Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

Archive for the ‘Gender Essentialism’ Category

Since I’m writing on a group blog now, and that group blog is part of a backlash against the misogyny of the skeptical movement, we’ve chosen to include male voices only once a week. It’s not that we have any problem with men as men, or with what men have to say simply because they are men, but we wish to make it clear that we believe women’s voices to have value in and of themselves without men having to approve of it. This is a tricky thing to do, since we actually care a great deal about men and their issues, but I believe that it is important to have a space for women to speak. There are many spaces in which only men speak, both online and off, so we feel valid in going about our business this way. (I’ll also take this opportunity to highlight our Token Dude’s post about toxic masculine scripts.)

That being said, although “What About the Menz Wednesdays” is a tongue-in-cheek concept–as is our tokenization of the men who will post on our site–I actually, personally, care very deeply about mens’ issues. As a feminist, I find that “gender studies” is a more apt term than “women’s studies” because it acknowledges that men have gender every bit as much as women and non-binary folk do. While it’s true that feminism, as an establishment, is more interested in the empowerment of women than the empowerment of men (who are already, in a lot of ways, more empowered than women), intersectional feminism has room for the discussion of men’s issues both as pertain to their gender and as pertain to other marginalized identities that they might inhabit.

I look at the men around me and I often see deeply wounded bodies who are denied even the ability to speak of or acknowledge the wounding that is part and parcel with becoming and remaining a man in our society. I see bodies shaped with violence that is meant to impart to them that their only value is as distributors of the same violence. I see psyches scarred by the socially-constructed notion that there are only a few emotions that “real men” have. I see people who are often so terrified of being thought effeminate that they will deny core aspects of their being so as to be permitted to remain in the man box.

I see my father, laid off at fifty and suddenly denied the only value he has been taught he has. Defeated. Failed. Unable to provide for his family, no longer a man.

I see men who return from combat with post traumatic stress disorder and are incapable of speaking the pain of what they have witnessed because real men thrive in combat; their wounds should be physical, not emotional. Sick. Hurting. No longer men.

I see the bodies of men, who comprise the largest demographic to successfully commit suicide, and I see the gun manufacturers who exploit their desire to be manly and thus put in the hands of many of these men the instrument of their own self-destruction. They may die, but at least they die as men, I suppose.

I see queer men and men whose gender expression is non-normative and the physical and psychological violence that they undergo, usually (but not always) at the hands of other men who are threatened by masculinities other than the Man Box. If you let men fuck you or you wear nail polish then you’re not a man.

I see the men who are victims of assault, both sexual and physical, at the hands of other men, and remain silent because it would be unmanly to speak.

I see my fellow Marines, men, who are beaten in boot camp for no pedagogical reason and do not speak out against their drill instructors because they desperately want to be men, to be Marines.

I see men who are taught that violence is the only way that they can achieve their goals and who are so emotionally stunted that they attempt to get their way through violence against others, and I even have some pity for them, however small.

I think that men deserve better than this. I think that men deserve better than to spend their time absorbed in a media that portrays them as too stupid to be self-sufficient, as raping machines without consciences, as incapable of forming emotional bonds with other people except over shared adherence to a certain form of masculinity. I think that men deserve better than to be told that they need a gun to be a man and then to find themselves with an easy way out when they, like everyone else, suffer from devastating depression. I think that men deserve better than to be taught that their only value is in how much money they make for their families.

And I do think that feminists should talk about this more. A lot of men, because of poverty or race or disability or sexuality, will ask the question that a lot of feminists deride: “But what about teh menz?!?!?!?!” And my answer is: it’s fair to ask that question. It may not be fair to ask that question in every space; for instance, a discussion of the income disparity between men and women is not a fair place to bring up that individual men may make less than individual women. It is, however, fair to ask this question on the broader scale. What about the men? Have people forgotten that they have gender, and that this gender is often formed through violence and abuse?

I haven’t. I care. I care if you feel as though you haven’t done anything wrong and you are being mistreated simply for being born with a particular type of body, although I hope to demonstrate to you the way in which that perspective lacks in understanding of the bigger picture. I care about the distress of the privileged. I may not care about it as much as I do about the cries of the marginalized, but I do care about it, and I think that you deserve an answer, sometimes, to “what about the men?”

It’s almost cliche by now, but the patriarchy hurts men, too, and my feminism is the kind that cares about men’s struggles. After all, if men are socialized to perpetuate violence against women, then women cannot be safe until we expect more of men and demand better for them. We cannot have safe women until men are safe. It all comes back to men; that, my friends, is “what about the men.”


Note: This post will largely be focused on Wicca since Wicca is the only religion I have serious experience with outside of Christianity; however, the criticisms can be generalized to belief systems in which specific traits are essentialized to a specific gender.

I vividly remember the appeal that Wicca held for me as a newly deconverted Christian. Although my Christianity hadn’t been too noxious in its patriarchal worldview, it was still anti-sex, anti-choice, and held that women could not hold leadership positions in churches. I wouldn’t have identified patriarchy as a reason that I had left, but the sudden experience of a religion in which my gender was not considered a liability was unbelievably refreshing. Having never realized I was dying of thirst, I drank, endlessly cherishing my value in my new faith.

In the tradition from which I sought initiation we repeated this, ad nauseam, , like a prayer:

The Lord and Lady are equal.

