3.31.2005

on gender II.

to whit...
Be it known that gender, as a social role, has been used as a weapon against us.
Where women have been historically stripped of their autonomy, pruned, laid passive,
brutalised and commodified,
men have had their gender stripped, quantified and measured according to the interests
of the state. Sex, through marriage, became the first political economy. Women were
relegated to the role of mere commodities, products to be distributed as a reward for
services rendered... notably state-sanctioned aggression.
Thus, the challenge to gender equality activists is to redefine gender... not as a
constricting social role, but as a spectrum of traits... to liberate the individual from gender as it's "supposed to be" to a thing that is inexorably theirs and as such, flexible to their desires...
Thus, feminism must be about men's liberation, and men's liberation about feminism.
When we last left our heroes...



(click on the picture to learn more about this incredible graphic novel)

here's a story...

back in school i took a "women and film" course. No, I wasn't the only male enrolled in the course, and I did not enroll to pick up chicks. Get your mind outta the sitcom.
About halfway through the term, the class starts a discussion: we had been watching movies after every class, and then the following week the prof would spend twenty minutes explaining how that movie could be considered a 'women's film.' Hollywood films, we were told, shared certain characteristics. Conversely, the films we had been watching had very little in common: they were mostly independent films, mostly directed by women, but apart from that there was no thread running through them that we could see. The final straw was that we watched Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' the following week. How, we asked, could a human who was not a woman, make a woman's film? Hitchcock was undoubtably an enlightened fellow; 'Vertigo' is a striking film that changes its meaning depending on which character you let yourself identify with. But could it be a woman's film?
The professor conceded that the whole idea of 'Women's Film' was necessarily vacuous. There are, after all, many kinds of women. Not all women make women's films, and not all women's film is made by women. But we could be sure what Women's Film wasn't. It wasn't a mainstream, Hollywood film.
The class had a sublime moment: we sort of tore ourselves from facing the front of the lecture hall, and kind of glanced at each other over the empty seats. A woman's film is one that isn't a man's film. But what Hollywood writes, in their epic action regurgitations, are those indeed men's films?
The Feminist project of the past few decades has been to redefine Womanhood: from passive object to whole human: reclaiming male traits and social roles. It has been, undeniably, a great success. But it has come at a cost: the syndrome of the 'super-woman', the working-mom, the ideal that enlightened women are supposed to pursue, a conglomeration of traditional gender traits and newer ones tacked on. It's often said that a modern woman is expected to wear many hats, as a mother, a wife, a businesswoman, etc. In other words, she is expected to compete in two rat races now, instead of the one she had before.* (perceptive readers will now note that I've just disproved my own implicit thesis from part I, that 'maleness' was somehow different from its counterpart in how it foisted upon us a competitive ideal. The 'Real Man''s counterpart is the 'Good Wife', who is expected to impress friends and neighbours with her expertise in the 'Womanly Arts.')
The Feminism project is still, if you will, half-finished.
For too long the Feminist project has progressed like an aggressive marketing campaign, relabelling womanhood with new adjectives: strong yet nurturing, soft yet firm; yes, I'm pretty sure we've all seen the soap commercial. If you want to take the analogy of the wearing of many hats further, you can say that the Feminist Project has been appropriating traditionally-male adjectives and putting them on. All the while, and this is key, maintaining its own Wholeness.
Thus we have the concept of the Woman's Film, as if there was homogenous chain that draws all Womanly experience together, that distinguishes onscreen the gaze of a woman from the gaze of a man. And naturally, there isn't. Human experience is far too rich and complex to crudely divide by mere biological classification. Or consider: many Take Back The Night rallies turn their backs on male allies by asking them not to attend. Implicit in this notion is the idea that there is something inherent in all women, something deep in their genetic makeup, that makes violence more meaningful to them. Conversely, that men are less capable of feeling strongly about domestic violence, and that their willingness to take a visible stand against it is less meaningful and less truthful, and thus shouldn't be allowed in the same realm as that of women. I would understand if survivors of violence wanted to march together, but the issue is that one gender group is allowed to march, and not the other. I call bullshit. The only people who fully understand the consequences of violence and intimidation are the ones that experience it. There is no 'shared experience' that binds women tighter than the shared experience of victims of violence.
This is the problem: we've only up until now been able to define our gender in opposition to each other. Thus, a lot of men end up being intimidated by the Feminist Project as it appropriates their hats. They see a movement that redefines itself with the juiciest adjectives, reducing Maleness into a less-than-flattering caricature of itself. They don't see the opportunities for empowerment that lie in their own project. Feminism has been more successful than even its adherents have realized. For the 'Real Men' of America, seemingly embattled and entrapped, rally around the ludicrous strongholds of masculinity. If Womanness now encapsulates success in business, fearlessness, empowerment, and all that they've left us is the vestiges of aggression, machismo, and a reptilian opposition to sociability, then by gawd, that's what we'll be. Unable to see an escape hatch from Fortress Manhood, the 'Real Men' become ugly caricatures of themselves, midget Ted Nugents self-consciously spouting the lines they think are expected of them: "We should just NUKE 'EM ALL!!!!" The Women of Take Back The Night, labouring under a false dichotomy of victims and perpetrators, exclude themselves from their allies and the men, feeling that a little hurt, find themselves in the ridiculous position of being in support of domestic violence.
A man goes the cinema, having been warned that 5 of the 6 films playing are "chick flicks." Feeling trapped, he rents a Steven Seagal movie and wonders, in his boredom and disgust, "is this all there is?"
A people embattled will rally around their banner. But Feminists come as liberators, not as conquerors. We cannot continue to think of gender as two opposing camps where you must struggle to fit in. It would exceedingly difficult to abolish Gender, but that doesn't mean we should let it usurp us as individuals.
Firstly, unfortunately, we have to do away with gender chauvinisms. A woman has to admit that a man has the same potential for empathy and nurturing as she. Or to put it another way, men have to take their share of the responsibility for raising the kids, cleaning the house. Liberation is usually followed by chores. Who cleans up after Revolution? Take a look in the mirror.
The current empowerment of Women into 'Super-Women', is unsustainable. That ideal is as unrealistic as those put in fashion magazines. In fact, it's difficult to see what's so empowering about trying to make oneself malleable to two sets of expectations and criteria, of running two rat races, juggling hats, whatever you name it. What's important now it to illuminate the very concept of that rat race, that social role that we are coerced into accepting. I don't think it's right for me to wage aggression in the name of the state. I don't think that makes me less of what I am. I don't think women should feel obliged to 'empower' themselves by accepting what they don't desire. Most of all, gender must no longer be defined by what society hopes to use in us. we are humans, born with traits. These traits are partially formed without our consent, by our very DNA and lineage. Separate from that, society places values on these traits, price tags, and encourages what it sees as most useful to itself. Traits are gendered, and if you don't offer what society deems valuable, you are left in the margins, you are not a 'Real [whatever].' Instead, we should lay out our traits like a buffet, and give what others are willing to use.
By redefining Manhood, we can hope to finish the Feminist Project, and we can hope expel the 'Real Men', the defenders of Patriarchy, the aggressors, the rapists, from their fortresses! Let them forge their own identities in the muck, with the rest of us.

