25 June, 2009

Cultural Possession Post Script

The Western male presumption of ownership over women is particularly evident in the social treatment of women who dare to deviate from prescribed gender roles and expectations.

As a society, we castigate ambitious women as being cold harpies and equate them managing men in a brusque manner with castration (whereas the same managerial style from a male leader is expected; it's as if subordinate men expect a compassionate mother figure instead of a boss). We traditionally celebrate homemakers as the epitome of woman-hood, and this is wrong. Although I am not suggesting that all homemakers are unhappy, it does seem that it would present a life of social isolation, financial dependence, menial tedium, and absolute boredom. However, with recent modern revolutions, homemaker women have, to a degree, come to be both looked down upon and become a source of envy (because they don't really work, but if it's a stay-at-home father, he's a martyred hero).

But the most glaringly obvious cases arise when men interact with out lesbians. If the man* interacting with them finds them attractive, there are culturally approved denigrating tropes to fall back upon that always involve him getting involved in her sexual life or at least watching. And if that same man finds the lesbian with whom he is interacting unattractive, he will commonly write her off as a misguided woman who just hasn't had the "right man" yet (to put it politely). Both cases invoke explicit assumption of ownership by the man over that woman's sexuality.

Here there is a substantial level of cognitive dissonance. On the individual level, women completely own their sexuality and control when, how, and with whom they choose to have sex. Often, men inappropriately perceive this as women "holding out" or having an undue control over them when in reality it has absolutely nothing to do with them. But on the societal level, men implicitly control women's sexuality. Through cultural invocations of idealized beauty, through cosmetics, through lingerie, clothing, make-up, hair styles, shoes, and pornography. Although cultural conditioning allows individual women to find empowerment in their femininity, the social machine sets and enforces the standards of "beautiful" femininity and is driven entirely by men's desire and lust. Through dissemination of culture in pictoral advertising, men express their idealized desires and women strive to meet what they are told is beautiful. This leads to insecure, depressed women and demanding men in a self-amplifying feedback loop, which furthers neithers' cause nor equity.

To move forward, we need to dissociate our individual images of ourselves from those idealized images we see in the media-driven world around us. It is far more constructive to look to a loved one for a compliment on one's appearance than to try to use a fashion magazine as a mirror. In effect, if we continue to do the latter, unwittingly or not, we are allowing cultural standards to own all of us. Men become owned by the standardized ideal femininity and pursue it to the exclusion of everything else, and this reinforces the male privilege of owning females' sexuality. Women become owned by the same standards and torture themselves trying to meet them because the advertised message that beauty = happiness has been so deeply ingrained by Western media that it is now unavoidable and pervasively subconscious.

Maybe it's time Western ideals were broadened, both to increase the happiness of women as well as to dilute the male sense of cultural ownership over women.

*Singular term used generally, not specifically.


Ambivalent Academic said...

Yet another excellent post Toaster! It makes me so happy to hear a man articulate these ideas - some of you CAN get it and get it well - so no more excuses for the rest of them!

...but don't you mean "financial dependence" (not independence) with respect to homemaking?

Toaster Sunshine said...

You are correct. Fixed. Apparently I was typing faster than I was proofing.

Becca said...

Wow, you have a negative view of what it's like to be a homemaker. Mind you, it's not exactly something I'd want, but isn't grad school at times a life of social isolation, financial dependence and menial tedium?
If being a homemaker would bore you, that's fine. But plenty of people think being a scientist is boring too.

I don't think feminism will make maximal progress by trying to get both genders to equally divvy up 'the scut work' (i.e. housework)- I think we're better off recognizing that some people like some kinds of work better and all work is important. The problem isn't that some housework needs to be done, the problem may not even be that it's mostly women doing it, the problem is that it's part of the unpaid economy and that it's not valued.

Also, I'm not sure there is any constructive way to focus very much on one's appearance. If fashion magazines were all controlled by women or gay men (and some have argued that they are), would the bodies they present be any healthier?
I don't think the 'men implicitly control women's sexuality' provides sufficient insight into why and how women feel sexually constrained. That is definitely part of what goes on, but I'd say it's more that the patriarchy controls everyone's sexuality in a way that mostly benefits males (men having to appear macho and women castigating each other for sluttiness result from the same root problem as the quasi-surreal effects of Western pictoral advertising).

Using a fashion magazine as a mirror is usually a horrible idea, but I'm not sure loved ones are any better. We're all awash in the same media images and socialization. I feel insecure and depressed from what the men in my life say 10x as often as I do from fashion magazines (this may have something to do with never opting to look at fashion magazines; I hope I don't just have particularly obnoxious men around). I also feel insecure and depressed more often from what other women say than I would ever feel based on a magazine.

Toaster Sunshine said...

You make several valid points in your critique. I'm not sure that I, as a male in Western society, can speak with sufficient insight or accuracy into why Western women feel sexually constrained. Perhaps you can explain better? If you do post something on the topic, please let me know and I will gladly link to it.