sexism or patriarchy?

September 17th, 2008  |  Published in Uncategorized

I’m terrified about the galvanization of power that could result this November.  If there’s one good thing about how candidates have been framed in this election, it’s that the response has become very clear and articulate.  The analysis that Rebecca Hyman applies to the election and the cultural back-and-forth about Palin, Clinton, and gender that has come with it in her article Sarah Palin and the Wrong Way to Battle Sexism is really good and it articulates why the calls and campaigns for tolerance in a community like Bloomington seem so weak-sauce.

There’s a big difference between identifying sexist acts and undermining patriarchy, the system of power and privilege that reinforces and grounds particular stories about how men and women should behave, how sex and gender should be expressed, about who is rational and who is emotional, who’s a “fighter” and who’s a “babe.” These narratives are refracted and reinforced by the media and by people speaking from podiums, most certainly, but they aren’t the work of a few bad eggs.

To equate feminism with the fight against “sexism” is to imply that the work of feminism is that of changing or eliminating those individuals who perpetrate these sexist acts. If we could just stop the Chris Matthewses and the Norman Mailers, the Maureen Dowds and the Phyllis Schlaflys, the story goes; if we could just get people to stop watching FOX News, or write another letter to MSNBC, then somehow, someday, women will be treated with respect. And it’s the idea that feminists focus on individuals, rather than systems of power, that grounds the conservative caricature of feminists as a cardigan-flapping bunch of prudes, censoring a couple of good fellows who were just making a joke.

If all it took to free women, or African-Americans, or immigrants, or the poor, from the stories that make them seem “different,” menacing, irrational and emotional was “recognition,” then feminists should be spending their money dropping educational pamphlets from the skies. But these ideas about masculinity and femininity, sexuality and race — ideas that make the joke of the New Yorker cover instantly comprehensible, no matter what you think of the joke — are entrenched and crucial to the ways we in America have made the world make sense.