Misogyny’s Roots Run Deep, Men; it’s Time to Dig— Pt. 2

How Female Issues are and aren’t Processed and Addressed Like Other Social Determinants

[To myself and to men who look like me: much work lies ahead to help repair systemic damage to all those long-excluded from full equity in every area of public and private society, particularly women]

As power relates to all the changes affecting people-groups and their rights and status in our shifting society, we who are historically placed at the apex of the social pyramid are least incentivized to release our grip on said power to women because of our senses of preservation, deep-seeded insecurity and results-oriented self-worth. That’s a grandiose statement, I know. Another big reason is because of the messy complexity — logistically — inherent in cleaving our identities along gender lines, as opposed to other differentiating lines.

Women are 50% of the world…everywhere. Their issues aren’t relegated to people in a separate social or economic group, a different neighborhood, or a distant country. These are foundational issues confronting people who live in your home, people who are your closest relatives. We can’t escape the ramifications of these truths as issues belonging to those with whom we don’t intersect and depend.

Because of this — the fact that issues regarding gender inherently cut across all racial, national and class boundaries — facing and tackling the systemic issues of how men and women necessarily BOTH depend on each other AND are pitted against each other, this is (arguably) the highest social wall to topple. While there is despairingly overt enmity between black and white, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, rich and poor, gay and straight, it is possible for people (and, for many, it is our status quo) to have virtually no interaction with — let alone empathy for or dependence upon— people who are demographically different from us. Outside of science fiction, men and women — by cultural and biological norms — have always been interdependent through the rise and fall of every civilization. The strata of this archeological dig are the deepest in all social science. This symbiosis is not as relatively fleeting in historical terms as the relationships between those of warring tribes, nations, races or worldviews.

I was born in the ‘70’s and am a child of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. If you came on the scene later than that, you are still likely familiar with the presumably ongoing trope of the “Very Special Episode” of family sitcoms. If not, here’s the lowdown:

A show would revolve around a family that is typical in some ways (but wacky in others!). Occasionally an episode would highlight an important issue — often in the zeitgeist as something previously thought of as not affecting “normal people” (middle-class whites, largely, in this case — broadcasters’ and advertisers’ core demo) — that would shock both the family on the screen and the families in American living rooms into realizing that big problems, long swept under the rug, needed to addressed out in the open, de-stigmatized, and proactively solved. Back when there were only a handful of channels on TV and no internet (no, I’m not 80 years old), large swaths of the nation (if not the majority) saw these particular episodes and, corny in production values as they sometimes were, they were memorable and provided a great platform for normalizing discussion and action on taboo subjects.

Here’s a list (if you’ve seen any ironic snarky clip-show on VH1, then you may be familiar with at least some of these):

  • A colleague reveals to the Chief he’s gay after hearing the Chief’s homophobic jokes on Gimme A Break
  • DJ is revealed to have an eating disorder on Full House
  • Jessie gets hooked on pills on Saved By The Bell
  • Racial Profiling is exposed on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
  • Dudley is molested on Diff’rent Strokes
  • Raven see racism up close when the manager at a store won’t hire black people on That’s So Raven
  • The Seavers take in a young, homeless Leonardo DiCaprio on Growing Pains
  • Uncle Ned is an alcoholic on Family Ties
  • Theo is dyslexic on The Cosby Show
  • Wesley’s friend has AIDS on Mr. Belvedere
  • Zach dates a girl with a disability on Saved By The Bell
  • Punky is offered drugs on Punky Brewster
  • Urkel raps about gun control on Family Matters (Yes, you read that right.)

These were cultural flashpoints (some made larger impacts than others), but they all involved an issue that posed some kind of danger to a person, persons or society that was not normally discussed in polite conversation. In addition to these rare episodes, some programs, such as Life Goes On, dealt seriously with one topic (e.g. living with Down’s Syndrome) as the focus of every episode. Other shows, such as Good Times, dealt continuously with the same serious topics (racism and urban poverty) with both poignancy and humor.

Why am I taking a strange, nostalgic trip down television memory lane in the middle of writing about subtle (and not so subtle) ways misogyny infiltrates society? Because what we portray in our art, (our films, tv shows, books, music and more) says a lot about what moves us, what inspires us, and what shocks us.

In each of the shows mentioned above, the condition or issue being shoehorned into a 24-minute comedy show was something serious that was designed to have most viewers thinking “Well that doesn’t happen in my family/neighborhood/school… does it?”

