Feminists have been around for a long time. It’s difficult to check back beyond the existence of the written word but women of Ancient Rome are on record as taking to the streets to protest misogyny and fight for their rights. They organised peace protests and stopped wars, challenged government policy and changed it, championed their rights within their relationships…and provoked a backlash. Sounds depressingly familiar doesn’t it ? And with good reason when women, whether they call themselves feminists or not, still mobilise to fight exactly the same battles two thousand years later. Activism and action undoubtedly win those battles at every level of our existence from the personal to the global but they glaringly and conspicuously are not winning the war. And if you think that ‘war’ is too strong a word then take a look around you at the world that male-dominance has created, where women who can walk the streets are not safe to do so and where those that can’t can be publicly flogged for venturing out alone. Where in our own culture the reporting of rape is mostly a demeaning and futile exercise and in others can get you stoned to death. Where women still do the vast bulk of the world’s work for a pittance of its wealth and where misogyny remains a daily experience for most.
I am not knocking feminist activism and action, they save lives and stop the worst excesses of what is euphemistically named as ‘masculine practice’ by academic theorisers and social policy-makers alike. Both activism and action are clearly essential but on their own they tend to be primarily reactive, engaging us in an endless process of dealing with the negative manifestations of this ‘masculine practice’ as and when it arises, usually in the form of aggression both personal and global, violence both physical and psychological and a contempt for women that sees them harassed at best and habitually raped, abused and assaulted at worst.
Given that one of the earliest recorded mass rapes (of the Sabine women) also took place in Ancient Rome I think there’s a strong case to be made for feminist activism taking a step back to review its strategies. Two millennia’s worth of hacking the heads off the Hydra sees the beast still alive and well. But who, and what, is the beast?
We are all very familiar with the prolific use of the term patriarchy but patriarchy itself is just a system, a way of codifying dynamics of social power on the basis of a concept of gender that is meaningless unless it’s actually enacted in everyday life…which is where both masculinity, femininity and individuals come in. We’ll look at these in a minute but before we do it’s important to acknowledge that the ‘femininity’ half of this duo is not the problematic here. In fact, in a world where women do the vast bulk of bog-standard life-work and caring it’s ‘feminine practice’ that keeps the world going, in direct contrast to its masculine counterpart that seems intent on ripping it apart.
But if ‘masculinity’, as the lived enactment of the values of the patriarchal code, is the beast in this equation then we encounter the Second Wave maxim of the personal as political in a way that can become distinctly uncomfortable. Activism is easy when it’s outrage and out-there but the men who man missile-bases, buy degrading and misogynistically violent porn, frequent lap-dancing clubs, etc, etc, etc do not exist in isolation…they are all someone’s son, father, brother and usually, partner.
Masculinity is problematic, it always has been, and protesting, challenging and countering its negative manifestations without addressing its construction condemns us to a Groundhog Day of reactive activism that’s already been running since, quite literally, the year dot.
Is there some kind of dull stupidity here or is there something that feminism never quite faces up to? Given that most feminists I know are quite smart I think it’s the latter. I think feminism needs to acknowledge that its potentially most lasting and effective form of activism is personal and proactive…..an activism that happens when you come home from the Slutwalk and the Muff March and look at how complicit you are in either acceding to or actively aiding the masculinising process that all our males go through from the moment they draw breath and which they may continue to enact throughout their lives, not least in their relationships with us and our children if we have them.
Our complicity is there in the way we let our boys behave, the ‘play-violence’ we let them enact, the boys-will-be-boys-ism that we accept and it’s there in the dynamics of our relationships where the vast majority of women still do the vast bulk of domestic work and childcare and still have far less personal time and disposable income. It’s there in all the times we don’t speak up in order to keep the peace with our men and preserve our relationships with them, regardless of what that relationship is. The activism that will change things once and for all is not ‘out-there’, it’s right here in front of us and this applies equally to the cohort of men who now identify as feminist or pro-feminist, except in their case they need to also look at themselves with the same kind of ruthless honesty.
Masculinity is made out of not-femininity, boys learn to be boys by being taught to be not-girls. Masculinity as not-femininity demands firstly that certain things are arbitrarily classified as ‘feminine’ and secondly, that these ‘feminine’ things are reviled and avoided like the plague…which explains how girls very quickly become yuck in the eyes of young boys and how misogyny becomes rife when they grow up. It gets worse, as the personal attributes that are classified as ‘feminine’ are all the qualities that are pro-personal, pro-emotional and pro-social, which covers most of humanity’s finer points. In short our boys learn to be ‘masculine’ by being denied access to all the qualities they need to become whole, mature and decent human beings and then they’re taught to be proud of this severed existence. And this is the programme for being we bequeath to the half of the human race that maintains a tenaciously dominant hold on the running of the planet…. which more than explains the mess it’s in and the constant undermining of women within its masculinised policy-making.
Tragically, this rejection of ‘innerness’ also leaves many males chronically dependent on outer affirmation as a means of constructing an adequate sense of self, a mode of being that makes for acute vulnerability and insecurity which, in turn, creates a predisposition to lash out when that fragile sense of self is challenged.
We don’t have to make our males as half-people. In a historically male-dominated world females never got a say in the making of ‘gender’, no-one asked women whether femininity existed or what it might be like if it did. ‘Femininity’ was made for us but from time immemorial women have been flouting its artificial constraints and proving the arbitrariness of its imposed limitations. Women can’t afford to be half-people because they are too often where the buck stops. If we don’t want our sons, lovers, fathers, brothers and friends to be half-people either then maybe it’s time to face the fact that this is also where the buck stops………. and where our most potent activism begins.
Gaia Charis, Dec.’11.