Captain Patriarch & the Forces of Male Justice

A picture I found on the Net evoking (though drawn with more expertise and detail than) my "Captain Patriarch" character

A picture I found on the Net evoking (though drawn with more expertise and detail than) my Captain Patriarch character

I was one of the few male students at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo Michigan to choose to take “Status of Women” as one of my general studies classes. “You’re taking that?” was the reaction of most of my male student peers, but I must say there were at least a few other brave young men who attended as well. One of the key themes in the assigned reading was the idea of patriarchy as a social organizing principle and a key context for assessing the status of women in our society and others around the world. I was already familiar with the concept, from frequent “lectures” over my teenage years from my “Feminist Aunts”, particularly my mom’s dear friend Mary Jane (with her penchant for making up provocative words to humorously encapsulate topics where needed), who described the commoditization and male control of women’s sexuality and reproductive function as “patriarchal pimperialism”.

So based on this pedigree, and with enough ego still to try and show my professor and fellow students that I was no shrinking male violet in the world of “women’s studies” and feminism, I decided that for my final class project I would take on this concept of patriarchy and how it impacted me in my own life. Rather than write an essay, I decided on the outside-the-box approach of doing a comic strip, drawn with my own style of minimalist stick figures, and titled “Captain Patriarch and the Forces of Male Justice”. (Incidentally, I showed it later to my “Feminist Aunt” Mary Jane and she hooted with laughter, her eyes twinkled, and she indicated that her young apprentice had done well.)

The protagonist of the strip was a shy young man not unlike me trying to live his life, which included frequent encounters with his female peers who he was interested in as friends or even romantically in some instances. But my protagonist, “Zeke”, was always trailed by an apparition, a floating disembodied head with sort of a gnarly pirate/military look about it that called itself “Captain Patriarch”. Its self-stated job was to protect Zeke from inappropriate behavior by any of the women Zeke encountered. This included discouraging Zeke from having relationships with his female peers that were “just friends” and attempting to intimidate the women who might assert romantic interest towards Zeke, while urging him to be more macho and exhibit more stereotypical dominant-male behavior. When cajoled by the Captain to behave this way, the woman that Zeke was interested in was invariably scared off.

Years later, after Sally and I married and our kids were born; my thinking about patriarchy was rekindled by reading Riane Eisler’s book, The Chalice and the Blade. Based on Marija Gimbutas’ archeological research and Eisler’s own reading of biblical and more recent Western history, Eisler theorized that were two profoundly different ways that human societies were organized, which she called “dominator” and “partnership”.

The former (patriarchy by another name) was marked by hierarchy and male-dominance, using violence and coercion to maintain that pecking order. The latter was egalitarian and peaceful and featured more equal status between the sexes. Our contemporary culture was an uneasy amalgam of the two, with the dominator culture superimposed on top of more partnership cultural trends continually attempting to reassert themselves, exemplified by the rekindling of more egalitarian and democratic thinking during the Reformation and Enlightenment periods and the rise of feminism in more recent centuries.

Within Eisler’s historical context, I envisioned my own life’s work as challenging the premises and practice of patriarchy and promoting the egalitarian partnership model as the path forward for human evolution. As part of my volunteer work as a lay leader in my Unitarian-Universalist congregation, I was learning all sorts of advanced techniques (beyond the basic Roberts Rules) of egalitarian democratic process, including how to structure and facilitate various decision-making and information-exchanging meetings. I managed to use those facilitation skills in particular in my paying jobs in the corporate world with some success, and dedicated myself to promoting egalitarian practice (what Eisler would call “power with” rather than “power over”) in those work environments.

In terms of sharing these values with our kids, Sally and I tried to exemplify them daily by conducting our own relationship as a partnership between equals. We also tried to approach our parenting role from more of a facilitative (power with) than a directive (power over) relationship with our kids and their development. This in particular felt like uncharted territory since most of our parent peers, though otherwise politically and culturally “progressive” like us, often followed a more directive style of parenting, based on the more conventional wisdom.

Years later at a Unitarian-Universalist conference, Sally and I attended a workshop by Allan Johnson based on his book, The Gender Knot, where he laid out the fundamental aspects of the system of patriarchy. According to Johnson its defining elements include…

* Asserting the primacy of manhood and masculinity as most closely associated with being human while marginalizing womanhood and femininity as the “other”

* Characterizing men and women as opposites based on men’s “natural” aggressiveness, competitiveness and drive for dominance versus women’s “natural” tendency towards caring, cooperation and subordination

* Given these “natural” characteristics, social acceptance of anger, rage and toughness in men (but not in women) and caring, tenderness and vulnerability in women (but not in men)

* Belief in the core value of hierarchy, dominance and “power over” as the only alternative to chaos in all aspects of human existence, including economics, the expression of human emotions, and control of nature

* Perpetuating a cultural mythology (in popular culture, jokes and often apocryphal fables and stories) that promotes the high value of male courage in battle (and other situations where men use weapons or face violent opponents) and a male fear and/or hatred of things female or seen as feminine

Johnson asserts that these underlying elements of patriarchy don’t necessarily define what we think and do as individuals in society, but represents a context that we have to constantly deal with as we contemplate or take action. He also points out that men hold a position of privilege based on these elements even though they don’t necessarily feel privileged.

In my view, as with all forms of conventional wisdom, it is critical to consciously acknowledge patriarchy in all its societal expressions or risk unconsciously internalizing its premises and using them as the measure of right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure, natural and unnatural, etc. So as a parent then it is critical to also call out the aspects of patriarchy that your kids are likely to experience among their peers and in music, movies, TV (particularly the commercials) and other forms of popular culture.

When our kids were little, the explicit recognition of the power of patriarchy to define them led to our careful thought in choosing what clothing they would wear (before they were old enough to assert their own clothing preferences). We never dressed our daughter in skirts or dresses or any outfits including bows and other frills, and correspondingly with her brother Eric, never in clothing associated with military or rough sports like football. Further, we shared with them our reasoning on this once they were old enough to comprehend, while accepting that they should make their own choice of clothing (based on or in spite of our advice) once they were capable of doing so.

When they were older, Sally and I modeled the behavior of consistently (at times maybe even annoyingly) calling out patriarchal or sexist elements in the songs they were listening to or the TV shows they were watching (at least whenever we were in earshot). When they maybe encountered similar situations or issues in school environments or friends’ houses, their awareness would hopefully be heightened and they would consciously choose a course or opinion rather than unconsciously accept one.

There are of course no guarantees (nor should there be) that your kids will emerge into adulthood with the same set of values as you have. They may in fact adopt their parents’ valuing of individuality to then choose not to adopt other values of their parents. Our daughter Emma, for example, is much more inclined, at least at age 19, to wear makeup and dress in a much more traditionally feminine way than her mom ever would. Given that as her choice for how she looks, she is still assertive and would never play second fiddle to any male comrade.

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