It recently occurred to me that patriarchy does not actually define people as “men” and “women.” it defines people as “men” and “not-men.”
Of course, the most obvious and prevalent not-men in patriarchy have always been women, and in many ways patriarchy can be seen as an attempt to control the reproductive capacity. So it’s easy to think of patriarchy as mostly an attempt to limit the rights of women, which also makes it easy to think of feminism as primarily about advancing the rights of women, and misogyny as mostly about denigrating women. But I don’t think that gives the whole picture of how patriarchy still operates in our society as a cultural force.
The formal laws of patriarchy mostly target specific categories of not-men: women and LGBTQ people. But the cultural forces target a much wider collection of not-men, including actual men who are supposedly not real men. Bullying that attempts to characterize a man as not a real man is basically misogyny — which is obvious when the man is identified as being lesser because he’s “girly” or some other explicitly gendered term. But it becomes less obvious when the gendering of the terms is less obvious.
Words like “strong” and “weak” or “hard” and “soft” have a literal meaning, but also an implicit gendered meaning. Think about language that characterizes a Republican as “tough” on crime or a Democrat as “soft” on communism. Not only do Republicans use this sort of language, as you might expect, but mainstream and supposedly neutral news outlets also use them. They have become absorbed into our discourse as clichés.
This means that even writers advocating for Democrats will often end up subtly reinforcing the idea that Republicans are the party of real men and Democrats are the party of not-men. And of course, some of that is tied to policies — Democrats advocate for the rights of not-men, while Republicans agitate for elimination of those rights — but it operates in some surprising ways.
For example, in 2004, I read that more people supported John Kerry’s ideas, but attributed them to George W. Bush. I started to notice that mainstream newspapers often seemed very supportive of liberal causes — strong safety net, vigorous environmental protections, staunch support for human rights — but moderately negative or even scornful about the mostly Democratic politicians who advocated for these causes. Al Franken’s book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, gives a detailed breakdown of this phenomenon in regard to the 2000 election.
I originally attributed this to the lazy both-sides-ism that mainstream media had fallen prey to. But now I think there was more to it than that — I think it was driven, at least in part, by political misogyny.
Were our political alignments always symbolically gendered this way? I don’t think so. For example, until 1980, support for the Equal Rights Amendment was part of the Republican platform.
But then, starting in the 1980s, we got the increasingly racist Republicans joining forces with conservative evangelicals to create the religious right. This coalition uses opposition to the rights of not-men as cover for opposition to the rights of the not-white.
(White supremacy works in much the same manner as patriarchy : everyone is “white” or “not-white.” If you want to complete the trifecta of horribleness, you can sum up Christian supremacy as defining people as “Christian” or “not-Christian.” This one gets particularly weird, as within my lifetime evangelicals went from defining Catholics as not-Christian, to accepting politically conservative Catholics and Mormons as real Christians, while politically liberal evangelicals are not-Christian.)
During the 90s, I didn’t know the full racist history of the religious right. But I did observe a trend of women my own age and younger describing themselves as “not a feminist, but…” Essentially, they were doing the same thing as voters in 2004 and media outlets in 2000: supporting the message but dissing the messenger. They supported all the rights and privileges that feminism had brought them, but they didn’t want to identify as feminists.
Identifying as a feminist aligns you with the not-men.
I was always in-your-face about being a feminist, but not so much about being a Democrat. I always thought I was being honest: I identify as a liberal first, and I vote for Democrats because they are currently the most liberal party with any hope of winning a major election. If I thought the Greens could win, and they fielded a good candidate (not Jill Stein), I would probably vote for them.
But was I really being honest? Maybe I just didn’t want to identify as a Democrat because, on some level, I absorbed the idea that it’s weak or small or bad or lowers my status to be a Democrat. Democrats are the “establishment,” right? They’re too centrist, too corporate, too conciliatory, too… feminine.
Most of the time, in most people, this dynamic operates on a subconscious level. It’s subtle. On the surface it seems quite different from the frothing-at-the-mouth misogyny of groups like the “men’s rights” movement, or the cultish neo-traditional anti-feminism of the religious right.