One quick note on the nature of gendered priviledge/victimhood.
You would have the worst kind of myopic republican to deny that women have historically been oppressed by patriarchy. I don't want to deny my priviledge. But I have some glaring concerns about this worldview:
1. It is Eurocentric. Once again, we run up against this chauvinism, this idea that Women, all Women, share a common bond in their shared experience and victimhood. The truth is much more difficult. Are you saying that white women share equal victimhood with women of colour? Or, perhaps more importantly, that women right now living in the developed world share a common victimhood with women in the developing world? If we are talking honestly about priviledge, it would be more relevant to throw out gender and start talking about the priviledge that is grounded in citizenship. In a world of such brutal, immediate and pressing victimhood and priviledge, it's simply distracting to talk about priviledge along gender lines. Furthermore, I would suggest, that if you've never personally been made to wear, say, a hijab against your will, or you've never personally been forced to undergo female circumcision, you have no business claiming that victimhood as your own.

2. It is disempowering. To divide humanity along lines of historical victimhood/historical priviledge is as static, as ossified, as the original historical precedent was. There is no solution in claiming priviledge/victimhood, there is no path of escape from the cinderblocks of history. We need a way forward, right now. To remain and to argue historical injustices to turn our backs on the promise of today. I'm not saying that Patriarchy is irrelevant. I'm saying let's start making it irrelevant. We need to fund and reinforce battered women's shelters, right now. We need to eliminate imparities between pay. Child custody in divorce cases needs to be reformed. Shit, arguing about whatever doesn't affect our struggle in its present form just saps our momentum.

6 Comments:

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Robert said...

well welcome back...i will try to read this tonight :)

 
At 10:11 AM, Blogger Robert said...

welcome back, Eric :) LTNS

 
At 1:59 AM, Anonymous mike said...

well, it probably doesn't come as a surprise (or does it?) that i disagree with about half of what you just wrote. I agree with most of the liberating maleness stuff - but to think that we've somehow reached a point where we can safely spend as much effort as a people/movement/whatever on that as we can on women's liberation is absurd. remember, eric, that this isn't personal - you've just struck a nerve and I think some debate will help us both. Maybe you even agree with some things I'm about to write, but I can only react to what you wrote and how you wrote it.

firstly, unless you can show me the one magic bullet which will bring justice to the world upon meeting its singular target, the idea that gender issues are a "distraction" from struggles for justice is offensive. what, exactly, is this "justice" that can be separated from the experiences of the people in search of it? Unfortunately, we aren't going to be able to all come together, fly some black flags, find the Big Red Button that shuts down oppression, and then have guilt-free orgies in the streets for the rest of our lives. The system institutes any sort of oppression because it benefits from doing so. So, to be crassly instrumental about it for a moment, feminism (separate from the universityfied Feminist Project) is an example of the only real methodology for creating a just world. ie., working for justice, cutting off one tentacle at a time. But ultimately it's really just about oppression sucking and how there should be less of it, just cuz.

