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19.8.10

Misandry* Hurts Women Too

It took me a while to figure out what it was that was bothering me about Greta Christina's articles 5 Stupid, Unfair, and Sexist Things Expected of Men and its follow-up. I can vouch from personal experience that her 10 items are accurate, at least for North American middle-class white straight cis men like myself and most of the guys she talked to to compile the list. And she does a good job of framing it in a way that does not encourage the "what about the menz?" perspective (to the extent that any discussion centering men's problems can avoid it). I have an aversion to people insisting that feminism ought to invest some of its resources in helping men, but given that the argument is here being made by a feminist woman, I don't think that's enough to explain my discomfort.

What clarified things for me was recalling Julia Serano's distinction between oppositional sexism and traditional sexism. Oppositional sexism consists in separating humanity into two distinct and "opposite" gender categories, demanding that everyone fulfil the role that they have been assigned to and punishing people who blur the lines. Traditional sexism sets up a hierarchy between the genders in which men are privileged and women are oppressed. What bothered me about Greta Christina's article was that it was framed almost entirely in oppositional sexism terms.

To be absolutely clear, I think that oppositional sexism is a terrible injustice. As someone who doesn't fit the "man" mold all that well (I was commenting to someone recently that I would make a better and happier June Cleaver than Ward Cleaver), I have a personal interest in defeating oppositional sexism. Greta Christina notes a similar personal interest at the end of her article. But I also think that oppositional sexism can't be understood in isolation from traditional sexism.

In an analysis that focuses on oppositional sexism, the oppression of women is not an intrinsic feature of the system. It just happens that in the case of the particular gender roles that we're forced into, the roles assigned to women are worse. Everyone has to wear uncomfortable clothes, but high heels are just more uncomfortable than neckties. But when we link oppositional and traditional sexism, we can see that the specifics of the roles are designed to enforce a gender hierarchy. Patriarchy hurts men too, but it hurts them not just because gender deviance is considered bad, but because men's adherence to their gender role is a necessary condition for keeping women down.

To see what I mean, let's look at a few of Greta Christina's examples. In each case, men are hurt in an immediate way by the restriction, but the larger function of it is to enforce women's oppression. The negative effects on men are a combination of 1) unintended side effects, and 2) disciplining men who aren't pulling their weight because the success of the patriarchal project requires all men to be on board.

One harm to men mentioned in the articles is that men are expected to make money. Men are told they must be the primary breadwinners, and that their worth as a person is defined by their paycheck. Certainly this is harmful to many men, driving them to stress themselves out in the rat race or be condemned as a loser. But what is the function of this particular demand, the reason that this and not some other characteristic (say, "a real man pursues his dreams, and to endure poverty in the quest is noble") the thing that is demanded of men? It's became economic subordination is a prime mechanism of traditional sexism. Women are oppressed in part by being deprived of access to well-paying jobs and being made economically dependent on men. "Real men earn big bucks" serves to justify this state of affairs, to drive men to monopolize the available economic opportunities, and to give an excuse for paying men more (they allegedly need it).

Greta Christina is very concerned about the contradiction inherent in the demand that men "be a good husband/partner/lover -- but don't care too much what women think." I agree that this puts men in a tough bind. But the fact that it is so contradictory should tip us off that this particular requirement is doing some important work. And here again, it is ultimately functioning to oppress women. To be a good (heterosexual) husband is important in terms of putting a cloak of respectability over inequality. It's simply the secular version of conservative Christian justifications for male headship. It boils down to the idea that inequality is OK because the higher-ranked party will take care of the lower-ranked one. However, a man who seems to care too much about what women think is allowing noblesse oblige to turn into equal partnership. The point is to put a smiley face on inequality, not to undermine it.

Thinking about the harm to men from gender roles in terms of an interlocking system of oppositional and traditional sexism, rather than just in oppositional terms, gives us a clearer way to justify tackling these problems. Greta Christina has to rely on two main arguments for why feminism should care about how men's lives are constrained -- that equality demands that feminism should care about men too, and that caring about men will get men to join feminism. Both of these are relatively weak rationales. If feminism is a movement for the liberation of women, then it's perfectly sensible for feminists to declare that their only duty with respect to men is to not unnecessarily hurt them further. And it's always questionable to insist that gaining allies should involve some sort of quid pro quo -- if feminism is morally justified, then men have a duty to support it regardless of whether they benefit personally.

But if harms to men are an intrinsic part of a system that oppresses women, then liberating men becomes simultaneously a more important feminist agenda item and less susceptible to turning into "what about the menz." Men and women both become part of the same struggle -- a struggle that centers women's oppression while making men's liberation indispensible.

*I realize that the things being discussed here are not misandry per se, but we don't have a snappy term for "patriarchy insofar as it hurts men."

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