Category Archives: Feminist Philosophy

Beyond the Art of Objectification, a Plea for Imaginative Reverence

In the past I enjoyed “distasteful” humor. But lately I find myself having a weak stomach. I’m watching Reno911 and there’s this elaborate prison rape joke, where the cop is explaining in detail, to a group of school kids, how a gang of 12 will rape another young man.

I tried watching South Park last week and yet again, another joke about a grown man accidentally having sex with a child.

Then there’s good ol’ Family Guy, an episode where Stewey and Brian try to essentially gain control of Hannah Montana so they can have sex with her. When they figure out she’s a robot, and she’s blown into pieces, the last line from Brian to Stewey is, “now here’s your chance”…to have sex with her fragmented body. Around the same time a student noted that she heard a man in a court room cry out, “she’ll get over it!” when another man was sentenced for the crime of rape.

Not long after that my wife April was driving home yesterday and the Buzz–a local rock station–urged its listeners to send in pictures of “chics on trucks.” The DJ says,

“It’s a great way to show off your chic and your truck.”

Finally, April was at a pro-choice rally in Orlando earlier this year and there a 13 year-old girl says to her:

“Why are you standing up for women’s rights? I don’t have rights. I’m worthless.”

At what point to do we begin to say stop passively accepting this culture of sexual objectification? At what point do we, furthermore, begin to recognize the limitation of idolizing “transgression” as a virtue, and consider the importance of working to cultivate proper “reverence” for others?

I’m not pro-censorship. It seems to me that censorship works like laws against drug use.  But I’m in favor of encouraging people to realize that the people, ideas, media, and culture we surround ourselves with impacts the people we become. We are what we eat, who we meet, what we think, and who we allow ourselves to become.

Precisely when we sometimes think we are “purging” or “venting” various “distasteful” desires or “bad” habits we are very likely cultivating/feeding those desires and habits. We cultivate character through habituation; through routine practice. And today we seem to cultivate uncaringness, insensitivity, aggression, callousness, and routine transgression of respect for other beings (the opposite of “reverence”) via sexualization and objectification.

I think we need to turn our creative talents to a new ideal, not that of simply transgressing old boundaries of rightness, but also imagining new realms of reverence: what borders ought we not seek to transgress? Perhaps we can begin with revering women and children’s sexual sovereignty.

Balancing Life Under Patriarchy with Proper Resistance

A friend just shared this article, Blueprint for a Woman’s Life and I wanted to share my perspective. In the article, the author suggests that women begin to follow the following her 12 point “blueprint” at age 18, ending at 45. Among her suggested steps to success:

2. Get plastic surgery. This is the must-have career tool for the workforce of the new millennium. You will earn more money and you will have more opportunities for mentoring. Also, you will have a wider choice of men, which, of course, is another way to earn more money…. 3. Go to business school right out of the gate. …you are more likely to marry well. Men like women who are smart but not making more than they are. (I do not have a link for this. I have instinct.)…4. Start early looking for a husband seriously.6. Guard your marriage obsessively.11. Spend money on household help and Botox to keep more doors open longer.

On the one hand I understand that this is a piece written by a woman of the current age, doing her best to deal with a patriarchal society: one in which a man gets 1K more money for each kid he has, but women get 1K less for each kid; and one in which women are expected to fit the (ever-evolving) prototype of beauty.

Yet, as a father of two girls, I also think the author needs to balance living in the existing system with a proper amount of resistance to oppressive norms. If a woman wishes to alter her body, she should have that right. But a healthy sense of self and a proper partner in life shouldn’t be based on such things. The path of resistance is a tough one, but if social movements (civil rights, women’s rights) hadn’t take that route, women and people of color would have but a fraction of the freedom they have today.

To this, my wife, April, adds: It’s waving a white flag as far as I’m concerned. She definitely gives great advice for coping with the shitty hand we’re dealt as women. However, if we are to change the future for our children, we have to openly resist our oppression and throw the cards back in the face of the dealer and demand a fair game!

Contemporary Patriarchy: Male Violence Against Children

Today patriarchy persists in promoting men’s sexual and physical domination of women and children. bell hooks writes:

Women and children all over the world want men to die so that they can live. This is the most painful truth of male domination, that men wield patriarchal power in daily life in ways that are awesomely life-threatening, that women and children cower in fear and various states of powerlessness, believing that the only way out of their suffering, their only hope is for men to die, for the patriarchal father not to come home (hooks 2004: xv).

Sadly, proof of this situation is all around us.

