Human Rights, Cultural Concerns, and Gender
As I have been asked to discuss the issues having a negative impact on an Asian town, and to address gender inequality, violence, and cultural concerns, I must begin by stating that the town faces an enormous challenge. On one level, it is very aware that there are problems here affecting all, and it is genuinely seeking ways to eliminate the poverty and violence seen in the community. This is only natural, just as the future of the town depends on finding real solutions to these harmful elements. On another level, however, there is no way to responsibly discuss options when the leaders of the area present conditions greatly limiting response. The leaders want to promote the well-being of the community and eliminate the poverty, lessen the gender equality, and advance the community welfare. At the same time, there are powerful traditions here that insist on non-interference in the private lives of couples, and the response is then wanted as respecting or obeying these norms. Put another way, the town realizes it must change, it desires change, but it is unwilling to examine some of the factors that very much go to the problems it is facing. As only an honest assessment of the situation as a whole can be of any value, it is then necessary that this discussion violate the restrictions placed upon it. As the primary concern here is the future survival of the town, it is then essential that all elements going to the current issues be thoroughly understood.
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To begin with, it goes without saying that there is absolutely no intent here to minimize the cultural values of the Asian people of the town. Such an intent would be both highly disrespectful and counter-productive; after all, it is not likely that change of any kind will be accepted by a community that feels it is not respected. Much of the world’s history, in fact, has clearly demonstrated that disregard for culture is both unethical and unhelpful. For thousands of years, for example, great Western powers have “colonized” foreign lands, and with the blatant goal of stamping their own cultural identities on the societies, which translates to destroying the indigenous cultural life itself. In many instances of this, the native culture eventually asserts itself, and this was seen in how India finally reclaimed its identity by overthrowing British rule and subjugation. It is in fact an extraordinary thing, that so many societies trample on the cultural rights of others, and usually because they believe that only their culture has value. No such thinking is in pace here, and no matter the points raised going to the Asian traditions observed here. This is about analysis with respect, and a respect that is in place to enhance to life of the community.
Moving on, then, it is necessary that the community leaders understand how their town, as is true of all communities and societies, is marked by intersectionality. The word itself suggests divisions, but that is not really the meaning. Rather, intersectionality translates to how any life in the community is composed of multiple layers, and that individual identity is created by combinations of social relations, traditions, cultural beliefs, and the various power structures coexisting within the larger environment. The leader in business in the town, for example, also has great social and political respect because his influence in commerce generates these forms of status. That he is a man further adds to his individual prestige. At the same time, a more prosperous businessman or merchant here may overshadow his authority and consequently render him less respected as a man. In a word, everything within the life of the town connects, and in exponential ways: “People are members of more than one community at the same time, and can simultaneously experience oppression and privilege” (Symington 2). To cite another example, the Asian wife and mother in the town may be honored in her home by her male relations, but only as long as she adheres to the belief that any role beyond this would be wrong. The honored woman who violates this thinking then sacrifices the prestige attached to her other roles, and the complexity of intersectionality is then clear.
To all of this, the leaders may say: very well. It is fine that there is a fundamental respect for our culture here, and we accept that the roles of men and women have many layers. What meaning, however, does this have in regard to our problems of poverty and violence, and even gender inequality outside of the home? If there are differences in cultural views regarding the rights of men and women to live intimately however they choose, all are concerned with poverty and violence. It is unlikely that any man or woman in the town would oppose solutions reducing or ending these severe issues so, intersectionality aside, virtually all are linked by common ambitions. What we require, then, are the answers going to the universal matters, and which all here would be glad to apply.
By way of reply, it must be reiterated that nothing is that simple, and chiefly because the same belief systems sanctioning the abuse of women in the home are very much a part of the cultural framework operating on a larger scale. It is understandable to hold that the private life of a couple must not be interfered with, but it is also both unjust as a firm policy and a misguided way of viewing the culture itself. To begin with, and as may be obvious, it is at best naïve to believe that any culture can promote gender equality outside of the home and still permit the oppression of women in domestic spheres. This is because both practices absolutely rely on the way women themselves are perceived, and are inherently and radically contrary. Put another way, inequality within and external to the home stem from the same gender belief system, and it is unreasonable to believe that one practice may be maintained while another is altered. This conundrum is not new to this town; it has long been in place in multiple cultures and eras, and because the lines are impossibly blurred in terms of how women are simultaneously marginalized and esteemed, relative to the society and the home environments. In any culture in which men have the main power, it happens that women nonetheless demonstrate social power all their own, which is ignored, denied, or openly opposed. As Wood observes in her analysis of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the ideas regarding black slavery in the American past have long ignored the importance of the roles actually played by black women, and how gender roles of both black and white women today reflect the same processes of neglect (Wood 83). Patriarchal cultures, simply, resist female empowerment. They will often assert that they seek gender equality, as the town in question is affirming, but they are unwilling to comprehend the scope of what such equality demands. In plain terms, it demands an exposure of the inequality permitted in the home. Gender views are deeply embedded in cultures, and it is irresponsible to expect that oppression, or the allowance of oppression of women, can be in place with a social belief in gender equality.
