Girls! They do the…something…

So one of my good friends recently inspired me to write a post on feminism because he was drunk and Joss Whedon is awesome. It makes sense, I promise. Ok, maybe not that much. He gets it.

So, what about feminism? First of all, let’s define feminism, because it’s one of those special words that have multiple meanings and connotations depending on who you are and what you believe, like “gay,” “black,” “retarded,” or “communism” (don’t read too much into that grouping of words, although it’s a great example of combined connotations).

As an aside, I have a habit of defining terms before I discuss them, and it’s a habit I will probably do a lot. There’s a reason for this, and it has to do partly with my personality and partly due to the medium in which I am discussing topics. For the psychology fans out there (in case you didn’t already figure it out) my personality type strongly tests towards INTP. One of the key elements of that personality type is a tendency to be drawn towards complex systems and an obsession with being completely correct in thought and word. Granted, I’m not always successful, but it means I tend to try and establish a baseline of understanding before continuing towards any sort of analysis.

The limitations of the medium, specifically a blog, means that I’m not really having a discussion…I’m talking to myself, via paper, with the expectation that others will be able to translate those ideas into something they can understand regardless of who they are. This is, in many ways, much more difficult that a face-to-face conversation, as I cannot tailor my discussion to my audience and cannot answer questions until people start commenting. It has advantages, too; for example, I don’t have to worry about being interrupted and I can proofread my ridiculous ideas before committing to them, but overall it means I have to anticipate questions and answer them as I go.

This means I like to frame what I’m talking about from the get go. And in this case, I’m talking about feminism (although technically I’m 363 words in and haven’t actually said anything about feminism).

Feminism is a charged word. According to Google, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Wikipedia believes that “Feminism is a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women.” And by that definition feminism should be almost a no-brainer…who doesn’t want equality?

That’s great, but if you talk to different people you will get very different and very personalized versions of what they believe feminism to be, and much of it is negative. You’ll hear hushed (or not-so-hushed, depending on who you hang out with) discussions of “man haters” and “sexist, chauvinist pigs.” In fact, such discussions tend to arise regardless of your views towards feminism; pro-feminists (I’ll use pro- and anti- for lack of better terms) will nod and say “yup, men really are the problem, we need to fix them!” and anti-feminists will say something about “whining <individuals> that hate men for no reason” (I’m heavily paraphrasing here).

Feminism also tends to get confused with what I call “gender congruency”. In geometry, “congruence” is used to define two objects that are exactly the same shape and size (essentially). By gender congruency I mean that the genders are the same; in other words, there are no inherent differences between the sexes other than physical characteristics. In fact, this is often considered a feminist theory, but is distinctly different and I do not consider it a part of the greater theory of feminism, although I will touch on it a bit later.

In other words, “feminism” is a word more akin to “economics” than “Austrian school theory”. It’s a general area of study and has many facets as well as being under constant debate by those who study it or believe in it. The reason I spent so much time defining feminism is that I want to address multiple aspects of feminism, specifically the controversial ones, but I want to make sure that you, the reader, are on the same page in understanding that feminism is not a single, unified theory and that my use of it may not mesh with what you assume it means. So bear with me.

I’ll address man hating first. This, to me, is one of the biggest weaknesses behind the feminist movement, and it’s one of the most simple to identify. This is counter-productive, and creates nothing but resentment in both men and women who are exposed to it. If you consider yourself a feminist, and you think all your problems are because of men, stop. You’re a sexist and a hypocrite and nobody likes you except other sexist hypocrites. To be fair, this perception of feminists as man-haters is false for the majority of feminists (especially when you consider how many men are feminists) but if you do happen to have that viewpoint you are part of the problem.

Why is it such a big weakness? Because fundamentally feminism makes sense. Using the definitions I mentioned earlier there is absolutely no reason why women can’t be given equal rights and value to men, and in fact it is stranger to think that they wouldn’t be given that opportunity. Creating a gender war, whether real or perceived, only forces conflict in a movement that can only be “won” if all sides are on board. Feminists should be all about including men, especially if they believe men have more power than women, because that’s the only way you’re going to actually make change. Unless, of course, you just like having a persecution complex, in which case I again call you a hypocrite.

Another thing that can help feminism out is to stop taking things out of context to prove your point. Yes, there are many dumb people out there who will believe any sort of debunked nonsense, such as “people only use 10% of their brain” or “redheads (or blondes) are going extinct.” Things like “women make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes” may be technically true but it ignores the context, which is that a man and woman working the exact same job (with the same hours) are paid the same. Sure, you could argue that society has created a system where women are encouraged to work in lower paying jobs, that job wages are based on the “masculinity” (is that a thing that happens?) of a job, and that women are expected to take the lion’s share of child rearing…those are real things, but it paints a different picture than the implication that women are literally paid less than men, which is false.

I’ve mentioned it before but I’m fascinated by fallacies (*cough* and alliteration). My wall at work has a couple of jokes, a couple of pictures of stuff I like to do, and this poster of logical fallacies (which, incidentally, do not use the proper Latin terms, but nobody knows the Latin terms so I don’t use them). One of those fallacies, in the upper right, is the “fallacy fallacy.” This is a fallacy which believes that a particular idea or opinion is wrong because it’s based on faulty logic. This isn’t true; for example, if I believe the sky is blue because it is reflecting the ocean, that doesn’t mean the sky isn’t blue, only that I’m ignorant of the real reason (God made it blue, of course, because it matched His drapes in Heaven).

