Whether we want to admit it or not, in the United States, we live in a patriarchal culture (which is also white supremacist and capitalist). This means that masculine behavior is preferred over all others. It means we focus on the experiences of men at the expense of other genders. Patriarchal culture means that we value work typically labeled as “men’s work” more than we value work similarly labeled as “women’s work.” Patriarchy influences our cultural values at their very core. To quote Allan Johnson:
Patriarchy does not refer to any man or collection of men, but to a kind of society in which men and women participate…A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. It is also organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women…
-Allan Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy
As Johnson lays out in his definition of patriarchy, masculine behavior is focused on control and oppression of women. This oppression comes out through a variety of ways in our culture. One example is that men objectify women in male spaces, whether that’s the locker room, fraternity houses, or magazine covers. Patriarchy teaches us that women are sexual objects who are here to please men at their whim. This teaches men to feel entitled to sex from women when they make any kind of gesture of friendship. Depending on the outcome of that exchange, women are either labeled as “sluts” or “prudes,” both of which label them as something less than what men want from them. This may sound familiar to the concept of being “friend zoned,” which if you didn’t know is a concept founded in male sexual entitlement, which is itself born out of patriarchy.
Think about the ways in which patriarchy harms men, and notice the difference between “harm” and “oppress.” Reflect on some of the lessons you’ve learned over your life about what it means to be a man. What are some of the things that people have told you that men don’t do? What are things that men are called when they don’t live up to those rules?
Think about the ways in which patriarchy harms men, and notice the difference between “harm” and “oppress.”
No really… think about it.
In workshops that I’ve led with a variety of people, they have responded with the following:
Men are supposed to be the breadwinners, sexually driven, aggressive, stoic (except for being angry), in control, competitive, taking risks, and not making mistakes. And if men are caught acting outside of these expectations? We’re told to “man up.” Or to “stop being a girl.” Or called any number of gay slurs. All of this creates a hierarchy in our language that prefers men. If I’m not being “manly” enough and I get called a “bitch,” it means I’m being less than a man and then relating that status of less-than to women.
Those are some heavy expectations. Those are conflicting rules. And the stakes are too high. We need to recognize that our hyper-masculine culture is damaging to men. We’re expected to be overly risky and aggressive, which can lead to us damaging our relationships. We have to be in control at all times, which doesn’t give us the space to critique our behavior, which means we don’t learn from our mistakes. We’re not allowed to ask for help. We learn to be intimate in ways that prevent relationships from developing because intimacy, in patriarchal masculine guidelines, is purely physical. We’re stunted from growing into whole human beings because we’re supposed to be men and demonstrate masculinity at all times.
To quote bell hooks, “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Essentially, feminism is a movement designed to challenge and end patriarchal influences in our culture. Activists and scholars have devised many different thought-ways for these movements and men have sometimes been involved. But, to my knowledge, we’ve never collectively worked together to address the issues with patriarchal masculinity within our own maleness, while also standing in solidarity with our sisters who are fighting against patriarchy every day (no, “male rights advocates” aren’t fighting against patriarchy). I believe this is short-sighted and wrong. Changing our perspective to hear feminist challenges to our behavior allows us to critically consider how we’ve been painted into a corner by patriarchy. Understanding and accepting feminism as a guideline for what positive masculinity can look like allows us to begin to challenge systemic issues that create the harmful masculinity that surrounds us.
We learn to be intimate in ways that prevent relationships from developing because intimacy, in patriarchal masculine guidelines, is purely physical.
We need to be able to address the issues within our male communities and empower ourselves to make changes internally, and build communities with women and trans folks to stand in solidarity for change. We need to argue for pay equity. We need to fight laws that prevent trans folks from using their preferred restroom. We need to fight against street harassment. We need to fight against objectification of women. We need to fight against rape culture. We need realize that interconnectedness of our humanity with women and trans folks. We need to fight to change patriarchal influences (and analyze the intersections between patriarchy, white supremacy, and ways that capitalism turns people into commodities) because our own liberation is wrapped up in the liberation of women and trans folks.
This is a call to action for men. We need to reconsider what systems we’re supporting, whether it’s systemic racism through the prison-industrial complex or whether it’s systemic gender oppression through patriarchal behavior, demonstrated through objectification of women, rape culture, and devaluing women’s contributions in the workforce and home. We need to sharpen our collective critical analysis to understand our privileges and how we can stand in solidarity with women and trans folks to create a beautiful community that acknowledges the humanity of all genders.