The Hidden Danger to the Sisterhood of Hierarchical Assumptions

I believe that one of the most worrisome, hidden dangers to the feminist movement of the fourth wave, is hierarchical sexism. This is sexism in the form of beliefs and attitudes that the masculine is better than the feminine and that the typical behaviors of men are better than the typical behaviors of women*. No feminist actually explicitly believes that men are better than women, mind you. But pervasive in our dialogue is the idea that masculine behavior is better than feminine behavior. This argument is supported from the other direction, too – masculinity is better (generally) than femininity in subjects, but femininity is better than masculinity in the isolated context of asking what may be objectified.

Heels can be a tool of patriarchy, but, somewhat amazingly, jackboots cannot. This was seen in the conversation between Laverne Cox and bell hooks about whether one can wear heels and not pander to the patriarchy, but it is much broader than that. Masculine garb is the attire of leadership. At the same time, women who simply prefer it face criticism for refusing to be objectified, prominently, Ms. Clinton. Thus, women find ourselves “damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.”

Photo of Military Presence in Georgia

Jackboots have never been used to advance the patriarchy? Really? Really?

The dialog around how often women say, “I’m sorry,” is entirely rooted around women apologizing less often. It carries the implicit assumption that masculine behavior is the baseline against which femininity should be measured. Women are taught to stop apologizing for taking up space, a very feminine behavior, far more than men are taught to stop assuming a right to take up space (although, finally, the latter is also happening). It is never suggested that men apologize more, and only that women apologize less**. Again, in contrast, when women are expected to take up space, it is typically for objectification (so our naked bodies are on far more billboards… sometimes selling the most seemingly non-sexual of things).

Dude, stop the spread, please.

If one really wanted to press the analysis, she might observe that men are asked, rather sheepishly, to change their specific behavior, but they are not asked to think about occupying space in the way most women think about occupying space.

We fight objectification (masculinity is far more rarely objectified), but we struggle immensely with the idea that women can ethically choose to be in object roles, even though we know perfectly well how many sentences in our language require both a subject and a direct object (this is part of the complex question of ethical sex work, although to me, this in itself is not enough to define the road to ethical sex work). Yet, again, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

When powerful women choose to play object roles - in big ways, like an Allure photoshoot, and in small ways, like wearing sexy clothes to the bar - we frequently face criticism for  being sexy (and open to objectification)... while ignoring the inescapable fact that a great many of us want to be seen as pretty (and yes, sometimes sexy).

When powerful women choose to play object roles – in big ways, like an Allure photoshoot, and in small ways, like wearing sexy clothes to the bar – we frequently face criticism for being sexy (and open to objectification)… while ignoring the inescapable fact that a great many of us want to be seen as pretty (and yes, sometimes sexy).

And – to our credit, we’ve picked up on this one a little bit – we have many conversations about whether women leaders can butch it up enough to lead, but we never talk about whether male leaders are feminine enough. Womanning up is not a thing at all***, and no one talks about how, if he spent a little time thinking like a woman, Vladimir Putin might engage in a few less atrocities – no, in order for there to be any sale to men of his ilk (say, our own Dick Cheney), sale must be made entirely on the idea that it is actually more masculine, more manly, to stop the bloodshed****.

This is the state, too, of conversations inside feminism, not just out in the broader world. Serrano and others, particularly in queer theory or queer feminism, argue the dangers inherent in this explicitly because masculinity and femininity are not the same as maleness and femaleness, but inside the sisterhood, we need to be particularly wary because, even if they are not the same concept, they are highly intercorrelated. This is a concept queer theorists seem to struggle with immensely – yes, gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things, but they are highly intercorrelated – it is not a coincidence, and any neuroscientist or biologist could tell you it is not a coincidence – that masculine people of any sex are relatively more likely to be attracted to femininity, and vice versa.

The Genderbread Person is useful to illustrate that gender identity, sexual orientation, etc., are different things, but there is danger in assuming that two different things are automatically entirely uncorrelated.

The Genderbread Person is useful to illustrate that gender identity, sexual orientation, etc., are different things, but there is danger in assuming that two different things are automatically entirely uncorrelated.

This is also really a message that is recapitulated in many other -isms, and thus sharpening this dialectic sharpens our intersectionalism. Poor people are expected to understand and demonstrate some of the behaviors of affluence (or at least the lower middle class – most visibly seen by the fact that scarcely any Americans view themselves as not part of the middle class). In other contexts, at other times, they are expected to “act poor,” so that the barrier between affluent and poor people can be preserved. And thus poor people face criticism for having, perhaps, an iPhone, eating fish, having stylish boots or a statement purse (it is not the poor who are meant to be making statements!), or a decently clean and late model vehicle. Black professionals struggle with being open to criticisms that they are “acting too black” in the workplace, and at the same time, we can levy harsh expectations to “act black” on superstar African American musical artists and others. And queer people are at their most acceptable either when they are highly socially conforming, or when they’re highly “gay,” so that they can easily be read and othered.

Thus, this is important as a general concept. Any system in which the behaviors more natural to one group are assumed to be better than the behaviors more natural to another, without some more meaningful reason than the -ism, is dangerous to all of society. But, again, my provenance is the Sisterhood, and although I care about all these groups, I do care first and foremost about the cause of us as women.

Notorious, indeed.

Notorious, indeed.

And we sisters want a world that is made better because it is full of women leaders. There will be enough female heads of state when they are all women. There will be enough female Supreme Court Justices when they are all women. But here’s the tricky part: we want them to be all women, but are we ready for each one of them, to be, herself, all woman? Meaning, can women be seen as authentic with whatever mix of masculine and feminine traits they take on? Are we ready for unabashedly feminine leadership? Are we ready for femininity in leading men? Are we ready to see a world that changes, and changes we believe for the better, because it is full of the feminine leadership that patriarchy systematically weeded out (whether witnessed in men or in women), or are we only sufficiently invested to get to a world that is full of leaders who are women acting like men?

To me, if we accept the latter, we feminists risk unwittingly losing our fight altogether.

* Cross-reference, later in the article, this concept of intercorrelation, and how queer people don’t like intercorrelation, even though not liking intercorrelation is sort of like not liking the gravitational constant. The truth is, of course, that we all occupy dynamic space composed of some masculinity and some femininity – I am not, myself, wholly feminine in my predilections, and I have just a pinch of my own androgyny.

** Placing me in the somewhat amusing role of taking up space to voice my demand that I be allowed to say sorry whenever I damn well please.

*** This is evident in a much deeper way in American coming of age expectations. Girls are often considered women based solely on menarche, and thereafter their (young adult) womanhood is not called into expectation, whereas manhood is defined largely on “acting like a man.” For the longest time, I saw how this was harmful and problematic to young boys, but it is deeply problematic to women, as well – it sends a clear hierarchical message that womanhood is just something that happens (perhaps transforming the girl from “jailbait” to the woman who is “fair game”) not a chosen feminine object role but clearly objectification. Only manhood in this calculus is seen in aspirational terms.

**** And as I mentioned, previously, as in the case with Forster’s pithy analysis of colonialism in India, if femininity or womanhood is in this conversation, it is included primarily to discuss how it’s presence modifies masculinity.

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One thought on “The Hidden Danger to the Sisterhood of Hierarchical Assumptions

  1. Pingback: Embracing Feminism Young and Old | Mira Charlotte Krishnan

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