STFU About Patriarchy: A primer for people annoyed with feminism.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard the words “patriarchy” and “feminism” and either don’t reallllly know what people mean or have the immediate reaction of “ugh.”  

Yeah, makes sense.  They have become buzzwords used by a lot of people to argue a lot of different and often disparate points.  Some of which (intersectionality!) are important and some of which (the inability to understand how women can be Republicans) are less important.  The topic I bring up all the time and that people who eschew feminism in any form tend to cringe at most is patriarchy.  But there are also those of you who might think you're *aware* of patriarchy and believe you're fighting it while you're really, well, not.  At all.  Obvious disclaimer: I am not an expert and I'm skimming over things that many people dedicate their lives to understanding and explaining.  Also, I'm definitely what Roxane Gay has dubbed a "bad feminist" in that I can be pretty lazy about how I'm living out the values about which I'm going to sound pretty preachy.  

Like, for example, I CONSTANTLY evaluate myself only by my body and compare myself to other girls (wait, I mean other women!) and feeling morally superior when I feel like I’ve either worked out more, eaten less, or whatever.  That’s the annoying and also hella tricky thing about the whole concept of patriarchy: like air, it’s just kind of everywhere.  Sometimes it smells weird and is very noticeable (s/o to Mom sauteeing mushrooms) and other times you forget it’s there.  Sometimes you notice it when someone else doesn’t (like those Febreze commercials where people go noseblind to smells but you certainly do not #kittylitter). No matter what, though, we’re all breathing it, and it sustains us and is everywhere.

Dismantling the patriarchy with one easy sweep

So what is “patriarchy?”

bell hooks, a badass author, defines it as the following:

"Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence."

So.  Political-social system.  That part means it’s everywhere and affects our interactions, our institutions, basically every level and aspect of society.  Hence the whole air analogy.  Corny, but it works.

“But," you say, "no one’s insisted to me that males are inherently __________."  Same same.  The idea that someone needs to go around saying “MEN ARE BETTER BECAUSE XYZ” is dangerous because it lets us ignore some of the more *insidious* ways we teach and are taught that men are inherently anything just because they are born men. Yeah, there are still a lot of people who go around very obviously talking about why and how men are this and why and how women are that and why and how men are the #best.  But there are also a lot of men (and women) who think they’re in the clear because they don’t march around yelling stuff like that (or typing it in all caps because 21st century).  And a lot of those people, men especially, exist on this very campus and are having a deleterious impact on themselves and on their community by patting themselves on the back for not being a jerk, but doing some pretty shitty things nonetheless.

Saying men are inherently anything (strong, rude, loud, good at math, violent, etc.) is also a product of patriarchy.  It doesn’t just have to be talking about how great men are.  Believing specific character or personality traits are inherent due to gender comes directly from the need to ascribe certain jobs and expectations based on how your body looked. (Bonus lesson: that gender breakdown didn’t happen everywhere. Some cultures had and have space for more than two genders.)  More recently, it has contributed to constraining behavior.  Like on the playground… boys are less likely to play with dolls whereas girls are given dolls very early on.  Such a disparity comes from the expectations that girls are inherently nurturing and will grow into mothers and need the practice whereas men are not inherently nurturing and, like, why even bother trying!  Pretty dumb when you realize playing with a doll is literally training for parenthood and a lot of men I know who want to be fathers (should) want to know how to care for a child. 

Connecting all that back to hooks's quote, the inherent domination of men and therefore the traits we associate with or ascribe to men constrains what both men and women are “allowed” to do.  We constrain that behavior by socially rewarding or punishing each other for doing certain things that don't match the expectations associated with the gender others see us as having.  Those social rewards/punishments can be as obvious as the coverage of Olympic athletes that asked women "whatcha wearing" and asked men "how do you train?"  It can also be as subtle as joking that your friend is soft because he cries about something or insisting that your classmate is being "too aggressive" when she shreds your argument.  In the end that system of social rewards and punishments leads to an over-valuation of traits associated with men (if you create the entire framework you will operate in, then you are going to reward the traits you have.... like the founding fathers didn't write a lot into the basic founding documents of this country because it never crossed their minds any women would one day be in government positions).  That over-valuation of traits we define as "manly" feeds into the cycle of rewarding men for displaying those traits.  It also feeds into the cycle of punishing women who display them (because they're not matching up with the behavioral expectations we have of them).

