“Ain’t nothin’ a man ever did that a woman didn’t make him do or let him do.”
– Bob Dylan
During the rise of the automobile at the start of the twentieth century, concern was voiced by authorities on high that women might take it upon themselves to travel in a car. Note that I said travel, not drive. This was seen as a key issue of safety. A car was a fast-travelling vehicle that required mechanical aptitude to pilot and attention to be paid to the road. With a woman in the car, a man would quickly – and assuredly – become distracted, and crash the car.
Sadly, despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s, not much has changed. We’re still very much in the grip of this peculiar Victorian view of sexuality. And it’s still extremely internalised in our culture, to the point we don’t even realise it’s purely a construct. Men and women alike, every day, fall into this belief system. Men are pigs, or dogs, and they cannot be calm around the female body. To quote Joss Whedon: “they eat of the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms”. Of course, a lot of men like this model and indulge in it, and are permitted to. Thus male sexuality is culturally accepted, but only of a particular flavour: base, bestial, primal, untamed, uncivilized and uncouth, often uncontrolled and literally uncontrollable, to the point where it is used to justify rape.
Yet like every other difference between the sexes, there’s no evidence of male sexuality being any different to female sexuality. And we know full well how cultural this distortion is, because three centuries previously the view was the opposite: women were considered the wild, primal, demonic creatures who would wallow in sexuality constantly if not restrained by reasoned, ascetic men, who could rise above base instinct.
And we know this is poisonous. To our culture, to shared dialogues, to women – and especially to men. In the end it tends to present men’s sexuality as just as dichotomous as the madonna/whore split for women. Sexual men are lads and bad boys, and asexual men are stout, upright citizens. The division enables all the worst aspects of gender issues, because once a man operates as a sexual being, anything is permitted. He can be as sexist as he likes and as stupid as he likes, free from responsibility because he is under the mystical spell of the female form. The Church of the Holy Breasts absolves you of all sins, up to and including rape.
And indeed, the blame that has been absolved is then placed firmly on females, who have failed to maintain a hold on the leash.
But the (if you’ll permit it) consolation prize for being both the victim and scapegoat of rape culture is the ceding to women of man’s sexual and emotional control. Up to a point, of course – as long as they generally knowing their place – the social relationship can exist where women, according to cliché, hold the leash of their dog-like men. They are the rational, level-headed ones who make the decisions for their uncouth men. And more to the point, since they possess the qualities that turn men mad, they can turn the dogs loose at any moment. That is an enormous amount of power to be explicitly ceded – and as such, it’s an idea that has impeded feminism for centuries. Even Bob Dylan, who was quite the supporter of women’s rights at the time he gave the quote, distanced himself from the movement because in his eyes, everything men do is because of women.
What the anti-feminists of the Mens Rights Associations and Men Going Their Own Way and all their various incarnations get right is that this idea is demeaning and punishing to men, and that men suffer many consequences in a culture with this kind of worship, which defines their manliness and their worth as a human being by their ability to attract and “acquire” or “conquer” women (or – for the good boys – to protect and cherish them).
Of course, what the anti-feminists get wrong is literally everything else: based on a shallow understanding of feminism or bad experiences with an unrepresentative sample, they have decided that feminism wants to remove all of women’s suffering under the patriarchy while keeping all the benefits of ceded power, and to remove all of the benefits of men while keeping all the suffering that ceding power brings.
But as we said in last month’s column, feminism is not the cause of these problems, it is the solution to them – for men as well as for women. But doing so does involve sacrifices of positions and paradigms, which both men and women can and do benefit from. And some of these are deeply culturally and socially ingrained, and in some cases are part of people’s identity and mindset.
These paradigms have many forms. It’s most common face is the one we call benevolent sexism – where preference is shown to the other sex, simply because of their sex. This is not about meting out scales of social justice, but the idea that women need – even deserve – to be protected and kept safe by men. That they are to be adored for their beauty and their muse-like qualities. That they must remain a mystery to preserve that adoration. And inevitably, that some control should – must – be ceded to them because they are things that are higher than men. We are tough so we can take it, they are gentle so they cannot; but we yield to that gentility. That’s why the maiden is needed to placate the furious dragon.
It’s a romantic sentiment. It appeals to the poets in us, and the warriors. It runs through medieval fiction and the fantasy it inspires. It appeals to the fathers among us, who like to joke about keeping a shotgun handy to protect our daughters. And many of us say: what is the harm in that? Why should we take all of this away? And indeed, inevitably, why is sexism such a big deal when we’re ceding women all this power anyway?
The problem is that the ceding comes from a place of arbitrary difference. Putting women on a pedestal isn’t just a cage for them, it is also one for the men that put them there, and in either case it sends the same message: that we are different. That women are strange and unknowable and just not like men. It’s called othering, and ultimately, it always leads to oppression, because once you turn someone into an alien, it is so much easier to hurt them. As the old saw goes, feminism is the revolutionary idea that women are people – people just like us.
And this is why we don’t like men saying that gaming is a men’s activity, something you go off to do when you want to be manly (when the wife lets you). Or that gaming is a harsh, rough world, and women should “man up” if they want to join. All that does is reinforce the old categories and clichés. It says women are delicate flowers and more importantly it says that men are boors and brutes. And that’s not respectful to men. And you can’t respect women if you don’t respect yourself.
The MESSAGE is not about being a white knight. A white knight suggests a maiden in a tower, waiting to be rescued, which is just another way to separate the genders. We’re not fighting to save women, for two reasons. First because they’re perfectly able to save themselves, and second because this isn’t, ultimately, about women, but men.
The primary defining principle of the MESSAGE is we are for men. This is about men being better men for the benefit of all men. White knights believe that men are brutes and women are maidens, which is bad for men as well as women. If you’ve got the MESSAGE, you believe that not being a douchebag to women is important for purely selfish reasons. It is to make us better and gaming better. We take a stand not because we have to save anybody, but because as men, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of self respect, purely for our own good.
Because, like L’oreal says, we’re worth it.