturing of novel desires and needs.[5] He was given, by virtue and measure of his manliness, the mission of transcending the necessary. He was stoic, individual, commanding, and creative.

This is the archaic gender allocation. Now even manhood has rejected the supervenient (the for-itself, beyond the necessary) as dangerously extraneous to appropriate living. This is nowhere clearer than in the status of the arts. The artist is not quite male in our culture. If it is a man, his sexuality (his “sexual orientation”) is thrown into question by his commitment to an aesthetic whose value resides in itself. He is trite, effeminate, fragile, and probably gay. In order to rescue technological innovation from our gender scorn, we emphasize its necessity. It has become a practice not about creativity, but about guarding our birthright to an improved standard of living. Technological creativity is denied its creative aspect, in order the obscure the for-itself nature of novelty, which might threaten the gender status of the engineer.

Modern manliness (and homophobia) is not merely a mechanism for rigidly partitioning the world between the feminine and the masculine, but of maintaining a particular notion of masculinity which deprives men of extra-corporate autonomy. Just as consumerism recruits the financial and normative resources of the worker, in the service of thinly veiled capitalist exploitation, sexism (and more generally: gender coding) recruits the desires, tastes, and ultimately the fantasies of men, in the service of an ideal which prohibits the development of full autonomy, as inimical to corporate life.

But what are these ideals? What is this “corporate life”? It would be difficult to formulate a complete account of the constitution of the male gender, as a corporate or industrial artifact. At the very least, it is characteristic of his normative dwelling that such a man be valued in terms of his “primitive” core. He is a beast contained by a shell of outward serenity. Beneath the skin there seethes the soul of indomitable virility. Only momentarily, though always upon demand and in control, his fury (and implicit autonomy) is released upon the world. Why is this a corporate ideal? Within a global context in which men cannot express creative spontaneity, without risking rebuke for bureaucratic non-conformity, the self-rule of autonomous being must be driven from the surface. Implicit capacities become the residue of expressive freedoms. Capacities which must be actualized, briefly, quickly, and directedly, in order that man’s commitment to his gender is rewarded, by the popular confirmation of his manhood by such acts, and by the expression of power (over himself) that it passes on to the very practices where his autonomy is abandoned. He rescues his autonomy from corporate submission.

If this is correct, and there is something about our economic lives which has built into gender norms a toleration (and embrace) of a widespread violation of personhood, what distinguishes the oppression women suffer by their gender, from the imposition of “manliness” on men? The difference, I would suggest, is in part that men are disproportionately led to take pleasure in their gender dwelling. Men come to believe that their gender grants them fundamental liberties. They do indeed come to possess certain derivative liberties, but in the process are denied humanity. Men are caged by their gender. They are just more likely to think the cage is a pleasurable or appropriate one. Men are coopted by their gender caste, to believe that what power they possess — the only power they can possess — relies upon the maintenance of this ethos which ultimately deprives them of real autonomy.

Pre-industrial gender norms were not oppressive, in this way, to men. Women have suffered a more enduring gender oppression. Modern gender norms have not abandoned the traditional marginalization of women. The most visible traits of the gender marking currently extant is a localization of political and economic “control” in the hands of particular men:

... [Each oppressive] barrier is erected and maintained by men, for the benefit of men. It consists of cultural and economic forces and pressures in a culture and economy controlled by men in which, at every economic level and in all racial and ethnic subcultures, economy, tradition — and even ideologies of liberation — work to keep at least local culture and economy in male control.[6]

We are captive to our own expectations where ever those expectations do not submit to contextual sensitivity. Radical othering, rendering enemy (i.e. inimical to one’s own being) a person or class of persons, traps our own being (by the reflection of “enemy” upon our appreciation of ourselves) insofar as “enemy” is taken as a rigid designator. Gender, so long as it rigidly casts each sex according to a subset of each person’s full humanity (which is unavoidable wherever it proscribes the humanity of either sex entirely: the remainder being less than the whole), will deprive all participants of their personhood.

Whether we call this oppression to both sexes, or whether we reserve “oppression” for the particularly egregious aspect of inhumanity our gender imposes upon women, will ultimately not depend upon semantics. In any case, this oppression should not require the categorical bifurcation of the world into oppressor and oppressed. Indeed, such a bifurcation would hopelessly misidentify the nature of the crime of gender, as well as the avenues for possible remedy. No one’s liberty is bought by the imposition of rigid gender roles, when those roles infect (either directly, or reflectively) the manner in which we see ourselves and our world, as individually underdetermining our own sexuality (female as woman directly, and male as man reflectively).

Asserting the presence of “oppression” may be a political, more than a philosophical issue. There is a certain strength, a certain fraternity, generated by the recognition of a common enemy, a common oppression, and by extension, a common oppressor. Through a rearticulation of silent oppression into a recognized system repressive effections, we might find a political strategy for building resistance and a momentum for change. But we should be cautious not to alienate our fellow prisoners. If, as is suggested here, men and women have become common victims of gender, the search for determining which sex is “truly” oppressed will be self-defeating. We must find a way to understand modern gender, and the crime of its enforcement, without insisting that it consist in the victory of one sex over the other.

Feminist Philosophy
Phil-789-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1993
(© David Foss, March 25, 1993)

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Last modified January 26, 2000

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