Monday, November 29, 2010

Patriarchy, Kyriarchy and Men

So some idiot’s long and rambling editorial over at the Chicago Tribune sparked what I think is an interesting discussion over at Feministe. The interesting confab was not on the article itself, but on Julia Serrano’s (cited by Jadey) definitions of traditional sexism and oppositional sexism

traditional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to (and only exist for the sexual benefit of) maleness and masculinity. It targets those who are female as well as those who are feminine (regardless of their sex).

oppositional sexism
Sexism that is rooted in the presumption that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive, “opposite” sexes, each possessing a unique and non-overlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires. It targets those who do not conform to oppositional gender norms. A number of previously described categories of sexism (e.g., transphobia, homophobia and cissexism) fall under the umbrella of oppositional sexism.

Essentially, the interesting argument is whether what Serrano calls “traditional sexism” should applicable to men to or said differently whether women have any institutional power over men.

This argument points out what I consider to be the fundamental flaw inherent in many strands of feminism. They look at the world from the single lens of the oppression of women. I know, I know…that was what feminism was created to do: to provide equality for women. I completely agree on the rationale for why feminism was created. I just disagree on the value of that perspective.

But there can be no equality as long as one person is unequal, as long as one person lives in a world that oppresses.

Looking at the world from the single lens of the oppression of women provides a distorted view of the world. Decades ago feminist philosophers charged the ivory tower academics with failing to solve problems because they have a myopic view of the world. Feminism has a myopic vision of power as binary and men as the holders of that power.

Power is not always binary. It’s so obvious as to be ridiculous, but at least in the US there is no cabal of men who get together on Sunday afternoons to determine how best to oppress women and how to maintain the existing power dynamic. Indeed, there isn’t even an unconscious consideration on the part of *men* in general on how they should alter their actions to further oppress women. In the US, men are not simply the Oppressors and women are not simply the Oppressed. Power isn’t necessarily controlled by one group and exercised for the purpose of oppression.

This isn’t to say that the view of power as binary isn’t reasonable. Indeed in some situations people do consciously and purposefully collaborate to harm or oppress others. I’m sure we can all think of at least a dozen examples. Although even in those contexts there are oppressive forces working on those exerting power. The problem is it isn’t the only way in which power oppresses and when we limit ourselves to a oppressor/oppressed (“or/ed”) paradigm it is far to easy to ignore the oppression experienced by people who we label as oppressors even though they too are victims of oppression.

The men are oppressors. If men are oppressors in the or/ed paradigm then Serrano’s definitions of traditional/oppositional sexism make sense. Men oppress women both institutionally and through gendered norms. Men oppress other men who fail to meet gendered norms. In all cases men are the source of the oppression.

It falls in with Jadey’s comment (@ 98) that:

“So short = bad also encompasses feminine/female = bad (and it should be clear where this sucks for short guys), but it also intersects with conformity = good, so short women = conforming to the idea that women are short (and also bad), which is good, and short men = failure to conform to the idea that men are tall (or taller than women, at least!), which is bad. And also they are (or could be) “feminized”, which is also bad, both because non-conformity is bad and being female/feminine is bad.”

But it falls apart when we look more carefully at the idea implied but not expressed by Jadey that masculinity=good.

Let’s take a look at one of the common characteristics of masculinity: stoicism.

Stoicism. I maintain that generally speaking one of the characteristics of masculinity in USian society is stoicism, the repression of emotion and indifference to pleasure or pain. I also maintain that overall in USian society stoicism is generally considered good. We admire the football player who “walks it off” or otherwise “takes it like a man.”

But before we write this one off as part of the masculinity=good category let’s examine it in other contexts like relationships. Men are often accused of not being able to share their feelings. And I use the word “accuse” on purpose. This is not a good thing. This is the subject of countless sitcoms and innumerable made-for-TV movies. Not being able to communicate emotion=bad: bad romantic partner, bad son, bad sibling, bad father.

Stoicism has systematic effects. Women and girls are sometimes afraid or unwilling to report their sexual assault experiences because they face disbelief and scorn.

