By Sahizer Samuk
In 1869 John Stuart Mill published his book “The Subjection of Women”, in which he famously argued that both genders should receive equal social and legal treatment. He asked his readers to consider one key question: “As women are prevented from reaching their real potential, how can we expect them to do so?” He suggested that marriage should be between equals and conceived as a long-lasting friendship. Unlike many, Mill also did what he preached in his private life, as he truly believed that equality was crucial.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), on the other hand, maintained well before Mills that, as women and men were equal in the eyes of God, they should thus be so in everyday life. According to celebrated French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, however, there were some contradictory elements in Wollstonecraft’s thought. According to De Beauvoir’s women did not need to resemble men in order to achieve equality, but needed to treasure their femininity. Unfortunately equality between sexes had little to do with the eyes or the deeds of God. This was reflected in De Beauvoir’s over-arching preoccupation with female objectification. In her acclaimed book “The Second Sex”, she talks of “the attempt to freeze women as objects and doom them to immanence” (p.37).
If a woman’s opportunities for transcendence are limited, then, it means that her liberty is fundamentally curtailed. As with any other individual, she longs for the chance of transforming and growing. Any structures or traditions that impede change thus harm and restrain her dignity and personality. For women cannot be reified, or conceived as attached to only one role. Whenever a colleague tells met that ‘Having a career means nothing, you are programmed to have kids’, I feel they lack respect for other people’s ambitions and life styles. A woman’s primary role has long been that of a mother. This view, however, both curtails and stigmatizes complex human beings, who want to experience their womanhood in their own ways, vis-à-vis society’s expectations.
These reflections on the case of Turkish soap operas help to show the multiple ways in which women are still defining themselves in relation to hierarchical and patriarchal views.
Turkish Series’ Script Writers: What about a feminist reading?
“A woman is not a woman if she is not loved deeply. A woman is not a woman if she is not married. A woman is not a woman if she does not have kids.”All these baseless assumptions are regularly reflected on our TV screens, especially in the rich world of Turkish soap operas. For instance, in one episode of the famous soap “Poyraz Karayel”, in which the female protagonist is attacked by a mafia boss, she defends herself by asking her enemy: “Do you know who I am? I am the daughter of…” (followed by the name of another famous mafia leader). Despite being independent, beautiful, clever, and a successful lawyer, her only way to assert herself and appear stronger is to emphasize her connection to a patriarchal institution. As “a woman is not a woman, unless she is well-connected.”
Other examples come from sickly characters in different soap operas: the main female protagonist who commits suicide because she feels she is no longer loved (in “Aşk-ı Memnu”, a soap inspired by the homonymous book written in 1899). Then there are female characters who are hysterical due to jealousy, or because they’re struggling to obtain someone or something. Women who intend to climb the social ladder by marrying someone or establishing necessary connections(often taking the place of another strong woman). Women who might perhaps feel powerful but do not know how to translate their power into something that benefits their own gender in a proportional and positive way.
To be a powerful woman, in fact, is often shown as being (and behaving) like a man. For instance, if a woman is too strong or too audacious in her action, if she reacts quickly to mistakes, does not complain about difficulties, she is immediately labeled ‘a man-like woman’. One –it seems- cannot exist without the antithesis of the other: a woman can cry but a man cannot, a woman complain but a man cannot, a woman can be weak but a man cannot. And these stereotyped roles and social impositions, perfectly epitomized by many soap-operas, have a profound effect on how we perceive the world around us, making life harder for all. In fact, males often become more aggressive when they have to act stronger than they feel they are, and women are pushed to play games, or act as if they were weaker, calmer, always understanding and docile (which leads to anxiety and other psychological issues). These ‘frozen’ sexist stereotypes are exactly what de Beauvoir invited us to reflect upon:the impossibility to freeze human being’s complexity and transcendence, which cannot be constrained into social and cultural rules.
Sahizer Samuk received her PhD from the Department of Institutions, Politics and Policies at IMT Institute for Advanced Studies. She wrote her thesis on Temporary Migration and Temporary Integration: Canada and the UK in a Comparative Perspective. Besides her academic career, she has written for a Turkish literature blog called http://begenmeyenokumasin.com. She has always been interested in authors such as Sevgi Soysal, Simone de Beauvoir and Nancy Fraser and feminist interpretations of novels and films. Read more from Sahizer.
John Stuart Mill (1869) The Subjection of Women
Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Simone de Beauvoir (1949) The Second Sex