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{September 10, 2013}   Supremacy and masculinity

This is the third and final part of my series on understandings of what it means to be a man and some of the implications for both men and women.

As earlier pointed out, the masculinity that our society promotes as ideal is largely constructed in relation to power and dominance. It therefore follows that dominance, particularly over women, is a significant marker of ‘real’ manhood. This is well in line with patriarchal ideology which positions the man as ‘naturally’ superior and the woman inferior. It must be said right here that there is nothing natural about this hierarchy; it is socially constructed to serve particular interests and it is necessary to interrogate whose interests get negated in this process. 

In order for this ‘superior man’ type of masculinity to be achieved, women are required to take up a subservient role; one that does not threaten the man’s ‘natural headship’. This is why the centuries- old project to constrain women and keep them ‘in line’ remains relevant and much protected to this day. Most of the methods have changed, obviously, but the goal remains pretty much the same.

Consider how a woman’s empowerment and success beyond a certain level is constructed as a bad thing for herself and others. This woman, the one who asserts herself in arenas beyond what patriarchal thinking has assigned her, is bound to face all kinds of opposition and negativity from both men and women. This is because the place she now assumes contradicts her ‘natural’ place as a woman and consequently challenges what it means to be a ‘real’ man.   

So the expectation is that, no matter how smart a woman is, she must be careful not to excel ‘too much’ and empower herself beyond  the reach/acceptance of a potential or current partner. It also means while a good education and big job significantly enhance the eligibility of a man among both educated and uneducated women, the same can and actually do encumber the eligibility of a woman.

This idea of dominance as a marker of ‘real’ manhood and concern about women empowering themselves ‘out of the market’ is not just a Zambian thing. “Strong, independent – and lonely – women” is the title of one of the chapters in Steve Harvey’s book Act like a lady: think like a man. This chapter, like the well repeated advice many girls and women are familiar with, is a ‘warning’ to women to not be “too empowered” and “too independent” because it ruins their chances of either getting or keeping a man. Apparently, such a woman scares off men because she denies them ‘their right’ to “take charge” and consequently emasculates them. 

It is such ideas that encourage that unnecessary hostility to female strength and success that is so common; the illogical fear that the bigger she grows as a woman, the smaller he becomes as a man. I often wonder of what use it is to anyone to applaud a man’s success as the good thing it actually is but construct the same success as a bad thing if it’s a woman’s. I find anything that hinders a woman from reaching the limit of her best detrimental. I also find this thinking detrimental because it promotes insecurity and a sense of inadequacy in many men. It means that a man’s sense of self worth is attached to factors he has no realistic control over e.g. how accomplished a woman becomes. It means that no matter how well a man does for himself, if the woman in his life does better then he will have ‘failed’.                                                                     The paranoia that is promoted due to this belief that a woman’s empowerment automatically makes a man irrelevant in her life is proof of how problematic the common ‘real man’ script is. It has convinced many men that all they are good for is ‘headship’ (which some interpret as answering to no one) over unquestioning women and providing the bacon so when they encounter an assertive woman who can bring home the whole pig, they feel small and irrelevant. Did nobody talk to anyone about companionship; about being relevant beyond material support?       I mean if you believe that your relevance to another person is solely dependent on their vulnerability and subordination then surely you have reason to worry. This same belief that an empowered woman causes a man to lose his ‘natural’ power and control over her cannot also be divorced from the many cases of GBV. Some ‘threatened’ men resort to physical and emotional abuse to assert what they believe is their rightful dominance. That is one of the many prices being paid for encouraging misplaced entitlements and expectations. 

A woman, however, is free to be a thousand times better than any man when it comes to doing house chores and no one will feel emasculated because she gets no economic benefits from it. This is no accident; it is a patriarchal strategy. With house work safely reduced to unpaid work, it becomes a woman’s ‘natural’ role; it is why women can have it all and they do not have to lose sleep over securing their participation…there’s no need to campaign for 30 or 50 % representation, they can have 100 % if they want. And it is not a surprise that a lot of men feel that doing house work emasculates them. From childhood, house chores are not traditionally considered essential skills for boys. The expectation is that their mothers and sisters will take care of that business and later their wives will take over. So on the one hand, society prepares a boy to expect to be served in that area and on the other it creates anxiety for the girl who cannot cook, clean etc; society stresses her into learning because “no man can marry a woman who cannot cook.”

And that is just one of too many problematic ways girls and women’s lives are made all about being acceptable to men. From a young age and throughout their lives, many girls and women are socialised to be submissive, demure and keen for male approval. “Men like women who do this; who don’t do that; who are like this; who are not like that” and so entire lives become about being the ‘ideal woman’ who will get a good grade from a man. From there, it follows that pleasing a man is one of her most important ‘natural’ roles. And that is how some girls and women’s lives get policed; their worlds shrunk and their options and interests shaped to fit the script recommended by patriarchy. Many boys on the other hand are socialised to be bold, in charge, autonomous and of course taught what to expect from an ideal woman, how to keep her in line as a ‘real’ man etc.  

I have never believed that suppressing women so that men can enjoy their ‘natural’ dominance is useful to anyone. Like Toni Morrison correctly points out: “if you’re going to hold someone down, you are going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.”

Today’s man needs to choose a progressive way of being a man. One that allows him to aspire, achieve and be content without needing to be validated through supremacy over women; one that does not look to oppressive hierarchies and brutality for validation.

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