A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange suns rays and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.
This poem by Maya Angelo — “I know how the caged bird sings,” is one that is heard in many types of oppression. The cage has forced the bird to sing a beautiful song, but she is still caged. The free bird can claim the sky, and illuminate it with its own beauty, while the clipped and tied bird can only light it up with sound, and dreams of flying free. A woman is a caged bird — caged by her oppression, weather it be man, society or her very own body. Men occasionally suffer because of gender stereotypes but that they are not oppressed to the same extent as women. But men experience a certain freedom, which women do not. They are allotted opportunities, which break through stereotypes that might impede them. Marilyn Frye’s definition of experiencing oppression incorporates many different facets of society, but one common theme, helping illustrate the difference between the oppression of women and grey area men might encounter:
The experience of oppressed people is 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. (Frye, 39)
Here, Frye argues that men are not oppressed, and women are. Men might be “confined or shaped” by societal pressures, but they do not “restrict or penalize” their way to success. Frye uses the example of a birdcage–where every bar can be looked at individually and harmlessly, all the bars together create this cage. Men’s barriers are not strong metal bars, but perhaps simply the barring issues of pride, peer pressure and gender-roles. Women deal with a double standard that men do not. It is apparent that women are the caged birds and men fly free with the sun.
A woman who takes authority is viewed differently than a man in the same position. The same position of authority for a woman differs than that of man, because she has to work harder for the same respect given to a man. A woman who asserts authority is considered a “bitch.” She has to work for respect, and implement strict rules and guidelines to get what she wants. A man can have the same power and not have to work hard at all. The double bind comes in when an authoritative women wants to be herself, and cry or be sensitive — she is viewed as weak. A man is applauded for the ability to be powerful, yet perceptive.
Rather than being inferior, women are hampered in developing competence in the most profound ways, to overcome the obstacles put in our way we must indeed be twice as good as men, but I more was that we expected. It is not surprising that so many of us to not ‘succeed’ What is extraordinary is that any of us do. (Ruth, 61)
The expectations of a woman are different than that of a man, and give men more freedom and placing women in a trap. These expectations are found all over our culture, but one good example is in the American workplace. A successful woman is one that has no time for her kids. Yet a woman who spends all day rearing her children and taking care of her home is regarded as an unsuccessful woman, or looked down upon. People wonder why she doesn’t work — she’s just a “homemaker.” It is the American ideal to work and work, and be able to take care of her home while working still. But this expectation — to work and be a mother, limits the work that one can do. If a woman is very successful, society wonders who is taking care of her family. A man in the same position has it very different. To be successful is almost an entitlement, while no one really questions family. One will never ask, “why is he not at home, taking care of his children? A man is expected to be the provider. He can, if he wishes, take care of his family. This is not looked upon as weak, rather as a man who has decent family values. The demands of keeping a home and a job are felt by women — and felt of men.
The expectations of women in terms of beauty and sexuality are vastly different than the expectations men deal with. Women are constantly judged based on their looks. A man is judged on his looks as well — but an ugly man can get just as far as any attractive one. The same goes in terms of sexuality. A man can be a very sexually active and still have respect in society, while a woman who wants to be as sexuality active or promiscuous as a man, is viewed as inappropriate and not lady-like. A man might be viewed as a man-whore, but this is just a title and they are not penalized for their behavior. Frye explains that if a woman is heterosexually active, she is “…open to censure and punishment for being loose, unprincipled, or a whore.” (Frye, 39) Her actions and appearances define who she is to men, and to other women as well.
These labels and generalizations affect my daily life. Personally, a fire is growing in my soul towards the society that suppresses me. I am well aware of the ideals and boundaries it has created. The way my body looks is one that I deal with every single day and I can remember the exact moment when this notion of body image was placed in my mind — with a single “Got milk” ad. I recognize it, and know where it came from — but the way that society and culture moves on, I feel stuck. I am bound by the expectations of beauty, oppressed and enslaved by it. If I let myself go, I am a failure. If I keep up, some women or men hold you by your set standards as beauty, however impossible they might be.
Women are caught in a spider’s web — the more you move, the more you become entangled by the traps: “it is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby-trapped” (Frye, 39). I find myself copping with men and they way the behave. I see that their behavior is an issue, but literally molding and adjusting to the way things are. The double standard of not caring about the way you look and just being strong and having personality — too “taking care” of your body so it looks “beautiful” is a strong enough standard to oppress anyone.
As women, we know what the caged bird sings: We are affected by oppression that holds back our beautiful wings shining in the light, or disables our flight. But like the bird sings a lovely song, we too must find our song. When women recognize their oppression, they can either be passive, or push through it making them stronger in all aspects of life.
1. American Poetry, Gunner Bengtsson. “I know why the caged bird sings – A poem by
Maya Angelou – American Poems.” American Poems – Your Poetry Site. 12 Feb. 2009. <<www.americanpoems.org>>
2. Frye, Marylin. “Oppression.” Compiled by Nachumi, Nora. “Introduction to Women’s
Studies: Theory and Practice.” Feb 2009.
3. Ruth, Sheila. “Feminist Resistance to Sexist Ideology.” Compiled by Nachumi, Nora.
“Introduction to Women’s Studies: Theory and Practice.” Feb 2009.