Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Patriarchy's Romance With the Bromance

Do the powerful-yet-non-sexual bonds that men form with other men in society work to maintain male domination in public arenas?

Heart, at Women's Space, writes:

"Evangelical men, in my experience — for all their apparent devotion to and defenses of wives and families and the traditional family as an institution — are, for the most part, emotionally homosexual. Their closest emotional attachments, longings and bonds are towards and with men, father figures, potential buddies and the God they envision as male."

While non-sexual bonds between those of the same-sex are perhaps more accurately labeled "homosocial," I personally like the term "emotionally homosexual" because it illustrates a nice irony. Namely, that some of the most homophobic men are also some of the most emotionally homosexual, building interdependent relationships and solidarity with other men that enable them to exclude and dominate women. For instance, as Heart writes in the above-quoted blogpost, the anti-gay Rick Warren's sub-par Inauguration sermon was "thoroughly and completely male in its references, in its sentiments and in the way it portrays the divine– as a Father who made everything there is all by himself in order to glorify himself." We also see this irony in the Pope, of course, a man who condemns homosexual behavior yet who lives one of the most homosocial lives ever and who condones spiritual homosociality via the Catholic Church's male-only ordination policy.

The degree to which male homosociality is ingrained in many our cultural institutions suggests to me that as a society we are very much okay with male homosocial behavior as long as it is properly channeled. As a society, we reject personal male homosexual behavior and relationships, but are consistently reinforcing societal male homosocial behavior that excludes women.

Thus, it may bear mentioning that this post is not a critique of gay male relationships. There is a clear distinction between men who form strong bonds with other men in order to maintain male privilege in the public sphere cersus gay men who form relationships with other men within their own private lives. Gay mens' exclusion of women from their romantic/sexual lives does not have the effect of maintaining male dominance in the public sphere.

Now, I know that many guys start getting defensive when feminists talk about The Patriarchy (tm) so I think it's also bears mentioning that I don't think the desire to maintain male privilege always springs from conscious malicious desires. It's just not realistic to picture closed-door conspiratorial meetings of The Patriarchy plotting to keep Woman down. Sure, radical and even mainstream anti-feminist groups do exist that oppose equality, but for many I think male homosociality is so ubiquitous in our society that most people don't even notice it. And by not noticing it, they are complicit in it. Male-centrism is just the lens that many people see the world through and they can't imagine that the Male Gaze is not the gaze of all people in this world.

I know I'm not the only person who notices how so many aspects of our society are like odes to the bromance. But sometimes it feels like it. Religious institutions, accounts of history, politics, business, movies, sports revolve around men doing very important things with, to, for, or against other men. Women are not completely excluded from these institutions and genres, but neither are they proportionately integrated into them. And the men involved so rarely seem to notice or care.

Of history, for instance, Historiann writes "History is about heroes, heroes are men, and heroes are meant to inspire boys." I have no doubt that for many young boys and the girls who can identify with male heroes, history is inspiring. Unfortunately, history is not universally inspiring. As Historiann continues, those who are excluded from historical accounts read "history as alienating or even embittering, rather than inspiring, and that’s the fault of historians" (emphasis added). It's the fault of those who continually place women at the margins, rather than at the center as men are so often placed.

Personally, I think of popular movies, particularly the so-called universal greats and classics like The Godfather and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogies. While I especially enjoyed LOTR from a fantasy standpoint, the feminist in the back of mind was quietly wondering what all the women were busy doing while these heroic men were engaged in the real and important business of Saving the World. When Frodo's best pal Sam got married to a woman in the end, it didn't work for me. Clearly, Sam's relationship with Frodo, sustained as it was through great trials, adventure, and bonding, was the most important relationship of his life.

Women, in this rich-yet-homosocial Middle Earth, were mostly at the side of some sort of male being if they were even present at all. What I have trouble understanding is why it was so difficult for JRR Tolkien to envision central female leads, a "race" of female warriors perhaps, when his great imagination rendered him capable of envisioning elves, dwarves, rangers and their associated complex societies and made-up languages? Even now, I wonder if men and, sadly, women even notice how few women are in these movies. Is it the destiny of women to remain as love interests, princesses, and scared huddling masses, even in rich invented fantasy worlds? Along those lines, how many people notice that relatively few movies pass the Bechdel Test? That is, does the movie:

(a) Have two women in it who
(b) Talk to each other
(c) About something other than a man?

This test should be relatively easy to meet considering the preponderance of women in the world. But it's not. I know that we Vagina-Americans have "chick flicks." But why are movies about women's lives "chick flicks" and movies primarily about men's lives "universal"? I'd say that's a pretty good indication that the male experience in life is still at the center of social consciousness, and women's lives remain on the periphery.

I know some will say that I'm only talking about movies here, but movies, art, and literature are what help us understand ourselves. They reflect society and, in turn, society is a reflection of them. I thought about the past few movies I'd seen at the theater and none of them passed the Bechdel test. Benjamin Button? While I enjoyed this movie, it was from the point-of-view of a male lead and I'm not sure there were more than a handful of scenes in which more than one woman was even on the screen at the same time. Ditto for Slumdog Millionaire. To be male is to be the default human being to which all human beings can supposedly relate. To be female is to be a supporting cast member who helps the Main Character discover Very Important Things About Himself.

To help illustrate how invisible cultural male-centrism is, try to think of movies that have two men in them who talk to each other about something other than women. Not too hard, huh? There's nothing "wrong" with this, per se, as long as everyone realize that the male experience in life is not the universal, objective experience for all people. Unfortunately, I don't think many people realize this.

Where I become concerned with this is when I wonder in how many ways it impacts girls women to constantly see images of themselves on the periphery, rather than in the center, of Things That Matter in the World. What a sense of entitlement it must give to boys and men to see so many images of them dominating the public sphere with other men.

I think it's time to end this romance with the bromance.

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