Perpetuating Patriarchy

Toddler in StrollerSo how does a 5000 year old system of ranking and hierarchy with men inexorably at the top perpetuate itself through hundreds of generations and never get written off as archaic and crumble into the dust of history? Why was I so embarrassed in my late forties when I was deftly tossing a football with several slightly younger men (enjoying a moment of perhaps jocular camaraderie), who then threw it to my teenage son and were aghast when he threw it back to them, as it were, “like a girl”? What ancient warrior ethos had I violated in not properly training my son, an ethos that still somehow held sway somewhere in my subconscious? What gives this system its staying power, and does its longevity speak to its continuing merit?

After 54 years in this incarnation, growing up as a shy kid often afraid to fully be my self, my take is that the perpetuation of this system, which in my opinion is way past its “out date” is all about fear. Fear is one of the two great motivators in the world and the one that takes the lesser amount of courage to act upon. Its pervasiveness and power is what FDR was calling out in the height of the Great Depression when he said that there is “nothing to fear but fear itself”. I would say it comes from not being evolved enough to relax and try and understand things for what they truly are, an “unknowingness” that some scholars say is the original meaning of the word “sin”.

I believe fear is the basis of greed and materialism. We fear that there is not enough for everyone and that we must horde as much as one can for the survival of our selves and our own, however narrowly or broadly we define that group. The way that this and our other fears eat away at us also contributes by leading us to eat too much, buy too much, and otherwise attempt to medicate ourselves with tobacco, alcohol, other drugs, and excessive consumption generally to ease our fears.

Fear is also the motivator for racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other such creations of out-groups and “others” who endanger the privilege that we mostly cannot admit that we have. And coming out of these rankings, fear motivates violence in some, including from the in-groups trying to maintain their power and control (in a context of scarcity) and out-groups excluded from power and respect, struggling for such or at least to get revenge against “the man”. It’s a vicious cycle, with the presence of these violent groups on the periphery of hierarchical power motivating those within the hierarchy of power to protect themselves by their own sanctioned and proactive aggression and violence.

The other great motivator is love, which is the natural bond between parent and child, the earliest and most fundamental of human relations. Just as fear begets fear, love begets love, and I for one live in the continuing grace of the love that my parents bestowed on me as a young child, which has given me the strength to get through the tribulations I have encountered at points of my life after those first years. In as profound a statement as FDR’s on fear was the Beatles, “All you need is love”.

I am convinced that there is a complex mixture of love and fear woven in with elements of denial and settling for the path of least resistance that contribute to the survival and perpetuation of these ancient beliefs and protocols of patriarchy, at times seemingly as strong as ever, into even this new century. They are all tied up with fathers “giving away” their daughters and mothers pulling away from their sons so they don’t become “sissies”, as well as a host of other societal rituals.

It is stunning to me to hear even the most progressive parents convinced that boys wanting to play with guns (and turning Tinker Toys and even random sticks into weapons when the more explicit facsimiles are not available) is somehow a genetic trait of their maleness, and not socially constructed. What is that all about? In the urban environment I live in, more than 99% of the men you encounter are not carrying a weapon, yet it seems that the overwhelming majority of adult males in movies do? What is that all about?

And then what about this whole “sissy” thing? How many stories did I grow up with in movies and TV (our contemporary mythology) about boys who are bullied or accused of being soft or weak “wusses” (or worse) whose shy or nerdy dads must rise to this profound crisis, embrace their “real” manhood and teach their sons (but not so often their daughters) to fight back.

Ours is a culture that celebrates, even worships the “alpha” male champions on the sports field and cutthroat millionaires (including the ridiculously ego-involved Donald Trump) in the world of business. While we go gaga over these alpha type males and there stellar competitive abilities, it is a woman’s face and figure that command that similar level of star quality. (A comparably great looking young man without the alpha skill set is derided as a “boy toy”!) Women are one more trophy that men compete for, and a smart woman (or her father in more traditional societies) holds out for the best “catch” and the most competitive offer.

This is all tied up with the popular cultural mythology that stealthily perpetuates patriarchy, a society built around and championing men and all the qualities of “manliness” that they exhibit, with women playing the secondary role of motivator as the beautiful princess, the trophy wife, the loving and long-suffering mom, or the face that launches 1000 warships. And though it seems to be about the positive elements of success and beauty, does it really belie a fear-based mythology of avoiding being a sissy male or an ugly woman? Have these most sophomoric ridicules really driven the perpetuation of these ancient protocols through 50 centuries?

When exposed and called out, these beliefs and protocols of male supremacy stink like rotten carved pumpkins left out on the front porch too long after Halloween, yet somehow we ignore our noses and allow these “traditions” to persist, to be celebrated in our daily conversations and popular culture, and in many venues continue to thrive.

And how did it all get started? Whether or not you believe the genesis of the “dominator model” put forward by archeologist Marija Gimbutas as synthesized in Riane Eisler’s book, The Chalice and the Blade, at some point in its history, it looks like the human race’s natural inclination for love got overwhelmed by fear. In the presence of so much fear, the adaptable human animal developed a new defense mechanism, a sort of original “martial law” or “circling the wagons”, where the strongest and most aggressive would be ceded the lion share of power to protect the rest of their clan from what was, or was at least perceived, as an increasingly dangerous world.

Caught up and overwhelmed by the power of fear, or maybe just giving in to the path of least resistance, each generation passed this “martial law” on to the next by transmitting it with fear mixed with the more natural love for ones progeny. After many generations these strategies for transmission became normalized, even seemingly trivialized to the tale of the 98 pound male weakling who has the buff bully kick sand in his face at the beach and then walk off with his girlfriend to boot, but still carrying the force of profound fear from the distant past.

Given this context, Allan Johnson says in his book The Gender Knot, that, “Men must be aggressive and develop a capacity for violence in order to defend society and family.” Since I am convinced that the natural relationship between parent and child is one of love, this fear-based training of sons to be aggressive was originally done in what was felt to be a context of love, “tough love”, the only form of love that could protect the succeeding generations going forward from the fears generated in a context of scarcity.

At some points in history the fear and danger was probably real. But this system of “martial law” passed on from one generation of fathers to the next at some point became no longer necessary, yet the mechanisms of fear used for its transmission were so powerful that the fear was internalized in the subconscious to the point of seeming natural. The system developed a nearly unstoppable logic, momentum and according to Johnson, “Perhaps the bedrock of patriarchal ideology is the belief that it is necessary, socially desirable, and rooted in a universal sense of tradition and history.”

I for one am convinced that patriarchy is not!

But every day I notice the little things that perpetuate this ancient ethos. Adults roughhousing with little toddler boys while cooing at the little girls. Men and women gravitating to separate rooms at a party. Seemingly knowing pronouncements made that “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls”, with smiles of agreement from others. Celebration of developmental rituals that turn “boys into men”, and others that maintain women as “girls”.

If you agree with me that developmentally, the human race is ready to be done with this archaic system, seemingly burned into our psyches and maybe even our DNA, then the very challenging question is how… and that’s another post for another day.

I continue this thread with “Challenging Patriarchy”.

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