If I were to say “women should stay home and bake cookies” you would instantly recognize that as sexist. But if I were to say, “Hillary Clinton really dissed stay-at-home moms and screwed up forever when she made that remark about not staying home and baking cookies” it becomes a little less obvious.
Oh, wait. You knew I was eventually going to bring this around to talking about Hillary Clinton, right?
During the 1990s, when her husband was president, I was repeatedly told that I didn’t like her, that she was objectively “not likable.” I sometimes protested that I did like her, she seemed quite likable to me. Was I literally the only person in the whole country who felt that way?
I don’t know. But somebody elected her senator, somebody nominated her for president, and somebody gave her millions more votes than her opponent even though she lost. According to the photo caption on this article, somebody lined up by the thousands for her book signing.
The article names the event “as insufferable as you’d expect.”
The attitude of the press is perpetually “what? people like Hillary Clinton? That can’t be right. Who are these freaks?” The right hates Hillary Clinton, of course, but they hate all Democrats. It’s not surprising if Fox News publishes a hit piece on her. It’s more surprising when it comes from the New York Times. Or, well, not surprising in the sense of being unexpected. More, surprising in the sense of “why the hell are they doing this thing that makes no sense?”
Over the past year, I’ve adopted a new Occam’s Razor principle: if something people are doing appears to make no sense, it’s probably happening because of racism. And if it’s not racism, it’s misogyny, which is frequently a cover for racism.
(Think about that for a moment: why we find misogyny so acceptable that it works as a cover for racism.)
Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened, is about about the 2016 election. The folks at FiveThirtyEight judge it to be fairly accurate in its analysis of why/how she lost to a bigoted, peevish, unqualified, white-supremacy-pushing misogynist. Predictably, there are those who take the position that, in publishing such a book, she has committed some terrible offense against the gods, and why can’t she just disappear forever already?
Yeah, remember when Al Gore lost a presidential election under very similar circumstances? Remember how everybody made him go away? And everybody insisted that unreliable voting machines and a shaky-ground SCOTUS decision and biased media and the people who voted for his opponent and third-party candidates had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with his loss, because it was his fault and his fault alone, and he should wander the earth forevermore carrying the blame for his own defeat around his neck like a rotten albatross?
The thing is, criticism of Hillary Clinton is so unfailingly riddled with festering misogyny that it’s nearly impossible to suss out legitimate criticism from sexist scapegoating, and I AM SO BLOODY SICK OF TRYING.
I’m done. You say a word against Hillary Clinton now, I’m just going to Occam’s Razor the thing: you’re engaging in misogyny. Now it’s your job to prove you’re not.
Note: lobbing gendered insults at me does not prove your lack of misogyny, oddly enough.
Oh, I know. I know. You don’t hate WOMEN. Maybe you even are women! You don’t hate women with power. You don’t hate women running for president. You just hate Hillary Clinton SPECIFICALLY because she’s absolutely the all-time WOOOOOOOOOORRRRST…
During the 2016 election I took you at your word. I took you at face value. I assumed you were arguing in good faith. I thought that if I could Snopes-out the false components of your Hillary-bashing, maybe you would realize that your hatred was actually based on lies and you would come around.
Some of you were friends, or at least I thought you were. Some of you said you were as appalled by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency as I was.
And yet. Somehow. Whenever I pointed out that voting for Hillary Clinton was actually literally the only practical way to stop Donald Trump from becoming president, you would get all wound up and start loudly spouting off about how HILLARY CLINTON IS STILL THE WORST AND BOTH SIDES AND ESTABLISHMENT DEMOCRATS AND CORPORATIONS AND BERNIE BERNIE BERNIE.
Nothing against Bernie, but he didn’t win the nomination. There was never a point where voting for Bernie was going to stop Trump.
And if I tried to point that out, you would get even more wound up and start ranting CROOKED DNC AND RIGGED PRIMARIES AND EMAILS AND YOU’RE JUST VOTING FOR HER BECAUSE SHE’S A WOMAN THAT’S SEXIST AND EMAILS DID I MENTION EMAILS EEEEEEEEMAAAIIIIILSSSSSS
(I just now realized that “email” rhymes with “female,” especially when you say it in a Ferengi voice. It probably means nothing, but I can’t believe I never noticed it before.)
