Patriarchy in the U.S.
The U.S. is a patriarchal culture which means that more than women, men are regarded as being the leaders and heads of family, state, government, etc. It’s not to say there aren’t women in these positions, it’s to say that the norm of leadership in our country has historically been dominated by males until the present day. For example, our country has never had a female president. The symbol of a “strong” male Caucasian figure in a suit and tie has represented the leadership of the country until Obama was elected. Males in associated with positions of power continue to be the symbol/image that comes to mind of Americans when thinking about leadership in general.
When we think about men, we often think about stereotypical associations of masculinity. In our culture, we define masculinity as being tough, strong, stoic, independent, etc. We learn at a very young age that women are “the weaker” sex and that usually women behave in a way that is opposite of men. It’s normal and acceptable then for a woman to be emotional, needy, weak, and dependent. If women are the opposite than men, then the logic that women shouldn’t or don’t deserve the same opportunities that are afforded to men makes sense. It’s under these assumptions and premises that gender, race, and most differences are constructed in the United States.
Oppression and Science
Some people argue that women are inherently (naturally through biology and genetics) the “weaker” sex and that by birth, not through culture, women behave in what we consider a “feminine” way. This is a controversial issue. We don’t know for sure up to what extent biology or society influence people’s behavior. What we do know is that it’s NOT all about biology, but the society in which we grow determines a great deal about the way we are expected to behave, and then end up fulfilling that prophecy.
In order to understand why domestic violence occurs, it’s important to understand that there are strong arguments supporting that the culture in which we live exaggerates the natural differences between men and women. Ultimately, we end up having a very limited idea of what is acceptable behavior for men and for women. For example, men are raised thinking that if they cry, they are being emotional like a female and so they learn to suppress their feelings. Biology may account for women being more emotional than men. But culture is responsible for teaching men that they cannot be in touch with their emotions and be masculine at the same time when expressing and feeling emotions is a very human and healthy experience.
In this confusion, many people end up believing that people behave the way they do strictly due to biological factors, and since behavior is something that is determined by DNA, there is no way to change it. “I’m a man, so I watch porn sometimes,” a client recently told me. The client was insinuating that since he was biologically born as male, his choice to watch pornography was expected, acceptable, and justified. This is a dangerous mentality since it’s the foundation to justify violence against women, other forms of discrimination against women, and other unacceptable behaviors.
Historically, “inherent behavior” has been used to justify barbarous crimes. Hitler executed millions of Jews, Romanians, homosexuals, and anyone else that didn’t fit his ideas of perfection. Hitler justified genocide because these individuals weren’t part of the pure, superior, Aryan race. He argued that other races were mixes, un-pure, and therefore inferior.
In 1883, Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, coins the term “eugenics,” meaning “good genes,” to emphasize heredity as the cause of all human behavioral and cultural differences. Eugenecists advocate selective breeding to engineer the “ideal” society. Their writings find a receptive audience among white intellectuals in the early 20th century and profoundly influence many aspects of American life, including immigration policy, anti-miscegenation laws, involuntary sterilization, and schooling. Although the American eugenics movement collapses by World War II, its effect on institutions and social police is long-lasting, finding its fruition in Nazi Germany. (As cited in Race, 2003).
Eugenics was still in U.S. textbooks as recent as the 1970s. This logic was in the imagination of a countless number of Americans, and widespread discrimination of minority groups from different races was justified through science.
In the U.S., men are part of the sex that has historically been more successful. They make more money, they hold more positions of power, they have more authority in the home and in the workplace, and they relatively have more advantages than women. In the media, men are more respected than women. Children exposed to these ideas internalize them at an early age understand what the rest of our culture believes: Men are respectable and powerful and women are reduced to sexual objects, unimportant, weak, etc.
Since men are the sex that is associated with power, women have eventually learned that they live in a man’s world and that in order to succeed and/or survive, they must adopt the ideas and/or behavior of men. Women have learned to abandon behaviors associated with femininity because it hasn’t worked for them. For women to break through spaces dominated by men such as in the legal system, the government, the business world, etc. they have had to assimilate. Femininity is changing and women have more opportunities than they have in our recent history but we still have not reached equality. Women still have to go out of their way to redefine themselves, change who they are and fit into spaces that weren’t created for them.
In our culture, we are taught that men are strong and men express their strength by being stoic (non-expressive), independent, hard, ambitious, physical, etc. Some women have adopted this idea of strength. In order to be successful, the modern woman may struggle with balancing her “feminine” side with her “masculine” side. How can you be loving and emotional when you have to be “strong”?
