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Patriarchy, Trans Identity, Men & Women in Crisis
I recently watched the cult classic Dangerous Beauty for the umpteenth time, and I noticed a curious link between patriarchy's policing of bodies and the modern phenomenon of transgender identity.
The patriarchy is often thought of as an innate biological truth by many who identify as conservative, but this is a misconception. According to David Graeber’s brilliant book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, patriarchy originated as an adaptive response to a crisis of wealth inequality between farmers, shepherds, and herdsmen, and an elite class of rulers in cities, who turned those with less wealth as well as their wives and their daughters into slaves when they could not pay their debts. This system degraded human relationships and led to a perplexing reality in which men and women began to view each other as objects of exploitation.
A man’s ability to secure his home became wrapped up in how much access he had to loads and loads of money. This led women to view men’s intrinsic worth as dependent upon their “status,” which was defined by how much money they possessed. This in turn led men to view women as property to protect and provide for.
Patriarchy then was the outcome of acute powerlessness by men who belonged to a lower financial class, who were turned into slaves, and whose wives and daughters were often turned into prostitutes and sex slaves to pay back debts. This is its origin story, and this is why fathers sought to keep their wives and daughters away from public life. But like all evolutionary adaptations, patriarchy as protection took on various permutations; and though it was a protective response, it led to the objectification and dehumanization of both men and women.
How? For the past 5000 years, men have been told that they must climb the financial ladder, work as hard as possible to accumulate as much wealth as possible, and that that wealth makes them worthy of acceptance and respect. They are also told that doing so makes them worthy of love and loyalty from women. While this has had the benefit of affording men a work ethic, sense of duty, and something to strive toward, it has also signaled to many men that the only – or worse, the highest – value that matters is accumulation of wealth and power; and that all processes – relationship, intimacy, etc – must be in service of advancing that wealth and power.
We see this thread everywhere from the deification of wealth accumulation in hip hop culture to the notion in some conservative circles that economic productivity is the end all be all of life. This has led to a regressive definition of manhood, one where man is forced to show up in ways that affirms his capacity to “get that bread.” In the process, he is forced to repress his very being.
James Hollis, author of the brilliant book, ‘Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men’ details this process. He points out that “Men’s lives are as much governed by restrictive role expectations as are the lives of women,” that their constant pressure to be productive leads to a culture where their lives are “essentially governed by fear” and that their “lives are violent because their souls have been violated.”
Man has been tasked with the role of breadwinner but Man does not live by bread alone. And the fact that the risk of death for men is higher at every life stage than it is for women is a testament to this truth.
According to a striking piece in the Washington Post, more men are at risk of dying from covid-19, cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle crash deaths, and suicide than women. There is a connection between the cultural pressure for men to produce at all costs and their tendency to hide feelings of depression and mental health woes.
Moreover, the “protection” of a man’s wife and daughter has not always manifested in mere safety. Just as it has restricted men, it has also restricted women, and has led to the perception of women as objects and trophies to be won, locked away, and guarded for safe keeping.
Isn’t this curious? What was itself a response to the oppression of men and women gave rise to, at least in part, the oppression of men and women.
Now as you can probably imagine, many women have responded to this system by rebelling. This rebellion manifested as three waves of feminism. The first wave won women the right to vote. The second highlighted the often silent suffering that came with domestic life post WWII, as poignantly portrayed in tv shows like Mad Men and films like Revolutionary Road. The invention of birth control was an attempt to mitigate those sufferings. Third wave feminism – our current wave – took a turn with its transformation of the pain, bitterness, and rage that many women carried, into, on the one hand, a reckoning with the way sexual assault pervaded upper echelons of power, and on the other, a feverish desire for revenge.
This was, arguably, inevitable.
In a system that prizes the accumulation of wealth and power as the highest good, human beings will do everything they can to win that game. If man can only be a man if he is power hungry, if his wealth is the only thing that can free him, then women will also crave power and wealth because we crave freedom. Many so-called red-pilled men remain aghast at the phenomenon of independent women whose goal is mere wealth creation. But they are perpetuating that value system while simultaneously remaining victims of it.
It is little wonder why in such an environment trans identity has electrified our collective unconscious. Putting the validity of any individual’s specific journey in transitioning aside, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce why in a society where men and women are constantly told they have to be a certain way to be validated, some who do not fit such stereotypes would go to grave lengths to change the bodies they inherited at birth.