I ended up online-blocking people who I thought were my friends, or at least, not my enemies. Sometimes I stopped talking to them in real life. Even if I didn’t stop all contact, though, I stopped fully trusting them. I took their Hillary-bashing personally in a way they never seemed to understand.
Or, maybe they did get it and didn’t care.
I’m just a not-man, after all.
And of course, you always had wonderful objective reasons to hate Hillary Clinton, which are still super-relevant during her book tour and HELLO DID YOU NOTICE THE NIGHTMARE TRASHFIRE OF WHITE SUPREMACY AND INCOMPETENCE OCCUPYING THE WHITE HOUSE RIGHT NOW, PRIORITIES PEOPLE, TRY TO HAVE A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE.
It’s impossible not to see the renewed Hillary-bashing associated with the book as journalists, pundits, politicians, and randos on Twitter all trying to get back to their comfort zone
In fact, I suspect at least some of them might be suffering from a variety of cognitive dissonance, in which the presence of Hillary Clinton reminds them that they didn’t have to end up with Donald Trump as POTUS, and they resent her for that. They would prefer to pretend Trump is an inevitable destructive force of nature, like a hurricane, not a thing they chose to help bring about through bad habits like misogyny, both sides-ism, general intellectual laziness, and a terrifying lack of perspective.
I mean, they’re like people on a sinking ship who get all bent out of shape because the woman trying to lead them to the lifeboats maybe raised her voice or used some rough language or something. You know, it’s not that they’re against lifeboats or anything, but could she maybe stop and try saying “follow me!” in a nicer tone of voice?
During the election, it seemed like I couldn’t defend Hillary Clinton to even the tiniest degree without getting a major browbeating. And I…
I have regrets about the 2016 election.
I regret that I allowed the browbeating to affect my behavior.
More than I realized at the time.
I became shy, acted as if I were ashamed of being a Hillary Clinton supporter. I allowed myself to be made to feel that I had to make excuses for voting for her. I told myself that I was making these excuses for the benefit of other people, the people who acted like maybe they could be persuaded to save the country from a Donald Trump presidency, even if it meant voting for the dreaded Hillary Clinton, if I just presented the right case. Sure, I allowed, for the sake of argument, she might be only the “lesser evil,” but why wouldn’t you vote for the lesser evil? Why would you prefer the greater evil?
I didn’t plaster the car with bumper stickers and buy buttons to wear everywhere and post to Facebook every time I donated to her campaign. Because I feared the backlash I would get.
I hate personal conflict. I hate losing all respect for people I once called friends. I hate when things get ugly and people start using gendered insults, because that kind of talk goes through me like a knife to the gut, and I just, just now, right now, while I was writing this and it brought up all these feelings and I had a little breakdown of violent weeping, I just now realized the dynamic was so similar to Gamergate or any other kind of gendered online harassment: the goal is to get not-men to sit down and shut up, by punishing us for doing anything else.
And DAMN IT ALL TO HELL, but I am now ashamed of myself for not noticing, not realizing what was going on, not fighting back harder.
I don’t know that it would have made a difference to the ultimate outcome of the 2016 election. I’m just one person, one little voice. But I suspect I may not be alone.
I won’t try to pretend there’s a good side to all of this. Assuming we survive, we’re going to be years digging ourselves out from this mess. But I’ll take comfort where I can, and right now, my only real comfort is clarity.
I know what was done to me and to this country, I know how it worked, and I know that I need to resist it MORE. Maybe I told myself that I was being “nice” in order to influence or persuade, but all I was really communicating was that I was flexible, I was pliable, I was the one who cared less.
Without knowing or intending it, I was taking the feminine side, defined in a patriarchal culture as the weaker position. Sure, we’re told that niceness works to get us what we want through the power of sweetness and light, and it’s best if we just keep on baking cookies and wait, because if we’re only nice enough, someday surely justice will be done.
Well, forget that noise.