But men and boys often have those same experiences when they report rape or even domestic assault. How many times have you heard that “men can’t be raped”? Additionally, men are less likely to seek medical treatment and even psychiatric care (a problem exacerbated in times like these when so many are facing the consequences of PTSD).

The value judgments attached to stoicism are not merely about gender conformity. They are about the faults we see in masculinity and how we judge masculinity to be both good and bad or helpful and harmful.*

Back to the Or/Ed paradigm. If masculinity isn’t universally preferable to femininity then there is a fundamental flaw in the paradigm. Who is forcing men to take on “bad” behaviors? I suppose one answer might be to maintain the paradigm and suggest that women oppress men (which I think some people in the feministe thread were trying to argue) but this argument fails on exactly the same grounds. Women as a group are not getting together on a Sunday night to figure out how we can oppress men. What is broken is not who gets labeled as the oppressor and the oppressed, but the idea that power and oppression are a downstream process rather than a collective one.


This is why the word kyriarchy is so powerful to me.** In my mind it shifts us away from the binary, downstream view of oppression and lets us examine the problem as a collective creation, collectively enforced.

One of the central functions of the Or/Ed dynamic is it gives the oppressed a target. The oppressors are the ones causing us harm. If we can just wrestle power away from them, it will be all good. The problem of course is that even if the oppressed rise up, if their sole goal is to achieve power, oppression will still exist merely in another form. To steal a phrase from The Who…meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

To quote my SO “while the particular form of oppression, such as who is being oppressed and the manner in which they are being oppressed might change, oppression itself remains functionally persistent. The haves and the have-nots will remain locked in the same vicious, pointless, endless game of musical chairs until we realize that when we stop trying to grab two chairs, you know, just in case something happens to the one we’re sitting on, there are enough seats for everyone.”

Real change comes with the end of oppression and the end of oppression comes when we each acknowledge our individual roles in the oppression of others. When we each acknowledge and empathize with the pain experienced by others, when we each accept that oppression is the enemy, not other people, only then can we begin to make real strides toward real solutions for every member of society.

*Leaving aside for the moment the arguments about “good” value judgments being as potentially harmful as “bad” value judgments….but just for a moment keep in mind the old trope of “Asians” being good at math.

**As an aside, I may not be using the word as intended by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza


  1. Ugh, this is not my normal level of coherence. Kristen + Nyquil equals poor flow and apologies.

  2. [This comment has been cut into parts because I killed your word limit. This is part one!]

    Hi, Kristen! This is a very interesting post, so thank you for inviting me to participate.

    I want to headline with two clarifications/points that I think are really relevant to the context of this discussion, and then, as is my way, I will follow up each with a series of hopefully relevant digressions:

    1) Serano specifically introduces and uses the terminology of traditional and oppositional sexism as part of a highly intersectional discussion of misogyny, transmisogyny, and transphobia. I don't think anything you've said contradicts that, but I want to be clear that this is where both she (and I) are coming from on this topic. In fact, I identify as an "intersectional feminist", which is a rather lumpy construction devised by me to try to get around A) assumptions non-feminists make about feminists, and B) assumptions that feminists make about other feminists. So contained within both of our perspectives (highly implicitly, I'll admit) is the idea that "traditional", non-intersectional feminism is, as you have described, inherently limited and flawed.

    Roundabout way of saying that I agree with you on the relevance of kyriarchy.

    Relevant as well, I think, (and this is getting into your Or/Ed construction) is being able to consider behaviour on both the individual and structural scale, separately, but without losing sight of their interdependence.

    I think often we are running into conceptual problems where we are only considering a series of individual actions and the similarities between them as opposed to separate (but not independent) structural realities that emerge as collective forces from a network of individual actions that do not necessarily reflect the characteristics of the superstructure they give life to, the way that wetness emerges from a collection of water molecules that are not wet themselves, or swarming patterns arise out of individual bird or insect interactions. (These are very simple examples of emergence, but that Wikipedia article goes into more depth and is a good primer.)

