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’.
And 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.