Look, I don’t care what you think about Hillary Clinton. I mean, I really, really, really don’t. You want her to shut up? Why don’t you shut up first? We have a CRISIS to manage here, and maybe you think Hillary Clinton could have done a better job saving us from a Donald Trump presidency, BUT SO COULD YOU. YOU, ALSO, COULD HAVE DONE A BETTER JOB OF SAVING US FROM A DONALD TRUMP PRESIDENCY. LIKE, FOR EXAMPLE, BEING MORE POSITIVE ABOUT HIS OPPONENT, AND MORE HONEST ABOUT HIS OWN FLAWS AND THE RACIST BASIS OF HIS SUPPORT.
I could have done a better job too.
I could have fought back harder.
And if there’s one thing I can do to fight back now, it’s this: I will not shut up, and I will not be ashamed, and I like Hillary Clinton and I think she should be president right now and I will probably buy her book and if you come at me with any of your knee-jerk-Hillary-hate I am not hearing it anymore. I’m not going to engage you nicely and try to persuade you. There’s no longer any point. Any Hillary-hate right now is de-facto support of Donald Trump AND I WILL REGARD IT AS SUCH. Trash-talk Hillary now and I’ll turn it around: what are you doing to stop Donald Trump and the destructive Republican agenda TODAY?
And let me tell you, Hillary-bashing IS NOT GETTING IT DONE. (Bernie-bashing isn’t getting it done either, but he’s in the Senate still, so it’s more relevant to talk about him at all.) Two reasons.
One: the campaign is over. Maybe Hillary Clinton lost because she was, somehow, in spite of her primary win, in spite of her superior popular vote count, in spite of her fans who actually exist no matter how much you try to erase us, uniquely horrible. Or maybe she lost because of VOTER SUPPRESSION AND RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE AND WHITE SUPREMACY. Dismissing those factors because you just hate Hillary oh-so-much and you want to characterize those things as her “making excuses” means THOSE FACTORS WILL STILL BE AROUND NEXT ELECTION. I mean, priorities, people. And think about the House and the Senate sometimes, huh? It’s not all about the POTUS. A Democratic Congress could stop the worst excesses of Trumpism, maybe even impeach the trashfire himself. Try to focus.
Two: dissing Hillary just brings out the passion in her fans, who actually exist, no matter how much you try to pretend we don’t. If you think she should disappear from the public eye, IGNORE HER BOOK TOUR and write about something else. My God, it’s not like there’s any shortage of Trump and Republican scandals you could write about. Your “hot take” on why Hillary Clinton is still the worst exists mostly to piss people off, and you know it.
Or, worse, it exists because it scratches a nasty, misogynistic little itch that you have — an unthinking visceral urge to put her in her place. People don’t merely hate Hillary Clinton, they clearly get off on hating her. It’s like she’s perpetually at the center of a good old-fashioned adulteress stoning.
Look, we don’t actually have to determine whether or not you genuinely hate Hillary Clinton purely for her own intrinsic qualities and it’s all completely unrelated to misogyny and scapegoating. Because who cares? She’s not a threat to our nation and planet right now. The Trump administration is.
There are white supremacists marching in our streets with the implicit approval of the Trump administration, right now. There are Republicans trying to take away your access to health care, right now. There are Republicans trying to take away your clean air and water, right now. You want to complain about people “threatening your heritage” by removing Confederate statues put up by racists during the 20th century? What about Republicans threatening your heritage by removing national parks and monuments?
And those are just some of the threats currently posed by the Trump administration. There’s the Muslim ban and the threat to deport Dreamers and the continuing intransigent denial of global warming and the threat to LGBTQ rights and freedom of the press and the ever-increasing militarization of the police and attempts to gut Title IX and defund Planned Parenthood…
I mean, if you really need to hate on somebody, hate on somebody who’s actually trying to harm you. But hatred all by itself isn’t terribly productive. You can hate Hillary Clinton as much as I hate Donald J. Trump, but neither one of them is going anywhere anytime soon, and only one of them is president right now. The wrong one. The one whose destructive agenda needs to be stopped.
Indulging in your lazy, comfortable old pastime of Hillary-bashing is not going to get that done.