Today I read an article entitled “Men, Feminism, and Men’s Contradictory Experiences of Power” (which I accessed through this blog post, linked to by Becky). I have been thinking quite a lot lately about men and power, so it was a welcome find for me.
The author suggests that the power afforded to men growing up in a traditional, patriarchal social system comes at the cost of some serious issues for them (aside from the issues it causes for women!). The stereotyped male role may be idealised in their minds:
“… the absence of men from most parenting and nurturing tasks means that the masculinity internalized by little boys is based on distance, separation, and a fantasy image of what constitutes manhood”.
They then inevitably fail to live up to the unrealistic ideal of a man who is all-powerful, invulnerable; they find they have needs and feelings that are incompatible with this ideal, and these needs cause them pain and fear. This then feeds back into the appetite for power:
“… the more we are the prisoners of the fear, the more we need to exercise the power we grant ourselves as men. In other words, men exercise patriarchal power not only because we reap tangible benefits from it. The assertion of power is also a response to fear and to the wounds we have experienced in the quest for power.”
What interested me is how this seems to make sense of the often non-constructive (or much worse) behaviour of such men. Of how it is that men in the most patriarchal societies seem to be the most controlling over the women in their lives when they already have all the power anyway. It also helps me understand how the kind of egotistic barriers to intimacy and empathy that result can eventually produce men that are willing to harass women, as is commonplace in the streets of some of the world’s cities. I understood that this was about power, but I hadn’t come across this explanation for the desperate hunger for power that can express itself in such ugly ways. Not that this excuses any of it, or makes it any less sinister.
“By losing track of a wide range of our human needs and capacities, and by blocking our need for care and nurturance, men dampen our emotional common sense and our ability to look after ourselves. Unmet, unknown, and unexpected emotions and needs don’t disappear but rather spill into our lives at work, on the road, in a bar, or at home. The very emotions and feelings we have tried to suppress gain a strange hold over us. No matter how cool and in control, these emotions dominate us.”
We have been passionately marching away from traditional gender roles and patriarchy in western societies and redressing the power balance and I would guess this has reduced the impact of these problems in our societies. Yet could it be the problem is fundamentally about, as this article suggests, unrealistic idealism? I honestly feel sorry for men who have grown up under intense pressure to be something they cannot ever be and to never, ever be able to express their fears and frustrations – to be unable to reach out except by clutching for control. Perhaps the problem is not patriarchy per se but the rigidity of a system in which neither women nor men have any real choices; a system whereby both genders are defined and hemmed in by neat stereotyped roles and characters.
If this is the case, then I wonder if the author’s hope for “demolishing gender altogether” (page 22) isn’t just another unhelpful form of idealism, one that is now becoming widespread in replacement of the former ideals. Women are supposed to work like men and have the same goals and ambitions as men; dads are supposed to be as in-tune with their children’s needs and feelings as mums. Every job type is supposed to have a 50/50 gender representation. We know the drill. None of this fits with the reality that I see around me. An example from my own work life: academic science seems to burn many women out; the majority drop out of academic research after the PhD stage, and a lot of people are scratching their heads trying to figure out why. I have seen several women finish science PhDs in a tortured state, wishing for a mundane job. There are frequently confidence-building workshops for women in science, yet no-one will dare talk about why we feel like fish out of water. Maybe it is all just a result of the history of male domination. But maybe it isn’t. How did such a disparity even arise? Doesn’t it stand to reason that evolution has programmed males and females with certain innate differences?
It seems to me this new type of idealism sends some people running right back into the arms of patriarchy – the growing numbers of western women that are converting to Islam, for example, many of whom feel actually liberated by the explicit permission to take on traditional female roles and priorities.
Without any ideals, and without other issues – such as the need many people have for the security and validation in carrying out prescribed roles – what would we be like?