It’s very intriguing, isn’t it, how the gender binary and its complications are generally understood to be ‘women’s problems.’ This construct, scientifically established and socially ingrained by (white) men for centuries, is now woven so deeply into our social fabric that it seems almost natural, like gravity. That’s the brilliant thing about systems of oppression: to be effective, they must function so far in the background of their beneficiaries’ lives as to seem totally non-existent. Those privileged by injustice must remain as unaware as possible of its impact on others, whether by blissful or willful ignorance. Otherwise, the centre will not hold.
Patriarchy, however, is not an elusive concept; just like gravity, its effects are everywhere. It is the mortar that holds together the weighted stones of the institution of gender inequality, and until no one is able or allowed to pretend that it doesn’t exist, it will remain an integral part of our world. After all, the continued existence of patriarchy is no accident; despite the fact that it harms men by denying them the opportunity to experience the full range of their own humanity, it still provides them with significant access to economic resources, political and social power, and women’s/femmes’ labour and bodies.
There are differences in the experiences of those who are not members of the patriarchal in-group (heterosexual males) but the thing that connects all such people is the idea that we are ‘less than’. From generation to generation, we are socialised to believe that (a particular sort of) maleness is the pinnacle of humanity and everybody else exists to serve, obey and/or be ground under its heel. We are all defined in relation to this narrow understanding of masculinity and rewarded or punished according to our physical, sexual and behavioural proximity to it.
Symptoms of the disease of patriarchy
The exclusion of people who are not men from our histories; the limiting of children’s lives by rigid gender roles; the erasure and demonisation of entire groups based on their performance of gender; the idea that female autonomy and agency stop where male desire begins; the entire concept of ‘emasculation’; the norms that reify the idea that anything outside of heterosexual maleness is actually not fully human – all these are symptoms of the larger disease of patriarchy.
The perpetuation of patriarchal ideals thrives on one basic piece of illogic: men are the most powerful, and men are the least accountable. A person doesn’t have to do much other than present as male to benefit from this construct, so it should come as no surprise that most men are implicated in its continued existence. The privileges that accrue to people who comply with patriarchy’s narrow definitions of masculinity are measurable and cumulative, and men are socialised to have a sense of entitlement regarding these privileges – to the detriment of everyone else.
Still, as long as oppression has existed, resistance has sprung up in response. Unceasing violence does not sit well in the bones, after all. Even those women and femmes who behave as prescribed for meagre rewards do so not because they really believe the violence of the gender binary is a myth, but because it is the best way they know of to survive. Evidence suggests that the complicity of marginalised groups in their own oppression is the result of a survivalist self-hatred that masks both an awareness of ever-imminent violence and an inability to imagine a sustainable alternative to a life impacted by it.
This is why we need liberation.
History shows that anything can be remade
If enough of us can lift our heads from the wearying task of navigating a world designed to destroy us and focus our energies on rebuilding another in its stead, then we have a chance. Regardless of what we have been told, it is not as though we are powerless. It is not as though we cannot decide for ourselves what our lives should be. Things have been made this way, and history shows that anything made by man can be refashioned—or demolished.
We are not abused because we are women, femmes or girls. We are abused because it is understood that most men can abuse people and get away with it. Women and girls (and other gender-variant femmes and/or trans people) do not make up the populations of the poor because of their gender, but because wealth is understood to be the domain of men. We are not kept from government because we are incapable of leadership or told that our place is in the private sphere because it is true, but because men are accustomed to authority and will not relinquish it lightly.
Thus, the days of requesting to be granted full humanity must end. One does not negotiate one’s way out of subjugation. We must create power. No longer should we break ranks for men who would sooner see us destroyed than see their pleasure taken away, nor should we excuse men who are content to insist on personal goodness while refusing to examine their own complicity. There are those who will argue that this is an unwarranted indictment of men. To such dissenters, I say, prove it. It is not enough to say that you cannot possibly support gender inequality because you have wives, sisters, mothers, daughters. That is an acceptable place to start. It is not an acceptable place to remain. The women who are connected to you are not the only ones deserving of their whole lives.
Beyond lip service
It is one thing to pay lip service to the rhetoric of equality. It is something else entirely to actually tackle the manifestations of gendered injustice in your relationships, workplaces and other social settings; to relinquish the misallocated power you wield over women’s, girls’ and femmes’ lives, choices and bodies; to give up privileges you have not earned; to look your masculinity in the eye and choose to tear it down in favour of a healthy humanity. Instead of telling women that we are misrepresenting men, tell men to stop giving us reason to. Go on, get to work. The rest of us already have.