Violence Against Children

On March 28, 2010 my wife, April, and our then one-year-old daughter, Lucy made a pit-stop just outside of Atlanta as we were driving home from the American Men’s Studies Association’s annual Men and Masculinities conference. In the restroom I witnessed a 30-something year-old white-man pound his child who was about 4 or 5-years old. The father entered the bathroom with I think three children. He placed one of his young sons before the bathroom urinal and commanded him to pee. The boy dropped to his knees throwing a temper tantrum—non-violent resistance! Perhaps embarrassed by a dozen or so onlookers the father immediately lifted the shirt from his son’s back, cocked his arm back and slammed his large spread hand down onto the boy’s skin. Stunned by the abuse I stopped and stared in disbelief. Suddenly another black man said, “Now that’s what I like to see.” “You like that,” I asked loudly in a critical, disgusted tone? “You like to watch a grown man beat a small, defenseless child?”

A few months later I encountered yet another abusive father, this time a black father. I was shopping for an air conditioner at Brandsmart inWest Palm Beach. As I was shopping I noticed a father chastising his young daughter, perhaps 3, for refusing to comply with his instructions. Like most children this age, the girl was restless and wanted to get out of her stroller and play. Now I understand the frustration of having to work with bored children. Our kids were with us and kind of driving us crazy, too! Unfortunately, this father made it clear that threats of violence are the way he communicates with his child. The man stopped the stroller, began taking his belt off, and menacingly told the girl that she had better stop whining. In fact he began to do just that. The child’s response was frightened silence, indicating, perhaps, that this was more than an idle threat. Indeed, this is how men (and sometimes women) across the world uphold order, both with women and children. They use violence.

I was so disturbed by the child’s fear that I addressed her father. I told him that it was shameful that a grown man would threaten such a small child with the vicious violence of a belt. In response the man literally asked me what I was going to do about it, further indication of the dominant model of masculinity’s understanding of conflict resolution. I responded that I didn’t handle such problems through violence, and that he should treat his child with greater love and respect. Again, he wanted to escalate the interaction to physical violence, so I had to leave well enough alone. This is unsurprising. As author and psychiatrist James Gilligan explains in his book, Preventing Violence, patriarchal culture identifies “authentic” masculinity as requiring the capacity to enact violence:

Masculinity, in the traditional, conventional stereotypical sex-role of patriarchy, is literally defined as involving the expectation, even the requirement, of violence, under many well specified conditions: in time of war; in response to personal insult; in response to extramarital sex on the part of a female in the family; while engaging in all-male combat sports; etc. (2001: 56)

This reflexive recourse to violence, of course, is precisely what we as a society and men in particular must denounce and find ways to nonviolently combat.

Secular Philosophy’s Contribution to Patriarchy

Today it is not uncommon for critics of religion to emphasize these deeply seeded misogynistic traditions. But an overemphasis on the patriarchal character of monotheistic religious traditions can lead to a distorting understanding of the pervasiveness of patriarchy. As I have shown in previous work,[1] many of the Enlightenment philosophers who questioned conventional religion, religious intolerance, slavery, and monarchy failed to equally question assumptions about the inferiority of women to men. In fact, many readily promoted patriarchy.

In his renowned defense of republicanism, The Spirit of Laws, published in 1748, Montesquieu explicitly states that too much equality would likely reduce respect for government leaders, old age, parents;

and “deference to husbands will be likewise thrown off, and submission to masters.”[2]

Speaking directly to the patriarchal thought model which continues to inform the prevailing form of masculinity today, Montesquieu warns that equality threatens male domination:

“Wives, children, slaves will shake off all subjection. No longer will there be any such thing as manners, order, or virtue” (Ibid).

In 1762, the French philosopher Rousseau argued in his work Emile that women are by nature mentally and physically inferior to men, as well as predisposed to love beauty and other trifles. He says women’s normal and true business is giving birth[3] and that because a husband must be made confident that the children she bares him are his own, a wife’s infidelity is treasonable and far worse than a husband’s.[4] As an adult woman is destined to live a life of subordination both to “propriety”[5] and her husband, girls must be taught “to bear the yoke from the first, so that they may not feel it, to master their own caprices and to submit themselves to the will of others.”[6] And should be instilled with the “docility which woman requires all her life long, for she will always be in the subjection to a man, or to man’s judgment, and she will never be free to set her own opinion above his.”[7] In fact, women must

“learn to submit to injustice and to suffer the wrongs inflicted on her husband by her husband without complaints,”[8] that through her “gentleness” she will eventually be victorious over him, “unless he is a perfect monster.”[9] He further claimed that the “assertions as to the equality of the sexes” are “vague” and inconsequential[10] and proclaims that women are far more in need of men than men are in need of women because women are dependent on men for both fulfillment of her desires and her needs. She needs him to fulfill her purpose in life:

“Nature herself has decreed that woman, both for herself and her children, should be at the mercy of man’s judgment.”[11]

To sum it up, identifying organized religion as the sole proponent of patriarchal thought is both dishonest and, I would add, obscures how deeply entrenched the ideology of male supremacy is in Western thought.

