The other day, I sat lazily in my friend’s kitchen as she bemoaned the woes of life. Aside from waiting for her brownies, I ranted about the frustrating task of explaining male privilege and how anxious I felt about the pervasiveness of sexism. She rolled her eyes, sighed and said, “I can’t anymore. I’ve stopped trying. Those kind of people — the ones who don’t understand it — I just can’t.”
This was the same friend who was involved in every political campaign there ever was. This was the same friend who signed up for Judith Butler’s class. This was the same friend who made a hobby out of feminist culture commentary. Her remark struck me as odd, and it made me wonder what it was about feminism that bothered people so much. It reminded me of my own falling out with feminism.
For a brief period of time, the concepts of the patriarchy, male privilege and other related things escaped me. By the time I started at UC Berkeley, I lost all of my “Deconstruct the Patriarchy” and riot grrrl buttons. Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney disappeared from my playlists as my infatuation for third-wave feminism slowly faded. My DVD sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer eventually caught dust at the bottom of my bookshelf. The last 300 pages of my copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” remained unannotated. Upon coming to college, I outgrew my aesthetic interest in feminism as though it were a sweater two sizes too small. It was overzealous and unfashionable, and I grew tired of explaining why it was important.
But the beginning of college ushered in the advent of critical theory. At times it seemed ostentatious and elite — pretentious for pretension’s sake. But for the most part, theory equipped me with sensitivity to the most normal aspects of life — everyday things such as conversations, work and school.
On the first day of my gender and women’s studies class, my professor asked us to throw a crumpled piece of paper with our individual definition of feminism up to the lecture podium. In the pedantic realm of academia, I found a space for deconstruction and rethinking definitions. In this case, I saw the multiplicity of perspectives on the word feminism. I saw how despite the immense cultural shift towards individualism in western society, women couldn’t easily work to define their existence or articulate their desires. For me, feminism has been so important. It gave me the lens to critique and challenge the masculine centered norms of society–a logic that French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined as phallogocentrism. James Brown wasn’t wrong; it is indeed a man’s man’s man’s world.
Now, usually, I would present a single, parable-ish narrative that highlights the existence of the patriarchy. But over the past few years, I’ve found it hard to only talk about one uncomfortable experience because there have been so many.
The patriarchy, a concept that had once seemed so lofty to me, became blindingly prevalent in my everyday interactions, which happened at the so-called hotbed of radical student politics. I realized how the mundane aspects of my life became fragmented and defined by it. It manifested when my first boyfriend told me that I was beautiful and that he preferred girls who didn’t wear makeup, as he flashed a patronizing grin back at my puckered, painted, bright red lips. It appeared when a young man on the street catcalled me when I wore my favorite gray floral dress and strappy heels to the BART station. It popped up when I saw my friend frantically searching for a curling iron because a few guys told her that her beautiful short hair looked weird uncurled. It occurred to me when I had anxiety over how my desire to have a family clashes with my want to have a successful career. The patriarchy was an abrasiveness that I couldn’t overcome; it was the uneasiness I felt when I realized that I could not easily define my own existence, which was dominated by heterosexual male desire. It wasn’t something I could just shake off.
The patriarchy is everywhere. It can come in forms that are horrific and traumatic, but for me, it has mostly been nagging and seemingly trivial. And it doesn’t only affect me or other women. Patriarchy casts standards of masculinity and sexuality, and creates problems in both the big and small aspects of life.
I have a small voice, and there are days when I feel like I need to lower it to a whisper because it isn’t fashionable anymore to complain in this allegedly postsexist society. Because it’s too didactic. Because I’m overexaggerating. Whether or not we intend to perpetuate patriarchy, it’s not so much about our intentions as it is about the problematic effects that we create when we deny the existence of such a prevalent force. In doing so, we accept exclusive and belittling ways of interacting with one another. Like Foucault proposed in “Fearless Speech,” we should speak what we perceive as morally responsible–even if it runs the risk of wounding the other.
So, why don’t we use this column as a space for some fun deconstruction this summer?