It is possible that these women didn’t learn from their female role models to balance both sides while they were raised because their mothers were raised in a different time when being “feminine” had a different meaning. Those mothers were raised by other mothers who grew up in a completely different era. The female gender is thus in transition and changing. Genders change throughout time. This is why gender can’t be explained in purely biological terms. They change with the cultural environment.
What many women fail to realize is that they don’t have to adopt the male, culturally prescribed idea of strength. Women can continue being strong and emotional at the same time. Countless amounts of women after having been abused by their intimate partners have told me crying, “I thought I was stronger than this” or “I’m usually very strong” and they go on to express shame and embarrassment for having to come to receive the services provided at our agency. The majority are U.S. raised women who were raised to believe in the black and white version of strength and weakness. They believe you can only be one or the other. I’m saddened by this restrictive, limiting idea of the so complex experience of being a person.
“Pain is weakness leaving the body” says a popular quote. According to the quote, to experience pain is to be weak; therefore to experience pain is the opposite of strength. The idea is that if a person is strong, they won’t have weaknesses, they won’t be vulnerable, they’ll never fail, they won’t have feelings, and they’ll be ok with everything that happens around them at all times.
This idea is virtually un-human. The expectation is to be a rock, or a piece of wood that has no feelings since it ultimately denies the human experience. This idea is unrealistic. We prescribe to unrealistic ideas such as this and then expect this of ourselves. We will fail ourselves each time. We will beat ourselves up about it every time we have a human experience. We will celebrate our victories and the times we can suppress our feelings to escape the weakness.
What happens if we change our ideas of strength? What if we start celebrating in the media men that cry? Sure there are men in the media currently that can cry openly, but this is only when the man has asserted his image as a “macho” man; otherwise, he is labeled a “pussy”, a “pansy”, or a “fag” (interestingly all related to femininity, the less advantaged sex). In tabloids, instead of talking about what women are wearing or how they looked, what if we started talking about what they think?
What if we start accepting humanity as it normally exists? Everyone, including the “strongest” man in the world experiences feelings (happiness as well as sadness). Everyone has the potential to fall in love, to be disappointed, to be hurt, to not accomplish their goals, to be vulnerable, etc. Why hate ourselves for this? It is the denial of who we really are and what we’re really like.
Women are currently exposed to millions of advertisements of what they should look like: skinny, tall, proportionate, long haired (preferably blonde), big breasted, big behind, flawless skin, etc. These images are unrealistic. The very models that are shown don’t even look like that. The images are photo-shopped, digitally altered, manipulated, and etc. They are distorted perceptions of what humanity really is and that’s what our women grow up thinking that they should/have to look like.
“While the vast majority of images of women are being digitally altered, so are our perceptions of normal, healthy, beautiful and attainable” (Beauty, 2011).
We have ideas of expectations that are unattainable. It means we can never be or look that way. And how do we treat ourselves because we can’t ever be those things? It affects our self-esteem, but for corporate giants and Hollywood, it brings an endless supply of money. We spend our life trying to buy and be something we can never be. This is how we internalize self-hate.
Low self-esteem and depression is a serious national problem and it’s not an accident. Twice as many women as men experience depression. The anti-depressant pharmaceutical companies are booming. As women we need to start doing ourselves favors and paying attention to the expectations we have of ourselves that are unrealistic. We have to start paying attention to our denial of what we really are and start accepting that it’s ok with who we are right at this very moment. It’s ok to redefine culture. It’s ok to redefine our ideas of what we want to be and it doesn’t have to be an adaptation of anyone else’s ideas. It’s not our fault either. We exist in a cultural context that has set us up to be victimized and ultimately oppressed. We can still take full responsibility for our lives and empower ourselves.
Beauty redefined (Nov. 30, 2011). Photoshopping: altering our images and our minds. http://www.beautyredefined.net/photoshopping-altering-images-and-our-minds/
Katz, J. (1999). Tough guise: violence, media, and the crisis in masculinity. Media education foundation.
Kimmel, M. (2008). Mars, venus, or planet earth? Women and men in a new millennium. Media education foundation.
Race: the power of an illusion (2003). California newsreel. http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_03_h-godeeper.htm
Wood, J. T. (2010). Gendered lives: communication, gender, and culture. 9th edition. Wadsworth publishing.