Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you
look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the
other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined
by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down
the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly
around the wire anytime it wanted to go somewhere. It is only when
you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one?and take a
macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird
does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will
require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious
that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related
barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight,
but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the
solid walls of a dungeon.
Marilyn Frye, “Oppression”
It is safe to assume that every man
and woman in America has seen some sort of pornography, whether it is
a Calvin Klein billboard, or the latest issue of Playboy. The two may
seem unrelated, but the link is that they both objectify women.
People who view this material transform the human in the picture into
an object of desire, an object that they wish to possess. As with
everything, there are opponents to this sort of pornography, one of
which is the feminist movement. A key player in this movement is
Gloria Steinem, who has founded several women’s foundations and
written two books about women’s rights. As a feminist, one of the
things Steinem believes is that women are in a social position
underneath men, and that there are several factors that contribute to
this position, one of which is pornography.
In Gloria Steinem’s essay ‘Erotica
vs. Pornography’, pornography is seen as objectifying women, and in
doing so continues to keep them in a position of sublimation. She
tries to prove that eradicating pornography would eliminate social
injustices against women. Steinem first talks about the separation of
“all nonprocreative sex with pornography” (153). She believes
that just as work has been separated from play, sex should be
separated from pornography. She goes on to assert that the opposition
to censoring pornography comes from “friends of civil liberties and
progress” (154). These people, she says, oppose censorship because
it invades their privacy, despite the fact that it objectifies women.
She believes, however, that pornography itself infringes on women’s
privacy because it infringes on the rights and lives of women
everywhere. She next counters the idea that simply enjoying
pornography makes it okay. Steinem believes that pornography makes
sex synonymous with domination of women, and is therefore an enemy of
women’s rights in the long run. She concludes by summarizing the
legal steps taken by feminists to protest pornography-all they have
proposed, she says, is enforcement of existing legal law. However,
despite what Steinem’s paper says, eradicating pornography would do
nothing to provide more equality for women.
The first point Steinem fails to
address is that there are other barriers to women becoming equal to
men. Gender roles, gender stereotypes, and also the natural
inferiority of women all contribute to their inequality. All of these
barriers, including pornography, contribute to women’s inequality,
and eradicating just one of them would achieve next to nothing.
Take, for instance, gender roles in
society. For hundreds of years, a woman’s role in society has been
to run the household for the man, while he provides for the family.
He makes all the major decisions, while she simply carries out his
orders. Even today, in a society that has made major steps towards
women’s equality, these gender roles still exist. The majority of
at-home parents are mothers; most men are still the breadwinners of
the family, and some still expect their wife to make them dinner
every night. Women still have jobs that are ‘women’s jobs’,
such as teaching or secretarial work. Men also have jobs that are
‘man’s jobs’, such as construction or hard labor, police work,
or executive positions. If pornography was eliminated, women would
still have to face up to these roles; only one wire from the cage has
been removed, and the rest are still there.
Another thing women have to fight are
the stereotypes that still exist. Women are supposedly weak
individuals, who function best in a position where not many major
decisions are to be made. It is not often that a woman is in an
executive position of a corporation. Even if one were, she would have
had to overcome some major struggles to get there. On every step of
the corporate ladder, men would be wondering if she was strong enough
to withstand the ‘perils’ of being an executive; would she be
able to endure other executives’ pressure as well as a male could?
It would be logical to assume that men would be trying to take
advantage of her all the time, since she is ‘just a woman’.
Perhaps the hardest thing for women
to overcome is the natural inferiority they have built into them. For
ages, men have been using Darwinian philosophy to prove that women
are inferior: they are not as physically strong, they are more
emotionally ’sensitive’, and they were considered less
It is a known and accepted fact that
the average woman is physically weaker than the average male. This is
why men are forced to do a lot of ‘grunt work’, such as opening
doors and lifting heavy boxes, which contributes the idea that women
are unable to cope with everyday life. When a man does those sorts of
things for a woman, she is portrayed as ‘dainty’ and ‘fragile’,
and therefore as the weaker sex.
Women are always thought of as more
emotional than men. Throughout history, women were always portrayed
as ones who cry a lot, who are unable to withstand pain. Today, men
who cry are still outside the norm, and it is a common sight to see
women crying at sad movies, while the men sit uncomfortably in their
Even though most women have a college
education these days, they are still thought of as less knowledgeable
in certain ways. A typical situation the home might play out like
this: a woman notices a door is squeaking, so she lubricates the
hinge, and everything is fine. Her husband comes home, hears she
fixed a squeaky hinge, and immediately goes to check on her work to
make sure everything was done right. Even though she only performed a
relatively simple task, the husband still checks it, as if he is
surprised she even undertook this chore. This is a sign of some
evolution, for the women have been historically less aggressive (more
‘gatherer-ish’) and men are more aggressive (more ‘hunter-ish’).
Still, there are some residual effects: the man being unsure of the
woman’s work is one. He is unsure of her prowess as a ‘hunter’,
and so he double-checks to make sure she did it right.
The fact of the matter is that women
are naturally inferior, according to today’s standards. Nature made
them the way they are (weaker, emotionally sensitive, a gatherer
rather than a hunter), and society has dubbed them inferior. Even if,
in a fantasy world, they were no longer objectified, they would still
have to cope with their natural differences.
Consider the birdcage again. Take out
one of the wires-is it any easier for the bird to escape? The same
goes for the oppression of women: even if pornography is eliminated,
the rest of the barriers still exist, and it is just as hard for
women to proceed around them. Gloria Steinem does have a valid point:
women are objectified by pornography. However, pornography is not
really hurting women all that much; it is, after all, only one wire.