Tag Archives: masculinity

The media’s brazen bias against women

It doesn’t matter whether the paper or website is officially or unofficially conservative or liberal. It doesn’t matter who writes the articles. It doesn’t matter what tragic horror was experienced by the victim(s) in domestic violence reports. The media’s bias against women is out in the open for everyone to see, if they care to notice it. So naturally, few do.

Repetition is a key tactic in social engineering. The more you repeat a message, the more it seems true and inevitable. Tell stories from the perspective of the perpetrator over and over again and the public will learn to sympathize with them rather than with the victims. Since the people who beat and murder their partners are almost invariably men whose victims are women and children, the language used by the media to cast these men in a particular light is chillingly consistent across media platforms. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see that the problem is systemic.

The Daily Mail published an article today regarding the murder of Irish teacher Clodagh Hawe by her husband Alan, who after stabbing her went on to murder their three sons and then turned the knife on himself. Jilly Beattie reports:

The Irish Mirror reports tormented Mr Hawe stabbed Clodagh in the throat in a downstairs room before strangling and stabbing his sleeping boys to death. [emphasis added]

Immediately after describing how Alan Hawe slaughtered his family, the barbarity of his actions are tempered by the author as they call our attention to his mental state. He was suffering, you understand. Tormented. None of the immediate members of the Hawe family are able to speak for themselves and the person who saw to that is the one we’re meant to sympathize with.

Clodagh Hawe [Irish Mirror]

Clodagh Hawe [Irish Mirror]

The fact that the first photo of Clodagh that was published was accompanied by praise for her murderer is not shocking, but it is outrageous and telling. Alan is described in the article, in the words of his friend (who didn’t want to be named), as:

– a kind and decent person who felt an overriding need to look after the people around him

– devoted

– good

– supportive

These are not appropriate words to describe a murderer. The friend went so far as to state, “Alan never put a step wrong”. NEVER PUT A STEP WRONG! I find it very hard to believe that a man who kills his entire family and then himself has never had prior abusive tendencies or violent outbursts.

He loved his family with all is heart, we’re told. The narrative that men who commit violence against their loved ones do so despite love or out of love rationalizes male violence by obscuring how these men really look at the people they “love”. I believe that people who decide to build families together believe sincerely that they love each other and will love their children, and that this is the case for most people. But the reality is that there are people who enter into and stay in relationships for reasons other than love. There are people who have children out of a sense of duty or perceived emotional need. Much of what binds people together in relationships and families is financial necessity, social factors, emotional attachment, and co-dependency. The ‘happy family’ trope is damaging to the vulnerable, in a society where teens self-harm and become homeless as a result of violent or toxic family dynamics. Families tend to hide and deny these things, leaving children on their own to discern between normal family strife and actual abuse and toxicity. They often then internalize these problems, believing that it’s their fault or that there’s something wrong with them. We can’t afford to keep validating the idea that it’s normal to hurt, really hurt, the people we love.

A woman, particularly if she has children with a violent man, will stay for a variety of reasons, not least of which because she believes that he loves her, and that love and abuse are compatible. “He loves you” is gaslighting. It’s just another way of saying that his feelings matter, that they justify his actions, and that her feelings don’t matter. It tells us that it’s more important to understand what he’s supposedly going through than to ensure her safety and support her needs. Too many women have learned that compassion and patience in the face of an abusive man will get you hurt or killed. Women have lost access to their children and ended up in jail because of violent men.

People often tell female victims of abuse that the perpetrator can’t be that bad because he seems like such a nice guy. They don’t know what he does behind closed doors when no one is looking – something abusers make sure of and exploit. Calculation and manipulation are not the behaviours of a victim. Abusers do this so that when their actions are exposed, people who know them will make excuses for them and doubt those they’ve hurt. Extended family, friends, and co-workers often don’t witness him pitching a fit, threatening, breaking or throwing things, being emotionally abusive, pushing or hitting. And when they do, they often stay silent or minimize it.

The messaging on this issue is strong. Women are expected to fix men who are “broken” and put their own well-being second. They’re instructed to be a good woman/wife/mother and stand by their man. That it was just one little blow up. A mistake. He’ll change. He won’t do it again. He’s just under a lot of pressure. This is how society colludes to guarantee male violence against women and children. Children see this dynamic, they hear the rhetoric, and they internalize it too.

