Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ms. Norah, I do believe you missed the point (A review of a book review)

I was reading Time magazine's full page review of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, the premise of which is that she dressed, acted, and lived the life of a man for 18 months. Don't worry she's not an "avenging feminist valkyrie," but instead a woman who wanted to know what exactly makes men act the way that they do. (Do I need to bother pointing out that skipping over all those years of socialisation leaves a big hole in a "neutral anthropologists" ideas of what it's like to be a man?)

"I think men have been forced to learn women's language, through the feminist movement," she says, "but women haven't seemed to evince a curiousity in learning men's language. Men have ways of communicating that women don't understand. And we think, because it's not our way, that nothing is being said." (emphasis mine)

WHAT? See I had this funny little idea that all of our language was "men's" language (seeing that they're the ones who get to define everything) and that if they have secret ways of communicating it's not women's fault we don't know it, it's that THEY don't want us to know it. She also thinks that our "feminist sniping" (Time's words, not hers) is too easy and that if just listened a little better or tried harder to understand men then we'd see that they're hurt by the patriarchy too.

Well, smack me upside the head with a giant tuna! I never ever thought that any form of oppressing demands restrictions from the oppressing group.i* Really I should stop "sniping" about fear of rape, battery, and murder, and just look at how short a stick men have been handed! Oh the poor poor men! How ever will they continue to function in this cruel, cruel anti-man patriarchy? (Say what?)

Problem is, I think that a lot of men and women think this. I don't know any radical feminist who will tell you that the patriarchy doesn't restrict men's freedoms as well, but we're not fighting for them, we're fighting so that the patriarchy will stop KILLING us. So they "have to" act all masculine. No wait, actually, they don't. They can choose not to. They may get made fun of by other men for it, but that doesn't mean that they can't do it. I know some men who do, and trust me, they are not suffering in any way because of it. (B/c being true to yourself and your knowledge of what's right isn't always easy, but it sure makes life better.)

She also says that women hold great "sexual power over men." Ahh, here we are. Why can't we get rid of this horribly misogynistic myth? So at a bar we may be able to shoot you down, but really is that power? If we were alone, and not in a crowded place in the same situation wouldn't that man possibly threaten us, rape us, or coerce us? Because really that happens so often that the idea that women have power over men "sexually" is the most absurd thing that I've ever heard. Because you want to sleep with us, and we (in public settings for the most part at least) get to say no and "icily wield our sexual power over men," this means that we have the upper hand in this situation? If by upperhand you mean the possibility to get hit on by a bunch of overgrown apes who see us as another notch in the bedpost, then sure, we do. Because we're not just sex to the, and we haven't been conditioned to seek their approval and pleas them. No, all lies I tell you, none of which is true. Women are taught from the time that they are born to the time they die that they are worthwhile, talented, intelligent PEOPLE, who are not sex objects. Right! OK! I live under a rock with no contact with our current society at all! (I want whatever she's taking.)

Just because I won't uncross my legs for every Harry, Dick, or Tom does not mean that I am "icily" wielding my "sexual power." It means I am asserting my personhood. Anyone stop to think for a second that maybe these women were "icy" to you is because they didn't want to date/sleep with you? That makes us icy? Cuz then I am really the Snow Queen.

*i is a sarcasm point in case anyone missed that I was being sarcastic. I stopped using them after the first one. This should teach you what sarcasm looks like. You'll have to figure out the rest on your own.


awum said...

Hmmm. Interesting analysis, and some tasty sarcasm. Something you may not have considered:

In any society, there are those with more power and those with less. Those with more power will tend to have an interest in the continuation of any institution or practice which favours them. Such an institution or practice will thus be perpetuated. Those with less power will therefore generally not benefit from the dominant institutions and practices.

Although "man" and "woman" may be almost mutually exclusive categories, the distribution of power (embodied in wealth, status, political influence, etc.) between these two groups overlaps significantly. Obviously, for example, the least powerful men do not have more power than the most powerful women.

