Sunday, January 16, 2011

The 'woman' and 'man' in feminism.

I'm back in Singapore for two weeks, and some conversations I had with my friends is making me think a lot about how feminism is perceived. One of the friends I met introduced me to his friend as someone specialising in gender because I 'hate men' and I'm 'feminist' - and he uses these phrases as being equivalent.

This is a common perception, but it's not true. Feminism basically means that you support women having the same rights as men (so men can be 'feminist' too). The reason why there is 'feminine' in the word is because the type of feminism most widely-known, criticised, and taught is the feminism emerging from '60s United States. In this certain context, women had lower status and less rights than men, so the aim of the suffragists were to give women the same as men. This feminism coincided with the civil rights movement aimed at abolishing slavery in the US. There are other feminisms from other parts of the world - 'feminism' does not automatically mean 'Western' (another post for another day!).

While some of my ISS male comrades feel they would find 'feminism' more palatable if it did not contain an obvious reference to the 'feminine', simply calling it 'gender equality' would depoliticise feminism, and may result in a loss of focus - that while men suffer too, there are indeed more women than men that are in need of their rights. Apparently ISS had the same discussion a few years ago, in deciding to retain the word 'women' in the gender specialisation (it used to be Women and Development, and now it's Women, Gender, Development') - that one must not forget that in studying men we do not forget women.

That being said, we've actually been studying a lot about men (and masculinities) so far. Like how for example, how men 'suffer' when being with other 'hegemonically masculine' men. Hegemonic masculinity, according to RW Connell (1995), is a type of masculinity that is oppressive to both men and women. When we talk about patriarchy, Connell refers to this type of masculinity - machismo, women-hating/-beating, and intolerant of all other men who don't act like them. This is not true of all societies but what is important is that hegemonic masculinity is more than an ‘ideal’, it is shared by a lot of people and seems 'natural', even. It is the standard to which other masculinities are compared to.

Complicit masculinity is when men indirectly support and benefit from patriarchy, but know that they have to compromise with women. For example, there's a difference between watching men rough it out in a game of rugby and watching a rugby match on TV while cheering, drinking beer and asking their wives to get them more beers.

There's also subordinated (to the bottom of the hierarchy) masculinity, of which Connell gives effeminate gays as an example. Since hegemonically masculine men hate women, it's no surprise that subordinated masculinity often contains elements classically considered feminine. Subordinated masculinity also suffers from psychological/physical/institutional violence from hegemonic masculinity. Another masculinity he talks about is marginalised masculinity - alternative masculinities that may be considered more savage or completely out-of-this-world by virtue of being immigrant men, for example.

A great film that shows different kinds of masculinities is 'Billy Elliot', so try to watch it if you can to think about how men suffer too (:

Patriarchal masculinity cripples men. Manhood as we know it in our society requires such a self-destructive identity, a deeply masochistic self-denial, a shrinkage of the self, a turning away from whole areas of life, the man who obeys the demands of masculinity has become only half-human. . . To become the man I was supposed to be, I had to destroy my most vulnerable side, my sensitivity, my femininity, my creativity, and I had to pretend to be both more powerful and less powerful than I feel.
(Horrocks 1994, p. 25).

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