Friday, 17 May 2013

The Only Mansplaining I'll Ever Do


We seem to be having quite a mansplainy week, kinda. Or at least, I've been talking a lot about male psychology as a perspective on gender issues. I've tried not to make excuses or suggest that any of the explanations I've offered make the behaviour I'm explaining forgivable.

Today, to round everything off, I present my grand unified theory of masculinity. I'm going to reduce the whole social construction of the male gender to its simplest, most basic point.

Actually, it's not my theory, really. I got it from David Willis. For those of you not clicking the link (or not generally familiar with classic webcomics from ten years ago), that's a comic in which the female lead had recently been turned into a man by an evil alien's gender-swapping ray gun or virus bomb or something. Asked what it's like being a guy, she opines that it's 'Like keeping a little dog around that barks at everything.'

And that is very much the truth. We can refine the metaphor a little bit - being a man is like taking the dog out for a walk just late enough in the evening that someone might object if it barks, and then the dog has a barking fit, and you're not sure if anyone's noticed or cares, but you know that if they have, you're in for a lot of shame and disgust.

There's only one other thing that needs to be added. The social construction of gender is such that men are told constantly that sexual arousal - the dog's barking - is the only good guide to what we like. And since the dog barks at even the slightest provocation, we're told we're indiscriminate and simple, easily pleased and easily led.

Now, I don't want to come over all 'Oh, woe is modern man, all denigrated and shamed'. We still have it pretty good. But being male doesn't actually free you from oppression by the patriarchy. The power that the patriarchy - our concept of masculinity - holds is not a power of individual men (or at least, not most individual men - a few insane Republican senators and clothing company moguls seem to do alright). It's a power of the role of 'man'.

We are only empowered so long as we play the role that has been set out for us - a role, basically, of this poor guy (watch with sound). This is the reason why we can't - much as an increasing number of us would like to - snap our fingers and fix the patriarchal bias of society. It's the reason why each individual man who tries to do something different seems (and feels) so ineffectual and powerless.

The thing is, the power of the patriarchy is inertial. Very, very few people of either gender actually want this. But as long as it is hard to fight, individual steps taken to fight it will seem ineffectual. That doesn't mean they are. They add up, over time. Progress is made, however slowly. The desperate extremes of rape culture and the anti-abortion movement in the modern age are the signs of a fading memeplex.

More and more men are coming to understand that much of the problem is not the weakness of women but the weakness of men. Progress is not inevitable, but it does generally breed more progress. The braver we are, the more we seek to make the path easier for those behind us, the easier the path will become for us as well.

These are platitudes, in a way, but there are no easy answers. It's easy to say that we shouldn't let patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes go unchallenged, but much harder to challenge them, and even sometimes to spot them. It's easy to say that we should learn to not think of what the proverbial dog barks at as something we actually want, but harder to ignore it (not, of course, that one should necessarily ignore it all the time - just don't let yourself be ruled by errant, atavistic biology).

Be something more than the guy in the Fenton video. It's surprisingly liberating.

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