Patriarchy 101

What is patriarchy?

At the risk of spoiling the big surprise, it’s something I’ll probably write about a lot as long as this blog exists. So I feel like I’d better explain what my understanding of patriarchy is; not because I think anybody reading this hasn’t heard of the word, but because if the school debating team taught me one thing it’s that definitions are crucial to good arguments. And also that some shifty bastard always manages to eat the nice biscuits before you can.

Anyway! Broadly speaking, patriarchy just means a system in which men control a disproportionately large share of power. The power doesn’t have to be ‘official’ (y’know, male CEOs and politicians etc), it also and more commonly comes in the form of entitlement – the idea that men have a right to behaviours, positions, and freedoms which women cannot access.

The reality of patriarchy in modern Western society is a little different. For one thing, it’s not a case of all men having more power and entitlement – there’s a kind of hierarchy. One’s place on the ladder is partially determined by class (e.g. a surgeon would probably rank higher than a council worker). It’s also affected by race (e.g. a white woman may be said to rank higher than a man of African or Asian descent). As you move further up the ladder you become more powerful, but the criteria also become more restrictive; so what you have at the top is a group of wealthy white men. There are obviously exceptions to this rule in real life, but I think it would be fair to argue that most Western societies disproportionately favour men who meet these criteria.

But wait, there’s more! Turns out, having fair skin and a fat wallet isn’t really enough these days. Getting to the top of the ladder is also about how you behave. Unless you’ve been living under a rock I assume you’ve come across the term ‘alpha male’. Well, these are the sort of people who apparently deserve to be (and often are) at the top of the patriarchal food chain. These people are not just men, they’re real men. But what defines someone as such a fine specimen of manhood? you might ask. Luckily, the brilliant Tony Porter has come up with a diagram he calls the ‘Man Box’.

Themanbox-290x320And before anyone starts to wonder the answer is yes, there are people out there who really do believe that fitting into this little Man Box is the only way to be truly masculine. But never fear – equality is at hand! In the spirit of fairness, a patriarchal system also dictates that there should be ‘real’ women to accompany these ‘real’ men. Alas, I have no handy-dandy diagram to illustrate the requirements of true femininity, but I think we could all probably agree on a few traits: submissive, non-violent, heterosexual, passive, sexually available but not ‘slutty’, fertile, not career-oriented, fragile, modest, and physically attractive.

Now, I’ve seen more people than I can count oppose feminism on the grounds that it’s fundamentally unfair; as this (in my opinion) slightly misguided but strangely insightful Return of Kings article states, ‘If Women Were Oppressed, Men Suffered Right Along Side Them’.  Whilst the article doesn’t explicitly state it, the implication is that the fact that men and women were both restricted by gender roles is proof that feminism is fundamentally unfair. It suggests that feminists ignore the oppression of men, and instead try to make them feel guilty for the oppression of women in order “to elevate themselves above others”. I, on the other hand, would argue that this shared history of oppression is the single most important fucking reason that feminism exists.

Contrary to some people’s interpretation, feminism is not about bringing women up to the level of men – it’s about putting everyone on the same level regardless of gender, which is a very different thing. Yes, it means that women should be allowed to vote and own property have pre-marital sex and work and initiate a divorce and do all the things that men are ‘allowed’ to do. But it also means that men can be stay-at-home dads, and cry and express emotion, and not like sport, and not solve problems with violence, and not have to do the more dangerous jobs, and not have to be the breadwinners. Feminism, as I understand it, is about dismantling patriarchy, this system under which both women and men are restricted to these little boxes if they want to be accepted.  It’s a belief that there should not be certain behaviours allowed only for men or for women; and that you are still a ‘real’ person if you don’t conform to those behaviours.

And quite honestly, when I think about why I hate patriarchy so fucking much, I very rarely think about the women I know. In fact, I usually think about the men – my fiance, my friends, my father, my cousins, all the wonderful males in my life that I love and care about. I think about how not one of them fits absolutely into that sad little Man Box, and how miserable they would probably be if they believed that they should. I think about the son I might have one day, and how I can possibly explain to him that no matter what I’ve taught him, some people out there will think that everything he does should be defined by his gender. I think about all the people I’ve ever met who identify as LGBT in some way, and how I might never truly met them at all if our society wasn’t oh so gradually coming to accept them living their lives honestly and openly.

Feminism is not about preferential treatment for women, or about disempowering men. Sometimes I reckon ‘humanism’ is a better term (except that its already in use, alas!) because the ultimate point of feminism is that the way you live your life should not be determined by your gender. We are all human, and frankly that humanity seems far more important than what kind of genitals you were born with.


