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Patriarchy: your factory-installed programming

Updated: Mar 4

A few weeks ago we watched a movie with our teenager girls that made my insides crawl and had me hovering my finger over the pause button.

It was a comedy about two men - two hilarious, handsome men. A story that made them see life from each other’s perspectives, the rating of “R” that I saw only after I’d rented it.

I almost aborted the whole thing because I knew what it would be. But, given my occasional killer-of-fun-in-favor-of-a-social-stand, I decided to lean into the opportunity for “teachable moments”.

The movie would be funny, sure. It would have lots of F bombs, mostly unnecessary, reflexive and way overused. It would likely be a bit crude.

And it would have sex.

Now sex is great. I love sex. I have no problem with my kids knowing about sex, sexuality or naked bodies.

But this wouldn’t just be sex. It would be sex shown through the male lens – male desire, exaggerated and taking up all the air in the room. And with it would come the corollary - women as their sexual objects.

There is a scene in this movie where one of the characters is trying to close a huge financial deal with an almost all male team from his firm. (You later see two women fleetingly in the back, but they have no lines and are more like scene props.) The negotiation is tense, the other side low-balling. So the character implores his boss to go big by using the metaphor of trying to have sex with a girl.

“It’s just like trying to f*** a catholic girl who keeps saying ‘no, no, no, I don’t want to. I’m really drunk…but she keeps making out with you, she not leaving your Fiero. It means she really wants to. She just needs a little bit of a nudge, all right? A little bit of a coax. A little bit of a tickle. To rationalize it to herself, to her god. She wants to unroll that rubber at the bottom of her purse she put in there three semesters ago.”

The men in the room look aghast, shaking their heads in confusion and/or dismay at the character’s vulgarity.

Then the character says to his boss: “You pull those panties to the side, Ted, and you ask for a hundred million more. Punch her in the seed.” (At this point, my oldest went, “Ugh.”)

And, of course, they get it- the point being made and the hundred million more. The message is clear: real men take what they want.

When the credits rolled, I was unsurprised to see the movie was written by men, directed by men and produced by men.

Now I’m not saying that men aren’t allowed to tell their stories. But movies like this are part of a massive network of images and narratives that convey a clear and unyielding message: men’s sexual desire is like a predator and women are the prey. And perhaps it’s worse when it’s done through entertainment, through comedy. It’s a joke! Can’t you take a joke?

Women should be flattered to be able to drive men so wild that they lose their damn minds.

The trope of men as virile and lascivious and women as sexual objects is inarguably damaging to girls and women. But it is also a blueprint for growing boys into men who feel justified in being ruled by their sexual appetites and taking what they want. Boys will be boys.

These are the underpinnings of rape culture.

I know, I know - why watch it? No one held a gun to my head and made me pay to rent this movie. That’s on us. Yes, I unintentionally invested $3.99 in the patriarchy that night.

And sure, maybe I’m coming down hard on this one film that was made a decade ago and probably wouldn’t have the same content if made today in the post #MeToo movement. (I hope.) But let me tell you what it’s like to have your fifteen-year-old daughter ask for mace because she understands the world she lives in.

Let me tell you what it’s like to follow up with a conversation about why she should never accept a drink that she didn’t pour for herself and why she should never leave her drink unattended, even for a moment. And why, even when no is supposed to mean no, she needs to always be prepared to protect herself.

Do the parents of boys coach them on how loud to scream if they have a sudden, desperate need to? Do they teach them how to hold their keys between their fingers to be used as a weapon when walking to their car at night? Do they teach them to check their backseat when they unlock their car and to lock their doors as soon as they get in? Do they teach them to fight an assailant, even risking death, over letting themselves be taken somewhere?

Parents of a teenage boy leaving the house on a Saturday night say, “Be safe.” Translation: be safe on the road, obey the law, make good choices.

When my teenage daughter leaves the house I say, “Be safe.” Translation: be safe on the road, obey the law, make good choices. And also: Be on alert. Don’t put yourself in a situation you can’t get out of. Keep your body safe.

How is it that the very thing that makes women valuable in our society is the same thing that puts them at horrifying risk?

At a recent well child appointment with one of my daughters, her provider was going over her growth chart, tracking her finger on the upward sloping line indicating her change in weight. “But don’t worry!” the provider said. “This is totally normal! Girls often get very stressed about their weight going up, but I promise, it’s supposed to. You’re growing!”

Her words were meant to be comforting, but I wanted to cry. For my daughter, who has never once worried about her weight, for all the girls that need this validation, for the women I overheard at Starbucks processing their angst about their weight, wasting their precious energy and brilliant minds trying to fit themselves into a standard set for them by people wanting to keep them from their true power. I wanted to cry for my ten-year-old self who went on a diet because she thought she was fat. I want to cry for a society that has chosen to dimmish the vibrancy and life of half its population just because the controlling half is too afraid to share power.

Patriarchy could almost be admired for its simple but wildly effective design. And here is its single stroke of evil genius: manipulating the minds, hearts and bodies of women until we took up the cause ourselves.

A how-to guide to making women participate in their own entrapment:

Step 1- Set the cultural narrative. Society does this swifty and cleanly by controlling women’s bodies, legislating their reproductive rights and by sending the unrelenting message that a woman connected to her sexuality, pleasure or even her sensuality is vulgar, “asking for it” or is a slut.

Step 2 - Divide them. Prevent connection. Breed misogyny inside them so they mistrust other women and compete with them for the handful of coveted seats at the men’s table. (One woman alone, fed a diet of self-doubt her whole life, is no threat. A band of women, borrowing each other’s strength and collectively sharing and compounding their bravery, is a danger.)

