31 December, 2006
I just ran into an interesting essay by bell hooks entitled “Understanding Patriarchy”. hooks argues that patriarchy is damaging to men in ways that not only men themselves, but also feminists fail to recognize. hooks’ analysis makes some important points, but is also limited by some of her assumptions about what “patriarchy” is and about how men experience victimization in such societies.
I want to begin by stating my agreements with hooks. She writes, “like many visionary radical feminists I challenged the misguided notion, put forward by women who were simply fed up with male exploitation and oppression, that men were ‘the enemy.’ ” hooks continues:
I stressed that feminist advocates collude in the pain of men wounded by patriarchy when they falsely represent men as always and only powerful, as always and only gaining privileges from their blind obedience to patriarchy. I emphasized that patriarchal ideology brainwashes men to believe that their domination of women is beneficial when it is not:
For a feminist to admit that other feminists take an unjustifiably adversarial stance towards men, and to challenge that stance in print, is a pleasant surprise. It’s even more unusual that hooks challenges feminists for exacerbating the suffering of men. Furthermore, she questions feminist overestimation of the benefits of patriarchy to men and the portrayal of men as patriarchal automatons. hooks is on a roll here. But soon we run into trouble:
Separatist ideology encourages women to ignore the negative impact of sexism on male personhood. It stresses polarization between the sexes. According to Joy justice, separatists believe that there are “two basic perspectives” on the issue of naming the victims of sexism: “There is the perspective that men oppress women. And there is the perspective that people are people, and we are all hurt by rigid sex roles.” . . . Both perspectives accurately describe our predicament. Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns, These two realities coexist. Male oppression of women cannot be excused by the recognition that there are ways men are hurt by rigid sexist roles. Feminist activists should acknowledge that hurt, and work to change it—it exists. It does not erase or lessen male responsibility for supporting and perpetuating their power under patriarchy to exploit and oppress women in a manner far more grievous than the serious psychological stress and emotional pain caused by male conformity to rigid sexist role patterns.
hooks is correct that male oppression of women (which does exist) is not justified by the fact that males also suffer oppression. hooks also makes a startling assertion: that feminists should acknowledge the damage of gender roles to men, and work to change it. In short, hooks is arguing the feminists should not focus exclusively on the needs and interests of women. She also criticizes feminist separatism. This is awesome. Most feminists aren’t separatists, but it is rare that they are outspoken in criticizing separatism.
hooks is clearly thinking outside of the box of feminist ideology. Yet she keeps one one foot stuck in the box when she makes the standard feminist comparison between the suffering of men and the suffering of women and claims that women’s suffering is greater.
In Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systemic Discrimination Against Men, Nathanson and Young call this kind of attitude “comparative suffering,” the notion that the suffering of human beings can and should be quantified and measured against each other. My co-blogger Daran has noticed this attitude also, and he calls it the “odious comparison.”
Maybe women do suffer “more,” according to some (but what?) metric of comparison. Yet hooks has no business claiming this, as she does when she argues that men under patriarchy “exploit and oppress women in a manner far more grievous than the serious psychological stress and emotional pain caused by male conformity to rigid sexist role patterns.” Maybe hooks is right, maybe she is wrong. But how the hell does she know that female suffering is “far more grievous?” As a woman, hooks has never experienced male suffering, so she is really just conjecturing here. I have no problem with conjecturing; I think it is great, as long one recognizes that it is a conjecture, which hooks does not appear to do.
Does it make sense for hooks to even conjecture that women suffer more? Maybe, as long as this claim is stated more precisely. Does it mean that all women suffer “far more” from exploitation and oppression than all men suffer from psychological pain from gender roles? Or does it simply mean that women suffer more on average? If so, what is the overlap between the “distributions” of suffering? When talking about most gender differences, mainstream feminists like Michael Kimmel tell us that because of overlapping distributions, the similarities between the genders are more interesting that the differences. Not so, apparently, when the gender difference is in suffering.
Since gender roles are implicated in the death of men, it’s difficult to argue that the suffering men can experience due to gender roles is always more grievous than the oppression women suffer. (Unless the suffering of women is considered worse than the death of men.) For example, British teenager Joe Burns hung himself after being unable to lose his virginity. Arguably, the prescription of masculinity that men should lose their virginity motivated his suicide.
Perhaps men hurting themselves because of their gender roles is less common than many forms of female victimization, even though they can have similar maximum severity. Yet this formulation is not the argument hooks was making. hooks’ analysis does not reflect the existence of severe, if uncommon, forms of male self-victimization like suicide.
hooks depicts the damage to men under patriarchy as primarily psychological damage, caused by their dominance and repression of their own humanity (hook’s views may be more complex that this, but I am simply responding to what she writes in this essay). This is a good start in understanding male suffering, and many feminists don’t even get this far. But it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.
Not only are men hurt by their own adherence to gender norms, they are also hurt by the gendered behavior of other men (which includes anything from bullying to sex-selective massacres of men). Furthermore, men also suffer oppression from women, though I believe that this type of oppression is less common. Finally, both men and women suffer oppression that doesn’t have an obvious agent, but is rather the consequence of social structures and institutions. More on why I consider men to be “oppressed” (if women are), and what “oppression” means in future posts.
Ultimately, hooks challenges some of the ideological excess of feminism, while staying mired in others. What is striking about her essay is that it does display real empathy for men; hooks doesn’t just pay lip service to male suffering to deflect criticism from feminism. Yet her adherence to certain feminist precepts makes her analysis incapable of accurately conceptualizing the sources and nature of men’s suffering. One of these is the conceptualization of “patriarchy,” which I will also discuss in future posts.
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