A man who abuses a woman doesn’t love her. Abuse and love are mutually exclusive. A man who abuses a woman views her as his property, a mere extension of his thoughts and feelings, as lesser to him. He wants to control her, make her doubt her own worth and sanity, make her suffer, and ultimately submit to him. And the ultimate way of forcing submission is to snuff a person’s life out. There’s no coming back from that. It’s the most raw assertion of power one human being can inflict on another.

The narrative of mental illness frames the issue in a way that distracts us from the recognition of male violence and misogyny. Women suffer from higher rates of mental illness than men, and yet most cases of battery and homicide are committed by men. We don’t see women who suffer from PTSD following rape or other forms of violence, or their time in the military, carrying out massacres or later killing their spouses or families. Again and again we conflate one problem with another, and the cycle repeats itself.

Mental illness can’t be the chief factor when the violent actions of people who exhibit mental instability aren’t shared evenly throughout that population (and this only increases the stigma of those suffering from mental illness). It can’t be the chief factor when violent men are extended sympathy while women and children are reduced to a footnote.

Not a single article I’ve read on the matter makes mention of an attempt to speak to Clodagh’s family or friends.* There’s no indication that investigators or journalists are considering a possible history of domestic violence and what life might have been like for Clodagh and the boys. The focus is on the murderer. As Linnea Dunne writes, Clodagh is rendered invisible in one media article after another, which tell the story from Alan’s point of view, describing other people in relation to him. The bias can’t be any clearer.

The Daily Mail Male also provides links to support groups which in most cases won’t address the problem because the problem isn’t being correctly identified.

The links provided in this article suggest that the only problem here is depression and suicide. It’s good to share resources with young people who may need to speak to someone about how they’re feeling or what’s going on in the home. But we don’t know whether Alan Hawe was depressed, and regardless, people aren’t inherently violent by virtue of their depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. Many men commit murder-suicides because they don’t want to face the consequences of their actions. If Hawe simply didn’t want to live, he would have just killed himself, but he took his whole family with him, suggesting that he couldn’t accept the thought of them going on without him. That betrays a sense of entitlement and selfishness.

Not a single link to a support service for those suffering from domestic violence is provided in the article. Women are killed every day by their male partners and… silence. Unless one decides on one’s own to seek out further information, this skewed and incomplete treatment of the issue forms the basis of the public’s understanding. No wonder the problem keeps getting worse!

When these men snap, they externalize their problems onto women and children, who they know are attached to them, dependent on them, and not readily able to escape from or redress their violence. That’s the point. These men don’t pick on people who are equally matched in size, strength or social power. Their sense of ownership over the lives of women and children, coupled with their sense of superiority over them, means that no matter how much progress we make with respect to mental illness, men will continue to be violent as they have always been.

The media doesn’t try to hide it. Misogyny and male violence are staring us right in the face, and this problem won’t go away until we recognize it for what it is.


If you live in the UK, please take a moment to let people know about the resources Women’s Aid offers and/or donate if you can.

* A week after the incident was reported in the news, the Irish Mirror and Irish Sun finally published a response by a relative of Clodagh which paints a drastically different picture of Alan Hawe and urged the public sympathize with his victims instead.

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Male violence and the problem with masculinity

Increasingly, people are talking about reforming masculinity in an effort to share this world with more kind, caring, balanced males who are better capable of managing their emotions and responding civilly to difficult situations. Implicit in this is the recognition that male violence is real and that it’s at least partly socially constructed through the negative aspects of masculinity. But you wouldn’t get this idea from reading the daily news. The media still portrays instances of male violence as the sole cause of some other factor – passion, heartbreak or mental illness. It’s still not socially acceptable to name male violence and male violence against women and girls is rarely described as the hate crime that it is. Women who simply point out the phenomenon – without threatening any violence themselves – are quickly punished.

 

 

Even when we do discuss the blatant reality that almost all violence is committed by males, however, a few notable things typically happen:

  1. The source of male violence is not adequately explored
  2. Masculinity is usually only critiqued in terms of extreme expressions e.g. violence
  3. The proposed solution is to reform masculinity, thus effectively maintaining it

In this article, I’m going to explore male violence and its root in masculinity, and then I’m going to take it a step further. If masculinity as we know it is toxic, what about it is toxic exactly, how do we change it, and ultimately, why would we want to maintain it at all?

