02 March, 2006

The half-life of feminism

In the course of a book group discussion of Self-Made Man, a book about a woman who passes as male in order to explore men's world, a friend asked, "women consciously redefined their gender. When and how will men do the same?" My reply follows.

I was raised among very few men and many women. By the time I was 16, I was fluent in both traditionally female tasks like cooking and dishwashing (I've never taken to dusting) and in (what I've since learned are) more typically female mental processes: seeing rape entirely from the victim's perspective, distrusting competition, abhorrence of violence, a strong belief in listening. I let some typically male skills fade in the process -- I ditched my 10-year-old's fascination with computer programming, I never took part in organized sports, I actively avoided the horrific group male bonding games of getting drunk and going to strip clubs and picking up girls by lying to them and then laughing about it all. It never surprised me to be an outsider in high school or even in college, as I had been raised to believe that was the more honorable place. But as time went on and one crush after another told me how great a brother I was and then complained about her date-rapist boyfriend, as opportunities for travel and jobs and other new experiences were handed off freely to the most competitive and aggressive asses, I eventually started to learn to play the game. Today I am nowhere near as gentle and emotional and accepting and listeningful as I was 20 years ago. I still carry a reflexive distrust of men (which causes its own problems) and I still can't throw a football 15 yards to save my life. But I now work in an environment that is very male-dominated, where I got hired in part because of my aggressive pursuit of the job, my ability to say, hell, if nobody else wants to barge in and talk to the boss and demand an interview that's their (and often her) problem. I have found that a lot of women in relationships -- including women who seem feminist and egalitarian in everyday life -- deeply want a strong, decisive, pushy, "ravishing" lover. In short, playing by The Rules and being an asshole man is still very rewarding, while the voluntary sacrifice of power and privilege much of the time is rewarding only in that it lets a guilt-ridden guy like me sleep better at night.

This is a long way of saying that the problem of male power is largely an incentive problem. Every day, we all -- including those of us who try to be conscious of this stuff -- reward pushy asshole rapist men and their female imitators while allowing more talented, beautiful, caring people to fail in one endeavor or another. It takes constant vigilance in every field to change this. So far as I can see, creating better incentives and structures is not a task that requires groups of men to hang out together in the woods (which as Joel implies, can often amplify the less salutory characteristics even of the sweetest guys you'll ever meet) so much as it requires everyone to speak up whenever they see injustice or what they see as fucked-up tastes and demands on the part of other people and institutions. That's my sense, anyway.


I can understand what you're saying about incentives regarding structures and institutions. But can you really say that your potential girlfriends' tastes for assholes were "wrong"? 

Posted by Dan

Nice post. As someone once said to me, your sincerity was palpable. 

Posted by someone else

"women consciously redefined their gender. when and how will men do the same?" is false in both parts.

women consciously redefined their gender. 
* women: which women? all? in all places?
* consciously: there was a social power surplus before there was a widespread will among women to use it for themselves.
* redefined their gender: oh come on. women still do all the cooking and sewing, they just do it in factories, so that the top 1% can pretend it's more democratic and enlightened.

when and how will men do the same?
obviously i don't think "the same" here means much. but: i think one can see in neoconservatism a desire to redefine gender - finding a way to be a hard-working go-to good guy in an era of outsourced dirty work. ooops - didn't want boys to act more  butch? 

Posted by david

Wow! It's like reading my own biography! (Except that I like computer programming and sports, though I quit football after they made tiny lil' me a nose tackle.) I'll never forget the uber-feminist, militant vegetarian girlfriend who cheated on me, then dumped me for a geeky Republican because I wasn't "aggressive enough." That messed up my relationships with women for quite awhile. For a long time after that I was either the asshole in the bar ("Isn't that what you wanted?") or the sensitive male friend who you love like a brother ("This isn't what I wanted!"). Ironically, it was another uber-feminist who broke me out of the rut, but only because she thought I needed to get laid by a black woman.... Come to think of it, maybe it's just the uber-feminists that I don't understand.

As for women dating assholes, my fiance (the aforementioned black woman) claims that it's a phase every woman goes through. I guess it's like sticking your tongue on a 9-volt battery -- it's pretty cool at first, but eventually you realize it's unpleasant and kind of dumb. 

Posted by Not You

I second Someone Else. Again. (Damn west coast lag! ;) ).

