As one year ends and another begins, it’s natural to reflect and make resolutions. This year my resolution isn’t about dieting, exercising more, or anything fit for an internet meme. This year I resolved to break off the most toxic relationship of my life. I am breaking up with the Patriarchy.
We met when I was too young to know better. I wanted to feel taken care of, to believe what he promised me—love, care, fulfillment, support, respect, equality, freedom. But like all toxic relationships, it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. The first in my memory involved my wardrobe. Why couldn’t I wear pants to church like my brothers got to? Have you ever tried climbing a tree in a dress? It’s highly impractical. Bark has no business getting that friendly with my bare legs. And there was always something to climb, even on the way to church. But that wasn’t reason enough to end the whole relationship.
The next example I recall was when a boy in second grade liked me. He kept following me everywhere I went and ignored my repeated protests to leave me alone. When I’d finally had enough, I threatened to gouge his eyes out with craft scissors (hey, I never claimed I was perfect.) I wasn’t surprised to get in trouble, but I was angry at being the only one. After all, he wasn’t respecting my very clear boundaries.
Patriarchy, however, ensured no one cared that this boy wasn’t interested in whether or not I wanted his attention. “You should be flattered,” my well-intentioned teacher told me. And so, the lesson I learned at the ripe old age of seven was clear: to be desired was the goal.
At nine, a dad saw me in my soccer uniform and told me I had “a nice set of legs.” None of the parents within earshot told him (or me) how egregious that was. And when I was thirteen hanging around the pool in my first bikini, my uncle’s friend called me “sexy.” By then I not only knew I was meant to, but I did feel flattered. After all, wasn’t that always the goal? According to the Patriarchy, I was finally playing my part.
So when I was sixteen and got my first job at a Mexican restaurant bussing tables, I didn’t bother to mention to anyone that I was sexually assaulted my first week. I didn’t even know that’s what it was called. Patriarchy had sufficiently socialized me to know that I should love the attention and/or had, in some way asked for it. A guy who worked in the kitchen (with whom I had never spoken) passed behind me, swept my hair to the side and kissed my neck. I was so stunned I didn’t even move. He smiled leeringly and pushed through the double doors, going right back to work. I fought back the nausea and confusion, then quit and found a new job. I didn’t even mention it to my boss—a good guy—who I’d like the think would have fired that creep. I’d already been assured on too many occasions that I was overreacting, so I never gave him that chance. It wouldn’t be until years later, when I saw Jackson Katz’s TED Talk that I would learn what a disservice that was to us both.
My freshman year of college I went to a club and a guy came up to me who, without any kind of prelude asked, “Wanna fuck?” When I replied no, he called me a bitch. There have been countless such scenarios in my (and many women’s) life. And honestly, I didn’t even think it was weird that I used to build time into my day to be followed home and have to lose someone’s interest before punching my code into the building where I lived alone. Patriarchy had seamlessly normalized both actual and threats of violence. Which, by the way, is one of the signs of a toxic relationship.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Just look to Hollywood. As Chloe Angyal has found in researching her doctoral thesis on the same subject, even the rom-com, which is the only genre made primarily by and for women, teaches us that “when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.” Ahem, Say Anything, anyone?
And the thing is, Patriarchy is not only toxic to women. It’s toxic to men too. And can be perpetuated by either gender. As bell hooks says:
“We need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together.”
Every time someone called me “argumentative”, “opinionated”, “unladylike” or “over-analyzing” as an insult when the boys exhibiting similar traits were called “leaders,” they told us all what to value (and not) in one another. Boys chided for doing anything “like a girl” knew it was the ultimate insult. It narrowed the definitions of personhood and identity for both genders. As a female I was meant to be desirable, agreeable, chaste but sexual, smart but not intimidating, interesting but not more than the males around me, etc. The boys weren’t supposed to display emotions, cry, show weakness, dislike rough play, or like anything that could in any way be construed as “feminine.” And so for anyone who felt like these razor thin definitions of acceptable behavior didn’t quite fit, they either pretended they did or took their chances being ostracized and bullied, if not worse.
I tried to tow the line … in my own way. But the thing is, some relationships can’t be fixed—they’re just unhealthy. So I am breaking up with the Patriarchy.
Like a lot of breakups, I can’t get away and never see him again. I can’t avoid all future interactions. But I can release myself from Patriarchy’s power.
I can choose to frame my own future. And now, when I’m called “opinionated” I can say, “Hell yeah! I am.” I am opinionated. I’m proud to have thoughts, research answers when I have questions and form educated opinions about a variety of subjects. I choose to be me.
And, while I understand and must accept that I cannot stave off Patriarchy’s inevitable refusal to accept my breakup, I will do the only thing that makes any sense at all. I will be me. And that, above anything else, is the most powerful step I can take away from its stranglehold. I will name it: Patriarchy. I will draw attention to its shadows. I will highlight that which it seeks to remain hidden and terrifying. I will pull back the curtain for everyone to see it for exactly what it is. Fear cannot survive without ignorance. Okay, so maybe it can be found on an internet meme …