Thursday, September 08, 2011

Book Review - The Gender Knot

Gender studies aren't an issue that's generally towards the top of my list of interests, but the recent Elevatorgate made me stand up and take notice. In fact, the response outright pissed me off.

But I suppose I'm weird in a sense. When I get pissed off on a topic I don't know much about, I don't immediately start ranting, I try to get educated and make sure I'm justified in my anger. Odd concept. I know.

This is a subject that I wouldn't know exactly where to start on by myself. Fortunately, my sister happens to be a Women and Genders Study major and has a shelf full of her textbooks from previous semesters. I looked at a few of them, and eventually decided on (with her recommendation) The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy.

Quick warning: Because this is such a novel topic to me (and likely many of my readers), this is going to be a LONG summary/review since there's little I can take for granted here.

The book immediately starts off highlighting, briefly, the gender disparity faced by men and women in the workplace through an activity that's apparently used in gender workshops. In it, both genders are asked to make a list of both the positive and negative things they face in their job as a result of their gender. When this occurs, men easily make long lists of positives, women are forced to make lengthy lists of negatives. Immediately, this should signal a problem.

But what, exactly, is the problem and what's the cause of it? That's the true focus of the book and as the subtitle indicates, the author proposes it's due to the fact that we're a patriarchal society.

This argument is all contained in the very beginning of the book, but unfortunately, from there, the writing turns into a complete mess. The book is divided into three sections. The first is meant to define a patriarchy and explore its characteristics; the second, to explore why we're so mired in it; and the third, to explain how we can change things for the better.

While taken in a broad context, each section achieves that goal reasonably well, the trouble comes by the individual chapters and sub sections which have next to no cohesive form. The narrative jumps from topic to topic without much, if any connection. This may be why the writing often feels exceptionally redundant. I lost track of how many times the author noted the use of words associated with females, such as "bitch", "cunt", and "pussy" as pejoratives, while male traits, such as "growing balls" or "manning up" were always considered positively. Thanks. I got it. You didn't need to mention it every few pages. Nor mention a few times in every chapter that we don't perceive a system that we're part of because it's simply "normal" to us. Got that too.

There's also some just outright stupid comments in the book. At one point Johnson claims that he knows movements pushing for gender equality must be right because they provoke such a strong backlash and criticism. This is about as intelligent as Creationists claiming that they know they must be right because evolutionists fight them so hard. Creationists (and apparently Johnson) forget that being absolutely dead wrong is another good reason for a fierce response. This is not to say I disagree with what most of what Johnson says, but such a rudimentary logical flaw doesn't inspire confidence.

Because of the lack of cohesion, I'm not going to bother to say much on the sub sections individually, but rather, what things I learned from the larger sections as a whole or even tossed together. After all, I can't much remember what came where; the writing is just too jumbled and redundant.

The first major section was, as I stated, about what a patriarchy is and what its characteristics are.

Johnson defines a patriarchy as having three main traits. That is, it must be male dominated, male identified, and male centered.

Male dominated means that positions of power are dominated by males. This is not to say exclusively held by them, but that women entering these roles are exceptions. It doesn't take much to realize that this defines out culture pretty well.

Male identified means that positive traits are associated with males. This is highlighted by the example I gave above. Another important way it is realized is the way that women entering the male dominated fields are expected to act like "one of the guys" and adapt male traits.

At this point, I think the author toes the line of some pretty significant double think. Later on, he argues that what we consider to be "male" or "female" traits are anything but. We generally consider males to be the more aggressive, or dominant sex whereas females are supposedly passive. Yet both genders play both roles; a male will be submissive in front of a superior; a woman will be dominant when it comes to her children. Thus, the notion of gender characteristics has some serious flaws and in most cases doesn't make sense. As such, we peel away that layer and one would think that you can't identify traits that are inherent in both genders as particular to one.

But as Doctor Horrible once noted, "And sometimes there's a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Like with pie."

I think that's true here, which is what prevents the argument from truly falling apart: It doesn't matter if these gender roles are generally ambiguous - So long as people perceive such roles as existing, and identify the "good" ones as "male", then we're a male identified society.

Male centeredness is precisely what it sounds like: Our society pays special attention to males and what they do. This is highlighted, somewhat humorously, with a review of Oscar winning movies between 1965 and 2003, in which the vast majority featured male protagonists (only 4 featured females as the main character, and two of those were deemed trivial because they were musicals). Not mentioned in the book, but something I would add, is the Bechdel Test which analyzes whether movies have two female characters that talk to each other about something other than boys. It's staggering just how many fail.

