Oppression is defined as prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control. A definition that many give their own meaning to. However, such as oppression is created, it is also expressed; expressed through stories, experiences, and literature. One Genre in particular, American Gothic, does this task better than most. It pushes the extremes of social issues and fears, often daring against the accepted while bringing a new sense of awareness to off limits topics. Topics such as racism, religious persecution, the class system, and gender. Using the written works of “The Story of An Hour” and “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin as well as “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins, I am going to prove how the oppression of women has been, and continues to be a problem in our society; a problem that has repressed women’s identities and ambitions through stereotypes and limitations to the domestic sphere.
One of the many forms of oppression against women stems through the vocabulary used to describe them, vocabulary that is full of insinuations which in turn invoke negative connotations towards women themselves. Throughout all of these short stories, one of the consinstancies you can see is the condescending and demeaning way women are addressed. They are considered irrational, hormonal, incompetent, and overly emotional; all of which are for the most part, words used to describe women only, and portray their inability to make decisions for themselves. Because of these antagonistic views towards women, they learn to impugn themselves and their capabilities in favor of their male counterparts view. For example, in the story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” The protagonist, who you can infer suffers from postpartum depression, battles with her husband John’s opinion and with her own intuition on what actions she should take to improve her mental health. She, consistently throughout the story feels that her husband’s methods of treating her are ineffective, and in many ways she feels like she is worsening. While her husband prescribes time alone from the outside world, rest and breathing exercises, no stimulation, and the ban of her writing, she writes “ Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. But what is one to do?”(Perkins 393). She genuinely feels as though she can not do what will help her. She writes in secret. She stays in the house regardless of what she personally believes will alleviate her illness. She does this, because female stereotypes are so imprinted in her mind that she thinks her husband can make better decisions for herself then she can. She tries, multiple times to tell her husband that being confined in that house is not making her better. But each time he calls her a little pet name and reassures her that he knows best, and that she’s being ridiculous, hormonal, and overemotional. Finally it comes to the point where she snaps, and thanks to the poor treatment of her psyche becomes what most people would generally consider to be insane.
If she were to be treated as an equal, and not as a child who had no comprehension of the situation at hand she wouldn’t have gone crazy. In fact, she was right, studies show that in cases of depression stimuli, exercise, and time outside drastically improve behavior, energy, and increase dopamine levels which make you feel happier. She was completely competent in listening to herself efficiently and learning what made her better and what made her worse. But her thoughts were ignored and the seriousness of her mental illness was overlooked on the grounds that she is a woman, and women over react. As she said expressing her frustration towards her husbands rose colored opinion,“If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency- what is one to do?”(Perkins 393). She knows what is best for her but is unable to do so. Isolated in that town house, oppressed by her husband and the rest of the male dominated community, and misguided from their medical advice, it’s no wonder she went insane in order to finally free herself. The irony of it all is if he let her do what she felt was right, let her make her own decisions for herself, she would have gotten better. But because he thought he knew best, he only made her worse.
On the subject of self repression due to the surrounding societal oppression, I bring you my next example, “The Story Of an Hour.” In it our female protagonist Mrs. Mallard explores the opportunities of independence that have finally lended themselves at the death of her husband, showcasing and demonstrating the internal struggles of women in society with ambitions that are greater and beyond that of a housewife; and the despair of self realization of oppression when she realizes that she is unable to live her dream. While she has a loving husband who is nothing more than fair to her, at the news of his death she finds herself to be beyond ecstatic and relieved. But why should she be? She had an easy life, her husband made decent amounts of money and treated her with nothing but love. But that’s just it. It wasn’t enough for her. Not being able to live for herself, not being able to follow her impulses, her ambitions, was more important to her than easy leaving. Locked in her room for the first time since she’s received the news of her husband’s death she cries, but not for him. She cries for herself. “There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have the right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in a that brief moment of illumination” (Chopin 2).
When given the inclination of freedom, she seized it immediately. “What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!”(Chopin 2). She understood that a woman’s only purpose is to serve in the domestic sphere and live for her husband first, family second, and herself third. And while she was not content with that, as many women rarely are, she accepted her fate. But now, having been widowed, that cage she had been looking out of had finally opened. The more she looked at the freedom being granted, the more she realized just how trapped she really was. The relief and triumph from knowing that she would finally live her life the way that she wanted to live it was unparalleled, so when her husband walked back into their house hours later as he always had it is no wonder her fragile heart stopped. If she could not live for herself she would rather not live at all.
