My friend's four-year-old daughter told me with all sincerity the other day that girls “can’t be in charge”. But boys can. Oh shit, I thought, how can I show her otherwise?
We’d been watching a cartoon about a team of male
undersea explorers led by a male
captain. Its aim, I’m sure, was to educate young minds about the wonders of nature. Only it’d been teaching this darling girl something quite different. The men are in charge.
This cartoon is no exception to the rule. I’ve been paying close attention to the media available to young minds and the messages they convey. And the main takeaway, unsurprisingly, is the importance of traditional heterosexual ideals. In other words, boys will be boys while the girls vie for their approval. And this hurts all children
, male and female. Yes, quality parenting can expound equality, but we cannot control everything that children are exposed to. Nor should we hide them from the world. Instead we can change it for them.
We do so by deconstructing the ways we’re told boys get to have all the fun while girls look on... and so we come to patriarchy. I know, I know, I can hear you sigh. Patriarchy has become a catchall phrase for the blame mongers, a punch bag for those who feel hard done by. But attacking it does not serve our cause here simply because patriarchy isn’t outside us. It’s inside
Patriarchy is a mindset. It’s the values, ideals and beliefs that have taken root in our collective psyche as human evolution has favoured the powerful – not just men, but the privileged and strong. We don’t just worship men and deride women, you see, we deride all weakness and difference. Patriarchy isn’t just about male domination, but all forms of domination.
Take a look around. Within any relationship, personal and professional, there will be both a dominant and a submissive party – black, white, gay, straight, male, female. And the stronger party will inevitably be the (straight, white) male simply because the world is set up in a way that supports his (superficial) empowerment.
Okay, let’s take a breath. How did we get all the way over here from that cartoon? Simple. Patriarchy begins with something as innocent as a cartoon or a throwaway comment. This is how we plant the roots
I’ll give you another example.
While strolling through the park this week I overheard a conversation between two teenage girls and a teenage boy. One of the girls said to the boy, jokingly
, “are you watching porn already?” Cue much hilarity. Oh, how they laughed, like it was a fact of life that boys watch porn and girls accept it
. I mean, WTF? I don’t know if women watch porn because they like it or because they want to be cool. But I do know that women have been raised to accept the idea that the female body, the female person, is an object to be owned and oppressed.
But wait, you say, oppression is a word that can come off a little heavy; surely we’re all too progressive for that kind of thing? I’m afraid not. We’re way more regressive than we realise, merrily maintaining this system of oppression through our patriarchal relationships.
And we take our cues from the likes of pornography and children’s cartoons – apparent extremes – because they’re not only teaching us how to be male and female, but also how to interact as males and females. And they perpetuate patriarchal dualism
that says the world is understood through binary categories – there is always an inferior and a superior, a strong and a weak.
Think about any relationship in which one person gives and the other gains. The heterosexual ideal tells us women do the giving because females are wired to nurture others
, right? And yet, if we’re programmed to submit to and care for others, how is it that we don’t know how to do these things for ourselves? Girls, it seems, are growing up with the belief that someone else will lead them, decide for them, and validate their existence. And we women were once those girls, which is why I see so many of us relinquishing our agency, our power of self-definition, in the name of relationship.
We constantly seek approval
from whomever we believe holds the power – so that would be the men since we live in a world of (male) domination. But patriarchy hurts the boys too because it defines masculinity in such narrow terms. It asks them to step up even if they don’t want to.
Talk about pressure.
This oppressor / oppressed paradigm is hurting everyone
. So how do we kick it into touch? Whatever is manifesting in our outer lives is simply a projection of the inner life. Okay, let’s start there. Even better, let’s start with the inner child.
There’s a part of us that just wants to be loved
. But we simply won’t allow for it because humans can be silly like that, believing it to be a sign of weakness, neediness. So the inner child becomes the submissive, we become both the oppressor and
the oppressed, and the relationships we have with ourselves become as patriarchal as any other. We’re constantly critiquing and bullying ourselves, serving ultimatums and denying our inner child’s full development and expression. But love can never take root in a relationship based on domination and coercion, which is why we have such a hard time walking the long road from self-loathing to self-loving.
But we will never truly grow up into self-identified adults until we walk that road and tend to that child within – until we stop projecting our inner pain onto our outer lives, protecting our most private selves with public shows of one-upmanship. This, my friends, is why we have a responsibility to be kinder to each other, to look after each other better, by first being kinder to ourselves. Mutually beneficial relationships
may be built on mutual respect for the individual, but respect for the individual begins with the individual.
So take a look at the ways you relate to yourself and answer me this, when was the last time you did something kind for yourself? When was the last time you spoke kind words to yourself? When was the last time you were gentle with yourself? Oh my, why is this self-love stuff so hard
All I know is that it’s not impossible. In a recent moment of panic and pain I made the bold decision to mute my inner bitch and ask myself, what would I want mum to say to me right now? Even better, what would I say to her in her moment of panic and pain? And then I let the kind words flow.
My recovery was quick. All it had taken was that moment of acknowledgement and gentleness. There was no right or wrong, weak or strong, no binary categorisation, just a parent loving and caring for her child. So maybe we all need to become the mothers and big sisters and aunties we long for. Maybe we need to raise ourselves to become the female leaders, the female role models we crave. The ones who can change the world. And we do this through mutuality, not domination. Only then will the cartoons (and the porn) tell a different story.