Skeptical?  If you are, read on.  If you believe me already skip to the “+++”

Imagine: a junior walks into a fraternity party on Halloween.  She gets a beer; she shotguns another one.  She’s buzzed.  She sees a boy in a plastic sombrero and a cheap bullet belt.  She personally thinks that’s some bullshit to go around in such an outfit in a country considering building a wall to block people who are more likely to wear such things and on a college campus where peers have expressed frustration and anger that people will wear the costume but never come to events celebrating the actual culture itself.  She leans against the hallway wall across from him and loudly asks him something along the lines of, “Dude, seriously, like where have you been the past few months this has been a big conversation?” He responds, “I dunno I wanted something cheap that I could drink in.”  She responds, “I spent a dollar on this entire outfit and it’s actually creative and I just shotgunned so try again.”  They go back and forth for a while.  She sees the looks from fraternity brothers.  She feels a tap on her shoulder.  She is asked to leave.  Because “it’s a rush thing” and they “really don’t want to take chances.”  She, shocked and confused since she’s been rushing and trying to engage with the first-year boys for months now, starts crying.  She leaves.  

Too loud.  Too many opinions.  Too direct.  Too rude.  Taking up too much space.  

Now imagine: a senior fraternity brother is drunk as shit.  A junior girl is very much not.  He leans into her trying to kiss her.  She moves her head and awkwardly hugs him instead.  She is laughing, uncomfortable.  She reminds him she is dating one of his brothers.  He doesn’t care he says, still wavering back and forth with pursed lips and half closed eyes, maintaining that make-out-ready expression.  She kisses him on the cheek hoping that assuages his request.  She looks around.  His brothers are all chilling, no one notices her personal space is no longer personal, nor that she can’t maneuver out of this situation.  No one seems to really even notice this boy is doing too much, being too aggressive, taking up his space and her space.

Because all of those sexually aggressive traits are “normal” and “expected” from people that look like dudes.  

Believe me yet?

How about another scenario, where in that second scene with the drunk fraternity boy that girl was really horny and really wanted to get laid.  So she, knowing how drunk this boy was, kissed him and led him to his room to sleep with him.  She stays there and wakes up in the morning.  So does the boy.  He has no recollection of the girl’s actions.  He remembers wanting to make out, but he didn’t really want to have sex or anything.  Is it rape?

Yup.  Even if the “traditional” roles are reversed.

But you see, we subscribe to some pretty concrete notions of who boys are and who girls are, and what boys do and what girls do and how we reward people for holding up expectations (no problem drunk frat boy, invade women’s personal space with no deleterious aftermath!) and how we punish them for not fulfilling them (too bad drunk frat boy, you had sex with a girl and don’t remember it, that doesn’t count as rape).  


So now we find ourselves in this place where these dominating traits are associated with men, and the more subordinate ones are associated with women.  Shouldn’t be TOO much of a jump here to believe then that we have some collective habits that continue social (and economic) inequity between men and women. (BONUS LESSON: inequity and inequality are two different concepts; also BONUS LESSON: the ways these inequities actually play out is different based on a number of different things.)  And we’ve addressed some of these problems.  Like, there is so much more conversation about sexual violence against men, and the whole conversation around #bosswomen gives me life.  But we have a long way to go.  And we’re not going to continue on this journey if we can’t address some of the problematic things we do that we don’t even notice.  So next week I'll sassily address the shitty things I see on campus and you can see if you're a part of the problem (hint: we all are) and what to do about it.

If you are interested in writing an article for Her Campus Davidson, contact us at [email protected] or come to our weekly meeting Tuesday at 8 pm in the Morcott Room.