If a man is told he cannot express his feelings, told that he must sacrifice his body on the altar of production for production’s sake, told that he must disassociate from his body and operate only from his cerebral center, he may find that so oppressive — and it is so very oppressive — that he may seek to become a woman.
If a woman is constantly told by the culture that she resides in that she is inferior, that her softness makes her weak, that her desire for love makes her cute but naive, and that her very body makes her a threat to men, if, in other words, she is told that a value system which does not prize money as the highest truth but love, is simply untenable, then she may internalize that and seek to become a man.
I grew up in a conservative, patriarchal home, and my dad, who is a good man, was the breadwinner and sole economic provider. But in my house, we all had our place and our roles to play. I remember how in early childhood, though she has her own feistiness, my Mom’s opinion was secondary to Dad’s. (In fact I only saw my parents disagree with each other later in life once I was an adult. I wonder if that was because mom automatically, reflexively agreed with dad.) The somewhat necessary debasing of the feminine – necessary because in the culture I have described, if I had gotten pregnant at too early an age, I would have been shackled to my circumstances – led me to be a tomboy in my adolescence. And for me this was, as author Marie Louis Von Franz has acutely observed in her writings, a defensive mechanism, a kind of armor of protection to hide my own sensitivities and proclivities from the world.
None of this is to say that all of the world’s problems can be pinned on the patriarchy. I was also bullied as a child and this no doubt contributed to my low self-esteem and feeling of needing to armor up.
But here is a perplexing phenomenon. Though it seems the right and the left disagree on gender norms, the truth is that one dogma reinforces the other. Ben Shapiro’s outfit, The Daily Wire, has produced a film called ‘What is a Woman,’ which purports to illustrate what they believe to be the absurdity of the transgender movement. In spite of the very valid concerns about the perverse rates of medicalization happening within trans youth circles, I can’t help but notice that Ben Shapiro’s Orthodox Jewish faith requires him to recite a morning prayer daily which says,
“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not made me a woman.”
With such a worldview, why be a woman in the first place?
This observation is not meant to single out Orthodox Judaism but to drive home the point that patriarchal religions were written by men who were responding to debt crises, to wealth inequality that turned human beings, especially their wives and daughters, into objects. Don’t forget, many patriarchal religions that we are familiar with today were born in the Middle East, the very land where the first city, Sumeria, in modern day Iraq, was established by humans, and the very civilization that Graeber cites in his book as giving rise to patriarchy. Is it any wonder that the patriarchs of the Bible looked down on cities and city life in general? This was not due to mere parochialism. It was a real response to pain and suffering inflicted by elites and rulers who had become addicted to the accumulation of wealth and power.
What a tragedy, what a paradox.
I have watched the film Dangerous Beauty dozens of times. I have admired the resilience, wit, and sexual prowess of Veronica Franco, the poetess-turned-courtesan who could not marry her lover because she belonged to a different class, and so elected to become a high-class prostitute who could gain access to books, expand her mind, and keep what little security she could accumulate from her station. Eventually, the Spanish Inquisition would take all of this away from her but for a time she was able to tentatively belong.
This was 16th century Venice, a time where the wives of the elite were barred from reading or participating in Venetian society. Only the courtesans could do so. Here’s a quote from the film which I found striking:
“Do you know what my daughter's nurse told her today? ‘In a girl's voice lies temptation - a known fact. Eloquence in a woman means promiscuity. Promiscuity of the mind leads to promiscuity of the body.’ She doesn't believe it yet, but she will.”
This was the value system of the patriarchy and we are still drowning in its waters. What policies might we, both men and women alike, consider to help us come to shore? The prospect of Universal Basic Income looms large as a viable solution in my mind. But beyond that there will be much psychological work that Man and Woman will have to commit themselves to, and this will prove to be the hardest of all, because it will require deep introspection and the releasing of old identities that we have clung to for a false sense of safety and security for a long, long time.
Who are you if you cease to internalize the voices of those who have come before you who told you what you are, who told you that you needed to be a certain way to be loved, respected, feared, admired, or belong? Who told you you would be banished otherwise?
Can you stand on your own two feet? To quote Hollis again, until human beings become “conscious of the lattice-work of history [they] carry within, [they] have not grown up.”
This is what it means to be raised and this is what it means to fall in love with the pursuit of wisdom. This is an aching task and if we commit to it, there is a high chance we may not see the fruit of our labors in our lifetimes. But maybe our children will. Maybe in addition to being able to go back to the moon or colonize Mars, maybe our children will finally live in a world filled with free men and free women.
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