5 thoughts on “Patriarchy 101

  1. One question. Can you cite examples?

    There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that feminism fights for benefits for women. The question is if feminism fights ONLY for benefits for women. Can you cite a single example of a feminist campaign, organization, sponsored legislation, rally, march (really anything bigger than a personal blog) that is not fighting for benefits for women? Is NOW running a “Men make GREAT fathers” postering campaign? Or legislation to create parity in criminal sentencing between men and women? Is there feminist activism to require women to register for the draft? How about Legal Paternal surrender? Can you cite a single example of where feminism is, in a REAL way, fighting for men’s rights, benefits for MEN?

    One last caviate, splash affects don’t count. “Arrest the man” laws (sponsored and pushed through by feminists) have resulted in many more men arrested and a few fewer spousal murders. This is not a benefit for men.

    • Hey!

      So I should probably start by saying that I think there’s a real disparity between what feminism is meant to be about and what it ends up being about. In my personal understanding, feminism is about fighting for both men’s and women’s rights, but I recognise that in practice it often ends up being primarily about women’s rights. In some ways I think this is reasonable because men do still occupy the majority of politically and culturally powerful positions, but I do think it’s a serious weak spot in the movement to focus more on liberating women than men.

      If you’re looking for examples, one of my favourites is The Representation Project. They’re soon to release a doco called ‘The Mask You Live In’, which is all about contemporary masculinity in America and why it’s so harmful to men. You can view the short for it at this link:

      Also if you click on the ‘About’ section and look at ‘Our Partners’ and ‘Our Founders’, you’ll see that most of the supporters of this organisation are either feminist activists or feminist/women’s rights advocacy groups. I don’t know if that’s what you’re looking for but I think it’s a great example of raising awareness of men’s oppression under patriarchy.

      I know you only asked for a single example, but another really good one can be found in Michael Kimmel’s new book ‘Angry White Men’. Chapter 4 (‘Angry White Dads’) is all about father’s rights movements and the issues surrounding gender and divorce in America. As part of his analysis he basically explains that fathers in America today are far more involved with their children’s lives than they’ve ever been in the past, and that they’re much happier as a result. It’s a complex chapter but the clearest statistic I can quote here is that 70% of fathers surveyed said that they spend more time with their own children than their fathers did with them. Kimmel argues that the reason for this increased connection with children is feminism – that “Feminism inspired women to get outside the home, to seek work and careers, and to try to balance work and family…women couldn’t balance work and family unless men changed their behaviours around the home.” You might consider this a splash effect I guess, though I would also argue that feminism affected this in a more direct way; that by rejecting traditional gender roles (including traditional masculinity) women made it easier and more acceptable for men to spend more time on child-rearing and domestic life, without being considered ‘unmanly’.

      One last thing, I’d like to suggest a reason why feminists may not be tackling some of the struggles you cited, namely parity in criminal sentencing and women being drafted for military service. I’d argue that feminism is not just about equality, but about improving the lives of both men and women by undoing traditional gender restrictions. Putting criminal sentences for women on par with those of men, or legislating that women should also be drafted, would not improve the lives of women OR men. Men would still be drafted and still suffer the same prison sentences, and I doubt it would give them much solace to know that women were also in the same boat. Furthermore, there’s a history of fervent opposition to women serving in the military even under voluntary circumstances, usually on the grounds that they’re not as suitable for the job as men because they’re emotionally or physically weaker. One could argue that by fighting for women’s rights to serve in the military at all, feminists are helping to break down some of those prejudices and even the scales a little. I’d also argue that since the draft isn’t currently being enforced, that could also be a reason why it’s not a major talking point for contemporary feminists.

      I did think that your point about uneven criminal sentencing was a good one; perhaps legislation which advocates a mandatory sentence that’s a mid-point between the average sentences for males and females could be an option? Or do you think that bringing sentences for men down to the same level as sentences for women would be better? Also do you know whether the disparities are enforced through legislation, or if they’re just kind of a legal tradition?

      Thanks for commenting!

      • I am aware of the Representation project. They plan to, but have not yet, made “The Masks you live in”. This meets all of the points except one, they haven’t actually reased the documentary yet. I will most decidedly count this IF the movie actually gets made and published. It’s hopeful, but not there yet.

        I have not read “Angry White Men”. The question of if I count this is the WHY. WHY are men more involved. Is it because women dropped the ball on their traditional gender roles and the men are pulling double duty to try and keep the kids from dying? Or is it because of activism that encourages men to be more active in parenting (will need an example of this).

        Ending this thought. You have ONE example of what we HOPE will be good activism that isn’t female centered in the the future. Do you have any more?

        While the Draft isn’t currently active, men are still required to register for the draft. The specter of being legally kidnapped at gun point is hanging over the heads of young men, but not women, during this time of perpetual war. This is a much more real and ever present threat than “Rape Culture”. Given this very real cost that men and only men carry, what would in your opinion be a reasonable benefit to offset this cost?

