In the essay “The Politics of Reality: Oppression,” author Marilyn Frye tackles the thorny issue of the oppression of women. Frye begins her essay with a discussion about the actual word “oppression,” and what it means; she asserts that if the word is to have any meaning, it must be made clear that “oppression” does not equal all human misery or suffering. Men, for example, may be beholden to cultural or social constraints that make them, at times, unhappy, but that does not mean that they are “oppressed.” Some, says Frye, assert that the act of “oppressing” can actually be oppressing to the oppressors; such circuitous reasoning is not only absurd, but it robs the word “oppression” of all meaning. According to Frye, her primary purpose in writing this essay is not to prove whether or not women actually are oppressed, but only to clearly delineate what the word oppression actually means. “I want to make clear what is being said when we say it,” asserts Frye; her essay makes a strong case for the importance of using words correctly and not equivocating where the significant issue of oppression is concerned.
If there is any significant flaw in Frye’s thesis, it is in her declaration that she is not setting out to prove that women are oppressed, and is more concerned with defining the term “oppression.” This is simply inaccurate; from the very first sentence of the main text, Frye begins to recount the various ways in which women are oppressed. It may be that Frye does not think she is trying to prove that women are oppressed because she is presenting evidence of said oppression as de facto information; it is as if the oppression of women is simply a given, and she is using that self-evident information as a means to define oppression itself. This rhetorical sleight of hand actually serves to undermine the strength of her argument; while there is little to argue about in terms of the facts she presents, her apparent self-deception (and her subsequent effort to deceive her readers) weakens her credibility, which reflects on the entirety of her thesis.
Leaving aside these concerns, however, Frye does cut right to the heart of what comprises oppression for women. She begins with a general description of the term oppression, including a discussion about the etymology of the word, rooted in the word “pressed,” the word “oppression” implies the ways in which the oppressed are molded, flattened, or reduced in bulk. Put so starkly, Frye effectively sets the tone for the rest of her argument, making it clear that there is a sharp line drawn between the oppressed and their oppressors; ignoring or avoiding that distinction leads to a slippery slope that only serves to cement the roles of those on either side of that divide.
Frye then turns to a classic conundrum faced by women: the choice of how to express –or not express- their sexuality. A woman who is sexually active is often scorned by both men and women, labeled a “whore” or a “slut,” while a woman who refrains from sexual activity is often scorned as well, labeled a “cocktease” or other unflattering terms. Whether a woman is or is not sexually active, her behavior will be used as an excuse to expose her to harassment, or even violence or rape; regardless of how whether she choose to be sexually active or she choose not to be, that choice will be seen as proof that she “wanted it,” and therefore wasn’t really raped.
The oppressed, Frye asserts, are “caged” by their oppression. Those who are oppressed are expected to acquiesce to their oppression; if they do, they are unnoticed, reduced in meaning and significance. If they do not acquiesce to their oppression, women are singled out for harassment, punishment, or worse. No matter what choices women make, it seems, the constraints of their oppression dictate their choices, and the consequences of those choices.
Continuing with the image of a cage as an analogy for oppression, Frye posits that when an individual wire in a cage is examined, it can be easy to not see the entire cage. Viewing various social barriers as wires in the larger cage, it can become possible to understand how these barriers make up the individual parts of a larger oppressive construct. Taking the example of door-opening by men for women, Frye asserts that such rituals are inherently meaningless in terms of being helpful to women, and taken as a whole, they send the message that women are incapable.
There are those, claims Frye, who deny unequivocally that women are oppressed. This may be somewhat understandable, as it is easier, perhaps, to see how some groups are oppressed over others. Many of the groups that have been historically oppressed have been, in some ways, physically confined. Oppressed peoples are segregated into ghettoes, or isolated or contained geographically by force. Women, on the other hand, are not subject to this same sort of segregation, but are instead “dispersed” into and “assimilated” by all classes and cultures. This dispersion in the world of men –their ostensible oppressors- is exactly why their oppression is invisible; those who deny it are simply looking at the wires and missing the cage.
Women, claims Frye, are still hemmed in by the constraints of their oppression; these constraints may not be physical, but they exist nonetheless. The world over, the primary role of women at all levels of society is to serve men. Whether expressed in actual “service” roles –such as maids or housekeepers- or in less obvious, but still significant roles- such as the imperatives of being sexually satisfying and attractive for males- women are largely expected to serve men. Even in light of the many advances women have made in some societies, they are still, as a group, the ones who take on the service tasks of those societies.
As noted, Frye’s greatest fault in this essay is the disingenuous manner in which she asserts that she is not trying to prove that women are oppressed by men; in truth, that is exactly what her essay proves. Despite this glaring prevarication, Frye’s essay is still devastatingly effective in defining what it really means to be oppressed, and in proving that women are most certainly subject to oppression.