Step 3 - Varnish their skin with shame that will seep under the surface and embed itself like a parasite.

This is how you control people. You don’t even need to strip them of their agency, their strength or their voice. If you follow these steps, they will do it for you.

I like thinking of patriarchy as so, you know, 1980, 1990 or 2002. Aren’t we beyond that now with #bodypositive, #loveyourself, # curvygirl, #effyourbeautystandards, #Fempire #KnowYourWorthLadies?

Yes and no. Disentangling ourselves from conditioning is a many-leveled process that can only ever begin with awareness. Each layer I peel back, I am shocked to realize there was still more in there. It is part of my operating system, embedded early on, coiled into my DNA. It lives in my body and my psyche, talks to me in my own voice and tries to keep me in line by raining down self-doubt whenever I dare step out of the box society has created for me.

I ask myself every day if I’m doing something or expressing something that is true to me or if I’m doing it to fit in or be valued by society. I love being a tough and powerful female. I also love being an intuitive, emotive, creative female who is touch with the rhythms of my body and the cycles of nature. I want it all. Mostly, I want to choose for myself. This is what patriarchy really takes from women- the ability to both ask the question of who we want to be and to provide an honest answer.

Patriarchy has stolen our compasses and installed a false bearing. This is the cruelest invasion of all.

I often remind myself that when my unburdening seems epically hard, it’s because patriarchy has been shaping women’s psyches and bodies for 10,000-12,000 years. Its effects have been passed down and it is not as simple as slipping out from under a heavy coat.

Here are some of the insidious ways I see it show up:

-Women question themselves endlessly.

-We see having needs as being weak, so we hold ourselves to impossible standards, crush ourselves with perfectionism, attempt to be superwomen, supermoms, girl bosses all while maintaining a punishing workout regimen or hating our bodies for not being the correct shape.

- We pride ourselves on not having needs, not needing rest, not complaining lest we be one of “those” women.

-We mistrust our own desires, our bodies, our intuition, denying ourselves pleasure – be it from enjoying food to enjoying sex– by divorcing ourselves from our own physicality, all the while engaged in a tug-of-war where our bodies are at both objectified and shamed. As if our bodies are for men to enjoy, not for us to enjoy.

- Many women find that the only way to advance in the corporate world is to hone their masculine attributes and shutter the uniquely female parts of them. They do it instinctually as well as in response to actual feedback from superiors. (Consider the gender wage gap if you’re unsure about this one.)

-We believe our value comes from our doing, not our being.

-We apologize for everything - for asking for something, for having a need, for crying, for taking the last napkin from the dispenser; where men might say, “Excuse me” women say, “I’m sorry.”

-We force our bodies into some arbitrary, and often unattainable, ideal (which drives the thriving diet and cosmetic industry, globally worth $254.9 billion and $511 billion, respectively).

-We equate assertiveness or leadership in women with bitchiness.

- We feel compelled to prove our worth by endlessly giving and buy into the faulty narrative that caring for ourselves or doing something just because we want to is selfish. (Calling a woman selfish is pretty much the equivalent of cutting her off at the knees. Why? Men are allowed, even rewarded, for being selfish.)

-When a woman speaks up, calls something out or advocates for something she wants, she has to fight the barrage of voices in her head – or in real life - that demand to know who she thinks she is.

This is what it means to be indoctrinated into a system. It hides in plain sight and is so much a part of our functioning, it often goes unnoticed.

a swimming fish asks another fish "How's the water?" The answer: "What the hell is water?"

(cred to David Foster Wallace for this idea from his 2005 commencement speech)

Though, undoubtedly, men benefit from patriarchy, I believe it is detrimental to their psyches as well. Patriarchy requires men, as the emboldened and empowered, to be regulated and controlled, infallible, overly cognitive, dominant, unfeeling and closed. Patriarchy keeps men larger than life, up on a pedestal from which they are always in danger of falling. There is no room for humanity, for vulnerability or for deep connection. It is its own burden. One that also deserves a liberation.

I, for one, am done with the box. I’m done doing what is expected of me. I’m done looking outside myself for what it means to be a woman. I’m tired of our society pressing itself upon me with its ever-morphing expectations, its attempts to overvalue some parts of me and undervalue others. I’m tired of censoring my own voice, my own thoughts. I'm tired of being told who I'm supposed to be.

I’m. Over. It.

It’s time for my body to be my own, my own holy place of knowing, of wholeness, of sensuality, of home. It’s time for me to let myself want- whether it’s chocolate or sleep or touch or solitude. And it’s your time, too.

I know that I am now the only one that can keep myself small. Society can try. Individuals can try. But they can only succeed if I comply. Equally, I am the only one who can liberate myself, who can carve out a new paradigm for myself and, I hope, for others. I am the only one who can give myself voice and permission. I cannot, will not, wait for the world to change.

If patriarchy was installed in me, then I can uninstall it. With awareness, with guts, with a willingness to answer the question, “Who do you want to be?” with one simple answer: Myself, as I choose myself to be.

I watch the women finding their way to the forefront, the icons of self-possession and self-ownership. These are the women I want paper the walls of my daughters’ young lives. They don’t give a damn what is expected of them, they let themselves take up space – not crowding out others but knowing there is plenty of space for everyone to live fully. They inhabit their bodies, unapologetically choose themselves and stand at the helm of their lives surefooted and pointed to their own true north.

This is the kind of woman I am learning to be.

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