    As such patriarchy (and related "-archies") is not something that is the fault of a collectivity of individual men acting in tandem, but rather something that arises from some very basic patterns of behaviour among all people, in the way that we generate and then perpetuate hierarchies of all kinds. Patriarchy is human-made, not man-made, although it does specifically advantage men in critical ways (while simultaneously limiting them in others), and advantages women in far more restricted ways, again contingent on their conformity (although I think women encounter more double-binds in the sense of there is nothing women can do right in some circumstances, such as their sexuality, whereas men's sexuality can be right or wrong).

    We influence these structures by our basic behaviours, but we do not (deliberately) cause or control them in a direct fashion. Only by thinking structurally can we react structurally, and even then it will be a tricky business. Like herding kittens! But, yes, in this case it is not a question of "who is in charge" but "what are the underlying patterns from which the structure arises and can we alter these to subsequently alter the structure?" Less pithy, more apt.

  3. [And Part Deux!]

    I think this also helps clarify our individual agency and responsibilities - clearly none of us is solely responsible, and none of us has total control, even over the outcomes of our own actions, and yet we remain undeniably relevant and complicit within the network of units and basic actors from which our problematic cultural and societal structures emerge. This renders the sort of endless and unproductive blaming or oppression olympics that these conversations sometimes lead to moot, without necessarily also forcing us to approach all contributions to the system as equal in power, which would also be faulty.

    In particular, kyriarchy specifically reminds us that even as basic units of the system, we are not identical and interchangeable "cogs", like water molecules, but rather we occupy different social locations relative to each other. In this way, I sometimes like to think of kyriarchy of a skyscraper that we are all locked into - the doors are shut, the windows barred, elevators stopped, stairwells blocked - movement is limited, although perhaps some rooms are unlocked, some stairwells slightly more passable, some floors are more open concept, etc. Some parts of the building are more desirable than others, better furnished, better views, more space, etc. But the point of activism is not just to redecorate individual rooms or swap floors (as in your analogy), but to take the bloody thing down and get out. In this way, we are all inside the building, but we are not equal within it, and we are not all equal in our efforts and ability to leave (in particular, I imagine that those closest to the ground, to the support beams and the ground-level exits are probably in the best position to actually make a difference: hence the value of centering the voices of the most marginalized).

    2) There is something I don't think I made terrifically clear in my original stream-of-consciousness comments on the Feministe thread, which is that by "good" and "bad" I really meant "valued" and "less valued" (or devalued, as the case may be). I think that redefinition brings a lot more accuracy to my original comments, because "good" means quite a lot of different things. Stoicism may be good in the sense that it is highly valued, but bad in the sense that it has a capacity for destructiveness when mandated and policed into behaviour on a systemic level as you described.

    (As an aside, I am much less concerned about the individual capacity for destructiveness of any given trait as realistically there are very few if any universally "good" traits, and much more concerned about the prescription of certain traits and the proscription of others, and the socialization of people into a certain stream of traits and attributes regardless of their personal inclination.)

    An interesting twist on this is our tendancy (on a societal level) to be more focused on the value of men's masculinity as opposed to their bodies (just think about the amount of violence that men are subjected to or expected to engage in as part of a normal part of being masculine), but with women we are more focused on their bodies than their femininity (violence against women is very often about control of and assault on their bodies specifically, including as a means of aggressing against other men's masculinity). I think this very clearly demonstrates the harm that is incurred by all people via sexism and misogyny, while simultaneously illustrating the specifically misogynistic twist on the value of men as identities and women as objects. Neither is particularly flattering, neither is to be encouraged, both deny agency in favour of restrictive ideals, both can be experienced aversively and painfully, and yet one is distinctly even more dehumanizing than the other. I think comparably dynamics play out throughout the kyriarchy.

    I sadly have no medication to blame - this is sadly really how I talk and think most of the time. :)

  4. The men are oppressors. If men are oppressors in the or/ed paradigm then Serrano’s definitions of traditional/oppositional sexism make sense. Men oppress women both institutionally and through gendered norms. Men oppress other men who fail to meet gendered norms. In all cases men are the source of the oppression.