[1] Jeff Nall, “Exhuming the History of Feminist Masculinity: Condorcet, 18th Century Radical Male Feminist,” pp.42-61. Culture, Society & Masculinities (vol.2, Issue 1, Spring 2010)

[2] Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (New York: Prometheus Books, 2002), 109. (Bk viii, ch. ii.)

[3] Rousseau, J. (1995). Duties of women. In I. Kramnick (Ed.), The portable enlightenment reader (pp. 568‐579).New York. Penguin, p.572 [4] Rousseau 572 [5] Rousseau 578 [6] Rousseau 578 [7] Rousseau 578-579 [8] Rousseau 578 [9] Rousseau 579 [10] Rousseau 572 [11] Rousseau 575

Religious Patriarchy: St. Augustine’s take on proper marital roles and domestic violence

In book IX of The Confessions (trans. Boulding 1998, p. 185), written between 397 and 401 AD, Christian theologian Saint Augustine discusses the way in which his mother, Monica, who influenced his conversion to Christianity, exemplified God mandated feminine servitude to her husband. He relays that Monica endured her husband’s “marital infidelities” without quarrelling, continually showing him “mercy.”

Despite her husband’s hot temper Monica “learned to offer him no resistance, by deed or even by word, when he was angry.” Monica develops and implements nurturance, mercy, and passive compliance to accomplish basic objectives such as physical and emotional security. When her husband was angry, for instance, we are told that Monica “would wait for a favorable moment, when she saw that his mood had changed and he was calm again, and then explain her action, in case he had given way to wrath without due consideration.” Augustine explicitly promotes what he sees as Monica’s virtuous, godly exemplification of ideal womanhood.

Yet Augustine’s discussion not only explains and lauds the patriarchal ideal of emphasized femininity but also the patriarchal ideal of masculinity. The assumption is that it is natural for men to act out of unthinking anger. Augustine does not, throughout his work, critique such behavior. In fact, Augustine cites his mother as having criticized other women who complained of the way in which their husbands had violently assaulted them. Augustine is candid:

“There were plenty of women married to husbands of gentler temper whose faces were badly disfigured by traces of blows, who while gossiping together would complain about their husbands’ behavior.”

Yet Monica  assails them for failing to recognize that their marriage contracts were “legal documents which made slaves of them.” Thus those women who wished to be spared the natural and lawful savagery of their husbands “ought to keep their subservient status in mind and not defy their masters.” Indeed, Augustine tells us that these women, knowing Monica’s husband to be more hot-tempered than their own, sought out her advice on how best to supplicate their spouses and thus escape brutalization.

It’s difficult to realize from a contemporary standpoint, but Augustine and Monica makes explicit what has long been understood throughout patriarchal society: marriage is an institution of slavery. As slaves—God mandated inferiors purposed to serve men—the only recourse women have for abuse is to alter their behavior, to cultivate quiet, inoffensive passivity. It is also important to consider that while Monica’s advice certainly perpetuates masculine domination and feminine passivity, her own behavior must also be understood as a strategy for survival. Monica’s development and promotion of the passive feminine ideal was probably a reaction to everyday violence and domination. In this way we see how patriarchy reproduces itself even in women who then propagate its ideals.

Religion, I should add, is not solely responsible for upholding the dominant institution of patriarchy and its attending gender roles. As I’ll show in a post next week, key “rational” philosophers have done their part in bolstering patriarchal domination of women.

What is Patriarchy and how does it define men’s lives?

The Patriarchal Worldview

From antiquity through the Enlightenment and beyond, philosophers (Aristotle), physicians, and theologians have defined women as beings necessarily inferior to men. Women’s capacity to birth new life and the connection to the earth it implies have been systematically and exhaustively interpreted as proof of women’s inferiority to men. The human ideal, as explained by central Western thinkers, from Plato to Descartes to Bertrand Russell , has been one that values transcending the body, emotion, interrelationality, and the natural world. Thus the sphere to which women had for so long been relegated, that of the private—the home—was fundamentally devalued.

But this view of humanity is anything but value free. It is, in short, a patriarchal worldview. Gender theorist Judith Lorber writes that patriarchy began as a form of social organization in which father’s ruled legal dependents such as wives and children within the family or clan. The contemporary manifestation of patriarchy, however, expresses itself as both a political and social system

that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence — bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004), p. 18.

As future posts will begin to make clear, this model of manhood is hurts women, children, less powerful or less privileged men; it also very often destroys the happiness of the men who dedicate themselves to such a model of existence.