        I would like all of the above with prison sentensing. I would like to see rapists and murders treated the way we treat male rapists and murders. I would like to see drug users treated the way we treat female drug users. I would like to simple assault to be some mid-point. There are legislative disparities in sentencing, trials, punishments and legal tradition. One example that comes to mind are the women only defenses like “Battered Woman Syndrome” that are only successful in getting women off the hook for spousal murder, but not men in the exact same situations.

  2. Hey! OK so in answer to your question about ‘Angry White Men’, I think that the idea of women “dropping the ball” on their traditional domestic roles and leaving men to pick up the slack is a little black-and-white. I very much doubt that there was an epidemic of women leaving their homes and abandoning their starving children in the living room, in order to pursue a career and leaving men to pick up the slack. The way Kimmel describes it, the process was and is far more about negotiation – e.g. both parents working part time, men spending more time with their kids on weekends and being more involved in extra-curricular activities, mothers and fathers taking turns having time off work to spend with young children etc. I would imagine that many fathers WANT to spend time with their kids, and see being able to do so as more of an opportunity than an imposition, so to suggest that they had to start spending more time with their kids because they would have died otherwise seems a little bit of a stretch.

    In addition to this, I’d suggest that feminism isn’t just about groups or individuals agitating for specific causes – it’s also about changing the way that we perceive gender roles. This is a much more subtle process, and one which I see frequently criticised as responsible for the ‘brainwashing’ of modern society. (I’m not trying to say you do this, only to point out that an awareness of this process exists even in groups that oppose feminism.) I’d argue that the changes in parenting advice that have occurred in the last 30-40 years or so (notably increased participation of men in childcare, as noted in the work of Dr. Benjamin Spock) are at least in part the direct result of a rejection of traditional gender roles. This isn’t solely the result of feminism of course, but it would be hard to argue that feminism didn’t have an important part to play.

    Also with the Draft….sorry but I don’t entirely get this. Maybe it’s because I’m not American, so I asked my boyfriend about it (he’s American and a currently serving member of the US Military). He basically said that the Draft is pretty much a non-issue in modern America; nobody’s been drafted since Vietnam, and the US has been at war in the Middle East for 12 years and nobody’s been Drafted. He also says that for every combat soldier in the Army alone, there are 10 Army servicemen in a non-combat role, and that non-combat roles far outweigh combat roles in today’s military – even with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So even if the Draft was reinstated, unlikely as that is, most people probably wouldn’t be put into combat roles anyway. As for me personally, all I can say is that I’ve never seen anything about the Draft as a pressing social issue, and I consume a lot of media from a lot of different sources. I also deliberately seek out sources that disagree with my views – conservative and anti-feminist sources, for instance – and the only time I’ve seen the Draft mentioned is pretty much in the context you mentioned, that if feminists really cared about gender equality they’d be trying to equalise the Draft. I suppose that’s why I don’t get why it’s a big deal, because nobody ever talks about it or in fact, seems to care about it outside of feminism’s apparent failure to address it. Personally, I see no reason why women should’t also be registered for the draft. But I do think that painting the ‘spectre’ of military service as a constant source of stress for young American men, and/or claiming that men bear the ‘very real cost’ of something that hasn’t been in use for 40 years, might be a little exaggerated.

    Also, just as a final point, I checked out your blog and I assume you don’t think feminism does enough to further the rights of men? If you do, I completely agree with you. The liberation of men is something that’s been seriously overlooked by feminism as a movement and it’s the one thing that sometimes makes me not want to identify as a feminist. I suppose I just want to make my position clear; I don’t believe that feminism is doing nearly enough to liberate men, but I believe that’s what it SHOULD be doing, and what it was originally designed to do. As I said in my post, I believe the ultimate point of feminism is (or at least originally was) that how you live your life shouldn’t be defined by your gender. I kinda get the sense that you believe that too, so I just wanted to point out that although I do disagree with some of your points, I don’t believe that feminism does enough for men or that it’s the magical solution to everything.

    However, I also don’t think that rejecting feminism and/or advocating for men’s rights as a separate issue is the solution either. What I’d personally like to see is a re-imagining of feminism as a movement focused less on affirmative action for women, and more on inclusiveness of other groups, most notably men and LGBT people. Sometimes I think we should even get rid of the term ‘feminism’ and rename it as ‘gender rights’ or something, because it really should be about making life better for everyone, not just women. And it WAS supposed to be about that, but like so many social movements it got lost along the way trying to deal with a really, really complex problem. Positive discrimination is a tricky concept; two wrongs don’t make a right, but how does one undo negative discrimination without positive discrimination? Seems like nobody had a better idea at the time, and I’m not sure if anyone does now. But I feel like as long as we keep portraying the gender rights of different groups as separate from one another, people will be more focused on tribalism and blame rather than on really promoting change.

    How about you? What would you like to see happen? Do you think having simultaneous men’s and women’s rights movements is the best approach, or something else?

  3. Pingback: Seven Things I Hate About You | parodoxy

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