David, I see your point---this is a rarified discussion among a group of people that's elite in the global context no matter how you slice it--but I think it's pretty obvious that Hedgehog was talking about his own life, and you can't have a super-wide angle lense and macro-zoom at the same time, and you gotta zoom in sometime. Yesterday a friend and I were discussiong a dating conundrum, and I said dismissively, "well, it's all Academic" (meaning, no one is going to act on this discussion anyway) and he said, "well, yes, in the sense that right now no one is acting on it, but eventually someone will, so it's good to have discussions when things are fairly calm, ahead of time. That's kind of the point of academic." In some sense the same applies to what can seem like rarified discussions of ethics and values among a wealthy elite. In my experience, if you have a very solid understanding of what your ideals are in the most ideal situation and context you've be been in--often one of wealth and privelage, for those of us with an internet connection and the leisure to blog--you are going have much better access to them when you need them in less easy circumstances. There is a power to being able to stand in a dusty, downtrodden village that's lacking opportunity and choices, and to know that it doesn't *have* to be that way. The people from the 1% uppercrust whom I know who are doing the most help those other 99% get in on the freedom to have these discussions have not disengaged from their own problems and their own life-dramas. They're simply practiced at changing the angle of their lens as necessary, and willing to make the time to do that. Moreover, Hedgehog is hardly ignorant or uncaring about that 99%, and it's a bit useless to semantically snark on what can be a sincere and helpful discussion simply b/c it doesn't tackle the whole shebang in one fell swoop. And finally, as a member of the elite 1% of females better off now than a 100 years ago, I'm not sure "pretending" is the right verb there.

I think I have a slightly bizarre perspective on this, much of which will need to be silent given my lack of a pseudonym. But a few quick thoughts:

I am disturbed by dichotomies and contrasts, habitually. As might be expected, I too was raised to abhor violence, to listen carefully, and to be strong as an outsider. But I was also raised to stick up for myself, to take charge, to be brave and demanding in the face of authority, to ask for what I want and need, and otherwise be what people who don't like me have called aggressive or argumentative.And I was raised to see the two lists as a piece, warp and woof.
Beginner's nonviolence requires the ability to defend oneself and the weak. Being a good listener requires the ability to shush people who won't stop chattering. Being an effective outsider often requires barging into offices.

To me the oppression of sexism boils down to the oppression of dichotomies---why *should* I choose from either
column A or column B, and why should either be assigned to me, based on either my birth or a cultural movement reacting against the old assignations?

I also have to wonder, sometimes, why nice guys often seem bent on playing sensitive knight to someone who just won't see the error of her nine-volt-battery-licking ways. Fucked-up tastes seem like a bit of a personality indicator, and when someone consistently makes bizarre choices, I for one tend to lose my attraction to them, at least until they reform themselves. I sometimes get annoyed with my friends when they describe their crushes to me only in the most superficial of terms ("Oh my god, she windsurfs, how hot is that!" or "Oh my god, he listens to the same punk rock I do!") and are incapable of describing their beloved's values, character traits, and substantial accomplishments and abilities. I'd rather hear illustrative stories than a list of labels and desirability checkboxes. Could it be that the outer trappings of egalitarian uber-feminism are not any more indicative of a true desire for and pratice of being fair and kind and good and vibrant than the outer trappings of such historical ideals as the submissive uber-Churchlady?

Oh, and I don't think anyone actualy likes dusting. It sucks. I certainly hate it. Feather dusters are totally useless. But when you live with people who have allergies, you try to bite the bullet and do it more often than not. I usually fail. 

Posted by Saheli

Also, I have to wonder if you're beating yourself up a bit about the 20 year lag in your niceness. You're a pretty good listener, in my experience. Is it possible perhaps that you just don't think about being a good listener as much b/c you've internalized the practice?

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

from my perspective most of the influence of feminism - separable from other human rights efforts - has been of focused benefit to the already privileged. "pretend" was used because men were already "pretending" they were free through the use of indentured labor. "women" got that too, yay.

i didn't respond to the answer because i thought it needed a story and i have no stories to answer the question. i wanted to see if i could answer it though. as i thought about it, it infuriated me, and that's how i took it apart ... but ... it seems like the drama itself is a big part of why people are still frustrated, among those who took the feminist fairy tales seriously. i say fairy tales because nobody really knows what's going to happen and no matter what anybody says, feudalism is dead, so there really aren't princes and princesses running around.

(pls delete the first version of this comment. i hate pen names.)

Sorry to hijack a comment thread, but this is a friendly reminder to everyone go and vote.  :-) 

Posted by Saheli

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