Why does male violence happen?

Naming the problem of male violence is one thing. Understanding why it happens is another. Growing up as children, we’re often told, “boys will be boys”. What would otherwise be interpreted as abusive and inappropriate when a boy harasses a girl is passed off as a simple crush. Time and again we see that girls must be ladylike while boys are allowed to exhibit all kinds of obnoxiousness. They can’t help it, apparently. They’re wired that way.

If males are programmed to destroy, wreak havoc, harm, rape and kill, what’s the rationale for having laws against these actions if we believe men aren’t responsible for their actions? What would be the point of telling boys to be considerate and respectful? Either they’re slaves to biology or they’re not. If we believe that they have an innate propensity for violence and selfishness, then we need to start having a very different conversation about what to do about the male sex. If they’re not, then we need to stop making excuses for unacceptable behaviour and critically examine why women don’t seem to be interested in doing these things while men do. And why despite that, do we talk about these two groups the way we do?

 

 

Is some degree of male violence influenced by biological factors? What would this mean? Is it true that testosterone really does predetermine aggression and violence and that males are born with a gene that makes it harder for them to respond calmly to stressful situations? If that’s the case, then we’re left to conclude once again that violence is inevitable and that men – but more so women and children – must accept that they’re the unfortunate sacrifices of male biology.

Biological determinism raises other unsettling questions: if male biology is so flawed, so prone to irrational, violent behaviour, why are men allowed to occupy positions of power? Why are they allowed to be police officers? Teachers? Spiritual leaders? Politicians? Judges? Doctors? Fathers? If we believe that men can be trusted with these roles, then we can’t logically claim that male violence is a defect of male biology. And if male violence is inevitable, then we’re certainly not doing much to mitigate it.

It’s impossible to observe male behaviour in a non-socialized environment, so there’s no way we can cleanly parse out dispositions as either biologically or socially-driven. But we do know that our current social environment ascribes particular roles and attributes to males which are labeled masculine. If males aren’t all born with the same personality template, is it so far fetched to attribute behavioural patterns to social programming? Could it be that the persistence of male entitlement that boys and men display towards females is learned and excused?

A man who expects his wife to cook for him and clean up after him shares an attitude of entitlement with a man who sexually assaults a woman as she’s jogging in a public park. Though such conduct may be expressed at different intensities and in different ways, it bears the hallmark of masculinity and coexists on the same spectrum: enough men feel they have the right to violate women’s boundaries that it creates a climate of fear among women and girls. It’s why females have separate spaces set aside for them for intimate purposes outside of the home, they’re wary of being in isolated or dark places alone, have their own crisis shelters, and make so many unconscious decisions every day in order to avoid male violence.

We’re supposed to accept this as normal? Even if brain scans showed a significant difference between the brains of females and males – and they don’t – that still wouldn’t explain the difference. In the feminist theory of gender (gender being masculinity and femininity), we have an explanatory model that demonstrates a clear link between male socialization and violence.

Some people will say that men who are violent and abusive toward women are outliers; they conjure the image a monster, a rogue archetype. When men do these things to women but don’t fit this profile, the media and courts feign ignorance about whether the guy can possibly have done it on purpose. Contrary to popular discourse, these activities aren’t being spearheaded by exceptionally idiotic, socially maladjusted men.

Many people who admit there’s a problem do this funny thing that makes you wonder if they really mean it when they say they care about women. They revert to biological determinism when particular aspects of male behaviour are inconveniently questioned – especially when it’s of a sexual nature. Male batterers and mass shooters are exhibiting some sort of extreme masculinity, something gone terribly wrong or taken too far, whereas men who engage in all manner of predatory and exploitative activities are just guys being guys. Some people will go so far as to say that men need a release valve; if you don’t allow them to get their aggression out or indulge in their sexual fantasies – no matter how depraved or harmful – they’ll become so frustrated they’ll have no choice but to take it out on those who are vulnerable or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We hear the tired old arguments that men are just naturally more visual and have greater sexual interest. Few people question whether this is actually true. The moment you evoke biology as a reason for a man’s choices, male violence and privilege are protected and reinforced.

Is it enough to just tweak masculinity?