Therefore, if one accepts the idea that the powerful tend to oppress the less powerful (or even the idea that some of the powerful sometimes oppress the less powerful) then the idea that some women have power and benefit from the existence of a "patriarchy" is quite logical. So is the idea that some men are oppressed by the same.

Ultimately, that's why I have trouble accepting your assertion that all of our language is "men's language," or that sexual power is a myth. Not all men and women line up so neatly on the side of the gender-power line as those views would suggest. Women in powerful positions perpetuate patriarchal practices and structures every bit as much as powerful men do because it is in their best interests to do so!

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Ms Vincent. Her methods may not have been the most scientific, but lets not throw that patriarchal straightjacket over her, shall we? Sharing her experience, her story, is a valid and powerful method in its own right. And just because she might say she understands "masculinity" better should in no way mean that she is trying to excuse its negatives.

Gender socialization is not (and never should have been) an "us vs. them" issue. Abuse of power, and violence of all kinds by the powerful, are problems for all of us, male, female or otherwise.

And oh, yes ... eat the rich.


lost clown said...

Women are a class and are oppressed as one. It makes not a whit of difference if the woman walking down the street is wealthy, she still faces street harrassment and sexual assault. Yes in different spheres women may be more wealthy and have more power b/c of that then some men, but you have to look at how these things intersect, i.e. the big picture. A woman will always be oppressed by a man because of her sex class status. As an example: A poor man of colour can and still feels as though it's ok to sexually harrass a wealthy white woman on the street. Why? Because she is a woman. It has nothing to do with their different status due to race or wealth, but on their statuses in different sex classes, one (male) being regarded more highly then the other.

There are classism and racism issues that can play out, but to ignore the sex class issues would be to ignore the problem of patriarchy, which I feel is if not fully responsible for creating many of the oppressions that we see today, then it is at least responsible in supporting and encouraging these many forms of oppression. Thereby demonstrating that this statement: Obviously, for example, the least powerful men do not have more power than the most powerful women. is patently false. (And I, along with many other women and men, have seen this happen time and time again. I'm sure that my male readers will back me up on this one.)

Women in powerful positions perpetuate patriarchal practices and structures every bit as much as powerful men do because it is in their best interests to do so!

Yes, only because by doing that they are allowed to not have to fulfill those tedious degrading roles because men confer status onto them. That in no way makes them equal to men, but it does give them slightly more freedom then the women they are supposedly speaking for. Again my example of street harrassment (which is men asserting that the public sphere belongs to them) still holds. No woman, no matter how powerful, will overcome her status in the oppressed sex class. EVER. I dare you to find a point where there is such a woman, with concrete evidence, because I assure you, sexism follows every woman everywhere.

Show me when men have let women define our words and then I may agree that it's not a men's language, but historically and currently men control the language.

I also never said that she was defending the patriarchy, I just feel that she in some ways she is overinflating the degree to which men are hurt by it. As I said in the post, they are limited by it, but they can fight to help end it. It is not women's responsibility to correct this, it is men's responsibility. (I placed responsibity square on the shoulders of those responsible. Women are the ones dying b/c of patriarchy and also the ones on the forefront of fighting it. (I love my allies, but I'm sure that they would agree. Dim, please correct me if I am wrong.) If men want to stop being limited (and they are not oppressed. There are no cultural/religious/institutional structures that oppress men across the board as a sex class the way they do women. Saying men are oppressed by patriarchy is like saying white people are oppressed by racism. It's just not true.) then they should stand up with women and say FUCK OFF Patriarchy, instead of whining about how no one understands them.

Joida said...

Abuse of power, and violence of all kinds by the powerful, are indeed problems for all of us. However, that doesn't take away from the fact that it is men who oppress women. I think it is wrong to apply the term oppression to individuals. We say that men oppress women because women, as a group, face systemic disadvantages whereas men, as a group, possess systemic privileges. That's not to say that some women can't be more powerful than some men by possessing class and race privilege, or some other advantages, but as long as she's a woman she is subject to the discrimination faced by women in general (granted, she may face a distinct set of disadvantages depending on her social status, race, physical appearance, etc.).

