In the wake of the shooting in Isla Vista, a conversation entered the mainstream media about the idea of male entitlement and the associated societal structures that breed this sort of mentality. Rape culture. Ingrained misogyny. Got me thinking, where else do I observe the abuse of dominance? It’s not just in the minds of the “friend-zoned” or out-and-out woman-haters. It’s in all of us. It’s everywhere. And women contribute, too.
In particular, it occurred to me that there is a fundamental conflict between what women say and what we do. For example, there are scores of books and movies dedicated to the average American woman’s notion of romance. You could call it “girl porn”, as seen in the film Don Jon: Men like to watch people getting it on, but women? Women like romantic comedies, romantic dramas, harlequin romance novels, Disney-style fairytales. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that OF COURSE there are females that enjoy pornography. But I’m going to wager a guess that most women go for the “romance porn” stuff.)
In these books and films we see male characters who are often disrespectful of a woman’s right to her own body, tending to act forcefully, or even aggressively, to assert their male right to female attention. These characters are written as Alpha-males, dominant over their women and their environment — they know what they want, they feel entitled to it, they are persistent, and they get it. Alternately, we have the “wounded soul” male — a person whose whole life experience has been so fraught that we can hardly blame him for being so flawed. We read Twilight (crazy obsessive stalker) and 50 Shades of Grey (emotionally unstable man-child who is borderline abusive, but has a heart of gold) and we swoon over these damaged male characters who treat their women poorly and possessively. Somehow, the lonely, needing quality gives these fictional men the right to exhibit aggressively toxic masculinity, particularly in their pursuit of the female protagonist. The stalking, the jealous rage, the single-minded focus of the male’s attention on the female — our culture has conditioned us to believe that these stunts are romantic. And we just eat that shit up. Men see that, see the hypocrisy in it, and come to the conclusion that all women a.) don’t really know what they want, b.) are sending mixed messages/being manipulative, and c.) that this crap:
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read them all. I like them. They’re my guilty little pleasure. Some romance novels are actually very well-written and well-balanced, depicting not an over-hyped ideal, but a realistic struggle that we can all relate to. In a genre largely written for women by women, there is a tremendous opportunity to extol the virtues of sexual equality. But even when it comes to less delicately written erotica, I enjoy getting lost in the romance, the intrigue — mentally substituting the weak female protagonist for myself (because that’s exactly what these books are for), and embarking on a whirlwind romantic flight of fancy.
But then I stop. I put the book down. And I think about how I would never, ever, EVER accept that kind of treatment from my partner in real life. I think it’s time to own up to the truth: that, unfortunately, my partaking of this form of media is complicit acceptance ingrained misogyny. And that it is a bit hypocritical.
Women can, and sometimes do, send mixed messages. But it isn’t because we’re emotionally manipulative or cunning. We’re taught that clear, explicit messages of arousal or consent are unromantic. That being assertive is slutty. That you have to wait for the man to make the move. A woman that propositions a man is a slut, but women who are selective or discerning when selecting a sexual partner are prudish and condescending. Those words in bold? I don’t want to be any of those things, but it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. I know a lot of women who feel the same way.
I think it’s time that we all start taking responsibility for the ways in which our culture has altered our consciousness on sexual norms. For women, that means coming to grips with the fact that we are literally buying into patriarchy — not just by spending money on “romance porn”, but also spending billions of dollars every year on attempts to embody a standard of beauty that is unrealistic and psychologically, economically, and politically damaging.
Truthfully, I like getting dolled-up. I do my hair and make-up like a 1950’s pin-up model, not to attract male attention, but because it makes me feel good about myself and gives me confidence. But lest I forget that I am a product of my culture and my environment, I have to ask myself, how much of what I like is because I really like it and how much is because I’ve been conditioned to like it?
Girls grow up in a world where we are taught that our primary (if not our only) commodity is our beauty. While it’s not necessarily taboo to be an intelligent, articulate, or independent girl, it’s not so often praised either. I, for one, clearly remember feeling the need at eight years old to suck in my tummy when passing boys in the supermarket, but I didn’t begin pride myself on my smarts until I was in my 20’s. And that wasn’t because I was raised by misogynists (I wasn’t) or because I grew up in an environment that devalued educational accomplishments (I didn’t). It’s because even at that young age, I understood that my worth as a human being was inextricably bound to my appearance, so I had better make it good.
Women and men alike need to come together in the spirit of finding balance and establishing equality — first by confronting our previously unacknowledged hypocrisies and universally accepted “truths”, and then by making a commitment to change them. In the last few weeks I’ve heard a lot of people say “feminist” like it’s a dirty word, I think because there is a common misconception that being a feminist means “a women who hates men“. To assume such a thing is to miss the point entirely, and ultimately, to doom the fight by misdirecting the conversation (once again) towards hate and extremism. It’s about equality — and if that’s what we want, ladies and gents, then we all need to come to terms with the ways in which we directly or inadvertently add to the imbalance.