    Are they always men? I agree that men are privileged over women in the business world, and in politics and other areas of leadership. But what about, for example, the home? Traditional values strongly advocate the belief that women are superior at child-rearing and "keeping the home." Of course, to many people, women should only be keeping the home and shouldn't have a choice in the matter, but the fact is, women are privileged in the home, and not men. And those standards are not only upheld or enforced by men, and many men want to escape from it. Where would that fit in?

    I'm not sure that male/female or other gender-based oppression is as similar to other forms of oppression as we've been treating it. Right now, the areas where men are privileged over women are also seen as more important, overall, to society, so women are in a position of more frequent oppression, but men have it too, and it's not always other men who are the oppressors. Women not only help perpetuate negative stereotypes and try to enforce gender roles on men, but also stand to benefit from them being perpetuated a lot of times.

  5. Blogger is so not set up for long discussions. Thinking takes WORDS damn it.

    I’m 90 percent with you. It’s the last 10 percent that I still find problematic, which I think is nicely encapsulate here:

    “I think this very clearly demonstrates the harm that is incurred by all people via sexism and misogyny, while simultaneously illustrating the specifically misogynistic twist on the value of men as identities and women as objects.”

    And the difference may be in our perceptions of the values attached to idealized* masculinity and idealized femininity. Take for example a classic double bind that is placed on women. A woman is expected to be sexually skilled and virginal. If she fails she frigged and/or a slut. The double bind is caused by the positive value judgments attached by the kyriarchy to both sexual skill and virginity which are often mutually exclusive.

    Compare what I consider to be a double bind faced by men, stoicism. A man is expected to be indifferent and unemotional in response to pain of some varieties but emotionally responsive to the needs of his friends and family. If he fails he’s a coward and/or a shitty person. The double bind is caused by the positive value judgments attached by the kyriarchy to both stoicism and empathy which are often mutually exclusive.

    Other examples are also illustrative: aggression, competitiveness, even sexual availability are idealized characteristics of men that are valued in some contexts and devalued in others. Much as empathy, submission, and beauty are idealized characteristics of women that are valued in some contexts and devalued in others.

    I think as feminists we look at these idealized characteristics of men from a point of disempowered. I know I get pissed when some accuses me of being aggressive or combative and I feel as if men get all the valued traits. BUT (huge but) from our perspective it may be difficult to see the flip side of that coin much as some men have difficulty seeing why being the one typically approached in potential sexual encounters is not all fun and power.

    So when you describe the valuation of men as identities and women as objects, I see a false dichotomy caused by the conflation of gender conformity oppression and the devaluation of idealized masculinity. We’ve labeled the problems faced by men as identity related because it suits our paradigm. But is there a fundamental difference between the two?

    *Removing gender conformity from the equation for the moment.

  6. Hmm, I think we still may be misunderstanding each other, actually. I'm really not trying to argue that masculinity is all "fun and power" as I don't see it that way at all. I think the enforced masculinity ideology is extraordinarily harmful and oppressive to many men in many ways.

    But I do see a difference in the types of policing that are applied to "men" and "women" within a strictly binarized gender paradigm, which is that when it comes to men, we (again, a hegemonic societal we) are concerned about if they are "masculine" enough, but when it comes to women we are more concerned about whether we have continued control over and access to their bodies. Men's bodies and women's femininity still receive attention, but I believe that the means and ends are reversed. Men's bodies are policed for their masculine conformity - women's femininity is a tool of access to and control of their bodies.

    Maybe an example of this is dress and hair styles. I've seen some say that women are afforded much more freedom in the way they dress than men are, because we can have short hair and wear pants without experiencing as much push-back as a man in dress and long hair. A woman will still get grief about whether she is dressed too sexily or not sexily enough, which is basically about her sexual attractiveness and availability and whether or not her appearance conforms to what is desired by other (often directly or vicariously male) viewers. Her femininity is not inconsequential here, but speaking from personal experience I have always felt that appeals to my femininity have more to do with a way of getting my body to look and feel a certain way for the use of other people. Also, while some (usually of an older generation) will nitpick on women in pants and short hair, it's nowhere near the some amount of policing that goes into men's gendered dress styles. I say this as a lady with a shaved head and no skirts in sight.

