Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Patriarchy and the Force
Quick disclaimer: I had this awesome, tortured metaphor post that I planned to write today, and I’m still going to try to do it, but the US Men’s National soccer team just won probably the most dramatic game it’s ever played, scoring a 91st minute goal against Algeria and sending us to the round of 16 in the World Cup for just the second time in our history (I don’t count our 3rd place finish in 1930). I’m a little giddy and emotionally spent right now, so the normal flowing prose and incisive ideas you’ve come to expect from me might be a little lacking today. The immodesty, however, will continue unabated.
Now back to your regularly schedule rape prevention.
I’m a huge Star Wars nerd. I don’t use the title nerd lightly; I take great pride in my Star Wars nerdery, and I work hard to keep it at respectable levels. I have a lightsaber, my parents called me Yoda when I was a baby, and we named our family dog Wicket (because he looks like the Ewok, although he doesn’t like rice cakes). I was more heartbroken when I learned that Jedi weren’t real than when I learned that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy were equally fictional. It’d be pretty easy to say that I filter a lot of the experiences in my life through a (somewhat humorous) lens of Star Wars ideas.
This is true for my feminism, as well. I may be one of the few people on the planet to have used Star Wars concepts to help me better understand the world of oppression, and that may be ridiculous, but I’ve found it useful in the past. One of the areas where I’ve found it most useful is understanding some of the big picture concepts of anti-oppression work - things like Patriarchy. Patriarchy gets a bad rap from two sides: from the folks who have an idea of what the word means, it gets the rightful derision as a system of oppression and control that subordinate women and non-conformists. From people who don’t really know what it means, it gets a bad rap for being too academic, too women’s studies-ish, too victimy. In my limited understanding of the world, I believe that Patriarchy as a subtle social force is one of the major causes of rape, indirectly, and of a lot of gender- and sex-based violence overall. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe strongly that if we want to get rid of sexual violence, we can’t just fight the obvious aspects of sexism; it wouldn’t have the type of chain reaction we want (“negative, just impacted on the surface…”).
Ok, I promise no more cheesy Star Wars lines in here. Mostly.
BUT, here’s the problem - Patriarchy is not a real easy to understand concept. Laura Kipnis wrote in her awesome book The Female Thing that “the top-down management of women’s lives (and everything else) by men was called “patriarchy” by second-wave feminists, and blamed for the various ills besetting the female condition.” And that sort of helps things, but not entirely, because dominance and control are complicated subjects.
What helped me understand Patriarchy better was, shocker, Star Wars, and here’s where the tortured metaphor starts (bear with me for a minute). The Patriarchy is not that difference from the Force, in a couple of important ways:
- You can’t usually see it with your eyes; it’s not obvious
- It surrounds us, and often binds us
- It feeds off of life (you can’t have dominance or oppression with no people)
- Like force-sensitive and not force-sensitive folks, some people are better at recognizing Patriarchy than others.
Now, granted, this metaphor is not at all complete. Here are the very reasonable objections that my fellow Star Wars nerds may bring up:
- Patriarchy is not benevolent, like the force (although there is some question as to whether the force is benevolent in any sort of moralistic way)
- Patriarchy does not give those of us who can sense it the ability to shoot lightning, throw objects with our minds, jump really high, or wield lightsabers (that we know of). Although, if being feminist really gave me super-powers….
What I will note, though, that IS similar between the two is that, much like the Force, Patriarchy can have a strong influence on the weak-minded. It can also give those who benefit from it (men) powers that everyone else doesn’t share - like not getting harassed, not having to haggle for low car prices, etc.
The most useful part of this metaphor for me, though, is not in the super-specifics. It’s in the idea that Patriarchy permeates our world; it saturates every social setting in which I will ever find myself. It shapes our perceptions of people. Some of my favorite writers and bloggers disagree with me on this (Holly even uses Star Wars terminology to not agree with me!), but I have a hard time understanding where they come from in this particular case, although Holly’s post is more sophisticated than “there is no patriarchy” - as always, I highly recommend checking her stuff out.
As Kipnis notes above, Patriarchy is the top-down management of women’s lives (and I would add, the lives of anyone who does not fit a culturally mandated and narrowly focused version of manhood), but it’s also a way of branding all of us. And women are always branded worse or less. Women are consistently considered less competent, less skilled, or less capable than men even when their performance is exactly the same. As I wrote before when thinking about gender branding, Patriarchy is the overall force that not only pushes stereotypes of what men and women ARE in our society, but provides the rubric for which of those genders has value. There’s a great article from Slate, published a couple of years ago about unconscious bias that touches on these things - the author there doesn’t use the word Patriarchy, but definitely could have. Anytime something is colored with the same brand that women are, whether it be a profession, a color, a type of food - it immediately gets the Patriarchy stamp of denigration.
Now, obviously, the Patriarchy is not a conscious thing, nor does it pervade so much of our society that absolutely everything is formed by it, at all times. Gravity doesn’t really have a gender bias; driving on the right side of the road instead of the left isn’t really a gendered decision. But pretty much every interaction between people is going to be influenced by it - the Patriarchy is the overall system of organization and power distribution in our culture, and right now, it distributes a lot more power to men than women, and perpetuates itself by making women worth less. While this is hard to see at times, it has a pretty damn big impact, just like the Force.
And rape and sexual assault are a tight nugget of the Patriarchy. As long as one of the major forces of social cohesion in our society, the force that provides messages that tell all of us what, exactly, men and women are and what their value is denigrates women and everything associated with them, rape and sexual assault will be practically impossible to fight effectively. It will be labeled a “woman’s issue” which, right now, is practically synonymous with labeling it a “non-issue.” One of the big fights feminists have, especially in the violence prevention arena, is the fight to legitimize women and gender non-conforming folks as people with agency and ideas worth taking seriously, in any field - from music to politics.
The Force can be used for good or evil - whether it is depends mostly on the individual who make use of it. The big, difficult to see, but powerful forces that direct our social lives are not unchangeable, and just because we’re currently in a world where those underlying dynamics are often hate-filled doesn’t mean that’s the way things have to be. We’ve successfully challenged a lot of those assumptions, through the hard work of civil rights activists, feminists, and all sorts of rebels (rebels!) and artists. I like the idea of creating a new set of social assumptions for our world, both to make it more fair and equitable, and also because I like the idea of being a gender-justice Jedi. I mean, I’ve already got the lightsaber.