On Teh Menz...or Why Patriarchy is Bad For Us All

Saturday, 19 June 2010

I was feeling particularly bored and morose earlier this week when i got involved in an interesting conversation with Sian and Elly (and later several other people too) on Twitter. Sian started off by saying that for her, "feminism will always be about liberation from patriarchal systems which repress women AND men". To cut a long story short, this prompted some great discussion and cheered me up a lot. We discussed the ways in which people claim that women's struggles have been won and how they completely ignore the lives and experiences of women who aren't white, cis, straight, middle or upper class and highly educated. It was all good.

Sian's initial comment made me recall that I'd been meaning to write about the negative impact of patriarchal systems on men for a while. Not in a 'what about teh menz?!' kinda way, you understand (because goodness knows we all hate it when someone pulls that one in a comment thread), but because I think it's important and because I think we should acknowledge how equality is good for men too. Quite often when we talk about gains being made by women in terms of society or opportunities or rights, people assume these gains mean the loss of something for men and the beginnings of a set-up where they are treated as something less than a woman.

My first response is always to wonder why the thought of this is so shocking, when many of these same people are quite happy to accept a set-up where women are treated as lesser beings. Here's the thing: our gains are not at the expense of the freedom and opportunities offered to men. We hope to see a world where men and women stand together as equals and treat each other with love and respect, not one where one gender tramples another underfoot.

Equality and the rejection of patriarchy and hyper-masculinity is a positive thing for men and here's why: as feminists we want the freedom to be the women we really are, not forced into a narrow definition of what 'woman' means to the patriarchy, or the media, or big businesses, or some groups of religious believers. And at the same time, all those institutions promote a narrow ideal of masculinity which of course, isn't the 'right fit' for all men and also causes anxiety and shame. A very visible example would be the way we characterize certain personality traits and skills as 'masculine' and 'feminine', with 'feminine' being seen as inferior and as an insult. Hence a boy can be put down by being told that he 'throws like a girl' or a man can dismiss cooking or cleaning as 'women's work'.

There are some great organisations - like the White Ribbon Campaign and MyStrength - doing work with men to try to combat the negative effects a hypermasculine, competitive and often violent expectation of male behaviour can have on everyone. Part of the chat on Twitter the other day dealt with talking to men about rape and other feminist issues and how we shouldn't be shutting them out when trying to work towards equality. I think WRC and MyStrength provide positive examples of this.

While writing this I've been reminded of Nancy R Smith's 1973 poem For Every Woman. It's a poem I love and it sums up perfectly what I'm talking about here.
"For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.
For every woman who is tired of acting dumb, there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of "knowing everything."
For every woman who is tired of being called "an emotional female," there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle.
For every woman who is called unfeminine when she competes, there is a man for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity.
For every woman who is tired of being a sex object, there is a man who must worry about his potency.
For every woman who feels "tied down" by her children, there is a man who is denied the full pleasures of shared parenthood.
For every woman who is denied meaningful employment or equal pay, there is a man who must bear full financial responsibility for another human being.
For every woman who was not taught the intricacies of an automobile, there is a man who was not taught the satisfactions of cooking.
For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier."
This is an area of discussion I've been exploring with Luke recently. I think it initially came about because I was getting angry at the brand of hypermasculinity-obsessed Christianity which teaches that being a Good Christian Man means being into war and contact sports and ruling over everything and CERTAINLY not indulging in 'wimpy' or 'chickified' pursuits like caring about clothes or pacifism or being a stay-at-home dad. Like, how pathetic would THAT be?! A man - being like a woman! And besides, if Jesus were alive today he would definitely be the macho, warlike, manbag-eschewing type. Because imposing 21st century, consumer-driven ideals of masculinity on the Son of God is, you know, a totally great starting point for a sermon on being a Christlike man (sarcasm: I haz it IN SPADES). First - belittle and mock women! Next - pretend Jesus is down with that!

