In addition to making me want to repeatedly bash my head against some hard surface, this infuriating reddit thread got me thinking about how the language that we sometimes use in feminism might be holding us back. In this case, I am thinking specifically of the word patriarchy.
The frustrating thing about this thread is that MsNomer and SLAPtheSASSYbitch (a “charming” username that will be referred to as STSB from here on out because it’s pretty damn offensive) were saying essentially the same thing – that gender has no bearing on a person’s aptitude towards parenting, yet American court systems tend to skew towards the mother in custody cases simply because gender norms dictate that women are better caregivers.
MsNomer realizes that they are saying the exact same thing, but no matter how hard they try, STSB does not hear it. See for yourself:
The Original Point [MsNomer]: I’m sure any sane, reasonable person would agree that the parent who is most fit to take custody of the child should do so. That there is sexism in this process is not the fault of women as such, but rather it’s probably – ironically enough – the deeply entrenched patriarchal sexism that dictates mothers are better carers than fathers. Change that, and the system will follow.
The Misconception [STSB]: THIS IS FEMINISM! First, you say that the most fit parent must have the kid, so than any argument against the status quo will appear to be an argument in favor of giving custody to a less fit parent. Then you define fitness in a way that leaves no choice but to find the mother more fit. You do NOT consider 50-50. Then you say that this discrimination against men is not the fault of women, that they are just innocent victims of it. If that is not enough, you say that the reason the government destroys relationships between men and their children is because the system is biased toward men (patriarchy)! Then you propose as a remedy giving MORE advantages to women in order to ease the disadvantages of men. Fucking BRILLIANT! If you disagree, you are insane and unreasonable!
Patriarchy, in this scenario, is understood by MsNomer as a systemic bias that stands to keep powerful men in power by enforcing gender roles and social/economic/etc. limitations on the people who try to challenge them. STSB sees patriarchy as a society that always lets all men have whatever they want, no matter what. By this logic, when a woman has what he sees as an unfair advantage, it is because of a matriarchy. A little more from their conversation:
The Second Attempt [MsNomer]: It’s not necessarily true at all (I’ve known women who shouldn’t be within a 10km radius of children), but it’s the prevailing perception, not so? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY IS STILL PRETTY MUCH THE RULING PARTY JUST ABOUT EVERYWHERE.
I can’t remember when last I saw a nappy ad that showed a man changing a baby – wait, I know, it’s because I’ve never actually seen one. There’s still a stigma around men being “househusbands,” and while I shouldn’t presume to claim that some women aren’t responsible for deriding them, I can only imagine the overwhelming majority of scorn comes from other men.
As I suggested in my original post – which you apparently read through a filter designed to transform everything I say according to your own prejudice – it’s this erroneous attitude that must change. And because I obviously need to repeat things for you – by “erroneous attitude”, I do mean this idea that women are better carers. Do you understand now?
The Response [STSB]: Women are not better carers, and you are sexist for saying so regardless of why you think it is true. There is no patriarchal sexism. I agree that there is a prevailing perception that men are inferior carers. There is also a prevailing perception that gay men are pedophiles who recruit children to their lifestyle. Both are equally as credible. You know why you don’t see nappy ads featuring men? Because matriarchy is still pretty much the ruling party just about everywhere and men are kept at a distance from their children.
This is an extreme example, and the more cynical piece of me can’t help but wonder if STSB is simply being dense on purpose to get a rise out of MsNomer. However, for the sake of this post, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his reading comprehension really is that bad (which isn’t hard, since I’ve found in my own life that feminism has a tendency to drive some people to exactly this level of stubborn ignorance.)
Lets break this down: What STSB doesn’t seem to get is that patriarchy sometimes does give some women an edge in some situations (rarely, but still), like when child custody comes into question. This is because those rich men who have been influencing our opinions through laws, the media, etc. for centuries benefit from the idea that women are better caregivers and, therefore, should be obligated to say at home. Additionally, feminism doesn’t deny that patriarchy often screws over men, too, like male victims of sexual assault who are often not believed because, again, those rich men in power benefit from living in a society that believes women, as a class, are weak, and men, as a class, are strong… therefore no real man could be raped. In short, patriarchy screws all but the most privileged few over.
I get that, you likely get that… but if someone is coming to the conversation from a hostile (or even indifferent) perspective, well, they are likely to have a few STSB moments before they get it.
Which leads me to… maybe we need a new approach?
My first thought is to switch to using the (more accurate) term “kyriarchy” instead. However, field-testing has lead me to believe that trading in a highly-charged word for an academic-sounding, obscure phrase is likely to take some of the anger out of the conversation, but replace it with indifference rather than passion and interest.
Nowadays I tend to go the route of talking about gender roles and avoiding the use of shorthand, like patriarchy, to refer to systemic power structures. As in, “This is a feminist issue because feminists are interested in breaking down the stereotypical gender roles that our society enforces, gender roles that make people assume a woman will be a better parent simply because she is a woman.” I find, personally at least, it is much harder to twist this and this kind of explanation doesn’t tend to put people on the defensive. It sometimes frustrates me to have to focus so hard on stripping out all of the fun feminist phrases and terms that I have come to love… but the resulting conversations tend to be much less infuriating. (Baby steps and whatnot.)
I am really interested in hearing your approach to the confusion over patriarchy… I’d love it if you’d hang out with me in the comments, and we can discuss the frustrations and successes in “communicating feminism” further!