This in turn connects to the problem of violence in general faced by the town, and because the same kind of duality of thinking is in place. Intersectionality is not confined to human beings; it exists in all the processes and functions of a community or society, and in the way that behaviors are promoted or discouraged. If, for example, the town is seeing violence from its young people, and its male youth in particular, it must ask itself why this is so. The answer is not difficult to see, certainly in any arena in which violence is permitted, or is seen as an expression of a “natural” male right. Plainly, and given the nature of the town, it is likely that many boys are raised in homes where they witness their mothers being physically abused. The logic is clear and the message is strong; it is acceptable for the strong, or the man, to be violent to the weak, or the female. When the gender tags are removed from this, the formula remains in place. Whoever has more power has the right to abuse those who have less. Consequently, if violence is a serious problem in the town, the town must accept that it has long supported such violence. Given this reality, the town’s determination to respect the privacy of families is, if admirable to an extent, actually unjust, and because it allows for violent subjugation in both form and as a social influence.
The ultimate response to the town, then, must emphasize that it is wholly irrational to anticipate different forms of behavior when only one ideology is fundamental to the town. The leaders must realize as well that, again, there can be no overstating of how deeply ingrained that belief in inequality must be. For the town to seek gender equality on social and commercial levels defies the likelihood, if not reality, that the town exists in ways promoting a specific kind of representation. It was Hanna Pitkin who first conceptualized the critical argument that the politics of representation are powerfully linked to the symbolic representation within a community, and with an emphasis on gender roles. That women in this town, or in any patriarchal society, may seek or even be encouraged to seek political or commercial power is meaningless if the underlying and symbolic representations of the culture itself are not seen for what they are. These exist in a vast range of ways, as in the British bank notes almost exclusively bearing the images of men. The symbolic agent is definitive; money is the “province” of men alone, so the woman trying to enter into a sphere of commercial power faces a fundamental obstacle (Lombardo, Meier 176). It is more than probable that the town employs is own symbols, and which redefine the idea that women should not have power.
Addressing gender inequality here, then, is as complex as addressing violence, even as both factors go to how gender exists in the culture and community. While maintaining the noted respect for the town’s cultural specificity, it must also be said that these elements also go to its issues with poverty. This problem is difficult, in that so many influences go to community poverty, and it is not the intention here to examine those issues as such. However, certain causes are virtually inevitable in all cases of widespread poverty, and one is leadership that fails to comprehend the realities of the social and commercial systems in place. In plain terms, the intent of the leaders to respect cultural specificity is likely blinding them to urgent needs within the town. To understand how and why poverty exists in the community, the leaders are actually obligated to generate open exchange with both the men and women in the homes they, the leaders, are so reluctant to enter. If, as noted, the problem of violence is connected to the sanctioning of violence in the homes, so too is it reasonable that other negative forces are going to the poverty, as in lacks of motivation and opportunity. More directly, the gender inequality itself deprives the town of its women as a resource. Less directly, adhering to domestic traditions may also be lessening or eliminating the chances for measures going to the benefit of all, as in communal daycare operations which would free women to work outside the home. What is irrefutable, however, is that, again, each issue faced by town reflects the others.