This covers the first 11 pages of the book, and after this, it's where it starts to break down. Much of the next 110+ pages of this section is meant to help establish that we do indeed live in a patriarchal system. That system is both formed by individuals, and influences individual actions. This part I think is good: It shows how we often don't perceive our society as a patriarchy because we're so locked into it. We don't see the actions that lower the status of women as harmful because that's just the way things are. Additionally, by refusing to recognize these facts, we, unwittingly, perpetuate the problem; by not objecting to sexist jokes, we mark them as socially admissible. Additionally, the attempts we do make to stem this flow of sexism are often little more than topological. We attempt to look at individual actions (there's a good section in here on how this applies to violence on women) as the problem, and ignore the larger implications of how the patriarchal system allows for such things in the first place.

So why do I say this is where things break down? Because many of these topics are better suited (and somewhat repeated) in the next section on how we're stuck in this system. There's a division drawn between these two sections, but much of the material is interchangeable, scattered here and there.

Another topic that comes up in this section is why we exist in a patriarchy at all. The answer is not clear at all. A strong answer to this question would include how it originated and perpetuated, but the author even admits to skipping over origins. There is some good discussion on how the patriarchy evolved after the industrial revolution (I'll say more on this in a moment), but for the most part, the actual topic the author actually seems to cover is a more thorough look at some of the characteristics of a patriarchy.

One of the main ones the author touches on is control. The author asserts that men are simply control freaks (again, toeing the line of throwing gender roles around). This touches on the topic of why the patriarchy exists because it is woven into a narrative of how a patriarchy could have developed as we developed agriculture and herding: Johnson supposes that as we disconnected from nature, setting ourselves up as able to control it, we lost sight of the interconnectedness of it. He presumes that men became drunk off the power of this and then began to see themselves as having "power over" everything, including women and their productive capabilities. I don't find this scenario entirely unplausible, but there's no evidence to support it as being true either.

What bothered me, however, about this claim was where the author went from there. I'll quote Emperor Palpatine here who claimed, "All who gain power are afraid to lose it." Johnson makes the same claim, stating that the fear of losing their power over women and everything else, is the prime force for the perpetuation of the patriarchy. Yet he frequently claims that we're so lost in the patriarchal system that men don't recognize they have such power and privilege. How can one be afraid to lose something they don't even know they have? Johnson makes no attempt to even consider this question and offers absolutely no evidence to support his "fear" hypothesis. Such pivotal things often go unsupported and uncited.

A related example of this is the claim that homosexuality is vilified because it threatens to upset the patriarchal order and men fear this since they have so much to lose. Yet if this were true, then women should support homosexuality, since they, conversely, have so much to gain. Yet this is obviously not true and Johnson doesn't bother to explore this or make any effort of support. Such "hit and run" statements without sticking around to look at the conclusions reminds me of something Richard Feynmann said at a commencement speech in 1974, where he speaks of
a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
The lack of such "utter honesty" greatly discouraged my appreciation of this book.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think, in this section, about another place in where I repeatedly heard the term "power over" used. It was in Gregory Boyd's book, Myth of a Christian Nation in which he noted that the right wing that sought to declare the US as a "Christian Nation" sought to spread their religion by forcing it onto others, and exerting "power over" them. The connection between religion and patriarchy isn't lost here (an issue I'll return to later).

Where the fear does come into play that Johnson explores in exhausting depth, is how men are afraid of losing the status they do realize, namely, their manliness. This goes back to the male identification discussed earlier, in which men are constantly having to show off their manliness to affirm their masculinity. This drives them to delve deeply into "manly" topics of sports, sex, and the like, which helps to reaffirm the gender roles and deepen the ruts in the patriarchal road.

I promised to say more about the bit on the industrial revolution transforming the patriarchy. When I initially discussed Elevatorgate with my sister, she wasn't at all surprised at the reaction of the general population and fired back with a claim that made me think she was downright crazy. She stated that sexism hasn't gotten better. It's actually worse than ever. Thinking of the women's rights movement which at least won women the right at least be legally permitted to hold any job awarding financial independence (even if not yet realized in practice), I couldn't see how this made any sense. But what the portion on the effect of the industrial revolution made me realize was that I was thinking too narrowly.

The idea is this: Prior to the industrial revolution, the labor performed by men and women wasn't readily distinguishable (in general cases. This obviously breaks down for the wealthy). Both sexes worked around the house. Both would help in the fields. Both would help with raising children, even if the specifics of each were different. Largely, the work was split, and fair credit was given to women, even if the man was still the "head" of the house. Men at least realized the interconnectedness. (At this point, I'm again connecting to things in the second section on why the system is perpetuated, but this topic bridges both sections well).

