Feminist Friday: Collaborating with the Patriarchy

This blog post is a year old, but just because it’s been around the internet awhile does not make it any less awesome. Over at the blog Social Justice League, Rachael wrote an amazing post entitled “J’accuse? On women who ‘collaborate’ with the patriarchy.

I was pretty much cheering right from the introduction:

Being highly aware of sexism can be a tough gig. I sometimes wish I could turn off that nerve-jangle I get whenever someone says “he throws like a girl” or “don’t be such a pussy” or “she looks like a whore”. It’s tiring to go through every day constantly weighing up how we want to react. More specifically, for women who wish to actively resist the patriarchy, making everyday decisions becomes complicated: do I shave my body hair or not? Do I wear makeup to cover my pimple? If I want to wear socially-coded “sexy” clothes, am I actually subconsciously wishing to gain heteromale approval? Once you’re aware of sexism, you can’t easily switch that awareness off.

This is definitely something I struggle with on a daily basis. I can’t even watch a movie without my feminist consciousness scanning it for evidence of sexism. It’s what I do; it’s second-nature. I don’t think I could turn it off if I wanted to. And even though it’s frustrating sometimes, I’d rather be hyper-aware, than ignorant. Sometimes, such as at work, it’s not conducive to the environment if I call someone out. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to deal with it. So it becomes a day-to-day struggle figuring out how to deal with the sexism I encounter on a regular basis, and how my own actions fit in.

It’s honestly really difficult not to just repost the entire thing here, but that wouldn’t be right. The essay is just so well-written, and draws attention to an important fact: feminists often don’t know how to handle hyperfeminine women, and sometimes, our responses can be sexist:

Too often, hyperfemme women are unfairly accused of collaborating with the patriarchy. Yes, it’s true that the more people adhere to social gender norms, the harder it is to destroy these norms. There is no denying that some women are doing it explicitly to get heteromale attention, thereby buying into social power structures – and reinforcing them. But a lot of women just genuinely like presenting in a socially-coded feminine way. And if that is so, then presenting in that way is not collaboration at all. It is ridiculous to demand that women curtail their self-expression to further the feminist cause, when theaims of feminism include making it safe and acceptable for women to express themselves however they like.

Worse, a lot of the denigration of hyperfemininity is actually sexist. We associate lipstick and pink with women (this century, anyway) and then associate women with “weak” or “inferior”; when feminism tells us to destroy that second link, we just leap to “lipstick and pink must be inferior”. A lot of social opposition to traits or clothing or activities that are socially-coded-feminine is actually unexamined misogyny.

Rachael doesn’t forget that some feminine women can, in fact, be colluders. And that there are no easy answers when it comes to changing the world, much less one society. But she does offer this:

To the extent that we can accurately identify genuine cases of collaboration, which is difficult, we should see it for what it really is for those individuals: a survival response in a sexist society. That doesn’t make the behaviour any less problematic. That doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome. But it does mean that the individual is not the core problem. She is stuck in a system that makes certain demands on her, and this is how she’s going to play it.

That sucks, but clearly on some level that’s what she feels she has to do. It’s not anyone’s place to tell individual women how to respond to their situations. Of course we can call out hurtful and policing behaviour when we encounter it. Indeed, if we are able to do so, we must do that. But we must also criticise social norms that demand these behaviours from women, and in so doing, we shouldn’t let individual women become collateral damage. Our sexist opponents hate the idea of allowing women to make their own decisions, free from social norms, free from community pressure, free from judgement. We need to be absolutely sure that we never collaborate with them on that.

Identifying and changing sexism is difficult and complicated. Even the most active feminists encounter problems along the way. But we have to do our best,. and that means having compassion and avoiding judgment. And if that’s the best you can do, you’re doing a lot to make the world a better place. The world is lacking compassion in a lot of places; any amount you can give helps.

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