Ultimately, the point is that the town cannot develop in a more healthy way until the leaders – and the people – accept that it is their core values, as in gender inequality in the home, which dictate the state of the town’s culture itself. Everything going to the current issues stems from these, and because they are the essential influences on the behaviors allowing for violence and poverty. It is then understood that this reality presents the leaders with problems as daunting as those they seek to address. The question becomes one of how to alter the culture on a fundamental level, while still maintaining and respecting that culture. To that end, it is strongly recommended that education be made a priority. This by no means translates to requesting or accepting international aid, although the leaders may be inclined to seek external help. As noted earlier, this is a risky strategy at best. To invite the assistance of another nation or society is to invite intrusion and, once the interaction occurs, the weaker community may easily be culturally victimized. Maintaining independence is then problematic, and there is the very real potential for hostility to arise with little recourse to other, mediating aid. For example, modern history has revealed that the UN is as limited in the scope of its authority today as it has been in the past. In Mojab’s study of the mass victimization of Kurdish women in Iraq following the Gulf War of 1991, it is noted that the UN’s role was marred by a variety of factors ranging from inefficient bureaucracy to corruption. Perhaps most importantly, however, there was as well a lack of real authority, and the UN was intimidated by the Iraqi government when its efforts were seen as intrusive (Mojab 23). The point being, Western culture clashed with Middle Eastern and, with no real authority to equalize the situation from the UN, two governments were locked in fierce opposition. The town in question, then, while no major power, is best served by attending to its own issues. Put another way, the problems of adapting the culture alone are demanding enough, without bringing in external cultural influences or forces.
To the town leaders, then, it is recommended that they take a more committed stance in regard to addressing poverty, violence, and gender inequality, and one that necessarily accepts how these problems are strongly rooted in the gender inequality accepted as within a couple’s rights to privacy. No leader has the right to dictate “new values” to the people, nor is such an effort even realistically valid. However, examining these core values by no mans equates to dismissing or weakening the cultural specificity. On the contrary, examination – and the encouragement of open exchanges among all the people – may well reveal that the true cultural values have been corrupted over time. In plain terms, a husband’s “right” to physically abuse his wife is no cultural value; it is an extension of patriarchal thinking, an unhealthy such extension, and one based on weakness, not strength. Beyond any other strategy, however, the leaders must fully comprehend that they cannot begin to protect their own culture and improve life for its people without appreciating that what occurs in the home must shape what occurs outside of it.
Western Sexual Politics
A modern advertisement that definitely demands attention is a commercial for Trojan prophylactics. The ad is relatively brief and there is no dialogue in it. An attractive young man and woman are holding each other and clearly beginning to make love. The scene is extremely intimate; they are on a couch, a fire is burning in the background, and quick camera cuts go to their hands exploring each other’s body as they passionately kiss. The man is on his back and, as he reaches for the prophylactic from his back pocket, it falls to the floor. His hand goes to the floor and cannot find it there, and for the moment he is disturbed. An instant later, the young women, literally sitting on top of him, pulls the same item from out of her own pocket, holding it up with a look of amused victory. They both laugh, and the implication is that there is now nothing to prevent them from engaging in sex. This, they both return to in the warm glow of the room, with rain seen in the window to the rear. As may be obvious, the greater implication is that carrying male contraceptives is today recommended for women, which in turn implies that it is a completely acceptable practice. The voice-over narration then states: “Ultra-smooth for him, intensified for her. New Trojan Double Ecstasy condoms.”
It should be noted, before the actual gender and sexuality issues of the ad are examined, that the subject of the ad itself is not something which would have been aired in the past. This in turn relates to those issues, in that there is a new and prevalent emphasis on sexuality seen as valid for marketing. The idea conveyed by such ads is that, in today’s world, there is no reason to hold to traditional views which see the idea of sex as inappropriate. In modern Western culture, it is understood that “sex” may be more honestly presented, rather than in the manner of using attractive models and suggestion to promote any product at all. The importance of this lies in the indirect statement then made by the ad: the culture is now freed from bias and restrictions, and is fully able to accept as truth that men and women enjoy sex frequently. Connected to this is the ad’s implication, in terms of the youth of the couple, that marriage is also no longer an issue. As long as people are responsible and, no matter the intensity of the moment, committed to practicing safe sex, no morals or ethical codes are violated. There is as well the further statement made in regard to empowerment of women. The young woman is, first of all, on top of the man during most of the ad. Then, her presence of mind in being prepared for sex clearly indicates more than one reality. It essentially asserts that she enjoys sex, perceives herself as equal to the man, is comfortable about being aggressive in the pursuit of it, and believes that she is accountable for seeing to it that no unsafe sex will occur.
All of the above is why I believe this particular ad merits scrutiny. On one level, and chiefly because it is a marketing tool, the ad presents a highly idealized scenario of a virtually perfect gender equality. Everything is mutually desired by the two young people, and the fact that they both wear blue jeans underscores how, in terms of representing sexuality and personal freedom, gender is in fact unimportant. Put another way, the ad presents a couple in no way hampered by antiquated concerns, just as the man’s evident willingness to be “below” the woman suggests an easy-going male acceptance of female power. My focus on the commercial is then based on my sense that it is directly offering a “fairy tale” idea of gender relations. In my estimation, in fact, the ad is as irresponsible as ads of thew past blatantly exploiting women’s bodies to sell products. It is marketing that exploits women, and through the more devious strategy of pretending to empower them, or present an empowered reality. As the following will explore, what the ad actually does is validate male dominance, and through the unexpected avenue of utterly dispensing with fundamental gender differences.
