Monday, May 07, 2012

Girl World: The ignorance and oppression of female culture

This cartoon by Eleanor Davis makes me sad. The first panel is sad and it just gets worse with each panel after it. It's especially miserable to me, because I'm reading it at a time that I'm just starting to realize how different my world is from a lot of the women I share it with.

I didn't grow up around many women. We adopted my sister when I was starting my teenage years, but my entire childhood was spent with two brothers. Girls and women were a mystery to me and it wasn't until college that I started making friends with women and realized that they were pretty cool and that, generally speaking, I  actually preferred their company to guys.

A large part of the reason for that was simply that they were different. Having spent my entire life with boys up to then, I loved the change. I was fascinated by the insight of getting to know women and learning about their culture.

I know it sounds very anthropological (gynopological?), but that's not how I saw it at the time. I wasn't overthinking it then; it's only recently that I've been questioning my relationship with and attitudes about the female gender and where those things began. Back in the day, I was just, "Hey, cool! Girls!" But now I'm realizing that women do indeed have a different culture when they're by themselves. I just haven't recognized it.

There are a couple of reasons for my ignorance and I'll start with the most personally damning one: I'm a man in a traditionally patriarchal culture and that means that I've been privileged enough not to have to think about these things. I've been able to live successfully under the assumption that my culture is not just the dominant one, but really the only one. That men and women share a culture and that their experiences in that culture are more or less the same. I've always known that women have it tougher than men, but I never grasped the idea that the way they experience the world is fundamentally different from the way I do.

That's related to the other reason I've never thought about this. Since my gender has traditionally controlled the way the world is presented through media, my ignorance has never been challenged. Until just recently.

Since I've been married (15 years next month!), I haven't had a lot of opportunity to just hang out with groups of women. I have male friends I hang out with and my family and I do a lot with other couples and families, but the only view I currently have into female culture is through stuff like Sex and the City, Bridesmaids, or the recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour where Linda Holmes kicked out the boys for a week to bring in Parul Sehgal, Barrie Hardymon, and Tanya Ballard Brown. I kind of crave that.

It's Linda Holmes who's mostly responsible for pulling off my blindfold. In talking about things like Bridesmaids, she often mentions how refreshing it is to watch women on a screen talking the way that she and her friends talk when there are no guys around. She's not the first person who's mentioned that, but she says it consistently enough that it's finally sunk in. I've never stopped long enough to consider what it might be like to so rarely see yourself in movies and TV shows.

What's most disturbing though is the way my (that is, male) culture not only ignores female culture, but actively oppresses it. One example is offered by psychology professor Richard Beck, a Christian of the best possible kind who frequently blogs about theological and social issues and how they intersect with psychology. In a post on the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, Beck explains that "while most males fantasize about having sex with the Whore - the sexually uninhibited and insatiable female - they don't want to be married to such a woman. When it comes to marriage men want the Madonna, the virginal and faithful bride." He then goes on to observe that "in point of fact, women aren't very much like whores at all," observing that for prostitutes, their vocation is about economics and not sexual insatiability.

The actual origin of the insatiable whore idea is horrifying:
It is a product of Freudian projection. Throughout history, religiously conservative males have had to confront one of the greatest sources of their moral failure: the male libido. The male libido - the fact that men are sluts - is a sore spot of any male community wanting to pursue purity and holiness. And what has happened, by and large, is that rather than admit that males struggle mightily in the sexual realm, males have externalized the blame and projected their libido onto women. Rather than blaming themselves for sexual sin males have, throughout history, blamed women for being temptresses. The Whore was created to be the scapegoat to preserve male self-righteousness. Rather than turning inward, in personal and collective repentance, men could blame women, blame the whores, for their sexual and moral failures. It's not our fault, the men say, it's the whore's fault. 
Courtney Stoker offers another example of male culture's oppression of female culture: the objectification of women in geek society, particularly when it comes to cosplay. Stoker's talk is fascinating, especially because she brings in the observation that women often objectify themselves in their choice of costumes and the way they pose while wearing them. However, she argues that men aren't completely off the hook for that: of the reasons geek women seek the approval of geek men is that geek men have positions of power and privilege in both geek industries and in geek fan communities. While women understand that sexy cosplay won’t get them respect, per se, they also know that it is most likely to get them positive attention, recognition, and limited acceptance in geek communities. Women who do not or cannot seek sexual approval from the male geek community are more likely to be ignored, derided, or dismissed.
That's a simplified argument, of course. There are as many reasons for a woman to dress sexily as there are women who do it. But it does highlight the indisputable and unignorable fact that women are rewarded with attention by presenting themselves as sexually approachable. Because for too many men, that's the beginning and end of their interest in women. That's a terrible thought when men are the ones with the power. It's easy to see how it leads to the kind of thinking by some women that's illustrated in Eleanor Davis' cartoon.

Fortunately, the world is changing. Less and less women are willing to be have their culture ignored and oppressed, while more and more men are becoming eager to learn about and from women so that the two genders can become equal partners in directing the human race from here on. There's still a long way to go though and a lot of work to do, but it begins with more men realizing that there's a problem.


Black Vulmea said...

Well said.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I am instinctively drawn to strong women in my entertainment choices which I just wrote about myself. That is because all the women in my life are lionesses. I am just comfortable with killer instincts in my corner.

Kelly Sedinger said...

I find myself thinking about these kinds of issues a lot, myself. They were always bubbling under my surface when I was recently writing the first draft of a novel whose main characters are all female.

Michael May said...

I've been following your novel's progress on your blog, Kelly. Very excited to read that when you're done.


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