The most relevant story in regards to today’s society is the story of “Désirée’s Baby.” Désirée is a young woman who was adopted into a loving household, and did not know of her past family history. But that ambiguity did not stop suitors from coming, as she was famed and prized for her immense beauty. In the end, she married a man named Armand and the two of them had a child, but the skin tone of the newborn baby was questionable immediately. As the story progresses and the child grows, Armand pulls away from his new wife and child and treats them coldly, while Désirée grows distraught and confused. Finally, after seeing the similarities from his children slaves and her own child, she intervenes and asks him why their child is not white. He, very quickly points the finger at her and blames Désirée. Appalled by the idea, she quickly shuts him down and argues that there is no way she could have any black lineage.
“A quick conception of all that this accusation meant for her nerved her with unwonted courage to deny it. “It is a lie; it is not true, I am white! Look at my hair, it is brown; and my eyes are gray, Armand, you know they are gray. And my skin is fair,” Seizing his wrist. “Look at my hand; whiter than yours, Armand” (Chopin 331).
Despite the fact that his hair and skin tone are darker than his wife’s, he still comes to the conclusion that she is to blame for the dark skin of their baby, not himself. He guilts her and bates her, inflicting pain and suffering on his wife so she’ll leave. And finally when she can take no more and asks if she should go, he encourages her for it was her fault in the first place. Taking one last look at the life that was destined for her child if she stayed, the life of the slaves that had been serving her under his cruel regiment, she decides to kill herself and the baby to prevent further suffering. And in the end, when the ashes have settled and the conflict has died away softly from the beaten and ingrained passiveness that Armand had instilled in Désirée; He sits burning her items as well as the babies and comes across a bundle of letters, revealing Armand to be the one with a black lineage, not Désirée. This story, is a prime example of the subordination of women to men, not only in the 19th century but in modern society as well.
Generally, no one likes to think of themselves as a victim, especially when that word has backlashes of deception and fraud. This blame association, in which the victim is not actually the victim but rather the instigator, is not surprising considering that throughout history the majority of victims are women, and the majority of women are blamed for a lot of the problems in society. So, on top of being at fault for these problems, they are also blamed for being a fake victims. For example, if a woman is raped, it is her fault. Why? She was dressing provocatively, she’s a tease, she led him on, she’s lying, and she’s doing it for attention, all of these responses have become valid arguments to brutal sexual assault cases. “One in five women will be raped at some point in their lives,”(RAINN) and out of “1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free” (RAINN). It’s not logical to assume that women are lying, not when so many of them undergo this trama and when so many rapists walk free. And yet we as a society continue to shame and bash rape victims. The “me too” movement was a power that women started in order to bring awareness to rape and to prosecute those that did. A power that put men, who for the most part committed these crimes, behind bars. It’s no wonder they switched the blame around in order to retake their power. And who did we, as a society, as a nation believe? The men. Because in the end, women don’t know what’s right. The fact is, It’s easier for a man to rape a woman and not serve any time than it is for a woman to come forward and say she was raped. “We act as if the hatred directed at women is something that can be dealt with by a stern talking to, as if the misogyny embedded in our culture is an unruly child rather than systematic oppression” (Valenti 30).
Désirée shouldered all of her husband’s guilt, not because she herself was actually guilty, but because Armand had convinced her otherwise. Désirée was seen as nothing more than a mer tool. Even her name, Désirée, desire, invokes the understanding that he only wanted her for her beauty and the lust he felt for her. And when he found out he could not have a perfect family with her, could not expand his title with his beautiful wife, her usefulness had dried up; so he decided to give her a new purpose. Cleaning up the mess that his own black lineage caused. Désirée was undoubtedly the victim in this story, her true love for Armand and their child regardless of his skin tone and the poor treatment she received left her heartbroken, confused, and guilty. Throughout no point in the story can you safely say Armand ever loved Désirée, and the blaring message of the story is that Armand and his treatment towards Désirée is cruel, unwarranted, and evil. A message that still applies to modern day life and society.
One of the common arguments against women being oppressed in today’s society isn’t an argument, but rather an opinion statement made to make women feel guilty; which is in itself an oxymoron to that very idea. They say women have it worse in other countries, and to be grateful for the accomplishments they have in the United States. But as Jessica Valenti said in the article “For women in America, equality is still an illusion,” “Are American women really supposed to be satisfied with the most basic rights of representation? Thrilled that our country has deigned to consider us fully human?” (2). Yes, women are allowed to vote, and they are allowed to work as well. ( for 80 cents on the dollar I may add) “But all this does not change the fact that the system is male dominated and women are merely accommodated in it in a variety of ways.”(Sultana 2).