I wouldn't go as far as saying that women don't have a language of their own (and I don't think that's what lost clown is saying), but men do have hegemony over our society's language by having significant control over the media, politics, education system, and public culture in general.

As for the so-called power of women's sexuality... Sexuality can certainly be a source of influence for women over men in certain contexts; however, there is the question of why women have to resort to using their body to get what they want! Why aren't women's voices heard! Why do women have to resort to manipulating men to have a say in their own interests? Why are women forced to exploit their own bodies? Why can't women be powerful by just speaking their minds? Are women less intelligent? Less rational? Less important?

lost clown said...

WHy can you say everything so much clearer and moer concise then I can? Silly writers. (love ya!)

lost clown said...

No woman, no matter how powerful, will overcome her status in the oppressed sex class. EVER.

I don't mean EVER, ever, just in society as it currently exists. Obviously if I didn't think that we could fight hierarchy and oppression then I would all ready be dead.

I agree with you that all hierarchy and dominance is bad. Perhaps if you read my Definition of Radical Feminism/Mission Statement some of the questions you undoubtably have will be answered.

(I should make it required reading, as it's a good intro to my blog and my beliefs which are against all forms of hierarchy and dominance.)

Lorenzo said...


I think what you are failing to consider is that gender oppression is not the only form of oppression that exists, and that systems of class exploitation and racial privilege exist simultaneously and interact with the system of gender exploitation. So that while an individual woman may have more social power than an individual man, this social power will be on the basis of an inequality other than gender because the gender inequality is the oppression of women, as a class, by men, as a class. As lost clown points out, even a white, capitalist elite woman still faces gender oppression in various forms even while still being able to oppress a black man on the basis of race or a while male worker on the basis of (economic) class.

I'd also second the point that talking about individuals gets away from the class based framework of analysis that lost clown was proceeding from.

Lina said...

What really struck me about the work was her sample. I haven't read the bok, just The Times article (not Time!), and from that, I got that she was looking at men's subcultures; bowling, lapdancing, a monasttery etc... Looking at men as a subculture (that is, assuming that Feminism has done its work and men are now the new women yada yada yada, you've heard this crap I'm sure) within a subculture does skew the results i think. I mean, if you looked at women in women's 'subcultures', the rough equivilent to the above men's, we would get a skewed vision of what women were and thought. I think the conclusion, roughly that men don't have it easy either is an inevitable one.
I do think Patriarchy and misogyny has a negative effect on men too (though that's a different argument), but I can't help feeling this book, because of it's dogy sample and skewed results, was largely pointless to be honest.
Anyway, good post, I'll be sure to check out the Time article.

the nut said...

Perhaps we should all brush up on our Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Sure the books can be hard to muddle through, but the idea of writing feminine as laid out by Cixous is most interesting.

She suggests that, since most, if not all, the English language is contructed in the male form, it is hard for women to truly express ourselves because we lack a more direct vocabulary.

Perhaps we should suggest Cixous and Deborah Tannen to Ms. Vincent.

(p.s. Hi by way of Carnival of Feminists!)

lost clown said...

Hello! Glad you made it this way!

Actually that idea is one that I have talked about often, about how I (and other woman I talk to have agreed) cannot find the right words to express exactly what I'm feeling or thinking, because the words just don't exist. I've also talked to many more women about how frustrated they are that they can't communicate what they want to, and they never thought that maybe it was because the language was deficient. Thanks for the links though, I have heard of the first person, but not the second.

Jodie said...

Just because a man in a bar approaches a woman, she does not OWE HIM ANYTHING. She does not have to be kind, nice, approving or whatever. She is there for her own reasons, and not for his.

This is not being "icy". This is going about your life as a person.

If "Vincent" had been approached in a bar, in front of his friends, by a elderly woman, determined to chat "him" up and take him home and have sex with him, would he have appeared icy or rude? My guess is yes.

lost clown said...

Well apparently we're supposed to be all smiles and happy hat someone approached us. Maybe leap at their feet for deeming to talk to us!