Thursday, May 22, 2014

Feminism and the Patriarchy, or, Can Everybody Have Power?

From a rather tedious Times piece on which singers and actresses consider themselves “feminists,” I extract this little rant from magazine publisher Andi Zeisler:
“I don’t care if people don’t identify as feminist,” Ms. Zeisler said. She does have a problem with misinformation and the perpetuation of the idea that feminism is “this zero-sum game that if it elevates women, then it denigrates men. That’s just wrong and has never been what feminism is about. That’s the Fox News version of feminism.”
I have been meaning to write about this for a long time, so let me take this excuse to do so. I was raised on rhetoric like Zeisler's; I must have read or heard ten thousand times that feminism was not about diminishing men, but on the contrary would also liberate men. Honestly I never gave the question much thought, because my politics are so thoroughly egalitarian that it just didn't matter to me. As far as I am concerned, women deserve equality with men, and that's that. It has only been over the past decade or so, as I contemplate the collapse of family life among America's poor, the steadily shrinking percentage of men who work, and the vast dissatisfaction of so many Americans with existing social arrangements, that I have begun to question whether what Zeisler says is true or even logically possible. How can everyone gain power at once? If some people get more power, doesn't that mean -- nay, doesn't that logically require -- that somebody else gets less? If there is a democratic revolution and the aristocrats or the generals are overthrown, isn't the power gained by the people necessarily taken from the aristocrats or generals, so that they end up with less? Isn't power in fact a zero-sum game, so that giving more to women necessarily means taking it from men?

Consider this model: there is only so much power in a family. Decisions have to be made: where to live, whether to have children, whether to buy a new car. In some theoretical patriarchal model of the family, the husband makes all of these decisions. In an equally theoretical egalitarian model, all these decisions have to be negotiated between the spouses until some kind of consensus is reached. Doesn't that give the man less power? Isn't that what power means?

Could it be the reason that America (and Russia, and maybe lots of other places) is so full of angry men is that patriarchy was a good deal for men? And that the social changes of the past 50 years have stripped men, and especially white men, of power and privilege that were very valuable to them?

I do understand what 1970s feminists meant when they spoke of liberating men. The model they had in mind was that under the patriarchy men had to assume a certain well-defined social role and act in certain limited ways. Men were supposed to be tough and strong and responsible and get up and go to work every day no matter what. They had to wear the right clothes, whether that meant suits or cowboy boots; they had to talk in the right manly way; they had to follow sports and talk sports talk; they couldn't ever show weakness or admit to preferring art to football. The code was enforced by vicious taunting of pansies and fairies and eggheads and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. Feminism was supposed to liberate men by breaking down this stereotype and freeing men to act however they wanted. Some might prefer to keep acting like tough guys, but others could explore their "feminine sides."

But as my readers know, I have grown skeptical of the notion that more freedom necessarily makes people happier. I think a lot of people miss those well-defined social roles. More, I think that a lot of families sort of half recreate them, leading to a confused mishmash of traditional gender roles with egalitarianism and idiosyncrasy. Which works perfectly well for a lot of people, but is not necessarily all that liberating for anyone. The distance between the reality of overworked two-career couples, busy all the time but never satisfied with the state of their homes and still feeling pinched for money, and the shining dream of a free, egalitarian world seems very great.

My politics have not changed; I still believe that equality of race and sex are values of supreme importance. Whatever solutions we come up with can't involve a return to patriarchy and race privilege. But I more and more think that we are watching in our time the painful dissolution of an ancient social order. The breakdown of obvious gender distinctions -- men fight and work in fields or factories, women have babies and tend to homes and gardens -- has left everyone more free but also more confused. We have great trouble answering fundamental questions -- What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? -- that scarcely troubled most people in history. We are paying a price for this in unhappiness and loss of direction. In America the biggest losers in this shift have been working class men, and especially white working class men. In the old order they had strict limits on their behavior but if they followed the rules and went to work every day they got real rewards in power and status, and they knew who they were. Today the only privilege that still counts is the privilege of money; the rich are doing just great. But all of the non-rich are descending into a sort of social stew in which nobody has any advantage or any clear role and we all swim about as best we can.

Some people are doing about as well with this arrangement as anyone ever has; in fact the overall level of satisfaction in our society is ok, and we have certainly made great strides in equality and fairness of several kinds. But some people, especially men, are floundering. I see the conservative politics of our time as largely an angry reaction to these changes from men who don't really know what has gone wrong but feel deeply that they are not the men their grandfathers were.

No comments: