From March 2010
Jonah Goldberg has a piece this morning with the whoppingly patronizing title “Where Feminists Get it Right.” (Don’t get excited, folks. Hell remains unfrozen.) Jonah concludes his piece, which largely focuses on the now-familiar yet ever-depressing litany of abuses against women in the less-developed world, with this gem:
Women civilize men. As a general rule, men will only be as civilized as female expectations and demands will allow. “Liberate” men from those expectations, and “Lord of the Flies” logic kicks in. Liberate women from this barbarism, and male decency will soon follow.
Give Jonah credit. He’s not blaming women directly for their failure to civilize men. Rather, he’s blaming certain cultures that fail to give women sufficient authority with which to do their civilizing. But that doesn’t change the basic problem in his argument, based as it is on pseudo-science, Victorian sentimentality about women’s “nature”, and a William Golding novel about pre-pubescent boys.
As I sigh at Goldberg’s piece, I think about an email I got from my friend Emily. She recounts a Facebook exchange she had with a female friend of hers, a fellow Christian. Em’s friend posted on her status update that she was “really disappointed w/the female human species.” When Em inquired why, and whether her friend was also disappointed in men, she got this response:
It appears as if men are weaker when it comes to sex, money, power. With that I am realizing that it is the women that should be held at a higher standard because we need to set the tone for our weak counterparts. If women looked at themselves as holy temples and didn’t allow anything less than excellence this may force men to step up their integrity and priorities…
We could go through the gospels, pointing out over and over again the places where Jesus demands that men show self-restraint comparable to that demanded by women. But I’m not just interested in responding to a fellow Christian. Rather, what concerns me here is one of the most troubling aspects of the myth of male weakness: it creates an atmosphere in which both men and women feel justified in policing other women’s behavior.
If men cannot control themselves, and women can, then it is (as Emily’s friend suggests) women’s task to set the limits for men which men cannot set for themselves. All bad male behavior, it quickly follows, is invariably a woman’s fault. We’re all familiar with the loathsome notion that a cheating husband or boyfriend deserves less ire than the woman with whom he cheated. (The “he couldn’t help it, but she ought to have known better because she’s a woman” theory). The end result is a culture of mistrust and hostility among women.
A great many of the young women I work with claim to have trouble liking other women. Call it the “most of my good friends are guys” phenomenon, which is sufficiently common as to merit a word other than “phenomenon”. Many young women — even in feminist spaces — will list the countless ways in which they have felt judged, policed, or betrayed by other women. Many will say things like “I expect men to let me down. But when a woman hurts you, it’s worse because she doesn’t have an excuse.”
The point that feminists try and make in these discussions is that the myth of male weakness is at the very root of this internalized misogyny. The logic is inescapable. The less self-control women believe men have, the less they hold men responsible. The less they hold men responsible, the more responsibility they ascribe to themselves and to other women. The less they believe in men’s capacity to self-regulate, the more hostile they are trained to become to any woman who seems unwilling to engage in the rituals of female self-policing. At its most extreme, every mini-skirt becomes not only a threat to the fragile order women have established for mutual protection, it is perceived as an act of both betrayal and hostility towards one’s sisters. The hisses of “slut”, “whore”, and “bitch” soon follow.
We often refer to men as “dogs”. It’s not really an insult. Rather, it’s a artful way of excusing bad male behavior. We don’t rage at a puppy for piddling on the floor, or chewing up our favorite shoes. The dog is doing what its biology intended it to do — and that biology trumps its will to please. To call men dogs is to invite us to view them indulgently, as well-meaning creatures ultimately incapable of thoughtful self-regulation. But while men have the excuse of being, alas, too much at the mercy of their impulses, we don’t grant women this same good-natured toleration. Women who “slip up”, or who “tempt” men to slip up, do so consciously, with malice, and — we believe — the capacity to do otherwise. Our vituperation for these sorts of women is rarely restrained.
Are men responsible for the fragility of female friendships? Individually, perhaps not; collectively, yes. To the extent that we outsource our self-control to women, we make it impossible for women to do anything but police each other. When we insist that testosterone or Y chromosomes trump our self-control, we divert blame for rape and abuse and infidelity from where it rightly belongs. Men’s fear of women’s anger (a subject I’ve written about before) dovetails nicely with the myth of male weakness. By insisting that we can’t help what we do, we suggest that our wives and mothers and girlfriends direct their rage towards the women who tempted us, who “made us fall.” We get to dodge accountability,and we get the added special bonus that we increase women’s suspicion of other women.
It is nearly axiomatic that women who have strong relationships with other women will be less likely to stay in abusive relationships with men. Women’s solidarity with other women is a prerequisite for feminism and for the transformation of the social order. This doesn’t mean that the provision of justice is solely a woman’s job. But it does mean that men’s capacity to continue to exploit and abuse women hinges on women’s difficulty in standing united against the myth of male weakness. Though few individual men are conscious of it, the principle of “divide and conquer” plays to men’s advantage here. And it is our collective belief that women are the more responsible sex, the less libidinous sex, the less rage-filled sex, that is at the root of so much intra-female hostility — and at the root of so much male privilege.