Monday, August 17, 2009

Staring Down the Barrel of Masculine Privilege

The phrase “masculine privilege,” and all the ideas and traditions it suggests, is probably the single most daunting obstacle awaiting any guy tackling feminism for the first time. For any man—be they the open-minded, liberal thinking sort; the close-minded, misogynist variety; or anything between—it’s tough not to take as an insult notions that their biological sex buys them any sort of advantage in our society. It’s easier to just point at a successful woman and give the requisite, “See!?! Clearly, if women can be CEOs of multinational corporations, heads of state, or Justices on the US Supreme Court, then this whole masculine privilege idea is no longer relevant.”

The mistake some guys make is that they confuse a large cultural norm with a critique of their own personal behavior. This confusion tends to occur in a knee-jerk sort of way to guys who’d like to consider themselves (often rightfully so) sensitive and bright. Men that care and respect women don’t like to hear about masculine privilege, at least not in accusatory fashion. The topic is unsettling in ways all discussions of exploitation and unequal privilege are unsettling. Beyond that, though, bright guys often breeze over or outright avoid talking about masculine privilege because of the inescapable levels of introspection involved: you may see something in there that you wished you hadn’t. The fact is, no matter how forward thinking a guy may be, no matter how outspoken or active he is in feminist venues or other such causes, all men benefit from their masculinity. Whether they willingly accept or openly decry these benefits does not change the fact that the benefits exist to begin with.

A year ago, I married this blog’s editor. In the months leading up to our wedding, Marie decided to keep her name (or, rather, she decided not to change her last name to mine). It was a decision she discussed with me; and, as the sensitive, forward thinking guy I believe I am, it was a decision I accepted. So the wedding passes, as do multiple holidays and family events—you know, occasions in which a couple receives only one card or invitation. In nearly all cases, an envelope arrived addressed, annoyingly, to a Mr. and Mrs. Tyler Haney. At first, Marie would only say, “That’s not my name.” But as time passed, and this scenario continued to repeat itself, her annoyance grew. “Mr. and Mrs. Tyler Haney” became more than just a case of misidentification; it became an outright sign of disrespect. Now, we know our friends and family do not hold Marie in such low regard that they enjoy taking jabs at her whenever the holidays roll around. To them, “Mr. and Mrs. Tyler Haney” is just convenient shorthand. (This is patriarchal hegemony at its finest…Patriarchal what-y what?—don’t worry, we’ll discuss those topics and more down the road.) Nonetheless, the pain and annoyance is there regardless of intention. Her name is not Mrs. Tyler Haney: never has been or will be.

It was when these cards began arriving that I truly realized that the use of this traditional name conflation caused in Marie a pain that I could never feel. See, we will never for the life of our marriage receive in the mail an envelope addressed to Ms. and Mr. Marie Chesaniuk. In other words, my name will never be erased or ignored. What’s more, looking back to our pre-marriage months, I never had to deliberate and discuss whether or not I would have to give up my last name. I never had to hope that my future spouse would accept my decision to do so. I never had to constantly explain… fuck it, let’s be real, I never had to justify to more “traditional” folks why keeping my own last name wouldn’t be weird or detrimental to our non-existent children. I didn’t have to go through any of this. And, for the foreseeable future, no guy ever will. This is masculine privilege. And for most guys (and many women, really), sticking with tradition is a whole lot easier than confronting it.

So how does a guy go about facing down masculine privilege? I’m no doctor, but developing a sharper awareness and an explicit recognition of the advantages masculinity provides is good first step. In recognizing and confronting the pain Marie feels as a result of this last name ordeal, I’ve approached an understanding with her that helps us feel less cut-off from one another. That’s a good feeling.

What are some other first steps?


jane said...

It always annoys me when people say that since there are women in high profile jobs that there is no more sexism. Sotomayor is only the third female Supreme Court Justice. And female CEO's make up only a small percentage within Fortune 500 companies. A woman has to be the best to get to the top. I read a quote a while back saying something along the lines of: "There will be no sexism when a woman can slack off just as much as a man and still have a job." Now, that's a bit unfair to men because many do work hard, but women do have to "prove" their worth, especially in male dominated industries.

MER said...

I think that good first steps would include positive examples, rather than shaming and sticking to the party line of 'women are oppressed, men are privileged'.
I think a good start would be to focus on concrete things that feminism has to offer men; especially in order to be less alienating.
It's important to recognize the ways in which facing male (and female) privilege also serve to end gender based oppression.
In addition to having a sharp and explicit recognition of advantages, it's also important to think about what there is to gain.

Gabrielle said...

I suppose Marie could always write "no such person at this address" on the mail she gets that's addressed to Mrs. Tyler Haney, and pop it back in the mailbox. Well, perhaps that would be a little much, but it would certainly get the message across. :) My mother got a bit of flack for NOT reclaiming her maiden name after she divorced. She decided to retain her children's surname, and not everyone was understanding.

Marie said...

Jane: I hear what you're saying. I think that kind of talk is indicative of someone who isn't looking to overcome sexism, but is instead looking for a good excuse to stop having to care.

MER: You make a good point about abusing a party line. People, guys in this case, are generally pretty good at knowing when someone's trying to take the easy way out in pursuing a certain point of view. And we owe it to them to give them something more.

Gabrielle: I am TOTALLY doing that one day!

amber sky said...

Maybe a step towards facing down masculine privilege would be to try doing something that is considered "girly." Such as, taking a ballet class or something in that vein. Men aren't the only ones who feel consciously or subconsciously that they're entitled to their own societal roles. The key is realizing that every human is different, and society thus far has done everything in its collective power to keep everything in nice and tidy boxes.

Tyler said...

You're more in the neighborhood of gender stereotypes, amber sky. Guys trying "girly" things can create awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes funny, sometimes enlightening moments, but the moments are always fleeting and never really tackle privilege. A stereotypical man's man trying ballet may give the man in question a greater respect for ballerinas and the work they do, but the "girly" and "man's man" stereotypes remain unchanged, and are maybe even reinforced. This is what makes masculine privilege (privilege in general, really) so tricky. It's less about trying new things and more about recognition of inherent benefits. To put it another way, in confronting masculine privilege guys don't really need to get in touch with their feminine side (like trying ballet) as much as they need to be up-front and honest with their own masculine nature and all the benefits inherent in this masculinity.

You may want to check out this post from What Tami Thinks: "What We Mean When We Talk About Confronting Privilege"

Philosimphy said...

Masculine Privilege is a much better term than Male Privilege, because men who actually do prefer the stereotypical "girly" things, whether it's sleeping with men or knitting, or ballet, are marginalized by masculine culture. I find so many men take exception to the term Male privilege, but when it's explained in terms of societally approved masculine behavior it's more understandable.

Erin said...

Barack Obama is now our President and racism is still abundant. Using examples of women and minorities in higher positions as evidence of lack of prejudice is silly.

It's great to see a guy who can really try to put himself in our shoes. I wish there you more like you.

I'm white, but the fact is, I KNOW I'm privileged. If someone points out that white people have it easier, I don't feel offended. It's the simple truth. In fact, I think white people, men, Christians, whoever, need to have it pointed out to us, to remind us that we have a LONG way to go.

Keep it up. You're doing great.