When I say women are oppressed, I'm not saying that all women have the exact same experiences. No one is. You're wailing on a strawperson. All women have an extra strike against them in this society just because they're women. It's true that a CEO's wife isn't really going to be feeling the pain on that - her class absorbs it for her - but that's not the point. Privilege-based injustice tends to stack up, and lead to other injustices. This is why, for instance, well-fed activists fight laws preventing sleeping on the sidewalk. Not because they particularly want to sleep on the sidewalk - but because they know that the law will be used as another way to attack the homeless.

When you speak of chauvinism, of eurocentrism, you're speaking about the most lily-white of liberal feminism, which pretty much lay down and died once pink power-suits hit the market.
Most radical feminists I know are perfectly aware of class, race, etc. inequalities. But when a middle class white woman's getting beaten by her partner, should she feel guilty for wanting to do something about it? There's a need for more solidarity across race and class within feminism, but that work is being done, and it's (literally) patronizing for a man to come along and tell the women folk to get their act together as if they (most of them, anyway (but it's not like men are a nobel-laureate lot themselves)) didn't already know what they needed to do.

The fact that there are macho men who get upset when women organize around these things is not a sign that feminism is wrong. By that logic, the police are an airtight argument against any struggle for anything.

Men are oppressed (or something) by patriarchy as well. That's something that many feminists aren't yet willing to deal with - yes, it's a shame. But I suspect that's partially because men who realize this act like they suddenly have some entitlement. But men have always been acting like they have entitlement to every damn thing on the planet - that's the problem. We're oppressed, but we can choose to ignore that oppression whenever it's convenient. Most women can't.

I actually once pointed out to a female friend that men were oppressed too and that needed to be dealt with. She said she agreed, though took exception to using the word "oppression" - and also said that women've been carrying our (men's) weight for too long already, and we shouldn't necessarily expect any sympathy in our struggle to simply make ourselves decent people. We should do that, get with the human race, and be allies. That seems reasonable to me (in fact it's probably the only real contribution we can make to gender equality), especially since I'm not particularly attached to my identity as a "Man" anyway. Beyond having half of the baby recipe, all the rest is socialized bullshit, as you quite rightly pointed out.

In other words, I don't really think you can talk of "historical" injustices until they're actually just history.

All oppressions are linked.

There's my rant.

Now let's all get in a huff.

 
At 3:05 AM, Anonymous mike said...

it occurs to me that i may have actually just agreed with you on some things in a very confrontational way. i do that a lot :)

...and holy shit it just went from one-fifty-nine am to three am. fucking farmers, needing more light. QUIT SCREWING WITH MY TIME, FERTILIZER BOY!

ps. yes, i do like to eat fresh produce
pps. i have decided to move my blog to your comments section

 
At 9:09 PM, Blogger eric said...

no mike, i don't really disagree with anything you just wrote, which is making it hard to write a response...
First of all, I'm not trying to make a case for 'men's liberation' as anterior to feminism. I think it's a part of feminism. The concept of men's liberation is in effect only a liberation from patriarchy, and so i would hope it dovetails with feminism more than it detracts from it.
My original intention in this massive essay was to redefine maleness in order to exclude the chest-thumping assholes that give it a bad name... reclaiming it as a tool against unchecked aggression, against the illegitimate rule of the 'strong father figure', against stifling gender roles. So in effect i unwittingly started writing about feminism, but a feminism where men could be allowed a more participatory role.
Let's be honest, i am beating on the straw person of liberal-white academic feminism. I pointed out that it reached a false terminus when it stated that enlightenment would begin once women were allowed to compete in the existing status quo. In my eyes, the challenge for these feminists is to adopt a more inclusive project, one that targets oppression on a larger scale...
And yeah, this is pretty obvious and yeah, i'm writing what most feminists already know, and they don't need the words of a pompous white male kid telling them what they already know... so I guess what I should be doing is turning the argument on its head and telling the men that we need to support feminism more, because we will reap the benefits just as surely as women will.
I see feminism as part of a greater struggle against oppression. Women who put together feminist actions sometimes see the event as achieving purely feminist goals, whereas i might see it as achieving broader anti-oppression goals. And so I might become frustrated when I'm not allowed to be part of the solution, and am sidelined as part of the problem.

 
At 11:32 PM, Blogger Jack Naka said...

Your blog is excellent - keep it up! Don't miss visiting this site about fashion police. It pretty much covers fashion police related stuff.

 

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