Feminism 101: Patriarchy and the single standard

This is a excerpt from my book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. If you like this text, please consider buying a copy.

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What is feminism? I take after bell hooks, who defined feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” and define feminism as a movement to end patriarchy, all forms of patriarchal oppression, and all forms of oppression as a whole. This is the most basic ideology of most forms of feminism, and while many differ in their understandings of patriarchy, sexism and how exactly to end them, this is the basic motivation that most of us share. (While I acknowledge that some may not, I must also acknowledge that their feminism might be a bit awry…)

I define patriarchy as a social structure in which men are the dominant group and are benefactors of many privileges in all fields of life by sole virtue of being gendered as men. Literally, “patriarchy” means “male rule”, it reflects a social structure in which men have both material and symbolic control over every sphere in life.

Patriarchy means over-representation of men in government (in relation to their portion in the population); patriarchy means over-representation of men in management positions or in work places; patriarchy means men getting paid more for equal work; patriarchy means men holding most of the world’s resources but women performing most of the labor; patriarchy means men controlling and benefiting from women’s labor both outside and inside the home; patriarchy means men controlling women and their bodies via street harassment, sexual harassment, intimate violence, sexual violence and rape; patriarchy means men controlling women’s reproduction capacities through permitting or denying them birth control and/or access to abortion; patriarchy means that women’s bodies are considered flawed and disgusting while men’s bodies are considered clean and healthy; patriarchy means that men and masculine behaviour are appreciated and validated by society while women and feminine behaviour are derided and dismissed; patriarchy means that masculine language is the rule and feminine language the exception (“mankind”, “he”, etc.); patriarchy means that men are encouraged to express themselves while women are encouraged to be silent; patriarchy means male control and validation above all else, at the direct expense and on the backs of women, in all of these ways and in many others.

End patriarchy

Here we must also remember that in minority world (“White”/”Western”) cultures, patriarchy specifically refers to control held and wielded by a very particular group of men over all others. This particular group consists of white, native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, middle and upper-class, nondisabled men of ages usually ranging between 30 and 50. This particular group of men holds power above all other social groups in any and all of the axes described, and enjoys multiple forms of privilege as social rewards for belonging to the dominant group.

When I say this, it’s important to remember that I am not counting separate groups of men here, but rather a single standard that is always invisible because it’s considered “the norm”. In a culture where this is the one standard, only deviation from these characteristics is considered as an identity. Society only marks and names those characteristics that are incompatible with the single standard – this is why “women” are considered a “minority” group but men are not, and why “people of color” are considered as such while “white” people aren’t (“white” being marked as a non-color, in contrast with the “color” of “those other people”), even though both these groups are the majority. This is also why “transgender” is marked as an “identity group” but “cisgender” is not, why “queer” is likewise marked, but “straight” is not, and of course why “bisexual” is marked but “monosexual” is silent.

It’s important to note that in contrast with bisexual erasure (or erasure of any other group), the reason why these identities are never named or spoken is that they are considered the rule. All people are considered as belonging to them unless and until proved otherwise, and the entire cultural production, material and symbolic alike, is set to accommodate them, their identities and their needs. There is no need to state them because they are the default.

If you want an example of this, try watching some TV, reading some papers or looking at the government (all forms of mass control and cultural production) and count how many people you see who match the single standard and how many don’t. You’ll find that even when some people deviate from the standard, the target audience remains the single standard group and its tastes. You’ll also find that people from marginalized groups represented in these cases will mostly be represented negatively or stereotypically. You might also find that these people will mostly only deviate from the single standard by one characteristic only (except where there’s a connection between characteristics, for example: many people of color are also working class).

This also gives us a peek into how privilege works within marginalized groups and in particular in social justice and political movements (especially mainstream ones): The way that privilege is distributed in society means that in most cases, those dominating the group or the movement would only be removed from the single standard by one degree.

For example, the mainstream women’s movement would be mostly dominated by white, native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, middle and upper-class, nondisabled women; the mainstream people of color movement would be mostly dominated by native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, middle and upper-class, nondisabled men of color; the mainstream LGBT movement would be mostly dominated by white, native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender, monogamous, middle and upper-class, nondisabled gay men; etc. In feminist terminology, this is also sometimes called kyriarchy, referring to the complex and intersectional character of oppression wherein a person who is oppressed in one context might be privileged in another.

