Maria Pawlowska argues that all, including men, are victims of patriarchy.
One of the most exciting things about social media is the interaction with readers that the comments section provides. It allows the reader to become a writer as well, and the writer to become a reader, furnishing a dialogue. And—there’s no two ways about it—not everybody is going to like what you write, and that that’s OK. It probably means you’re doing something right? You can’t please everyone (I mean, not even J.K. Rowling pulled that off). But I get anxious when I get the impression that I must have seriously miscommunicated something because, according to the comments, some readers appear to draw the exact opposite conclusions from what I intended.
Enter the topic for this post: it seems that patriarchy bashing is still interpreted by some to be man-bashing. Such a correlation is actually pretty scary, so I thought I’d go ahead and write a post on why the two are actually opposites.
If I were to sum it up in one sentence, why when I criticize patriarchy I’m not criticizing men, I would say that men themselves are victims of patriarchy and I’m not victim-blamer. Fortunately, there’s more space to elaborate on this.
First of all, let’s get our definitions straight. Patriarchy is a social system in which males assume the role of primary authority figures central to social organization. Moreover, in a patriarchal system men hold authority over women, children, and property. Male rule and privilege, as well as female subordination, are implicit.
Patriarchy is a system that men, as well as women, are part of. It’s a system perpetrated by both sexes. (If you hold any doubt, read Katie Riophe’s latest in The New York Times.) Criticizing the system is not equivalent to attacking all those who are a part of it. The problem with criticizing patriarchal values is that too many have come to believe they are “natural.” If someone thinks men really are somehow biologically predestined to be the heads of families and states, then questioning that may appear to be a direct attack on the essence of being a man.
And this whole “rule over women” deal may actually sound kind of neat if you lean to the far right and have a pinch of authoritarian tendencies, right? It’s not all nice and dandy, though—a patriarchal system brings with it a host of limitations to men as well as women. The latter are obviously the more constrained gender. They are supposed to listen to their husbands and fathers in everything and follow their lead. They aren’t allowed their own ambitions (save the “Best Housewife of the Year Award” and a first prize ribbon at the bake fair). They aren’t allowed free lives. Fifty years ago Betty Freidan told us the story of how damaging institutionalized patriarchal values really are to women. This really shouldn’t be news to anyone—women are not a monolith of creatures that want only to have babies and husbands. They should be granted the possibilities to strive for personal achievement just the way men are. But if patriarchy had its way this would never happen.
There’s more to it, though, and in The Feminine Mystique Freidan also touched on how men were hurt by the system. In a patriarchal system a man’s wife is his dependent in every sense of the word—she’s not his best friend, not a partner, not a companion that shares life’s ups and downs. She’s a helpless creature that needs to be sheltered, taken care of and who can’t really make conversation about anything other than diapers and PTA meetings. The full responsibility for anything that isn’t cooking, cleaning, or childcare related rests on the man of the house and there’s no one to share the responsibility with.
There’s also no one to talk to about the stress and worries. Patriarchy 101: Women are emotional, they worry, cry, and are generally “sissies.” Men are strong, brave, clear-headed, and, well, for lack of a better word, “manly.” Moreover, men aren’t really allowed to show too much interest in their children and definitely cannot display “excessive” affection. A pat on the back and handshake after a victorious Little League game will do. In a patriarchal system all men are literally the kings of their castles, and we all know that kings aren’t allowed to do anything that isn’t in the protocol (or they shouldn’t anyway).
In more general societal terms patriarchy strips the public life of females and everything they bring to the table. And I’m not talking about the empathetic, care-giving, etc. values, which are still mischaracterized as distinctly “feminine.” I’m talking about the real stuff—individuals and their skills.
I was at a meeting once with Bill Gates in which he was asked about his thoughts on international development. He had a simple answer (and I paraphrase): “The key is gender equality—you need all the smart people you can get and no one can afford leaving half of their population behind.” Last time I looked no one was calling Gates a men-hating feminazi. And whatever your opinion on Windows, I really think he nailed this one. Patriarchy isn’t just a deeply flawed system because it prevents women from achieving their best and stifles men in very strict gender roles. In fact, it holds back whole societies. Ultimately, it makes all of our lives more difficult and, yes, deserves a good bashing!