It was so very refreshing to hear this coming from the mouths of people who were training me to be a priestess–a priestess!–in a religion that could finally accept me as I was, as a woman. Rather than pretending that we did not exist, that the divine could not wear our face, that we were the bodies in which sin originated, this religion celebrated us for being fully woman. We learned about the correlation of elements to gender-specific traits: air (“communication, reason, and memory“) and fire (“inspiration, passion, and courage“) were the realm of the masculine; water and earth, however, correlated to femininity. Water–the element of “intuition, dreams, and emotions“–was obviously feminine, since women are intuitive and emotional. Earth–the element of “fertility, stability, and practicality“– was obviously feminine as well because women bear life within their bodies and provide the stability and practicality that keeps households running while men pursue outside interests. The Goddess was fertility and light and intuition; she was the sow that eats her own young and Sekhmet drinking rivers of blood. She was complex, but her beauty and her terror were uniquely feminine rather than neutral or masculine.

It seemed, at first blush, as though this new religious framework was taking the traits that made females women and turning them into positives instead of denigrating them after the fashion of more patriarchal religious traditions, and I was more than happy to accept this. Without spending time in a religious tradition (one, might I add, out of many; the divine feminine is far from exclusive to neopaganism) that recognized a feminine face of deity, I would not have come as quickly or willingly to feminism.

Feminism, however, came with skepticism for me, and the two combined into a powerful critique of the once-empowering divine feminine I had once worshiped (along with its corresponding divine masculine).

In order to understand a) how these correlations are gender essentialist and b) how gender essentialism is damaging, it is necessary to understand that we, as humans, communicate largely through tropes. (Some of you may, as I did, have come to be familiar with the concept of tropes through the website TVTropes. While that site is a fine way to spend all of your time for days on end, its definition of tropes is only half-useful here. If you are unfamiliar, my deepest apologies for introducing you to your new time-suck.)

The trope that is necessary in order to understand this discussion is metaphor, as defined by Kenneth Burke. According to Burke, metaphor can be substituted forĀ perspective. To use metaphor is to see a thing in terms of, or from theĀ perspective of, another thing, and the savvy reader will understand that this means that we are surrounded by metaphor. Language itself is metaphor; pictures are metaphor. We cannot function without metaphor. That does not mean, however, that we cannot choose the metaphors with which we populate our self-expression. The metaphors through which we communicate, both as individuals and as a society, actively shape the way in which we understand the reality that we live.

Some neopagans would argue as to whether the gods are metaphors at all, and hard polytheists would likely disagree with the softer polytheism that I was taught. From the relatively soft polytheist/pantheist perspective that I was taught, however, the gods are all metaphors for a genderless and/or all-gendered greater power that lies behind it all (some traditions, including mine, call it Dryghton; others may not have a name).

I would argue, however, that it does not matter whether you consider big-G God, little-g gods, or whatever other form of deity you may engage with to be actual distinct beings, metaphors for a generic higher power, or metaphors for aspects of our human experience. (Not all pagans identify as theists.) If we are going to argue, as I assume from experience most pagans would, that the misogyny that is endemic to the Abrahamic religions–particularly to the more extreme expressions of these religions–is in part derived from the view of God as male, then it is necessary to ask what, precisely, pagans are telling men and women about themselves through their own understanding of spirituality.

If women are, by nature, more intuitive and emotional than men, and men are more reasonable and passionate than women, there is very little to differentiate the neopagan understanding of gendered relations from that of the mainstream culture around it. It is true that paganism cloaks these interpretations of gender in the divine and does not claim that these attributes necessarily belong more to men or women (although many pagans would claim exactly this, just as many non-pagans would), but to view intuition and emotion solely as feminine is to perpetuate a dangerously gender-essentialist vision of what it means to be a woman. Rather than encouraging people to develop these traits because they are a fundamental part of what it means to be a complete human being, neopagans may be encouraged to “seek the Goddess” or “call upon Goddess energy.” The same process occurs with men.

If the Christians are right and you can know worldviews by their fruits, then the fruits of neopagans are rife with evidence of the ways that gender essentialism harms those who do not fit into neat gendered boxes. To provide one example, those who are familiar with the pagan community may remember the hubbub last year over a ritual at Pantheacon, led by Z. Budapest (a respected elder in the community), that called for “genetic women only.” The ritual purported to represent “the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all of her infinite variety” while limiting itself to cisgender women.

While many pagans were outraged with this exclusion (as was I, from a distance), if you are going to assert that certain traits are essentially feminine–even symbolically–then it leaves room for a situation in which only cisgender women are women, or only women who have given birth are women, or only straight women are women, et cetera, ad infinitum. To essentialize traits like reason and passion, or intuition and fertility, is to deny the true diversity of humanity. This is a steep price to pay for the sake of providing simple pigeonholes in which to slot human experience, god/s, the elements, or whatever other things that rituals and spirituality purport to represent.

The “divine feminine” is not feminist because it denies the essential femininity of women who lack the traits that are purportedly feminine. Some women are not expressive with their emotions. Some women are autistic and have difficulty sussing out others’ moods and intentions. Some women were born with penises and some women keep their penises. Some women are hotheaded and intellectual. It is not feminist to erase these bodies by claiming to uplift essentially “feminine” traits. A truly feminist paradigm would uplift intuition, reason, fertility, passion, emotion, intellect, all alike, as essentially human.

Why is it necessary for feminists, and particularly skeptical feminists, to be aware of these problems?

To put it bluntly, pagans aren’t the only ostensibly feminist-friendly demographic that thrives on these gendered tropes. Skeptics have enormous problems with equally woo-based gender essentialism, and we need to kick the fox out of our henhouse. I will see you next time for that discussion.

This post is crossposted at and you lovely folks should go there because everyone there is awesome.


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