Anyway, as I think I've explained before, Luke is not that kind of person. He doesn't expect me to fit inside the box and I don't put him in the kind of box described in the poem above. When I was reading Reclaiming The F-Word the other day a quote on feminist parenting in the chapter on 'Equality at Work and Home' jumped out at me. I showed it to Luke and it prompted a chat about the negative connotations that 'things women do' have in our society. The last sentence of it reads:
"...Above all, those of us who are partnered with the mothers of our children can make clear in words and actions that raising babies is not just a woman's responsibility. Testosterone is no barrier to tenderness."
It reminded me of the feature The Guardian did a few months ago on fatherhood and the way that the men interviewed welcomed a more equal approach to parenting and home life. It reminded me of something I read about countries where governments encourage a more fulfilling family life by giving both partners substantial paid parental leave and limiting the number of hours people can work in a week - and the fact that this correlates with a higher satisfaction with life and relationships. All this is important.

That's why I agree with Sian's words of a few days ago: because it's definitely not all about teh menz, but sometimes it is, just a little bit.


Elly said...

Great post. Nice to hear you were inspired by our twitter discussion. I was too! It cheered me as well after also getting down about teh feminismz...

I think you and Luke would find
www.marksimpson.com very illuminating I mentioned it to you before. He writes about how masculinity has changed /is changing and how this can benefit men but give them new challenges too.

Akela said...

Fantastically refreshing post! I've always said that if/when me and Mrs Akela have children that I would be quite happy to be a stay at home Dad. Whether I did or not would depend entirely on our circumstances at the time and what made the most sense. I've lost count of the number of people, Christian and otherwise, who found that extrordinary. Such a shame.

sianandcrookedrib said...

thanks for the name check hannah! i really enjoyed the debate and have been thinking about it a lot too.
i was talking at an event the other week and one of the women on the panel said that feminism had hurt men, particularly in terms of parenting. i disagreed with her - she cited fathers for justice as an example that the custody laws hurt men.
i disagreed because:
a) the real issue is fathers who abandon their children, not what fathers 4 justice think.
b) feminism, as far as i'm concerned, has always been fighting for greater equality in family life, encouraging men to take a full part in family life, and liberating men from the macho confines that say men can't be nurturing.

one of the moments in living dolls that most upset me was about a mother who's son was artistic and liked ballet, his dad couldn't cope with it. it was heartbreaking. feminism means that just as women shouldn't be confined by an idea of femininity, neither should men. this is why biological determinist discourse is so so damaging.

a lot of my friends are having children and all the dads are so angry about the lack of paternity leave, they see it as insulting their role as parents. feminism is fighting to include men, make the world better for everyone, by liberating us all from the patriarchy.

lipsticklori said...

Great post! I often wonder why people think that feminist gains mean that men are somehow losing out.

Hannah Mudge said...

Thanks for that link again Elly - we spent some time reading and being highly amused the other night :D

Akela - that's basically the view that we are taking regarding children and stay-at-home parenting. It is preferable to us that one of us stays at home. Due to the earning potential in our respective careers it would be necessary for Luke to continue working full time but if it was the other way round, we would be happy for him to stay at home. Many people are uncomfortable and even disapproving of this but i think it's up to individual families to decide what's best for them. It is a shame when people ignore the potential of fathers as SAHPs though.

Sian - totally agree with you that feminism seeks to involve fathers more in parenting - let's not forget that in the golden pre-1960s age that anti-feminists love to recall, men were much less involved with everything involving children! I definitely know people who would be uncomfortable with the idea of a son being into ballet and i think i'v mentioned it in a blog post that i heard someone once talking about stopping a little boy playing with a doll 'in case he ends up gay'. Very sad.

Lori - I've thought about this a lot too and once saw someone write that it's because men (or people in general) are brought up to be competitive and to see everything as a competition, everything in terms of gains and losses. So when women gain something it MUST mean that men are losing out on something in return.


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