Male Privilege and Other Yarns

I appreciate the older folk. Just stick me in the car with them for a few hours, and I am like a cat basking at a sun-filled window. Not only do they have decades of accumulated wisdom, but they have the freedom to give reign to their throats and ‘say what they wanna’ without the prospect of being chastised.

In particular, I know this old couple who rock the classic style—in life and fashion. They are always dressed outrageously well, matching colors, of course. Their ideologies are old-school, too. While meeting with a group of tense, unmarried twenty and thirty-somethings, the wife once gave us a stern talking to about our irrational hesitations with the opposite sex. For a woman who had been married for over forty years, she was flabbergasted at our reservations about dating and marriage. To her, we were all too afraid of being hurt, so we were all clamoring after the ideal mate, and completely terrified of the real thing in front of us. She made it clear that the risk of being hurt, the fights, the pain were all things that came with marriage, even happy ones; they were not something you could avoid.

While I just wanted to say, “I have a right to be afraid. I don’t WANT to marry a crazy!”, it got me thinking. Where did we learn this deep distrust of each other? What made women fear men and men fear women? And, for the record, is “crazy” simply another term for “not like me”–i.e. someone who thinks, acts, communicates, and feels differently than me? Gender happens to be one of the sharpest demarcations among humans, but other generations seemed to accept it, move on, and work it out, right?

Feminism, patriarchies, the social phenomenon of male privilege, women’s rights, these are all issues that are not new to my generation. People would say today that women (in this country at least) have never been treated better, while others would say that there are still gaping holes. Even now, we hear breaking stories on the rape culture that has taken hold of young people and how women are still lagging behind in pay when compared to their male counterparts. While it is not my way to get involved in social movements or politics, I am a pattern-finder, and it is not hard to see how this Male/Female Fear has been raging among us since…well, forever. The difference is that previous generations had less freedom to rebel against the establishment.

As always, we can turn to the artists of the time to provide this rebellion. The poets and authors of the past have always seemed to us to be “ahead of their time” when it comes to social issues like this. We also have many talented writers today who can write about how deep-seated fear, oppression, and demeaning behavior exists between the sexes on a personal and a societal level.

I am always reading many things at once, but I was a bit surprised to find a link between a Shakespeare play I was reading, “A Winter’s Tale,” and a wonderfully piercing short story by Steve Yarbrough called “The Rest of Her Life.” (By the way, these two authors are obviously male.  Even though these men might not have termed themselves as feminists, they were sensitive to the reality of the society they lived in and portrayed it in a moving, bluntly realistic, but not moralizing, way.)

In both stories, men and women are both living in male-dominated societies that adversely affects both women and men, although Shakespeare was writing in the early 1600s and Yarbrough published his story in 1998. For those not familiar with Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” it is about a king who becomes manically convinced that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. In Shakespeare’s day, men were obsessed about the chastity of the women around them, not only for emotional reasons, but because of financial ones; their money, their lineage, their legacy all depended on knowing that their kids were really their kids. If that was not bad enough, this king used his power and authority to terrorize his (innocent) wife, threatening to murder her for treason after putting her in prison and leaving their newborn daughter to die. By the time he discovers she is innocent, he has lost everything (and it’s only through the grace of the play that he is allowed to recover). I.e., the abuse of male power at its worst.

Yarbrough’s story, “The Rest of Her Life,” does not deal with such high-powered people, but it takes on a sensationalism of its own. The father of the main character, Dee Ann, is accused of murdering his abandoned ex-wife for the insurance money. Throughout the story, Dee Ann is patronized, seduced, and manipulated throughout the ensuing murder trial because of her key testimony. One image that sticks out in my mind is the men (the policemen, the DA, etc) who place their hand on her knee while they are talking to her. At once, you can feel how objectified she is to them and their agendas. The true kicker is her father who is a blatant sociopath. Dee Ann never recovers from the sense of powerlessness and meaninglessness that his actions has caused her and her mother. While her final decision at the trial came as a surprise to me, it made perfect sense later in light of her male-dominated society. In this story, the negligence, the objectification, the legal bullying of the system paints a picture of how tragic life can be when one group has systemic power over the other in such fundamental ways.

This post was not made to bash men, people. The only thing that’s being bashed here is the dominance of one group over the other, because it causes suspicion, distrust, pain, and catastrophe to everyone involved.

We only fight this kind of pervasive wrong by being informed about just what kind of society we’re living in. Reading the works of astute writers can help us to do this. I advise you to find a copy of Yarbrough’s story, in particular. It just might change the way you see the other half.

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