According to Johnson, patriarchy is a system in which we all participate, whether we choose to or not, whether we realize it or not. It is a system of dominance and control that has the primary characteristics of being male dominated, male identified, male centered, and obsessed with control. These are all characteristics that are cleverly hidden in plain sight and it takes an educated eye to realize the depths to which these characteristics intrude upon our lives.
Our society is male dominated in the sense that we equate powerful positions with maleness and expect, and at times insist, to see men in governmental or societal positions where power is wielded. We expect our president to be male. We expect our doctors, our lawyers, our Supreme Court judges, our CEOs, even our spiritual officials all to be male. Even in situations where there is not a clear ‘head’ or leader, we define as the leader the male or males of that group. Take the family, for example. Society dictates that there must be a head of that household. Patriarchy and its male dominated nature dictate that the head of household should be the male of the family, the father and husband. But male dominance doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t just create in us the assumption that people in power are always and should always be male; it creates a doubt in us that those who are not male can possibly handle the rigors and responsibilities associated with that power. So, when the occasional woman is able to break through the glass ceiling and attain a highly respected and powerful office, her ability is called into question. Not because she has any fewer qualifications for the job, but simply because she is not male and we have learned to confuse the position with the person in the position. Male dominance muddles the line between the individual who fills the position and the position that actually wields the power. Thus, without realizing it, we begin to believe that one of the qualifications for holding a position of power is, in fact, maleness. When that one quality is not present, we begin to question whether or not the individual is capable of such lofty aspirations.
The idea of maleness as a prerequisite for positions of power leads into the characteristic of patriarchy being a male identified system. A system is male identified when maleness or masculinity is the ‘norm’ by which all else is measured. Male is used as a basis of comparison so that anything that is not male is considered abnormal or of a lesser quality. We see the evidence of this characteristic every day in fields like medicine and law where a male lawyer, judge or doctor is just called a lawyer, judge, or doctor, but a female holding the same position is a ‘woman lawyer’, a ‘woman judge’, a ‘woman doctor’. This is because the assumption is that someone in that position should be male. That is the ‘normal’ way of things. When someone who is not male is in one of those positions, we feel the need to identify it as ‘other’.
Male centeredness is an even more invisible characteristic of patriarchy in our society because we are so strongly male identified that we rarely notice it. We expect males to be at the forefront because we expect them to the wield the most power and we expect them to be the ‘norm’, so we don’t really notice that the media, and life in general, are centered around men and their stories. Everywhere we go and everything we do, we can be certain that we will see examples of men and what men are doing. We see men on the cover of magazines, we see men on the news, we read about men in the newspaper, and we watch men’s stories on television. Even in media that is not designed specifically for me, we see stories, ads, and articles that are decidedly influenced by the male gaze. In women’s magazines, we see ads that feature women who are nearly naked, advertising bras or the clothes they are almost wearing. This is not because women like to look at other women but because women are being taught that they have to look a certain way in order for men to like them. Even the articles in women’s magazine are male centered as the focus on such topics as ‘ways to please him’ and ‘how to know if your man is cheating’. The male gaze, and thus male centeredness, is something that we cannot get away from.
Neither can we get away from patriarchy’s obsession with control. “Men are assumed (and expected) to be in control at all times, to be unemotional (except for anger and rage), to present themselves as invulnerable, autonomous, independent, strong, rational, logical, dispassionate, knowledgeable, always right, and in command of every situation, especially those involving women.”(pg. 14) And why must men be in control? Because they are afraid. They fear what other men might do to them if they were to lose control. Thus, the pattern of control and fear is an endless, vicious cycle because the more control a man manages to exert, the more fear he has that someone else will come along and oust him from his position of power.
So, seeing that patriarchy and its characteristics are so ubiquitous in our society it is only natural to wonder where it came from and how it can be so well supported when it oppresses at least half of the population. To answer these questions, we can turn to Johnson’s ‘Patriarchal Tree’. Johnson explains the system of patriarchy as being like the parts of a tree. The roots, the basis and model for everything are the core characteristics of patriarchy: male dominance, male identification, male centeredness, and obsession with control. Like the parts of a tree, everything that grows out of those roots will be colored, shaped, and influenced by them. Just as every part of society is colored, shaped, and influenced by the core characteristics of patriarchy. The trunk of the tree can be likened to our major institutions. Things like the family, the economy, and the state. Like the roots of the tree, the trunk is very difficult to change, except superficially, and it shaped solely by the roots with little room for change from the roots’ major characteristics. The limbs and branches of the tree are like our minor institutions. Things like groups, communities, individual families, etc. Finally, the leaves of the tree are the individuals in society. Like a tree’s individual leaves, individual people can be swayed this way and that, changing points of view on a whim and deciding with every step they take to either go with the flow of the tree or go against the flow. But, just as the individual leaves cannot change the structure of the entire tree, neither can an individual change the structure of patriarchy on their own. The roots of patriarchy go very, very deep, and in order to make any real changes to the system, you have to begin at the very roots of the system. You have to change the characteristics by which the rest of the system is shaped. Otherwise, any changes that are made are merely superficial, like carving your initials into the trunk of a tree.