Change is not necessarily improvement and not everyone who says they want to change masculinity for the better means the same thing. Pro-rape men’s rights activist Roosh V has coined the term neomasculinity in the hopes of ‘rescuing’ masculinity and ‘restoring’ men to their rightful place. His vision is a gendered version of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric: just the title of his Return of Kings website makes it clear who he thinks should rule in this new masculine landscape.

What about calls to reform ‘toxic masculinity’, then? Tom Hardy, for example, urges men to “be masculine, not macho”. In this article, The Red Bulletin anoints Hardy as a Real Man, which insofar as the piece is concerned appears to just mean being a good person while having a penis. Hardy says that men can and should be caring, considerate, patient, and respectful. This is encouraging. Here’s a male celebrity who’s a great actor and role model for young men saying that masculinity as it’s been practiced for a very long time isn’t so great after all. Maybe this does represent a shift in societal attitudes about gender. And why wouldn’t we want to encourage males to be more of these things we’ve traditionally associated with femininity?

Why do we need gender anyway?

The concepts of masculinity and femininity aren’t accidental or neutral. They define appropriate behaviour for males and females which orders them into a hierarchy, such that whatever characteristics make men dominant are deemed masculine and therefore encouraged in males, and whatever characteristics make females submissive are deemed feminine and therefore encouraged in females. To ensure this social hierarchy is well understood by all, supposedly masculine characteristics are valued as superior to supposedly feminine characteristics. Many people recognize the existence of sex-based inequality but are unable to explain its origin or dynamics. The sexual and reproductive exploitation of female bodies is enabled and sanctioned through this social engineering – an entrenched and seemingly natural and inevitable ideology of misogyny.

The problem isn’t that traits are bad in and of themselves. Aggression or violence might be required in survival situations or where personal safety is threatened, for example. But why aren’t particular behaviours expected from people on the basis of need or context rather than because they’re assumed to be inherent or natural to, or appropriate for, males or females only? Why would we associate the traits ‘caring, considerate, patient, and respectful’ with either masculinity or femininity if we want both sexes to exhibit them? If we believe everyone should do the things that good people do, then there’s no need for the categories of masculine and feminine where mannerisms are concerned.

It only makes sense to speak of masculinity and femininity in terms of the biological attributes specific to male and female sexed bodies, for instance, as they relate to the different healthcare needs of males and females. No matter what biological differences exist between the sexes, sex should not determine how people are expected to think, feel and act, and the only way to challenge these expectations is by doing away with gender – the social categories of masculinity and femininity – altogether.

 

 

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‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

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“For the commanding man”: lathering up the male ego

A few days ago I was in the supermarket when I happened upon Old Spice body wash. I’ve seen the commercials so even though I’ve never bought this product I was somewhat prepared for the ridiculousness that is Old Spice marketing.

What kind of guy looks at this packaging and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like me! Maybe now that uptight bitch at the office will notice me’?

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Of course, it’s all intended to be ironic in the ‘Yes, I know it’s stupid and that’s the point’ hipster vein. But acknowledging that something you’re deliberately doing is stupid doesn’t make it any less stupid (quite the opposite, actually).

If I recall correctly, at some point while I was in university men started to care about what kind of body wash they use. Deodorant was no longer just a way of making sure you didn’t reek. It was a surefire way to turn any woman close enough to smell you into your own personal sex slave. If I had to take a guess I’d say the marketing team at Old Spice wasn’t satisfied that metrosexuals were doing a good enough job of defending masculinity.

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The Old Spice family is a diverse one. Whatever your self-image and olfactory orientation, they’ve got you covered.

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Are you a big, burly bear? A swift-minded hawk? Or perhaps you’re a howl-at-the-moon type? No? That’s okay. Old Spice has loads of other manhood-validating options.

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DANGER!

I would love to set up a hidden camera in this aisle. Some of this stuff doesn’t even make sense. I can understand a forest being fresh, but what exactly does it mean to be fresher than nobility?

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“Life success”? UGH.

Now for a painful confession: there is one that I actually liked but I won’t say which one. I don’t want to give these weirdos any credit. Though I will say it’s not Denali – which is either really popular or sucks so much it doesn’t get restocked.

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Who knows? Apparently it smells like wilderness, open air, and freedom.

Anyway, whichever variation the Old Spice man chooses, at least he can be sure he won’t feel insecure in the shower. Because the male ego should never endure one second of not being stroked. Even while one is scrubbing one’s nether regions… or maybe that’s when it’s needed most?

