Monthly Archives: September 2011

Stereotypes and Change

When I was a young boy in elementary school, pink was a color reserved for scary girls and cooties. My memories of the time are hazy, as it was a while ago, but I still remember that pink was taboo. After a while, though, in middle school, things started to change. One of my best friends got that shirt—I’m sure you’ve all seen it—that says “Real Men Wear Pink” on it. As soon as caught on to the trend, I got a pink button-down shirt that I think I still have somewhere and wore it because I found it amusing.

This is an excellent example of a privileged group seeing a cause, thinking it needs them, and distorting its meaning. The sentiment is sound—it’s silly for men to be stigmatized for wearing pink! But the end result in this case isn’t progression; if anything, it’s regression. Femininity becomes absurd, and any man who unironically wears pink is still probably going to be looked at funny. The underlying problem still exists, possibly worse than ever.

Middle school fashion is far from the only place this sort of thing shows up. Just the other day, I was at a bar with some friends who pointed out that I had ordered two “girly” drinks, whereas the guy next to me had ordered a shot of vodka and a gin & tonic. After I mentioned that I thought gendering drinks was absurd, I was challenged to order a Cosmopolitan to prove my point. The waitress asked why I was ordering one and smirked as I explained myself, and the whole situation was kind of ridiculous.

I suspect many people have found themselves in similar situations, laughed it off, and explained that it doesn’t matter if they order a girly drink because they are secure in their masculinity. My point, which I assert to be the correct point, is that I can order a drink because I like the way it tastes, and I should be not be expected to drink a certain thing (or drink other things with a certain attitude) because I happen to identify as male*. I hope I got this point across, though I suspect that I did not.

There appears to be a related fear among people that social movements are going to force them to act in a certain manner. Maybe they’re afraid that if I got my way, men would be forced to wear pink shirts and drink Cosmos, and women would have to wear flannel and drink nothing but vodka and Budweiser. A friend of mine’s mother once told me that she was anti-feminist because she was perfectly happy being a domestic housewife and staying in the kitchen.

This is not the point of my social justice. Maybe it differs from person to person, but I don’t want to force anyone to break out of their gender stereotypes; I want to force society to stop making gender stereotypes. If you’re a man and you want to talk about your chest hair and fart in public, or if you’re a woman and you want to stay in the kitchen all day and cook and clean, that’s fine. What’s not fine is when you expect someone to do these things because of their gender and pigeonhole others into thinking about themselves in such a way. People should be able to make their own decisions about their identities and live in a society that supports those decisions.

 

* I am not sure exactly how trans people think about gender, since it is obviously more important to them than it is to me. I hope I am not being insensitive with anything I say here—if I am, please let me know! And if anyone wants to send me some links that can fix my ignorance on the topic, they’d be much appreciated. I’m not even sure what the right questions are to be asking, but it should be obvious that my (potentially naive) opinion is that gender is a kind of arbitrary (and therefore useless) construct. Since I’m lucky enough to be able to ignore any of the potential effects gender would have on me, though, I’m probably not qualified to make such judgments.

Why “kyriarchy” is a good word

“Patriarchy” is a word that gets thrown around a lot on the internet. Before I knew, well, anything about feminism, I used to scoff at people who would use it. “Oh, those crazy feminists”, I would think. “They think men are always out to get them! But that’s just silly, there’s no worldwide conspiracy of men whose sole goal is to subjugate women.” And, y’know, I was right.

But I was also kind of wrong.

Hear me out. Obviously (well, hopefully) there isn’t a conspiracy of mustache-twirling men who get together every week, discuss phallic symbols, and update each other on the progress of their woman-hating. But there are still societal pressures that favor men over women. I’m not going to list a bunch of stuff off; that’s not the point of this post. If you aren’t already familiar with the concept of (male) privilege, here’s a good starting point.

As I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the patriarchy is just another word for this system that systematically privileges men*. And that’s fine! It is a good term to have for when you are talking about misogyny and the systematic oppression of women and whatnot, which is certainly a topic that merits discussion.

However, it kind of breaks down when you talk about groups other than women who are oppressed. A good example of this is Tony Porter’s TED talk, which talks about how men are put in what he calls the “man box”. In the man box, men are supposed to be dominating, treat women as objects, not display emotion, etc. This is an interesting situation, though, because it’s obviously oppressing men, but it’s also contributing to the oppression of women. “Patriarchy” doesn’t quite work, since while the practices tend to favor men and oppress women, they also oppress men.

And of course, if you read the footnote (or have, y’know, a few brain cells), you’ll realize that women aren’t the only people who are being oppressed. Society is ever-creative in finding new ways to discriminate against people for arbitrary reasons (such as class, gender, race, sexuality, and probably many more things that I’m too privileged to be able to think of off the top of my head). For me**, the correct word to describe this system is “kyriarchy“.

I think this is a particularly useful word when discussing social social constructs that discriminate against men, such as Tony Porter’s man box. Calling the man box a patriarchal construct forgets some of the important structure of it; namely, it oppresses both men and women, but calling it a patriarchy doesn’t capture the former, only the latter. It’s an interestingly Newtonian system that only seems to come up (at least, as far as I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t very far) when talking about sexism: for many misogynistic constructs, there is a corresponding misandristic construct (and vice-versa).

From my point of view, feminism (despite all its flaws) seems to be the leading anti-kyriarchy movement, or at least the most prominent (I need to look into womanism, too, and presumably there are many more causes). This is why I identify as a feminist. “Kyriarchy” is an excellent word to use when you want to emphasize that the society in question has a complicated structure of overlapping (and seemingly contradictory at times) privileges. One of my friends once argued that it was a useless word, equivalent to “society” in any situation in which one might use it. I don’t see it this way: our society is shitty, and the kyriarchy is why.

I am nowhere near qualified to point out the various flaws in feminism; I have too much privilege and too little education in the matter. But if people keep in mind that the kyriarchy is bad for everyone and hold that as a guiding principle, I think progress can be made. And of course, a big part of that is folks like me becoming aware of and checking our privilege. This is not something I’m very good at, but I think I’m getting better. Practice makes perfect, I suppose, which is kind of the point of my having this blog. Or at least one of the major points.

 

 

*I feel bad that I never incorporate the trans* community in this kind of thing. I think it would be reasonable to put cis- here, but I am really not sure, and I think that would get into matters of intersectionality that are beyond the scope of this specific section. If someone who is less ignorant than I am wants to educate me on how to be a reasonable human being (even though it is not your job!), I am willing to listen. After all, a significant part of the reason I created this blog was so I could ask questions.

**I am pretty sure this is nothing controversial; the point of this isn’t to be an original contribution to feminist literature, but to help me sort out some of my own thoughts and phrase things in a way that might convince some of my more skeptical friends.