What happened in the industrial revolution is that work stopped being something that was done at home and in one's own fields. It was done elsewhere, in a factory. Thus one member had to leave the home to go there. Being that a patriarchy already existed, men were selected. But what drove this to cause the deep issue was that in this new society, worth wasn't measured by amount of work, it was measured in a new manner: By money. And men had it all. For the first time in history, the contributions of women, which still existed, were hidden from view, because they had no monetary value by which to measure it. As such, the respect women did have, vanished entirely and they became viewed as nothing more than a bunch of moochers.

In that respect, the gains women have made in the past ~50 years, has only served to help make up some of this ground. But because women on average, still can't compete with men financially (see: here for a recent example of this), the work they contribute isn't recognized, where as, prior to the industrial revolution, Johnson claims it was to a greater extent.

I haven't looked much into sexism prior to the industrial revolution to make an independent analysis of this and gut feeling tells me Johnson is overstating the view of women historically, but the point is an interesting one.

One of the best chapters in the first part, is on feminists and feminism. It began by looking at several stereotypes of feminism (that they're anti-family, no fun, male bashers, whiny pseudo-victims and all lesbians), and dismissed each one in turn. Not especially exciting, but I suppose that feminism has gotten such a bad rap, that it might be necessary to dispel such myths for some.

The interesting part was Johnson's discussion on some of the branches of feminism: liberal, radical, and Marxist. The first espoused that sexism was a product of miseducation and that all that needed to be done to fix it was get people a proper education. Radical feminism, as Johnson defines it, is the idea that you can't fix the problem by simply changing the people in the system, but rather, the system itself needed to be changed. In effect, that the entire male standard, our tiered system of government (based on power and control) and everything else that was male identified needed to be removed since such systems were inherently male biased and would only perpetuate the system which, in turn, influences the people in it. Marxist feminism laid the issues of sexism at the feet of unequal wealth, and claimed that if this could be fixed, equality would be reached.

It's interesting to reflect where I would stand in such a position. I'm very big on education being a driving force for change. In that sense, I identify with the liberal feminism. Yet I have to agree with the radical position that things won't change as long as the roots of the system are in place. However, this is again, where I start having a major issue with how gender labels become tossed around.

I understand our government is centered on powerful individuals, presidents, congressmen/women, supreme court justices, and the like, I don't buy that this is necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with power when used appropriately. If such positions were held by the most qualified, educated people, as opposed to career politicians and cronies, I can't find any fault with this. However, because such a system is associated with "male" traits, it comes under what I would consider, criticism for all the wrong reasons. It's attacked for being "male" as opposed to being corrupted by ideological idiots.

Another interesting aspect of this section, was the (briefly touched upon) interactions between the various camps. It resounded strongly of the "accommodationists vs. Gnus" fight in the skeptic movement. Jen McCreight and Rebecca Watson (I never realized until just now that typing "Rebecca" feels like typing "Chewbacca". Oh, the weird things I think of. Perhaps I need to sleep more) have both argued that skeptics should be natural allies with feminists since both suffer at the hands of religious oppression. Such parallels only underscore that connection.

So why does this system of inequality keep going? As I touched on earlier, it's because it's so "normal" to us, that it's effectively invisible. I've already provided examples of how it is written into our language. Another point Johnson makes is that women too go along with the system because it's simply easiest to do so. Fighting it requires great effort and often, personal sacrifice.

In many ways, we also disguise the problem by making it someone else's problem. It's not the problem of the oppressor, it's a "woman's issue" and even acknowledging that it exists is a kindness. But it's not something that males need to fix with themselves. A key example of this is how in sexual assault, the victim is often blamed. The "solution" is to warn women on walking alone at night, or providing mixed messages. Yet we ignore the deeper problem of the objectification of women that causes the issue in the first place. Another example Johnson provides of this is the rate of "teen pregnancies". The problem focuses on the females and their contributions. But rarely is there a mention of the males that contributed the other half. It's the women that have the problem. They're the ones that need to change.

And in many cases, that change means women are expected to conform even further to the patriarchal paradigm. Women that get ahead in business must conform to "male" traits of being competitive, cut throat, and often wears "men's" clothing. Again, this only serves to reinforce the status quo of the system, even if the inequality is somewhat lessened, and the wheels of the machine greased.