The standards set for women and men are double sided, and while the actions taken by both parties are the same, one side will be rewarded and one will be punished. Like with sex. The ideology that women who have had previous sexual partners are whores and sluts while men who do so are bachelors and players is sexist. The action is the same, but the inclination is not. If you are a whore, a slut, you are not worthy. You are less than others. These are derogatory words used to belittle women, to degrade them, not just as individuals but as a gender. But if you’re a player, a bachelor, you’re living the dream. You’re the man everyone wants to be. The same ideology is in the workforce as well. If you are an ambitious and driven woman, you’re naggy, pushy, difficult, abrasive, shrill, and bossy. These words used to negatively view and critique women were actually made just for them; they are gender associated with women and you will rarely hear them being used otherwise. There is no such thing as a shrill and pushy man, rather, he is seen as strong minded, firm, confident, and capable. The things that women are chastised and penalized for, are the very same things that men are celebrated and praised for.
So, knowing this, why is it such a stretch to say that all of this influences the way women act? The way they view themselves, and their capabilities. How many sandwich and kitchen jokes must be said and shot down? An action, that in itself leads to more conflict like being called prudish and sensitive. How can you say that there isn’t a problem when even the smallest inclination of change like correcting an inappropriate joke causes immediate aggression and backlash, resulting in once more blaming and stereotyping women for not knowing what they’re talking about and being to irrational? The frustration of doing the same actions and same work while getting punished while they’re rewarded, is telling women that they are lesser beings.
‘how could feminist consciousness have developed without anger? Anger growing with the realization of the psychological and cultural manipulation of women; anger at the tremendous power men have had over women’s lives to induce feelings of dependence and powerlessness, discourage against growth, independence, and individuation; anger at those religions which claim to provide moral guidance and liberation but instead amplify this sexist oppression” (Pfeiffer 3).
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” John’s soul purpose is to heal his wife. Yet because he didn’t believe her concerns and feelings regarding her mental health, and did not think her capable of independence to make her own decisions, she only fell worse. This represents the stereotypes regarding women as subordinate to men the strongest while proving the stereotypes to be inaccurate, as John’s wife was really the one who was right all along. Women then and now are still views as creatures of nurture, a gentler sex that is responsible for upbringing children, cleaning and cooking, and comfort. They are considered helpless and in need of protection, an early message instilled in all of us through fairy tales, modern day culture, and history. Men are supposed to protect and guard women, yet as you can see it is often the very same ones who feel the need to protect them that are oppressing them. It’s this same group that view women as a weaker sex that decide take advantage of them, blame associate them, and belittle them.
In “The Story of an Hour,” Mrs. Mallard was so overcome with grief after having her freedom of independence taken away that she died. She felt repressed by society and was forced into the roll of a caretaker and a housewife, a fate she did not wish for herself. She had higher dreams and ambitions then was allowed of her, withheld because of no other fact then her gender. Even now women today are thought to be less capable of men in difficult fields like medicine and police work, and are forced to deal with the glass ceiling that further represses their careers. The number of males in the position of CEO’S as well as higher management in general is exponentially greater than females, and because of this women now find themselves struggling against this domineering male administration.
In “Désirée’s Baby,” Désirée shoulders the guilt of her husband for him until the day she died, even though she is not at fault. The fact that she takes the blame so willingly is in its own a testimony of how ingrained female insubordance is in our society, back then and currently. Even though all factors pointed at Armand, her husband still took the initiative to blame everything on her and manipulated her into killing herself and his problematic child. A child that was problematic from his own doing, from his own lineage. Once more, this demonstrates the shift of blame we have for women who are victims, in order to justify male behavior and belittle their pain as to face no consequences.
Each story is different in their own right, but through them all, they convey the heartache and pain of oppression through different aspects and experiences. Women are people, with their own thoughts and ambitions, dreams and fears. To not be treated as such simply for the fact of being the opposite sex is frustrating, demeaning, and discouraging. Women are more than housewifes, more than mothers, more than caretakers. They are their own person. They are not personal dumping grounds for blame. Men are not better than women, and women are not better than men; this isn’t about what genitals you have that make you superior, rather your capabilities as a person. The point isn’t to hate speak about men, while they have been the ones to oppress women, the goal is to simply fix the problem at hand. The damage has already been done and we can point fingers back and forth all day as we have been doing, or we can all just finally admit to our wrong doings and start taking steps towards a solution. And as of now the best way to start is by simply acknowledging that there is a problem in the first place. A simple task that is easier said than done, but will no doubt lead us towards a better tomorrow.
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