Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Violent Femmes

Feminism can be a tough issue, especially for a fundamentalist Christian. I've noticed that among my kind, feminism can be a dirty word, but it doesn't have to be. Strictly speaking, feminism is simply the belief that women are equal to men in value, and I would hope that's not something that many people in my church would dispute, at least when put that simply.

In the world at large, it's a lot harder for me to say how people view the relative value of women vs. men. This particular presidential election cycle has given us a lot of food for thought in this arena. Hillary Clinton came so close to being the Democratic candidate that I'd hope people wouldn't label her eventual failure as the result of sexism, although of course they have and will continue to do so. Sarah Palin, of course, has become the Republican vice-presidential candidate, thus resulting in an unprecedented amount of talk of "glass ceilings" by conservatives. In my mind, whether or not we get a woman President anytime soon, we've shown it's possible in theory. But I know so many people will question whether "in theory" can really measure up to "in practice". Since women have had the vote for so long here in the U.S., why haven't we seen a woman President yet?

There's a weird sort of sexism that exists in our society which is not often obvious, mostly because it's so ingrained in us. Men, far more often than women, are characterized by being strong and ambitious. A woman who exhibits those tendencies is often viewed as "bitchy", which is a nasty word that ironically implies that a woman is acting like a man. I don't say that humorously, but seriously. Even in the liberal town where I went to college, I remember having a boss that people labeled as a bitch behind her back; I would point out to these labelers that a man acting the way she did would probably be promoted out of her position.

This sort of verbal sexism, while fairly well-known, is actually symptomatic of bigger issues that lie under the surface. With Clinton losing the nomination to Obama, there's been some dialogue concerning sexism vs. racism. There's a funny (peculiar, definitely not "ha-ha" funny) difference between these issues. There are a lot of people worried that the first black President is likely to be assassinated by racists. Does anyone think that the first female President will be assassinated by chauvinists? I've never heard it suggested, and I think there's a reason why. Sexism, despite any supposed similarity to racism, works in a very different manner. Racists tend to look down on people of the hated race and say, "They're inferior, we must be protected from them," while chauvinists seem to say, "Women are inferior, we must protect them from us."

I recall many years ago, there was a "For Better or for Worse" comic strip in which the character Liz had discovered her boyfriend had been cheating on her, and in her outrage, she started punching him. A few people were apparently outraged by this, but of course, the outrage was only a fraction of what it would have been had the genders been reversed. Imagine Liz's brother Mike discovering his girlfriend/wife had been cheating on him, and punching her. I don't know if my emotional responses are typical of society as a whole, but the latter scenario almost brings feelings of nausea, while the former at the time hardly caused me to blink. But violence of any kind should bother us, shouldn't it?

It's a weird thing that I was thinking as I was pondering writing this. Back when Governor Schwarzenegger was running for office, a number of his interviews that showed him in a less-than-flattering light were publicized. Among them was one in which he talked about how much fun he had making Terminator 3:

"I saw this toilet bowl. How many times do you get away with this, to take a woman, grab her upside down, and bury her face in a toilet bowl? I wanted to have something floating there ... The thing is, you can do it, because in the end, I didn't do it to a woman, she's a machine! We could get away with it without being crucified by who-knows-what group."
This was appalling to me, and I imagine to many others, but after making two movies (Terminator movies, that is; he's made far more than two overall) in which he beat the crap out of male adversaries, wasn't beating the crap out of a teenage girl in some sense a very "feminist" thing to do?

How bizarre to think that violence against women could be a positive thing, helping to modernize our culture! It's not such a crazy idea, either, as Anna Quindlen, the very feminist columnist herself, wrote a column near the beginning of the war in which she insisted that if this war meant reinstating the draft, then women should also be drafted. Quindlen's probably twenty years older than me, yet she manages to make me feel awfully old, or at least old-fashioned. Something about this seems dreadfully right somehow. Why is it that I can accept the idea of a woman being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, yet I quail at the idea of women serving in the armed forces? Clearly, while I claim to accept women as equals, there's a part of me that can't quite do it.

I think the problem of women in the workplace not being recognized goes back to this, too. I've worked in a lot of offices with a lot of men and women, and I think it pervades the culture in a way that is hard to overcome. It's not just a matter of the men in charge not accepting the competency of women, but I think on some level, a lot of women are either aware of this tendency in their male superiors or don't accept competency in themselves. Possibly both. Over the years, working in various office environments, I've noticed that the lower levels of the org chart are overwhelmingly filled with female employees. Not being managerial material myself, most of my coworkers seem to be women, but it's the exceptions that are interesting. It's seemed to me that the tendency of men is to say, "This job sucks!" and so either push for a promotion to a cushier job or quit. On the other hand, women seem to say "This job sucks!" and then just sit in their chair and keep doing it year after year. Either women don't think they're worth more, figure that their true worth doesn't matter in the face of perceived worth, or perhaps stagnate due to an innate craving for stability.

After all, there's something about striving for advancement that implies risk-taking activity. A friend of mine told me (and I think he's right, although I don't have any data to back it up) that most people only make truly big career advancements when they change jobs, not when they get promoted within the same organizational structure. It does seem to be true that women have a stronger need for stability than men do. That being true, perhaps it really does take balls to make risky decisions. Without risk, one can't succeed in a big way, but on the other hand, one also can't fail in a big way. I wonder, people often talk about how men make up a large percent of top executives in America, but what portion do they comprise among the unemployed?

We men tend to be irrational, impulsive, and yes, violent. And we run the world. Is it any wonder things are in such turmoil?

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