To begin with, the ad is certainly feminist in its presentation of so completely a sexually equal scenario. More to the point, feminism is served by the direct usage of a male contraceptive, and one in the possession of the woman. For some years, feminism focused on inequality of gender as being very tied to masculine thinking of female submissiveness, if not outright submission. The second wave of feminism, in fact, turned to sexuality very directly. It held that social and political powerlessness were directly linked to patriarchal ideas that a woman could not experience sexual pleasure, or that her enjoying it was a mark of improper being. Female sexuality then became intensely politicized in feminist discourse; it was seen as yet another instrument in male subjugation of women because the female role in sex was so traditionally mandated as passive (Gwynne 4). The thinking is logical; the nature of gender must in some sense go to the ways in which men and women identify sexual roles, which then translate to the broader arenas of living. In this feminist context, then, it is arguable that the ad is in no way offensive or manipulative,simply because it reflects nothing but completely equal desires from the man and woman. They complement one another perfectly, so the ad is a “dream” of true equality.
At the same time, this very presentation of equality is questionable at best. On one level, and ironically, it may be said to promote, not mutual responsibility, but the idea that – at last – women may be as careless about sexuality as men have always been permitted to be. This goes to, not the sex itself, but rather the scenario surrounding it. In modern thinking, it is widely accepted that safe sex must be practiced between any two people who are not completely aware of the other’s sexual history. If, as is reasonable to assume, the contraceptive is being used to eliminate the chances of disease being transmitted, it is then clear that the young man and woman do not fully know one another. The precaution is essential under any such circumstances, and the point here is not that either party is about to engage in sex with a relative stranger; certainly, even couples who know one another very well are not always able to be certain that there is no risk. Nonetheless, the ad strongly suggests a casual element, if only by virtue of the ages of the two and the setting as a living room. Given this, a different and interesting interpretation is possible, in that sexual “empowerment” is in fact nothing more than a woman’s ability to be as indiscriminate as a man. Put another way, there is an important issue needing address here, and there is no sound reason to accept that the social approval of a woman as engaging in casual sex validates personal identity. That is to say, and based on the sexual equality of the ad, the message is in fact very opposite; it is affirming that women may be as debased as men, and enjoy sex only as sex, and as men are perceived to do.
The basis for this argument is somewhat apart from specific issues of gender equality in any meaningful sense. Both men and women, it can be held, should be less concerned in being so sexually empowered, because there is no reason to associate the ability to have sex with personal empowerment in the true sense of the word. This also connects with the likely implication that the contraceptive is to be used to prevent pregnancy. No matter what, the woman will be able to come away from the encounter “safe.” She will not become pregnant, so there is then no cause to abstain from sex. The problem with this is that it implies that only fears of pregnancy and disease hold women back from enjoying sex, and that the contraceptive creates true equality. This raises the question: should not both men and women be guided by other concerns? It is by no means antiquated or irrational to hold that engaging in casual sex may easily debase personal identity, and for both genders. That men have traditionally not been debased by this only reinforces male dominance; it does not eliminate the core reality of the practice as undermining real integrity. Instead, it only exists to reaffirm the idea of men as eager to have sex whenever possible, and the presentation of the woman as now free to do the same does not create equality, except in terms of equal debasement. This then seriously challenges any truly feminist perspective on exactly how empowerment occurs. In plain terms, and as stated above, the commercial suggests that a woman is as strong as a man because she is as willing to pursue casual pleasure as much as a man typically does. This can have no real part in feminist discourse, because it is a behavior not enhancing either gender.
There are as well other implications of the ad causing concern, and actually reflecting forms of inequality as desirable. It may be argued that, when the entire commercial is seen, it is more about gender role reversal than equality. As noted, the man is physically below the woman, in the submissive position traditionally associated with women. Then, the male actor in question has a kind of feminine appeal; he is slender, has long eyelashes, and is “pretty” rather than handsome in the standard, masculine way. When he loses the contraceptive, he is lost, and she “comes to the rescue” by providing her own. The role reversal aspect is evident when these two behaviors are switched. If the commercial portrayed the man “on top” and saving the sexual situation, it would completely reflect ideas of masculine dominance and capability so long in place. He would be acting precisely as men are traditionally expected to act, just as she would be in the position of both submitting to his dominant presence and needing him to compensate for her weakness. Just as with the ad as promoting equal debasement, the ad then presents no true empowerment for women; instead it asserts that women are in fact better able to negotiate sexual encounters, and men cannot be trusted to be responsible. It cannot further gender equality, then, to merely exchange one form of bias for another. Put another way, the interests of women are not served by having them maintain postures of dominance. More to the point, equality is nowhere to be seen in such a presentation.
