…and by “interesting” I mean that I’ve personally not run into it before, and that it’s actually one that deserves dissection rather than merely being laughed out of the room for sheer dumbosity. Somewhat unfortunately, this post has been incubating in my brain for so long that the blog in which I originally found the comments (No, Seriously, What About Teh Menz) seems to have moved to a new host, and now I can’t find anything there. So, this will be written from memory and therefore I can’t guarantee the full accuracy of the examples used to support the MRA’s talking point.
Anyway, the argument goes as follows:
We know that women have a higher status than men because women who “descend” into masculinity are tolerated , but men who are trying to do things “above their station” and adopt feminine things/behaviors are punished*; this is similar to the way rich people can affect the “ghetto” look and be cool, while poor people affecting upper class style and behavior are posers and fakes**; or similar to the way blackface is cool, but a black person trying to “pass” for a white one is considered to be transgressing.
The reason I find this argument interesting is because at first glance, that kinda sorta makes sense. Privileged people have more freedoms, and one of them is to appropriate things from the oppressed classes. Cultural appropriation for example is a huge problem with imperialism/colonialism/white culture***. But a closer analysis of the two claims in this argument makes it clear that that’s not quite how it works. So, let’s have a closer look at these claims:
1)The oppressors are permitted to be like the oppressed
This is only superficially true. As I mentioned, affecting and appropriating things that culturally belong to oppressed groups is certainly quite common. But there are “rules” about how you’re supposed to do that. For example, there’s a difference between appropriating/devaluing and adopting/supporting someone else’s oppressed identity. Wearing a hipster headdress is not the same as “decolonizing” and becoming involved in Native culture and society as an ally and/or as a spouse and parent to tribal members; donning blackface is not the same as becoming a student and promoter of Critical Race Theory; dressing up as a woman for Halloween, for a comedy show, or for a pride parade is not the same as living as a trans woman; and I’m willing to bet affecting a lower-class accent is not the same as abandoning your upper-class social ties and becoming a miner and moving to a working-class neighborhood. Point being, it’s ok to mock and play pretend, but it’s absolutely not ok to actually become part of, or a supporter of, the oppressed group. And in many ways, this can be seen by how the privileged classes define themselves, which is often by what they are not****. For example, pale skin was a sign of nobility when it meant that you were not a peasant; and then the Industrial Revolution happened, labor moved indoors, and suddenly suntanning became a sign of not being working class. Another example is Upper Class Etiquette (AKA “being classy”), which is basically an elaborate set of completely superfluous rules designed specifically as an artificial Upper Class Habitus setting the Upper Classes apart from the lower classes; and, sure, you can occasionally adopt what you think is a lower-class habitus, but only when it’s kinda obvious that it’s for shits and giggles; otherwise, it may well be perceived as a giant faux pas. A third, and probably the best-known example, is the one drop rule: whiteness being treated as such an endangered commodity that a single drop of black blood contaminated it permanently and made you non-white. Masculinity works much the same way, i.e. it identifies itself as what it is not, i.e. feminine. That’s why enforcement of transgressions out of masculinity and into femininity exist: they threaten the established hierarchy, and unlike in the cases of racism and classism, there isn’t even an equivalent ideology in the broader culture equivalent to “colorblindness” or “meritocracy” that would temper old-fashioned***** gender-policing the same way it sometimes does temper old-fashioned race- and class-policing.
2)The oppressed are forbidden from being like the oppressors
It is true that in order to properly maintain a hierarchy, it’s necessary to make sure the oppressed don’t just weasel out by becoming or passing for the oppressor. Further, since I just explained that the oppressor group often defines itself by what it is not, making sure that the oppressed don’t start doing oppressor-stuff is a way of preserving for oneself the permission to do these things#. However, internalized oppression and the hierarchy itself make it so that the stuff that “belongs” to the oppressor is seen as good, moral, “classy”, etc. while the stuff that “belongs” or identifies the oppressed groups is seen as inferior. Consequently, internal hierarchies within oppressed groups emerge, which state that even while being in the oppressed group, it’s “better” (more moral, more civilized, more normal, etc.) to be more like the oppressor and shun/abandon those things that mark one as a member of the oppressed class. Colorism is one such example, in which lighter skin color is higher in a racial hierarchy than darker skin, even among people of color themselves; similarly, African-Americans who have internalized a white habitus are considered more cultured than those who have a habitus associated with an African-American subculture (it’s probably not a coincidence that the first black president of the US is a biracial man raised by white people. Or, as Joe Biden noted is his typical foot-in-mouth kind of way: a “mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”). Another one is the “normal gay” and “flamboyant gay” bullshit: gay men who are otherwise performing masculinity are seen as better, i.e. higher up on the hierarchy, than gay men who are seen to share more “feminine” attributes than just being attracted to men (incidentally, this is also where the weird thing about how it’s not “gay” to receive a blowjob from a man comes from: receiving blowjobs = manly, while giving blowjobs = womanly; and gay = womanly)##. In the trans community, this internal (self-)oppression based on how closely someone manages to conform to cisnormative and heteronormative rules is called the Harry Benjamin Syndrome.