There's also a good section on false parallels that are used to deflect light being cast on the devaluation of females. The example given is especially good: When it's noted that females are made to be naturally evil (think Eve, Pandora, etc...), people often respond by pointing out the Devil is male. But what Johnson notes is different in these two scenarios is that for Eve, her evil, original sin, was borne from her gender which made her temptable, whereas for the Devil, it wasn't a flaw of his gender. As Johnson puts it,
It's hard to imagine how patriarchal Christianity would ever develop an evil female figure powerful and substantial enough to challenge God, for this would require that women be taken seriously. In other words, under patriarchy, women aren't good enough to be the devil.

There's another argument in the section that I find interesting that deals with sexual objectification, namely the difference between female strippers and male strippers. Many people would use the existence of both as a sign that viewing the opposite sex as sexual creatures is practiced by both sexes and thus, even if morally gray, not something that has a net harmful effect since it can go both ways.

Johnson tries to explain the difference between male strippers and female strippers by claiming that because we live in a patriarchy, male strippers are affirmed by taking their clothes off and admired by their social inferiors (women), whereas if a woman strips and is viewed by males, then she's looked down on by the social superiors (men) thanks to the patriarchy. In other words, parallel actions are magically transformed by their presence in a larger system. That difference reinforces the social differences and thus, pornography is harmful.

What strikes me as bizarre about this is that if we could somehow remove all gender inequality, somehow this would change, and pornography would be perfectly acceptable in this view as long as it went both ways.

I'm glad to see this argument because when pornography and sexism are often discussed, many people imagine that the implication is that pornography turns men into horrible raping monsters after one view. It's very similar to the notion that violent video games make kids shoot up schools. There's studies supporting these views, but there's also contradictory studies. Thus, it seems to me to be a wash. Thus, I'm pleased to see a real argument on why pornography is often frowned upon by those that are working towards gender equality. Still, I question just how large this effect is on reinforcing the patriarchal system. Such a topic is skipped over which brings Feynmann's admonition back to mind.

The next way Johnson explores that the patriarchy is hidden from view is that men often feel like victims too: We perform more dangerous jobs, have shorter lifespans, are disproportionally involved in violence (especially when called to war), and portrayed as bumbling fools in media. So are men not victims? The answer is yes. But being a victim and in a position of privilege and power aren't mutually exclusive.

This highlights another important theme of this work that I touched on earlier: Despite the fact that we often view gender inequalities as a "woman's issue" it effects both genders and is just as much a concern for men. We'll have to give up many of our privileges, but there's many other things men stand to gain that could replace it.

The last reason Johnson discusses that I think is an important point on why the existence and harm of our patriarchy is overlooked is the fear of feeling guilty; it's easier to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem than risk feeling guilty over the issue. This is illustrated by the example given in the very opening of the book that Johnson returns to: When drawing up lists of advantages and disadvantages of their genders, men, by and large, do a pretty comprehensive job of listing all of the disadvantages of women. They know the problem exists, but don't do anything about it.

Which begs the question (that is addressed in the final two chapters of the book), "What do we do about it?"

The first of these chapters gives one recommendation: Men need to be the driving force since we're the ones with the power to enact much of the change. But for all the reasons listed earlier, we're too busy ignoring the problem to do so. Since many of those reasons are simple awareness issues (which could be fixed with some education), Johnson concentrates on the deeper one of guilt. He states that men need to accept that patriarchy exists, but realize that, although they are wrapped in the system, they are not, individually, the cause of it and thus, should get past the guilt. Nor can we pass the blame.

In the last chapter, Johnson also discusses how we have to get over our own egos. He doesn't put it in these terms but that's what it boils down to: We can't give up because we will only get involved if we can play a pivotal role, or we want to see the fruition of ending men's privilege within our lifetimes. Rather, we need to change the "paths of least resistance" so that future generations will have options that aren't so entrenched in a patriarchal paradigm.

Johnson notes that there are numerous little ways to do this, and I'm not going to go through all of them, but there are some that I want to highlight in specific:

"Dare to make people feel uncomfortable, beginning with yourself" - One of the most important things I ever learned as a student that informed my thinking as a teacher is that education should be uncomfortable. If it isn't, we're not moving out of our comfort zones in which we already know everything. Exploring always takes a bit of daring and shouldn't be something that's always comfortable.

"Because patriarchy is rooted in principles of domination and control, pay attention to racism and other forms of oppression that draw from those same roots" - As I noted earlier, the feminist movement should be a natural ally of skeptics who have also suffered.

That's the end of the book there. As a summary, this book had a good skeleton to it:

- Gender inequality exists
- It comes from a patriarchal system which emphasizes the "male" values of control and dominance
- It hurts both men and women
- We can't change it if we ignore it, which we do
- Change is going to be hard

Most of these points are well demonstrated. The weakest link is that patriarchy causes the gender in equality, although it's somewhat self evident.

