Gender and Privilege

Gender and Privilege September 18, 2017

Let’s continue the conversation on privilege by bringing gender into the spotlight as an identity where privilege skews toward one end of the spectrum.

Photo from Unsplash by Michael Prewett. In public domain.
Photo from Unsplash by Michael Prewett. In public domain.

In my post defining privilege, I explain it as “the state of being less impacted by bad things than other folks, whether we’re talking inconveniences or danger/harm.”

Many types of identities can be privileged – according to whether one is able-bodied, white, and so on – and gender is yet another of these. I define gender as “the composite of culturally constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity, viewed on a spectrum rather than as a binary” and as such, it encompasses internally-sensed identity as well as the external expressions, norms, roles, and ideals we all interact with.

As a feminist, one of the basic tenets of my scholarly and political activism is that in much of the Western world (and indeed, globally), masculinity comes with significant privileges. Of course men didn’t necessarily ask for these privileges; of course being assigned male at birth doesn’t guarantee a man a comfy life even in a patriarchal society; of course many men do the good work to dismantle systems of hierarchy so that one man’s “privilege” can become just another basic human right that we all have access to.

Examples of male privilege abound. This Everyday Feminism article points out 160 instances, ranging from how men are less likely to be subjected to slut-shaming than women are, to how doctors are more likely to take men seriously when they complain about medical issues. Men are less impacted by intimate partner violence than women; according to statistics from the CDC, half of female homicides are killed by intimate partners.

It can be difficult not to feel resentful of male privilege, and moreso when the men I try to engage with on the topic deny its existence. It is emotionally painful to be told that my lived experiences are not real (not to mention that it’s also a form of gaslighting).

That’s why I like how Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner put it in Men’s Lives (8th ed):

There is a sociological explanation for this blind spot in our thinking: the mechanisms that afford us privilege are very often invisible to us. What makes us marginal (unempowered, oppressed) are the mechanisms that we understand, because those are the ones that are most painful in daily life. Thus, white people rarely think of themselves as “raced” people, and rarely think of race as a central element in their experience. But people of color are marginalized by race, and so the centrality of race both is painfully obvious and needs study urgently. Similarly, middle-class people do not acknowledge the importance of social class as an organizing principle of social life, largely because for them class is an invisible force that makes everyone look pretty much the same. Working-class people, on the other hand, are often painfully aware of the centrality of class in their lives. […]

In this same way, men often think of themselves as genderless, as if gender did not matter in the daily experiences of our lives. Certainly, we can see the biological sex of individuals, but we rarely understand the ways in which gender  – that complex of social meanings that is attached to biological sex – is enacted in our daily lives. For example, we treat male scientists as if their being men had nothing to do with the organization of their experiments, the logic of scientific inquiry, or the questions posed by science itself. We treat male political figures as if masculinity were not even remotely in their consciousness as they do battle in the political arena. (xii)

This reminder about political figures comes at a timely moment. Hell, it’s always a timely moment. From the way the 2016 American elections went down, to the continuing fuss over what Clinton is doing or not doing (as of this writing, her book just came out)… gendered privilege is constantly present in how politics are represented and conducted, and I’m quite annoyed at that fact.

But as Kimmel and Messner point out, people who are marginalized by certain social mechanisms are more likely to be keenly aware of those mechanisms, whereas those who don’t have to confront that reality, well, often don’t engage with it. There’s just not a pressing need to. It’s annoying, and it’s painful, but that might just be how people are until pushed to do otherwise.

In an ideal world, we’d all reflect on the interactions of gender and privilege, and other forms of identity and privilege too. I didn’t get into it in this blog post, but cisgender privilege – the benefits conferred when you choose to identify with the gender assigned to you at birth – is also a thing. Gender and privilege thus intersect in multiple ways, ways that are often compounded when you add sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, and other identity markers into the mix.

And until gender and privilege are no longer so densely interconnected, I think we need to keep having these conversations, as frustrating as they can be.

References:

Kimmel, Michael S., and Michael A. Messner. Men’s Lives. Eighth Edition. New York: Allyn & Bacon, 2010.

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