Does all of this mean that our participation in the system has no effect on the system itself? Certainly not. Though we may not be able to change the core of patriarchy, every choice we make has an effect in the system. And we all participate in the system, whether we realize it or not. Most men unwittingly participate in the perpetuation of patriarchy. This is because every man benefits from the system. He is granted power and privileges over women, whether or not he is individually powerful or not. These are powers and privileges that were he to be completely aware of them; he would likely not choose to give up voluntarily. But power and privilege are not the only things that cause us to participate, however tacitly, in the perpetuation of patriarchy. We, men especially, perpetuate patriarchy through paths of least resistance as well. After all, it is far easier to go with the flow than it is to try and swim against the current that is patriarchy. I believe it is more natural and automatic for men to make choices to follow the path of least resistance because of the privileges afforded them through doing so. For women, however, it is a lose/lose proposition. Following the path of least resistance merely prevents further hardships or disadvantages, it doesn’t actually protect a woman from hardship or disadvantage in the first place. This does not mean, however, that women don’t participate in their own oppression. Each and every day, women participate in patriarchy in a way that perpetuates the oppression experienced by all women. It is in small, unnoticed things that we do every day. Things like wearing make up, wearing certain kinds of clothes, not speaking up in business meetings, letting men open doors for them or order for them at restaurants, etc. When it comes to participating in patriarchy in these ways, it becomes very difficult for women to make choices to take the path of greater resistance because, at that point, they are bucking not only patriarchy, but major societal gender norms as well. Though it may not be such a shock in this day and age for a women to go out of the house without make up and a dress or skirt on, there was a time not so long ago when a woman who did just that would have been labeled in very harsh terms. But even today, when a women dresses in too ‘masculine’ a fashion, we have a tendency to label her. We assume that because she has chosen not to pander to the male gaze that she must be gay or that she doesn’t care about how she looks.
So the question is then, where do we go from here? How do we unravel this ‘gender knot’? The easy answer is that we must stop taking paths of least resistance and begin taking paths of greater resistance. Instead of complacently going along with sexist jokes, or putting on make up just to fulfill the ideals of the male gaze, we have to take a stand. We have to protest when others unwittingly make sexist jokes or remarks. We have to stop wearing make up just to look pretty. We have to redefine the way we see the world and shift the focus away from men and toward people in general. Making these choices and these changes may not get to the roots of patriarchy, but it will begin to unravel the gender knot that patriarchy has created by raising awareness of how we are perpetuating patriarchy and how we can stop doing so.
In many ways, we can already see that the gender knot is unraveling. Today’s women, when compared to the women of just thirty years ago, experience far more freedom from oppression. That’s not to say that men do not still strive to control and that women are not still oppressed, but the world, and possibly, the system, are changing. Change does not come quickly or easily, however. Men especially are resistant to the deconstruction of patriarchy. After all, the end of patriarchy means the end of male privilege. It means losing control over others and control over situations. It is easy to see how this would be distasteful to men, who have little to gain from change. Because, while ending patriarchy might make it more acceptable for men to do such things as cry at sad movies or be stay at home fathers rather than bread-winners, it also means that they must relinquish power. They must relinquish the control they have had over almost every facet of society thus far. They have to be open to letting others make decisions for them, to not being the center of attention, to not being accepted on the basis of their gender alone. For women these things are a fact of life. For men, it is the dawn of male oppression. What men don’t realize, however, is that they are already oppressed. Certainly being male in our society has its privileges, but there is a price for those privileges. Men cannot be sensitive and still be masculine. They cannot be stay-at-home dads and still be manly. They cannot show any sort of weakness or vulnerability without their manhood being called into question. And though it is not nearly the same sort of oppression that women experience, it is oppression nonetheless. It is my hope that unraveling the gender knot will set us all free.