Feminism in Three Parts: Part 1–The Problem

*Disclaimer: These are my personal views not a philosophical argument or theory. Some things can’t be grounded.*

I’ve been meaning to write something about feminism ever since the (strange to me) controversy started happening in the media about women calling themselves “feminist” or not. (Then the second wave controversy of men calling themselves feminists followed by accusations of them trying to take ownership over feminism like they do everything else.)

The Dylan O'Brien Heartthrob Factor. Source: hitfix.com

The Dylan O’Brien Heartthrob Factor. Source: hitfix.com

But then I read the following in a recap of The Maze Runner’s impressive box office figures that made me sit down and write this.

The Maze Runner, which drew a 51% female audience despite an almost all-male cast…” The fact that this was considered unusual enough to print made me pause. It’s an innocent statement on the surface, but it is also an ignorant one. It simultaneously separates women’s interests from men’s on strict binary lines (I love post-apocalyptic dystopian stories. They provide a hideous metaphor of my life.), makes a normative claim about what should entertain women (If women are supposed to be interested in only stories that have female characters, that would give women approximately zero options.), and in a backhanded way denies girls and women an innocuous expression of their sexuality (given the Dylan O’Brien heartthrob factor).

I’m female-bodied, and I largely cannot identify with the things marketed toward women, because products, films, books, etc., marketed toward women generally fall into three categories: domesticity, romance, and bodily appearance. In order to achieve this in the entertainment industry, they sometimes bank on attractive (another socially-determined category) young men (the same way attractive young women are cast in token roles in films “for men”). I have probably spent $100 over the course of my life to see Zac Efron take his shirt off on screen, and I’m not going to bother pretending otherwise.[1]

This is just smart marketing by the capitalist machine. The problem, of course, is that socially we chastise young women for having the very sexuality we exploit to make money off them. Until, of course, we want them to sleep with us–and only us. Of course.

And this is the problem. There are institutions operating around us and over us and through us and in the very way we see the world, and we don’t realize how much we internalize practices that we might not actually believe in or accept if we had any control over our social construction.[2]

But there’s the rub.

Most men I voluntarily associate with know that women are not inferior to men. They don’t believe women should earn less than men. They don’t think it is okay that the women they know and love have a fear of walking alone at night or that 1 in 3 women will be raped at some point in their life.

The problem is that there’s a difference between what an individual person believes and what the institutions and practices that operate in the world do.

Meme Ryan gets it. Source: memegenerator.net

Meme Ryan gets it. Source: memegenerator.net

We can intellectualize and rationalize and try to make up for historical and embedded social practices, but we simply cannot distill this all out into some post-sex, post-race, post-class, post-world. These things are pipe dreams that ignore all of human history and deny the power of the institution. Closing the wage gap alone won’t stop the often subconscious perception that men are better leaders or that women are nurturing. It won’t stop the fear response I have toward any male-bodied person who gets in my personal space.

There are a lot of these institutions at work. They push and pull and intertwine, and we can’t unravel them like an ugly sweater and make them go away. Racism, classism, sexism, misogyny, ableism, ageism, sizism, etc. etc. They operate independently of what we believe as individuals. They operate whether we label them or not.

Men have privilege. White men have privilege. Straight white men of certain means and education have privilege. In such an individualistic society, can we blame them for taking advantage (unwittingly a lot of the time) of that privilege? They feel entitled because they’ve been enabled to feel that way through mechanisms that we simply can’t parse out and assign cause to.

Of course, we can (and dare I say should) call out the “worst” offenders.

It might sound crazy, but we could punish rapists instead of covering for them because they were otherwise “good kids” with “their futures ahead of them.” We could punish white police officers for killing black teenagers in cold blood. We could not allow men who beat their wives to continue on unpunished while pursuing their high profile careers.

We tend to see our lives in individualistic or narrow terms, and we connect to the world on a personal or egoic level. We get frustrated when see the rapists walk, the murderers keep their jobs, and the abusers succeed. And we should.

When Foucault talks about power relations in this era, he’s not talking about “the man” ordering us around. There’s not some old white man pulling the strings putting women at a social disadvantage on purpose. Foucault is talking about something that no one possesses. Power operates.

That’s the insidious thing about it.

It’s an innocuous phrase–“a 51% female audience in spite of an all-male cast”–but you can unpack a world of inequity from it.

[1] Is this objectification? Oh yes. But is it consensual? Yes. When does it get icky? If Zac Efron didn’t agree to get paid a lot of money for his lovely torso. (And his acting chops.)

[2] ‘Institution’ is a loaded term. I’m using it in the sense of established practices and customs.

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