I bring it up because I don’t disagree with many of the points feminists make about equality in the workplace, I just disagree with the logic of how we got there. What’s the first step in problem solving? Defining the problem. And you can’t do that if you don’t have an understanding of what the problem actually is.

And here’s where people tend to fail with this step…the problem is not the symptom. In other words, 77 cents to the dollar isn’t the problem (and technically untrue), nor is sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace, nor is objectification of women in movies, etc. These are all symptoms, like a fever, rash, or swelling. We can treat symptoms all day, and sometimes they can have positive effects, but the problem still exists and isn’t going anywhere. And when we think the problem is fever, and we try to solve it by heating the person up and having them “sweat it out,” we may end up making the problem worse than when we started.

So what is the problem? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer. That’s because there are multiple problems and they all need their own solutions. It’s much easier to identify what the problem isn’t than what it is. If it were easy, smarter and more motivated individuals than me would have already fixed it.

I’ll take a shot at some of the problems, though, and relate them to my issues with feminism. First of all, let’s agree that people are different. I can guarantee that I am different from you in many ways. Your experiences, relationships, and conclusions based on your observations are different from mine. Therefore we see the world in different ways.

Second, let’s agree that people are the same. While counter-intuitive based on my previous statement, there are general trends between people that are consistent. For example, you and I both need to breath, eat food, drink water, and poop. While we may like different food and have different hygiene habits, ultimately these are shared human experiences. People, in general, have a lot in common, and stereotypes are often created when we notice these shared experiences and then lazily apply them to everyone or everyone that shares some characteristic we observed.

To understand feminism, it helps to understand the problem that feminism was trying to fix. I won’t go too much into the history, partially because this is already long and partially because it’s not women’s history month (rim shot). The short version is that women have basically been second-class citizens for most of civilized history in the majority of cultures, depending on your perspective on what makes someone worth more than someone else (I’ll get to that in a minute). Feminism was a reaction to changing cultural beliefs (pretty much the same that drove the civil rights movement regarding racism) and a desire to open up opportunities for women that they hadn’t had before. They perceived a massive inequality in the lives of men and women. Men were perceived as having massive amounts of choice in their lives and women were pretty much restricted to domestic life. We’ll ignore that men essentially faced the same restriction in reverse. We’ll also ignore that the degree of choice available was heavily influenced by socioeconomic status because the “American Dream” is the pauper-to-prince tale that drives much of our cultural beliefs. The members of the feminist movement ignored these things so it only makes sense to do the same in an analysis of the problem they were trying to fix.

Here’s the issue, and why I believe feminism gets such a bad rap today. Those things we ignored in the previous paragraph are still there, still unconsciously causing people to lash out at all the wrong things. In trying to push the idea that “women can do everything that men can do!” they continually reinforced two ideas that are actually counter to what they’re trying to achieve.

First, feminists have subconsciously been saying for years that men are better than women. It’s built into their core argument, and really shouldn’t be there. After all, if the problem is that women are being treated poorly because the things men do are great and the things women have been doing are less valuable, the only logical conclusion is that the men’s activities are more valuable than women’s activities (note that I’m referring to stereotypical “men’s” and “women’s” activities, not that these things are actually gender specific). If that is the case, many women’s resistance to feminism makes a lot more sense. What if they enjoy “women’s” activities? What if they’re proud of the things they do? Are they really less than men, and holding women back because of it? Of course not, but that’s the message they’re resisting, if only subconsciously.

Second, they’ve reinforced the idea that both women and men should not be happy with who they are. Women aren’t supposed to be satisfied with being women and men aren’t supposed to be satisfied being men. Women need to be strong, emotionally distant, self-reliant, independent, but still be sensitive, sexy, social, and able to take care of the home. Men need to be sensitive, sexy, social, and able to take care of the home, but also need to be strong, emotionally distant, self-reliant, and independent. Everyone needs to be able to do everything, or they aren’t good enough.

There’s been a lot of backlash to these ideas. Women complain about low self-esteem and feeling like they can’t do everything, and blame their issues on men for not picking up the slack, and men complain about feeling under attack and constantly under stress. We divide labor throughout society, and yet in personality and home life we want everyone to do everything. Why?

Now, before people get too offended, I’m not saying that the division I alluded to, or even the stereotypical one, is right for everybody. I’m lucky to have a wife that is great with power tools (although she occasionally terrifies me with them) and loves woodworking and is great at home repairs. I’m not, and if we relied on me for fixing things around the house it probably would have already fallen down. Does that make me less of a man? Wait, don’t answer that. But you get my point.

She’s also good with cooking and sewing, more typical “woman” jobs, whereas I am good with computers and debate, more in line with “man” jobs. Does that mean she needs to be better with electronics and arguing, and I should be learning how to cook and sew? Because my skills are “better” than her skills?

Of course not. But that’s often the message, and it frankly pisses people off, even if they don’t really know why. The hyper-masculinity and -femininity we’ve seen is, in my opinion, mostly a reaction to perceived threats towards things people value in themselves. You can tell me to develop my sensitive side until you’re blue in the face and I’ll still be the same person, just a little grumpier and no more sensitive. It’s not because I’m a man, or because I was abused as a child by parents who forced me to conform to stereotypes. It’s who I am as a person.

Which is what feminism should be about. Allowing people to be who they are as an individual, regardless of their gender. To stop judging women for not being “masculine” enough and stop judging men for being too “masculine.” In doing so you’re reinforcing the exact stereotypes you claim to want to eliminate. If there are systematic inequalities, sure, address them. But make sure it’s an actual inequality for two things that are otherwise equal and not telling the apple it’s being cheated and less valuable because it’s not more orange.

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