I always find it amusing when people accuse me of being a “man-hating” feminist. In fact, I denied myself the benefit of feminism for a couple of decades because I revered masculinity. It was much later, with a bit of space and time and a few good books, that I realized what I admired and yearned for in masculinity was not maleness, but rather the freedom and potential inherent to it.
But it’s an odd kind of freedom; limited by almost suffocating standards of behaviour. For instance, you have to have a fucking good reason to cry in front of my father. Such a standard is not a goal to be strived toward, but is rather what my dad likes to call an “expectation”. “Manage expectations” was the constant refrain. Don’t say you can carry 4 bags of milk home if you know you can only bear the weight of 2. Don’t say you can buy your friend a car when you only have $10 in the bank. Don’t say that you can write 4 essays in 1 night and get straight As unless you can deliver. And having tried your best is only good enough as long as you didn’t over-promise.
My father dedicated his entire life to showing me what is possible with foresight and hard work, and so there are no excuses for failing to live up to my potential. He grew up with abuse and neglect. I grew up with a vagina. In my home, there was no commiseration – only expectations.
And so, though I’ve often said that I pity men who feel repressed by society – that they cannot cry or wear pink or stay home with the kids without their very character being placed on trial – the truth is that I’ve actually always kind of identified with those expectations. And when I speak with men about feminism, I so want to convey to them the massive relief I felt when I finally acknowledged that I had been shackled by those expectations. The expectations set for me will ultimately be different than those set for men, (maybe more burdensome, maybe more numerous, maybe just different) but such expectations shackle men and women alike only in so far as we do not acknowledge them. My father has always challenged me to solve the problems that I encounter, but until I turned 20 I refused to even name the most constant barrier in my life: patriarchy.
I’ll take a moment to explain what I mean by “patriarchy”. Feminism is inherently a radical movement, in that it seeks to restructure society, and as such there must be something that feminism is trying to replace. Many people believe that what feminists want to tear down and replace is men or masculinity. Rather, what feminists want to tear down and replace is a specific set of gendered expectations that pervade every system in our society and which are designed to maintain a power structure that is beneficial to a particular kind of person. And this is not a massive conspiracy; rather it is sustained by the same simple castration anxiety that drives individuals to, without prompting, associate with those who can help, avoid those who can disgrace, and sell out those who stand in the way. When each of us perceives ourselves as being at risk of losing power, we defend ourselves. The patriarchy is essentially a system of thought that defines power and instructs how to horde power.
Power is attributed and assigned to people who meet particular expectations. Those expectations are established by a nepotistic system of mentorship wherein powerful men are taught how to be powerful men by powerful men; wives of powerful men are taught how to become the wife of a powerful man by the wife of a powerful man; and men without power are taught by men without power how to keep the little power that they have, namely their authority over women.
I spent a lot of time wondering how something so trivial as a person’s preference for one or another colour can be so defining and evoke such strong emotions. But the fact is that patriarchy defends the power dynamics outlined above by demanding conformity, and it defends the rules of conformity by promoting unquestioning derision of anyone who has the audacity (or perhaps no choice at all in the matter [gay people, for instance]) to defy those arbitrary standards by which everyone is judged. It doesn’t matter what the rules are: just as women assert power to which they’re not entitled when they make a marriage proposal, a boy impermissibly challenges the assumptions on which the patriarchy is based when he wears pink.
Despite that both men and women are subject to these arbitrary standards of behaviour, power is defined by the ability to make choices, and the patriarchy has maintained power over women by making the scope of acceptable behaviour smaller for women than it is for men; we are either too smart or we are bimbos, we are either prudes or we are sluts, we are either bitches or we are weak, our skirt is either too short or too long, we are either too ambitious or we are parasites, and the list goes on. It is important to note than the range of acceptable behaviour becomes still smaller for women of colour.
Nevertheless, although men arguably have the benefit of a large target to shoot at, the standard of being strong all the time, working hard all the time, being charming, being intelligent, being influential, and being a stud is unrealistic and thereby necessarily keeps every man in fear of having his specific failing found out. The standards set by society promise us power, but more often than not they only deprive us of our freedom.
There is a fear of non-conformity, of there being no standard to strive for, because those standards are our blueprint for “success”. But that success, even if it were achievable, might never make us happy, because we did not define it for ourselves.
It’s time to show what is possible when we live without the shackles of fear and insecurity imposed by patriarchy.
Posted in: Progress