But while this book has a good skeleton to it, many of the individual points that flesh it out seem haphazardly tossed out. Material that relates better to one topic is often found entirely elsewhere or is repeated at length. That's the biggest flaw of this book in my opinion: It's poor presentation for good material.

It has (hopefully) provided a good basis for more reading on the subject that I'll undoubtedly be doing. If anyone has recommendations for more books on the topic, let me know so I can investigate those.


Chet Twarog said...

I quickly read thru your summary. As I perceive it, this basis is directly related to the three monotheistic Patriarchial religions which have actively "suppressed" women and "promoted" male domination for centuries. Women are mostly blamed for "the Fall"(by the Patriarchial "Gods" laws (orally/written by men))--Judaism less so.

Johan Van de Voorde said...

"Being that a patriarchy already existed, men were selected [to go working in factories]."

I think that just pointing to a "patriarchy" is an insufficient explanation. At the very least, one should also think about the difference in male and female force as part of the explanation. Men are generally stronger than women (just look at the olympic records - men in the subtop would break all female records -, which would make them better labourers where heavy work is necessary; women, being weaker, would only be added to that workforce when finding men had become too difficult.

"We perform more dangerous jobs, have shorter lifespans, are disproportionally involved in violence (especially when called to war), and portrayed as bumbling fools in media. So are men not victims? The answer is yes. But being a victim and in a position of privilege and power aren't mutually exclusive."

This is quite an apex fallacy: thinking that the top group is representative of everyone (e.g. professors have a good life, so TA's have also a good life, good pay, benefits,...). Feminists have a very strong tendency to assimilate all men to those who have the power, but the gap between women as a group and most men is quite a bit smaller than the gap between most men and the top group. It also doesn't take account of the white knight-syndrome (men will readily help women, but men themselves don't get help as easily and are even considered whiners if they ask).


Er... Jon, the surname of Richard Feynman is spelled with one "n" at the end, not two.

Gemma Mason said...

I hadn't heard that argument about the industrial revolution worsening patriarchy before. Honestly, while I'm sure the industrial revolution changed patriarchy, it's not like women were always allowed to own property and such prior to that, and there's plenty of misogyny in pre-industrial religious and philosophical texts!

I'm inclined to think that patriarchies arise because so many early systems of social order are based in part on physical strength. Then, too, there's the fact that human childbirth is particularly dangerous and can leave a woman especially vulnerable afterwards. Societies become much more receptive to women's rights once the mind is considered to be the quality most worthy of admiration -- although of course it takes a while for the self-justifying myths of the previous system to fade out.

It's worth noting that sexism isn't the only ideology which develops self-justifying myths -- the slave society of the pre-civil-war South was rife with them, and European class systems were based on the idea that blood (which is to say, heredity) was the main determiner of a person's worth, and those in charge are clearly the best people, and so their children must necessarily also be the best people, in perpetuity.

Jon Voisey said...

Gemma - Thanks for your response. It's definitely food for thought.

It's hard to say exactly where the balance fell on value in the pre-industrialized society. As Johnson depicts it, it fell on contributions necessary to daily life (ie, work). In your scenario, it's based on property. As with just about everything, I think the truth falls somewhere in between. It's certainly something I'll have to think more about if ever I find more strong information on the topic.

My main focus right now has been on trying to better understand the position that the "male" values of power and control are inherently flawed. To me, it seems to go back to your second point: strength is often a necessity, to protect us from our enemies and ensure our resources. My trouble is that, while we currently associate this with maleness, I don't see why it should necessarily be so. It's a survival necessity that is now being downplayed because of its association with maleness and as such, it is the target of attack whereas, it seems to me, it would be more intelligent to attempt to remove the fixation that these are male traits.

I also agree that sexism isn't the only ideology with self perpetuating, circular justifications. I've been reading Sagan's Demon Haunted World and last night, I had to put the book down for some time because the same flawed reasoning being used to support the notions of demons in the middle ages (which ties together with misogyny in that they were often the reason for "witches" which needed to be burned) angered me so much.

The more I've delved into topics like feminism, skepticism, and creationism, the more I've come up against the ugly underbelly of humanity. It's become increasingly hard to stomach, but the anger and disgust, I feel, beat out the ignorance.

gr68 said...

What the f, Judaism less so, what a load of bollocks! Not only do even some of the Jewish sects that are generally thought of as being more or less enlightened still segregate and require silence of their female members during formal services, but who the heck do you think wrote the book, literally, when it comes to pinning the rap on women as being the author of humankind's fall from grace?