If the above as seen as too harsh, or ignoring the reality that this is in fact a commercial intended to sell a product, it is still important to note that the content is clearly in place to make a statement, and that any such example of male/female roles is created to reflect and/or influence popular thinking. The ad very much exists to persuade, and reinforce an idea of sexual “equality” going to women’s advantage. This then relies on sexual politics as referred to earlier, and reflects the ongoing concern of feminists that female sexual agency must struggle to overcome the many forces holding that sexuality as only a passive object subject to patriarchal definition. Patricia Mann asserts that sexual micro-politics demands that women seek a redistribution of sexual agency, and that women must become more active as social actors within the framework of sexuality in general. They must – and as the ad expresses – feel free to make demands and assert authority in sexual relations, just as men have for so long. Mann herself notes that this is an inherently “messy process,” because it still involves playing in some way to masculine conceptions of what a woman’s sexuality can be (Genz, Brabon 176). Put another way, the object of a biased definition is just as influenced by the definition as those creating it, and particularly when the bias has been so universal within a culture. Nonetheless, it must be wondered just what the goal is, if the only options – as the ad suggests – go to women as simply taking on masculine authority in sexual matters.
More exactly, all involved in the discourse must finally address what such a process ignores: namely, gender differences that go beyond masculine parameters or concepts defining the genders. Without necessarily turning to postfeminism, it is highly possible that ideas of female empowerment have been so defined by only how gender roles are created in a patriarchy, the true essence of genders as different is neglected. It may be, for example, that men are traditionally seen as being more eager to engage in casual sex because males are biologically influenced to be this way. Similarly, the female’s ability to reproduce may be linked to important biological and psychological processes attaching far more meaning to physical intimacy. That these are potential realities goes beyond any concerns for social or political equality as such; instead, they are foundations of being which must be acknowledged if both genders are to be respected for what they are. It is likely, in fact, that such potentials have long been deliberately dismissed by feminists, because they indicate women as assuming passive roles, or as being less concerned in basic ways about wielding power. Even this, however, calls into question how real power is defined, as it is more than reasonable to conclude that a woman’s innate motive to nurture, generally speaking, is more “powerful” than a man’s drive to have authority or dominate. In plain terms, gender discourse has long been marked by a contradiction: it often goes to an insistence open equality, when it is in fact more focused on pragmatic forms of social, sexual, and political power, and true gender identity remains lost in the processes. In masculine fashion, it attaches value only to that which is traditionally masculine, and there can be no gender equality arising from any such strategy.
All of this is why the ad in question disturbs me. It is so idealized a scenario of perfect and mutual sexual equality, it actually discards the blatant reality that there must be authentic gender differences. It is irrational, in fact, to assume that men and women would approach sex in the exact same manner, given the immense differences between the genders in biological terms alone. Moreover, this is aside from how the ad may be seen as merely inverting gender stereotypes, and placing the woman in the dominant – and consequently unjust – position. The ad offends me because it reflects a point of view in which both genders are demeaned, because both place too high a value on casual sex. Ultimately, then, the Trojan ad is not about female empowerment at all. It is about presenting a myth of an unreal and undesirable world of sexual equality.
Genz, Stephanie, & Brabon, Benjamin A. Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Gwynne, Joel. Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism: The Politics of Pleasure. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.
Lombardo, Emanuela, & Meier, Petra. The Symbolic Representation of Gender: A Discursive Approach. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. Print.
Mojab, Shahrazad. “Kurdish women in the zone of genocide and gendercide.” Al-Raida 21.103 (2003): 20-25. <http://www.kurdipedia.org/documents/87353/0001.PDF>
Symington, Alison. “Intersectionality: a tool for gender and economic justice.” Women’s Rights and Economic Change 9 (2004): 1-8. <http://www.popline.org/node/252925>
Wood, Sarah. “Exorcizing the Past: The Slave Narrative as Historical Fantasy.” Feminist Review 85.1 (2007): 83-96. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/30140907>
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