    On the other hand, currently men are not allowed to wear skirts and dresses and incur wroth if they do have long hair (I have many a long-haired male friend who will attest to this!). In this case, I don't think that this has the same component as being about the sexual availability and control of their bodies, but rather about the way in which any element of femininity is deemed to abrogate their masculinity, which is all important. For a man to fail to be masculine enough is to fail his entire gender, something for which men are severely punished. I think a similar cause underlies the way that gay men are seen as abominations and gay women are either forgotten about or conceived of only as sexual objects for straight men. Similarly for trans women and trans men - I start a lot of conversations with people on this subject only to find out that they've never even thought of trans men as existing.

    [to be continued...]

  7. [and the rest...]

    But this is not (and never) to say that being "valuable" makes this kind of policed masculinity good and awesome and fabulous and desirable. I hoped that I had made myself clear on that. In this case, "value" is defined by what we, as a society, prioritize as important. Men probably get more attention than they want or need, positive and negative. Women, so long as they remain accessible and controlled bodies (for how long was it believed that women couldn't even have genuine thoughts and feelings?), can be ignored and pushed to the side. Women are still not as human as men.

    Now I don't mean to overly dichotomize this - we both know that things are always much fuzzier than they are described in general. I completely and freely accept that. But when it comes to actually conveying a theory, I do need to simplify it at least a little bit into dichotomous components. But absolutely there is blurring and overlapping, especially as other aspects of the kyriarchy are acknowledged. I also don't mean to sound like the whiny second child who just wants the attention that men get - lord, no! (Although pay gaps and reduced career mobility are still a pain, though at least the whiter and wealthier I am I can avoid more of that.) But I do think the experiences are different, and hierarchic. That this hierarchy does not bode well for men in the long (and short!) term, there is no doubt in my mind - it doesn't.

  8. Oh crap, I made a point regarding trans men and trans women without clarifying that this attitude would be from a cissexist standpoint that views trans women are "men" and trans men are "women". I just want to make that absolutely clear - I do not endorse this viewpoint or agree with its conclusions about trans men and trans women.

  9. “Men's bodies are policed for their masculine conformity - women's femininity is a tool of access to and control of their bodies.”

    Is this really true though? Is it possible that the aggression and stoicism of masculinity is used so that we can turn men into soldiers? Is it possible that sexual availability is used to force men to be sperm donors much as women are turned into incubators?

    Where you see bodily autonomy I see physical and psychic mutilation, as a means, to sculpt men into workers, soldiers, and sperm donors.

    I don’t disagree with a hierarchical analysis that says women, as a group, experience sexism differently and the balance of power has historically and presently favors men in critical areas. That would be ridiculous. IMO opinion power is divvied out hierarchically, but not because it’s the powerful doing the divvying, rather social control is easier to maintain where someone has the upperhand.

    Instead, my objection is to the notion that the oppression faced by both men and women are of fundamentally different kinds. I think doing so erases the experiences of men and erases our culpability for that oppression.

    Does that make sense?

  10. "IMO opinion power is divvied out hierarchically, but not because it’s the powerful doing the divvying, rather social control is easier to maintain where someone has the upperhand."

    Said differently, we rely on hierarchical structures to coordinate action. But within these hierarchical structures people are pressured to be the position they are assigned. The mechanism by which people are pressured to assume that position is unrelated to gender, what authority a person can exert once ensconced is related to gender.

    On re-reading that is possibly even less clear....

    Also I really appreciate this discussion...this topic has been snaking around in my head for a while and your perspective has been extremely helpful!

  11. [sorry for the delayed response - long day yesterday and I couldn't bring myself to be thinky]

    It does make sense to me, although I don't entirely agree. I don't entirely disagree either! I am not so wedded to my ideas as to think they are infallible, but I'm not convinced yet that they are entirely untrue or that they lead to erasure of experiences or culpability. I certainly find what you say plausible, but I'm not entirely on board with it being what's actually happening. I will continue to keep an open mind, however, and think about this going forward. I too am still in the process of drawing out some thoughts that have been rattling around for a while. Thank you again for hosting this sidebar conversation!