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Children don’t need to change – gender stereotypes need to go

Folks who see equality as a good thing readily agree that gender roles are discriminatory and oppressive. Despite this, it appears that many people have difficulty applying this knowledge to everyday situations. Perhaps this is because it’s far easier to agree with concepts when they’re presented as straightforward and conciliatory rather than as confrontational or requiring critical analysis. Acknowledging the harm caused by gender roles often incites derision and dismissal, which speaks to the reality that these tropes are status quo. They’re so ingrained in our culture that overcoming them is a constant struggle.

Gender roles stretch across the globe and dictate not only how females should behave but also how males should behave. The key difference, however, is that whereas males are punished for non-conforming, females are both punished for non-conforming and made to be subordinate when we conform through a host of expectations designed to make us passive and submissive. No matter what we do we’re set up to fail because not only are we never dominant like males are, but we’re never even equal in the gender hierarchy.

Patriarchy is the most oppressive system in the world. Save for whatever minute percentage of people who might live in matriarchal or equal circumstances, patriarchy controls everyone, impacts everyone negatively, and subordinates half of the world’s population. When we throw in the additional trauma of discrimination based on race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and every other form of oppression, it’s a miracle that people who are marginalized and oppressed multiple times over are so resilient.

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Children have a tough time trying to make sense of this when they realize that the things they’re supposed to like and do don’t always match up to their own interests and personalities. They don’t yet have the experience or analytical tools to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them and that the source of this cognitive dissonance is a system that was deliberately concocted well before they were born. This is mass psychological torture. It’s not up to kids to figure this out. It’s up to parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults. This is not a personal problem, a family dispute, or an identity crisis first and foremost. It’s a social issue. A moral issue.

Yesterday, it was reported in the news that a seven-year-old child was banned from using the girls’ washroom at a Catholic school in Edmonton, Alberta. The child identifies as a transgender girl.

The parents say they knew from the beginning that something was different about their child…

“As soon as she could speak, she would articulate that she is a female and would gravitate towards feminine objects,” the mother said.

“I just told my mom I felt like a girl,” the seven-year-old recalled.

That’s when her parents say they knew their child wasn’t “a boy who liked girl toys — she was a girl who had a penis.”

This is where I have to call a time out. What exactly is meant by feminine objects? Females have specific sex characteristics, so it makes sense to describe females and their unique physiology as feminine; but how are inanimate objects feminine? What about them is in any way female – or male, for that matter? For example, in an episode of Food Network’s Southern at Heart, Damaris Phillips describes her coconut lavender macaroons as feminine. On its face this statement doesn’t make any sense but the viewer understands what’s implied; something about these cookies reminds her of abstract qualities she associates with the female sex. This is the essence of gender and it’s where the problem starts.

It seems highly tenuous that an individual at the age of seven is at a stage in their life where they can elucidate the difference between being a boy who likes “girl toys” and actually being a girl. Children as young as four years old are now being asked to declare their gender identity. So what does it mean to think or feel like a boy or a girl, exactly? How does a boy who is learning to speak know enough about language – about anything – to know that they’re in fact a girl? Surely we should approach cases of potential gender dysphoria in children with extreme caution given their lack of maturity. I don’t know that anyone should be comfortable trusting the judgement of a child on a subject so complex it makes the heads of educated adults spin.

I’ve thought about what I would do if this were my child. Here’s what I’m thinking. A boy who likes stereotypically “feminine” things or has stereotypical “feminine” qualities is simply a boy who doesn’t conform to how society has decided boys are supposed to be. That doesn’t make him female. Associating traits like sensitivity or vivaciousness and an interest in dresses, pretty things, dance, soft colours, dolls, etc. with being female does nothing except reinforce gender stereotypes. There is absolutely no logical basis for associating the things our society identifies as feminine to the condition of being female.

Being female means being a member of the female sex and no doctor will deny that being a member of the female sex means having a female anatomy, which necessarily involves primary and secondary female sex characteristics, and absolutely includes a vagina. Whether any given female can become pregnant is irrelevant; a properly functioning reproductive system is required for pregnancy and gestation and any human being who’s ever been born was given birth to by a female. Being female cannot mean having a penis.

