Monday, May 01, 2006

Maleness and the Feminist Worldview, Part I

I've been contemplating the question of gender for several days now. Specifically, I've been contemplating the question of gender roles as themes in human culture, as well as gender psychology. I'm taking a page here from a few of the gender-issues blogs I've been reading lately, among them Feministe, Echidne of the Snakes, BitchLab, and I Blame the Patriarchy. I've been recently embroiled in a series of debates as regards the male role in feminist theory and practice, so I've taken it upon myself to challenge a few of my own assumptions, in hopes of being able to debate on the issue more articulately.

Gender is, obviously, a sticky issue. I myself find it difficult to debate on gender objectively, as being a male I tend to respond instinctively by defending my own camp. I've noticed that this problem tends to plague others as well, on both sides of the gender fence. Like it or not, we as humans are sexual beings, and like it or not we tend to view the world within a specific gender framework. Human societies also tend to draw up specific models for male/female behavior and performance, and unfortunately almost every single known civilization extant in the last ten millennia has operated within a patriarchal matrix. As we move into a more global society that encourages egalitarian ideals, this has created a tense, "us-vs.-them" dynamic in modern gender relations, at least in the West.

As I've mentioned before, I like to think of myself as a progressive humanist. I believe in the inherent goodness of human nature, and the capacity for all human beings to desire and work toward that good. I respond negatively to the marginalization of any group, and since women make up more than half of our society, I can really think of no better group whose marginalization needs to be addressed and resolved. Unfortunately, to work against the marginalization of one group, one needs to examine the roots of that marginalization. I believe that any such effort mandates a radical rethinking of gender identity, without which any such inquiry can never be discussed in anything but biased terms. In other words, to be an effective male feminist (or sympathizer, if you must) one needs to first attack the question of what it actually MEANS to be male in the modern worldview, and then determine if conventional maleness and the many varying shades of feminist worldview can coexist.

So--what DOES it mean to be male? Society has drafted up a host of responses to that question, none of which are particularly flattering. Just briefly sifting through the cultural wash, one finds men portrayed by turns as conquerors, oppressors, tyrants, saviors, heroes and oafs. One voice says we are humanity's natural leaders; another says our leadership is intertwined with oppression and genocide. One voice says we are providers; another says we are thieves. One says we are lovers; another says we are rapists. Personally, I don't accept a single one of these statements as valid. Blanket statements are the enemy of rational discourse, and while some are comfortable with adorning such weak rhetoric in the garments of truth, I am not. I don't waste time dealing in easy answers, and I'm not going to stoop so low as to waste time placing blame for society's ills solely on men, or on women. However, since the roots of male gender identity cannot be uniformly agreed upon, one must tailor the inquiry to common denominators. Thus, the most immediate question becomes, "what are the HALLMARKS of maleness?"

Obviously, the first hallmarks of human maleness are simply biological. That is to say, evolution has endowed us with specific traits; traits such as slightly enhanced muscle density, enhanced geospatial reasoning, external genitalia, and a sympathetic nervous system more geared toward rapid expenditure of energy during stress responses. Many anthropologists have argued through the years that such traits are better suited to roaming hunters; their argument, not without some measure of validity, is that human males are optimized as social, ground-dwelling predators. That being said, the human body has far more in common between its genders than in differential, and it is important to note that human beings of either gender can and frequently do perform the same physical tasks with equal aptitude. Maleness just endows the recipient with a slight predisposition toward physicality, though a healthy female will very efficiently outperform and outstrip a male. Biology is an important distinction between the sexes, but in a society where men are no longer expected by social norm to hunt, and women no longer expected to bear the brunt of child-rearing, we as human beings are freed of that norming distinction. So any implications, by men OR women, that a given gender is physically superior to another and therefore more dominant is fallacious, Old-World thinking. Radical feminists do it as much as the most diehard of misogynists. If there are people who say that women CAN'T play football against men, or beat them in wrestling, or serve alongside them in combat, it is simply because not enough women are trying--NOT because of any inability on their part.

Most of the physical baggage of maleness is simply the product of social conditioning. Talk to a transperson about how much physical attributes REALLY mean to gender, and see what they have to tell you. If anything, such attributes are vestigial, holdovers that have since lost their function in our increasingly communications-based society.

To be continued...


Blogger cinnabari said...

Hm. See, the whole men-predisposed to phsyicality thing... I don't see it. There's a standard at work already, to even produce that statement, that's normed the male qualities and placed female biological strengths (higher pain tolerance, greater tolerance for high-G stress) in opposition. Which isn't a quibble with you, but rather one with the whole damned way we even discuss biological differences. Medicine, health, physical fitness evaluations -- all rest on a basis of Man as Norm, and Woman as exception/other. I think, were that physical normalcy neutralized wrt to biological sex, we'd find that both sexes are predisposed to certain kinds of physicality. But we put a primacy on male strengths - muscle density, size, etc - and thus a woman can be an *exceptional* physical specimen, if she can surpass a man. But she is never the norm herself.

That's a problem with the language. Note to self: when I rule the world, it shall change immediately. Until then, I shall annoy Milo and make long comments on his blog. *g*

1:57 AM  
Blogger KT said...

I generally agree with you, but have been exposed to a beautiful example of the differences in male and female physicality (there are exceptions on both sides, of course):

There is a show in Japan called "Sasuke" that is now shown in the U.S. as "Ninja Warrior". It is a four-stage obstacle course that is nearly impossible for the finest athletes to complete. There are two versions, one geared for men (women are allowed as well, but only a few do) and one just for women. The open version concentrates a lot on strength, particularly of the upper body variety. The women's version is mostly about balance and accuracy. The truth is, just like with cultures, we need to celebrate our different-but-equally-important strengths without ever looking down or up at the "other side."

This is an amazing blog, I wish I had discovered it sooner. :)

Thank you for being a feminist, I think in some ways it's white men who can make the biggest differences, just by talking to your buddies (like in your earlier post about women in the military) about what you think and feel.

BTW - I've lived in or near NYC most of my life, and befriended many homeless people. Almost all of them were white men!! Certainly not the most priviledged people I've known.

7:07 AM  

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