Lisa Simpson: The whole damn system is wrong!

It’s forth noting that the mainstream bisexual movements in minority world countries is mostly removed not by one but by two (and sometimes three) degrees from the single standard, being mostly dominated by white, native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender, monogamous, middle and upper-class, nondisabled bisexual women (sometimes also polyamorous). I consider this as a positive fact, but certainly not enough. Among other things, this is part of why it’s important for me to examine issues relating to bisexual women and men separately [in this chapter] so as not to unify them into the single bisexual standard which inevitably ignores differences.

All this is to say that patriarchy is a term referring to the single-standard group, focusing on the gendered dominance of men and masculinity but not ending there. For me, feminism is about opposing all forms of oppression relating to patriarchy as I defined it above, including every link on the chain of privilege held by the single standard. This is why feminism, taken to this extent, is an inclusive movement for ending patriarchal oppression in the broadest sense possible. That feminist movements themselves do not always adhere this rule is, in my opinion, less a failure of feminism and more a result of patriarchal oppression to be opposed through feminist tools.

Using this type of feminism is for me the basis for all politics and activism that I do. It allows me to draw connections between different issues and to examine common ground without unifying groups or losing sight of differences and specifics. This contributes both to feminism and to other movements as it uses multiple tools and viewpoints for resisting oppression and for creating radical changes in society, for the sake of everyone rather than just the ones on top.

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11 thoughts on “Feminism 101: Patriarchy and the single standard

  1. I really like the paragraph beginning:

    This also gives us a peak into how privilege works within marginalized groups…

    It took me far, far too long in my younger years to figure this out.

  2. Pingback: פמיניזם למתחילות/ים – פטריארכיה והסטנדרט האחיד | שחור-סגול

  3. Thank you Shiri, I’m very happy to know you’re writing a book and I’m looking forward to reading it. It was also a nice surprise to find your profile on Genderfork. Thank you so much for your work.

  4. If you want an example of this, try watching some TV, reading some papers or looking at the government (all forms of mass control and cultural production) and count how many people you see who match the single standard and how many don’t. You’ll find that even when some people deviate from the standard, the target audience remains the single standard group and its tastes. You’ll also find that people from marginalized groups represented in these cases will mostly be represented negatively or stereotypically. You might also find that these people will mostly only deviate from the single standard by one characteristic only (except where there’s a connection between characteristics, for example: many people of color are also working class).

    Tis’ True…

  5. I came across this quote from Audre Lorde today and thought you might appreciate it in connection with your idea of “The Single Standard”:

    Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising. By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.

    – Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Triangle Classics collected edition of Zami/Sister Outsider/Undersong, 1993), p116

  6. Pingback: What my book is about | Bi radical

  7. Anonymous by reason of describing elite people who wouldn't like reading this... on said:

    “Here we must also remember that in minority world (“White”/”Western”) cultures, patriarchy specifically refers to control held and wielded by a very particular group of men over all others. This particular group consists of white, native/citizen, college/university-educated, cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous, middle and upper-class, nondisabled men of ages usually ranging between 30 and 50. This particular group of men holds power above all other social groups in any and all of the axes described, and enjoys multiple forms of privilege as social rewards for belonging to the dominant group.”

    A little late to comment, but you’re off on the age bracket. The group who holds top social power over everyone is significantly more specific. Dominance rests firmly in the hands of the “CEO” class of men, who are generally substantially older than 50. As a side note, they’re only nominally monogamous: they practice classic “wife, concubines, and whores” sexuality.

    These superrich men don’t appear to be the unmarked default group? Well, there are so few of them that it would be hard for them to appear this way *in the media for the rest of us*. However, when they talk among themselves, they sure do consider themselves the default. I’ve been in the background of some of these groups.

    There’s something very subtle going on in the suppression of wealth-based class-consciousness. Each class is given the illusion that there is only one class above it, but in fact there is a finer and finer gradation as you near the top. The middle-class people are made to feel as if they are the norm, but in fact they are constantly judged for every deviation from the standards of the elite. Finally, since class gets subdivided more and more finely as you move up, the people at the top are constantly aware of their position in the hierarchy, and jockeying for position.

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