It’s the End of the World As We Know It…

An image of a cover of Time magazine with the headline

On the eve of the Women’s March in Washington last year (the first one, for those counting), I found myself in the very conundrum that the picture below depicts. As a knitter, I just assumed that I could go to my local yarn shop a couple of days in advance of my city’s march and pick up some pink yarn to make my pussy hat. This didn’t seem like an unrealistic expectation, since, after all, there’s usually plenty of pink yarn sitting around when I’m there buying the more neutral shades that usually populate my closet. But on this particular weekend, it seemed that many others in the city had the same idea — there was virtually no pink yarn in sight.

An image of 4 cartoon women with pink winter hats and yarn

Indeed, from all appearances, the Women’s March was an important kickoff moment in a renewed wave of advocacy in the United States addressing many issues, gender bias among them, and it was motivated by the concerns of large groups of American women who have grown increasingly fearful about their social and legal standing in a Trump presidency. As we know, the march was followed by a series of other activist moments; most recently, the #metoo phenomenon has led to the widespread toppling of many powerful American men whose power and success was at least partially built on misogyny (presidents notwithstanding). 

So it was in this context that Steve Bannon, former Trump advisor, told journalist Michael Lewis in an interview late last week that a massive “anti-patriarchal” movement threatened not just Trump’s presidency, but American culture.  Female supporters seem to be fleeing Trump’s side as fast as they can, he notes, and if such women continue to band together (as expressed through tougher responses to sexual harassment and the like), then it will end patriarchy, or what he refers to as “10,000 years of recorded history.”  Bannon offers this not just as a simple observation, but as as a clear warning of a cataclysmic event.

To be sure that we’re all on the same page, let’s take a second to define our terms. As gender scholar Allan Johnson describes it, patriarchy is a form of social organization that is 1) male-dominated (meaning men literally control the most resources, including everything from real estate to government positions); 2) male-identified (meaning that most of the desirable traits in our culture are largely affiliated with masculinity); and 3) male-centered (meaning that the primary focus of our media, educational, political, and general social institutions focus on men and their experiences). While Johnson is quite clear that this does not mean that women and others are outright devalued nor absent from social life, this centering of male identity and perspectives creates a clear series of hierarchies.

Most importantly, the presence of patriarchy is not a matter of opinion in the way that we often use that phrase. Patriarchy is a statistical, demonstrable event, and yes, as Bannon noted, it’s been around for a long while (although since there are not 10,000 years of recorded history, it is impossible to trace patriarchy’s lineage to this degree). It is certainly interesting, though, that the longevity of patriarchy is not in dispute in Bannon’s comments, for it is not uncommon for conservatives of Bannon’s ilk to interpret any improvement in the condition of women as a sign that patriarchy is over.

But rather than quibble over how many years of recorded history exist, my interest in Bannon’s warning lies with how he uses the concept of time in his remark. Those of us who teach about gender and American culture may be tempted to throw up our hands at Bannon’s declaration that an anti-patriarchal movement is something of a recent trend, since an organized women’s movement in the United States is nothing new. Indeed, such a movement has been in place since at least the late 1700s (take a peek at Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,  published in 1792). For most of the past 200 years, such writing has been used to fight the depiction of women as weak (insomuch as they are cast as more passive, emotional, victims of their bodies), in contrast with men who are often stereotyped as more aggressive, ingenious, productive, and problem-solving.  Feminist scholar Sherry Ortner famously described this as the “nature-culture” dichotomy through which we form some of our most pervasive gender stereotypes.

Now these are not things that the average American knows (just as s/he also may not know that we have nowhere near 10,000 years of recorded history), so I would not necessarily expect Bannon to be familiar with this, either. But I feel relatively sure that he is quite knowledgeable of the myriad methods of anti-patriarchal resistance that have prominently figured in American culture since the 1960s, particularly concerning birth control, the wage gap, reproductive rights, domestic abuse, rape, quality childcare, media stereotypes, and a whole host of other issues.   

So rather than take him literally that he’s describing an unprecedented event, we should read Bannon’s message as “if sexism ends, then this changes everything.”  (We will also remember that this was the same rhetoric against ending slavery — blacks couldn’t be freed because the economy would collapse, and so on).  In this case, rhetorical scholars will no doubt note that Bannon’s phrasing of gender equity as “anti-patriarchy” and his “10,000 year” comment are tactics meant to inject negativity and magnitude into an otherwise ubiquitous phenomenon (resistance by disenfranchised groups).  This undoubtedly plays very well into the emotions that motivate many of the white men who comprise Trump’s base, whose own racial and gendered privilege is no longer taken for granted.  Put differently, for many of them, it may certainly feel like a catastrophic event if traditional forms of misogyny (and thus male identity) are questioned.

But as a scholar of religion, I must admit that upon reading Bannon’s “10,000 year” comment, I was reminded of the old-guard essentialist religion scholars who spent much of their time attempting to convince their audiences that religion was “real” in part because it was old. Like our students who start their papers with “Since the beginning of time…,” such a strategy, apart from the power of simple magnitude, incites in the reader the sense that something with such tremendous longevity must stand apart from the mundane networks of social power. As the argument goes,  if it is old, it must be natural, and if it is natural, then it is no one’s fault.  In his assertion that patriarchy represents something older than “the beginning of time” that a special breed of “anti-patriarchalists” can overturn,  Bannon has, in a sense, transformed men into “nature” and women into “culture”.



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