These shows were largely effective non-academic, non-preachy, non-shaming ways for people — via single examples of entertaining anecdotal evidence — to learn more about racism, homophobia, drug abuse, homelessness, mental and physical disabilities, etc. And — if you grew up in a racially, economically, and/or culturally homogenous environment (and many of us did) — these examples were huge, because the families portrayed in some of these shows might have constituted the bulk of the exposure you actually had to people of different races, classes, abilities, etc.

Of course, the most important examples of tackling difficult subjects happen in real, three-dimensional life. With increasing changes in social attitudes and escalating battles in “the culture wars,” minds and laws are expanding as the world is shrinking — some in very private ways, some public.

In our private lives, the circumstances of friends, loved ones, neighbors and colleagues force us to confront our own blind spots, ill-conceived notions and prejudices. Some of these turning points play out in similar fashion to the stylized and televised examples above, but the ramifications of their revelations affect us in the particular, not the abstract:

  • My son came home from college and his girlfriend is African-American…
  • Our daughter came out to us last night…
  • My dad was diagnosed with a mental illness…
  • My sister is fighting like hell to get her son with disabilities the services and school resources he needs…
  • Our new neighbors are devout Muslims from Iran and we’ve been getting to know them…
  • My co-worker is transitioning now…
  • My best friend told me she‘s the victim on incest…
  • Our daughter’s best friend is facing deportation to a country she doesn’t even remember…
  • My uncle is getting married to his long-time partner and they’re trying to adopt children…

These stories, these interactions are changing minds and challenging assumptions — flashpoint by flashpoint, life by life. They lead to different dynamics in relationships and to vulnerable people feeling more comfortable in their own skins and in their own families.

Like real-life versions of “Very Special Episodes,” similar stories we find on the news and share on social media change our collective minds, too, sometimes leading to a sea change in public opinion and government policy. Some of these stories are tales of bravery, like Magic Johnson tearfully telling the world he was retiring from the NBA because of his contraction of HIV. His smile, his vulnerability, and his long and successful fight against the virus made him an unsuspecting ambassador to a wider world that was largely afraid or disdainful of people in his situation. He was part of a much larger movement, of course, that started before him and included untold people without his resources or fame, but his turn in the public eye helped normalize HIV and gently educate people on what they didn’t know but maybe thought they did.

But some of these stories about the transformation of an individual’s heart concerning the systemic pain of others are examples of how people in power — people who have been asked over and over again to see the plights of a disadvantaged portion of society with which they don’t personally relate — will often only walk a mile in someone else’s shoes when that person is someone they love. A few prominent politicians (Vice President Dick Chaney and Senator Rob Portman, for example) took their sweet time coming around to publicly supporting the inherent dignity of (if not necessarily the desired rights of) their gay children while winning elections by stoking “culture war” wedge issues around sexuality and crafting policies keeping LGBTQ people from openly serving in the military, obtaining civil unions/marriage licenses, inheritance rights, or anti-discrimination protections in the workplace. Yet even these recent reluctant transformations are part of the eventual dismantling— story by story, brick by brick — of barriers like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Two generations before that, it took Americans (albeit, certainly not all Americans) seeing example after example after agonizing example on the nightly newscasts and the morning papers of Black Churches being burned, brave leaders like John Lewis being beaten on a bridge in Selma, and all the innumerable everyday instances of inherent systemic racism played out in their cities’ schools, restaurants, buses and streets for enough citizens and those they elect to govern to finally codify in the real world the supposed “freedom” African-Americans had technically been granted after the Civil War.

These fictional and real-life examples of how interactions with or education about people in differing situations can challenge perspectives and even change the course of many peoples’ futures through legal action and lasting social change come from the power of one word, besieged in some circles these days: EMPATHY.

em·pa·thy | (ˈempəTHē/ ) | noun |1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

If you cannot understand and share the feelings of another person, you will always view that person as “other.” Empathy does not mean that you have to switch places with the person(s) in question…it means you simply take stock of where you are, then where someone else is, and you cross the distance between the two of you until that other person is just as valid in their condition as you are in yours.

As men — especially white straight men — we almost always have the choice to be empathetic. This is a really key point. Women and people in minority populations do not, as a bloc or often as individuals, have that same choice. They often must conform to the norms, “unwritten rules,” explicitly-written edicts, and even the capricious whims of people who hold more power….people who look like me, have received almost every benefit of the doubt like me, get second and third and fourth chances like me, have inherited wealth and advantageous starting positions like me.

Maybe you’ve noticed that none of the examples above — the ones that have shocked or brought stunning clarity or spurred rapid advances in the fortunes of a marginalized group — are about systemic or familial misogyny, sexism, and female suppression.