Of course, no one is disputing that the child is of the male sex, so what we’re left with is the question of what their gender is. While sex and gender are often conflated, they are separate concepts.

This is where what is considered controversial to some people is simple for others. If you believe that there is in fact no basis for thinking that being male must involve expressing a prescribed masculinity and being female must involve expressing a prescribed femininity, then you are gender critical. While gender criticism is often described as a central element of radical feminism (radical feminists are gender abolitionists, to be more precise), it’s also key to feminism at large because it’s impossible to challenge sexism without challenging gender stereotypes.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that discrimination against females exists but in order to challenge this discrimination we need to understand how and why it manages to organize different cultures, geographies, classes, and generations. In order for an ideology to endure so many barriers of time and space it must consist of a subliminal and self-perpetuating set of beliefs. Every oppressive system assigns unequal value to different groups of people. This requires that we develop a set of attitudes and assumptions about them that serve to make them unworthy relative to another group. At the same time, these people, should they use their voice or exercise any degree of autonomy or power, are seen as a threat and are summarily ignored, silenced, threatened, harmed, and murdered. How else can we explain white American police officers killing black women and men in cold blood and in plain view time and time again? How else can we explain the alarming number of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, which Stephen Harper shrugged off as not “really high on our radar”, the blame for which indigenous men are expected to shoulder all on their own with no consideration of the effects of colonial patriarchy?

How else can we explain why discrimination persists despite the fact that many people who discriminate do so unintentionally and unknowingly? Patriarchy, like white supremacy, only requires that people with privilege go about their daily lives. That’s why even those who are aware of these systems and try to avoid contributing to them end up making mistakes. This is what it means for oppression to be systemic. To be systemic is to be effective.

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Growing up, I was very close to my older brother and was surrounded by boys more so than girls. This influenced my taste in music, my language, my sense of physicality, etc. I did all sorts of “masculine” things as well as “feminine” things and it never once crossed mine or my parents’ mind that this called into question my identity as a girl or a female. I have no doubt that the males who surrounded me rubbed off on me but they weren’t the way they were because of something innate. It was because they were raised to be that way from infancy as a result of the school curriculum, teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, friends’ parents, advertizing, books, movies, etc. It’s telling that this process actually hedged the female socialization that I was simultaneously subjected to. I also have a mother who exhibited femininity in many ways, but not consistently – and this didn’t escape my notice. My mom could be fairly tough with me and I saw that she was brave, outspoken, and did the same hard labour as her male co-workers. She told me about some of the misogynistic things they would say and do. It’s no wonder we’ve always shared a love of Bette Davis movies. Overall, the message was clear: never let people push you around and never let a man tell you that you’re inferior. I wouldn’t be the strong, independent woman I am today if I hadn’t had her example to follow.

Not long ago, I was taking a walk with my aunt, her 10 year old daughter, and two male cousins of around the same age. As she watched them my aunt said to me, “Boys and girls are so different.” I responded, “That’s because we tell them they are.” Silence followed. Later that evening I was teasing her husband and my brother for comparing their scars, which they seemed to think were badges of honour. To me, they just looked like reminders of stupidity. I remarked that they were lucky they didn’t have to go through the shit women do, neither through stupidity nor by choice, simply for being born with a reproductive system destined to hemorrhage every month unless it was transformed (usually accidentally) into an incubator that would eject a baby way too big for the hole it’s supposed to come out of. Whatever the method of delivery, I added, a woman gets ripped open, leaving a scar that will rival anything they can dream of bragging about. At this point my younger cousin – bless her heart – added that girls have to suffer the job of doing their hair and make-up too. “That’s your choice!” my brother countered. And therein lies the difference between sex and gender.

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Femininity and masculinity are arbitrary social constructs. Each of us should be free to express whatever traits come naturally to us without having to worry about how they supposedly relate to our anatomy. If we’re really concerned about equality and the well-being of children who will become adults who make important decisions, this is what we need to teach them.

Going back to the article about the transgender child:

The family has found an ally in Catholic school trustee Patricia Grell, who has publicly criticized the administration’s decision.

“I’m really worried about the impact of this stance we’ve taken on that child,” Grell said. “I’m very worried about that child’s mental health and wellbeing.”

I’m worried too. I’m worried that adults can’t seem to let children like what they like and act how they act regardless of their sex and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with these kids. They don’t need to change. Our society does.

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