Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Problem With Patriarchy

I'd like to take a short break from writing about video games specifically and focus on another often-mentioned feminist theory that is constantly brought up when discussing gender issues; patriarchy theory. I thought I'd switch to a different topic because (a) this blog is meant to be about gender issues and video games, albeit focusing on one more than the other and (b) I'm having trouble finding a video online of a cutscene -- and obscure postgame (I believe) cutscene from Star Ocean: The Last Hope -- for a topic that I wanted to write about. I could write the blog without it but it wouldn't be as good.

I normally steer clear of using any feminist/men's rights activist terms on this blog because I want it to feel accessable to the average reader. "Hypoagency". "Privilege". "Rape culture". I've probably mentioned a couple of them before and I know I've brought up "agency" a few times but generally, I stay away from those terms if I can. Although I know that my main traffic comes from people interested in gender issues in the first place, I want the average gamer to be able to take something from it too.

"Patriarchy" is a term that comes up time and time again when discussing gender issues and, irritatingly, it's a term I've heard about half a dozen definitions of. It's a system designed to keep men in power and oppress women. It's a system designed to keep men in power and oppress women and some men. At its least offensive, I've heard it described as "a social system where men act as primary authority figures central to social organisation" (although this was immediately followed-up with the short-sighted "as a result men have privilege and control, and other men and women are subjugated"). I've also heard it described as intentionally malicious or just accidentally oppressive. Thankfully, I was linked to "A Basic Definition Of Patriarchy" yesterday, so maybe that can clear things up a bit.

When it comes up in conversations about gender issues, patriarchy is the umbrella that other gender issues fall under; rape culture is part of patriarchy. Objectification is part of patriarchy. Unequal pay is part of patriarchy, etc, etc. In gaming circles, you might hear phrases like "patriarchal gender roles" or the damsel in distress plot device being due to patriarchy.

Let's get this out of the way now; patriarchy theory is an attempt to put a face and a name to oppression. While both men and women have suffered in different ways throughout history, it's supposedly not enough to say that's simply due to the way society evolved to treat the sexes or because of our culture. There has to be an oppressor ... and the face and name that the oppressor has been given in this case are both male. Using patriarchy theory in an argument has a ton of benefits for the person making it; it frees the person from any acknowledgment of female privilege while simultaneously arguing that males have been swimming in privilege since the dawn of time ("men have the privilege of not knowing they're privileged" sometimes comes up). It also frees up responsibility from any other factors, such as the class system, nationality (Irish, for example) and religion (being Protestant under Mary I springs to mind). It's a huge, cookie-cutter oversimplification of a string of issues concerning social standing and privilege. It's anti-intellectual, shows an ignorance towards historical context and the different definitions of patriarchy only muddy the waters while debating gender issues, rather than clear them.

I think those are sensible enough reasons to rule out arguments about patriarchy but even without them, the real reason I couldn't take it seriously is because it has absolutely no bearing on real life.

A couple of months ago, I watched this video, featuring Erin Pizzey -- founder of one of the world's first women's shelters in 1971 -- discussing domestic violence. She talked about how, in her case, it was generational. She made an effort to get to the root of the problem in a way that simply saying "it's because of patriarchy" doesn't do. I took a few minutes to make a couple of images showing how I would examine men's issues to how someone who believes in patriarchy theory would examine women's issues. Here's mine, first of all:

It's not in-depth or comprehensive by any means -- it had to be small enough to fit in the blog column -- but there's a few men's issues and a few possible causes, or at least possible reasons why they're perpetuated. Lots of different possibilities. Some speculation and uncertainty. With a gender issues board for someone who believes in patriarchy theory, on the other hand:

... There is only certainty. If you think that picture is an exaggeration, take a look at this article from Jezebel. Or maybe you'd prefer hearing it read out at the University Of Toronto protest a few months ago, with added abuse! If you frequent Tumblr, you probably saw it reposted thousands of times too. There's a stereotype of men's rights activists that says they blame all their problems on feminism, which isn't the case, as you can see above. So it's surprising that there are feminists who legitimately do the same thing with patriarchy.

Of course, they have good reason to; passing everything off as the result of patriarchy, feminist groups -- or any other perpetrator of gender issues, for that matter -- don't have to take responsibility for their own role role in perpetuating or even helping to cause gender issues. It's much easier to say "it's patriarchy's fault" than acknowledge intolerance against men instigated by feminists, such as the Duluth model of domestic violence, which treats domestic violence as something solely done by men to women. Or the tender years doctrine, which set a precedent for mothers gaining sole custody of children. Or the National Organization for Women's opposition to a "shovel-ready" stimulus program after the recession hit simply because the workforce would be predominately male (since male-dominated industries were the most badly affected). "Patriarchy hurts men too" is, as well as being an oversimplification, an attempt to rewrite history.

In short, people need to stop using patriarchy as the go-to scapegoat to attack when wanting to fix gender issues. "Demolishing the patriarchy" is like "stamping out the plague of vampiric chickens". It's not something that can be done because it doesn't exist and, even if it could be done, "patriarchy" is such a vast, overarching term that it'd be better to focus on individual gender issues anyway. Instead of saying "patriarchal gender roles", just say "gender roles". It's not like people won't know what you're talking about, you just won't be conjuring up an image of a cackling bogeyman, tapping his fingers together while oppressing women.

Comments welcome. E-mail: themalesofgames@gmail.com. You know what to do by now.

Actually, although I don't respond to all of them, I really do appreciate receiving comments. In fact, if I don't respond, it's usually because I agree and don't just want to add "yep, you're right". So a big "thank you" to everyone who has left a comment in the past.


  1. Keep up the good work! I enjoy reading your perspective on gender issues in video games. After hearing the other side speak for so long without any calling them out on their ridiculousness it's refreshing to see a blog like this.

    1. Thank you! That's much appreciated. I'm glad I can provide a different perspective.

  2. Seconding Cpt. Cool. This blog needs to exist.

    Regarding the Patriarchy thing, it's just an excuse to foist all responsibility for the problems in society and culture on to men.