The area of social and civil rights in which the “Aha Moment” — the paradigm shift in how one now sees in starkly different terms the struggles of a whole group of marginalized people — doesn’t tend to broadly occur however, is the realm of the interests and rights of women.

To contrast, let’s revisit a couple anecdotes regarding the above-mentioned dynamics of identity and opportunity that are representative of broader cultural and legal developments from the last twenty or so years:

  • A white grandmother has a new black grandson and is driven by love and protectiveness to learn more about the different attitudes he will face and speak out when acquaintances say things about race that now affect and offend her.
  • A “traditionally conservative” couple’s son comes out to them and reveals that not only is he bullied at school but that he feels judged and unaccepted by his own family when they casually joke about homosexuality and dismiss gay rights. This leads to raw conversations and the slow restoration of relationships and, eventually, to the couple attending PFLAG meetings and having more hard discussions in their social and church circles.

Even if our specific families haven’t been directly touched by such stories, we are all aware of what they represent and how they alter the foundation of our discourse and our communities.

The following, though, are not the kind of anecdotes that make for good paradigm-shifting, family-shaking, neighborhood-news-making, lawmaker-flip-flopping, social-media-sharing or silver-screen-portraying story-telling:

  • “My wife came down to breakfast this morning and I suddenly realized that she gave up her last name for mine, gave up her career to stay at home with the children while I kept my same schedule and climbed the corporate ladder, took on the new identity of being my wife more than I did the identity of being her husband, and I never questioned any of it or asked her if that’s what she actually wanted, (as opposed to what she felt felt pressured to accept).”
  • “It turns out that my daughter makes 30% less than her brother does in the same industry, that 90% of her managers are men, that she’s reported numerous incidents of blatant sexual harassment to Human Resources with no repercussions, and that the raises she’s seen go to her male colleagues have eluded her, despite her superior performance reviews. So now I’m going to write a letter to the editor of our newspaper in support of workplace gender equity. Oh, and next week I start volunteering for the female candidate in our congressional race, instead of her incumbent opponent who lobbied against the passage of THE LILLY LEDBETTER FAIR PAY ACT amendment of The Civil Rights Act.”
  • “My niece was assaulted at college. While her resident adviser supported her, neither the dean nor the student disciplinary committee recommended punitive action for her male assailant. His friends in her dorm have been harassing her while he’s going about his studies, as usual. The local police will not investigate since the university won’t. She’s packing up to return home before exams and might enroll at the local community college to pick up some credits next semester before starting the whole application process over again for other schools. She doesn’t want to talk about it much and feels like pressing the issue will only bring more recrimination and frustration and hurt.”

Similarly, a really uncontroversial, low-ratings “very special episode” of a sitcom would feature the following:

  • “Our son brought his new girlfriend to Sunday Dinner and it turns out she’s…female! We made innocuous small talk all night and smiled at her when they left.”

What happens more often behind our closed doors is something like this:

  • “Our son brought his new girlfriend to Sunday Dinner. After he took her home, my wife commented that the young woman was too strident and opinionated, making our son look emasculated when she answered a question addressed to both of them. I didn’t mention how I kept looking at the girl’s legs throughout the evening and didn’t listen to a whole lot of what she had to say, anyway, but my wife was probably right about her talking too much.”

How we view and treat the opposite sex is inherently paradoxical and discordant. Just as women do with men, we can both love and hurt, empower and discourage the very people we care for the most. Some of this we do and then regret; some of this is nuanced and not consciously understood until we look honestly at:

  • How men explicitly treat women both in person (verbally and nonverbally) and when they’re absent,
  • What men implicitly expect of women — what molds are they expected to fit when it comes to voicing opinions, acting upon ambitions, exercising agency over their own affairs and making decisions that affect men.
  • How men use women psychologically and sexually to sustain male egos,
  • How men (individually and through the systems they have shepherded over time) are reluctant to share “seats at the table” of government, business, society and — it starts here — our homes. Figurehead authority in the family is something most men have inherited, whether we want to admit it or not.

There are reasons that movies about feminism and sexism tank at the box office. There are reasons sexism in the workplace persists in ways that other forms of overt discrimination don’t. There are reasons that school children can’t rattle off the names of monumental court decisions and presidential proclamations regarding gender discrimination. These issues are woven deep into the fabric of relationships and institutions found in every corner of the country. They don’t often make us do double-takes when we see them exposed on the street, let alone when they’re revealed in our homes.

Up Next: Pt. 3 — American History and the Intersection of Racial Subjugation and Sexual Suppression
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