And exactly the same happens to gender-roles. Because men are higher in the hierarchy, masculine things have higher status, whereas feminine things have lower status. The consequence? Femmephobia: the belief that feminine self-expression and things associated with femininity are inherently less good, moral, fun, valuable, etc. than masculine self-expression and things associated with masculinity. This is why women who do traditionally masculine things can sometimes be perceived as being “better” than those doing traditionally feminine things.
It should be noted that a lot of this “it’s better to be like the oppressor” stuff is a symptom of a transitional culture: in a static hierarchy, “upward mobility” of this kind is strictly punishable and control and suppresion of it seen as absolutely necessary for the survival of society. When it occurs within segregated minority communities, it’s only tolerated insofar as it’s invisible (or useful in a divide-and-conquer sort of way) to the oppressor group; the moment it spills out into the “mainstream” (read: the oppressor-dominated culture), it will be swiftly punished. In a transitional culture on the other hand, the oppressor culture becomes a “norm” and “ideal” that becomes a requirement for acceptance into a supposedly egalitarian/democratic/colorblind/whathaveyou mainstream. And when these two aspects clash, you get the faliliar Catch-22 that is being a member of an oppressed group: if you act in ways identified as belonging to your group, you’ll be shat on because of the low status of those social signifiers; if you instead act in ways identified with the oppressor group, you’ll be perceived as “uppity”, bitchy, a trap, a poser, etc., unless you somehow manage to do this while also helping maintain the hierarchy. See also “not like other women” and “model minority”.
So, to sum it up: oppressors are only allowed to appropriate oppressed-group-signifiers for the purpose of mockery and “play”, but not actually adopt them in any meaningful way; conversely, in transitional cultures with delusions of egalitarian ideals, the hierarchy itself mandates that acceptance into the “mainstream” requires emulation of the oppressor class on behalf of the oppressed. Therefore, the fact that women wearing pants is cool, but men wearing skirts is not isn’t a sign that women are the oppressor class; it’s a sign that masculinity has higher-status than femininity, and that we’re in a transitional culture which both enforces the masculinity-over-femininity hierarchy and uses the language of meritocracy and equality, thus basically saying that women have the right to abandon their shitty, feminine qualities and exchange them for the better, more masculine ones, while at the same time assigning lower status to anyone choosing to be more feminine than masculine###.
Conclusion: another MRA being wrong, albeit more creatively and cleverly than usual.
P.S.:I apologize for the ridiculous amount of footnotes. The topic got away from me a few too many times, and there’s entirely too many tangents kinda-sorta-relevant to this topic.
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*women wearing pants vs. men wearing skirts; the fact that trans men face less violence than trans women; etc.
**to use my own example of this, take for example British class consciousness. It’s kinda fashionable for upper class Brits to affect lower-class accents; OTOH, someone from a lower class background trying to affect an upper class accent could be interpreted as uppity, fake, a poser etc. Also, from what I understand, there’s also a thing among younger folks of “dropping” aristocratic titles to be cool; but you’d get your ass handed to you if you instead wanted to take one on when you don’t have one. So, down-classing yourself = cool; up-classing yourself = punishable
***for example, here’s an entire excellent blog about appropriations of Native American culture by whites, especially by hipster culture: Native Appropriations
****that’s actually one of the identifying characteristics of being a privileged group: being the default, the un-modified state; being defined in common language as that which lacks distinguishing characteristics. That’s why “ethnic” never refers to WASPs, even though that’s technically a kind of ethnicity, and a human figure lacking secondary (or tertiary) sexual characteristics is interpreted as male.
*****”old-fashioned” vs. “modern” bigotry is a discussion in and of itself, but basically it’s the difference between being a blatantly prejudiced and discriminatory bigot (what we traditionally call “a racist”, “a misogynist” etc.) and someone who perpetrates microaggressions. Don’t know where dogwhistles fall here; probably the former masquerading as the latter
#and actually, it just occurred to me that of course appropriation is a way to allow the oppressor-group to do oppressed-people-stuff without losing their status and identity: Pat Boone’s career is in fact based entirely on this principle.
##the issue with “lipstic lesbians” vs. butch lesbians doesn’t neatly fit here because of the intersectional nature of it: on the one hand, feminine lesbians are considered “straighter” and more gender-role-conforming than butch lesbians, and thus are rewarded for that; on the other, femmephobia means that a feminine form of self-expression is considered lower-status than a masculine AKA butch one.
###while simultaneously still enforcing the old gender-roles. this intersectionality means that gender-non-conforming cis women and gender-non-conforming cis men both end up suffering along two axes of oppression while being in the oppressor category on one; and it’s also this intersectionality that synergistically ends up super-shitty for trans women, because they suffer from femmephobia (pretty much regardless of how butch their self-expression; but femme trans women tend to get more of this), gender-non-conformity (when they’re treated as supergay or superfeminine men), and misogyny.