Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The essential task of navigating male spaces

When life presents a dire set of circumstances with no easy path forward, how do you respond? Do you take the path of least resistance? Do you push yourself through adversity and accept the challenge head on? We all respond to adversity in different ways, but I think the means are secondary to the act of surviving those circumstances.

I found it difficult to sum up and categorize the subculture represented in Winter's Bone after we viewed excerpts from the film. The community depicted was easy to label in plain terms: rural, white, poor. But I sought a description that encapsulated not just what we saw on the screen but the why that subculture exists. After some reflection, I could articulate the description that was hanging on the tip of my tongue. The subculture is a manifestation of the failure of a combined system of capitalism and patriarchy.

The men in this subculture suffer a doubled-down degradation in a society that typically rewards the mere existence of white males. They are lesser men because they struggle to provide for their families; then their community has little racial diversity, leaving them without the apparent benefits of white privilege. Who is left in their community over whom they can control? Women.

The movie depicted the men’s propensity to resort to physical control over the female characters. The scenes were visceral and shocking. However, underlying it all was the way the women characters navigated this space. Scenes show how women would avoid violence by playing to male ego. Women consistently disobeyed male orders to achieve their goals, whether it was taking a truck or bringing Rhee to her father. I think these women in a way understood the men’s behavior, and rather than risk fighting, made the best of their situation. Implicitly the women displayed an acceptance of the outward power dynamic all the while pushing their own agendas.

Two comparisons came to mind as I thought about these women navigating their patriarchal settings. First, the many women portrayed in the documentary Half the Sky; these women navigate spaces dominated by men and poverty. Whether the criminal investigators willingly forgoing their duties in Freetown, or the Vietnamese father forcing his young daughter to work, the men operated as tools of injustice. And yet the women continued to make progress. Rhee overcoming her father's poor decision making, her uncle's reluctance to help her, and her community's antagonism shares a narrative arc with the women featured in Half the Sky.

Gender is not the only axis of oppression or disenfranchisement. However, after watching the two films, it is easy to see an essential struggle for women across national and cultural boundaries. I find the women awe inspiring for their individual displays of power and prowess.

The second example involves contemporary American politics. Over the last several elections gender framed issues such as reproductive health, paid family leave, sexual assault, and the gender wage gap have fallen along a tidy ideological divide. Our two major national parties have become diametrically opposed on the validity or solutions to these issues. The situation is so dire Democrats feel comfortable accusing the GOP of a “War on Women.”

I do not run in conservative circles (I live in a near impenetrable liberal echo chamber) but I imagine that political spaces leaning conservative share similarities with the town depicted in Winter’s Bone and the multiple locales visited in Half the Sky. Conservative female representation in the House and Senate are dreadful, approximately 9% and 11% respectively. It may be that conservative women, like the wives in Winter’s Bone, have to navigate that space and wield alternative forms of power. The late Phyllis Shlafly comes to mind as an example: a political stalwart leading, without holding office. (Link to her obituary below) But today, another female lawyer sits very much in a position of power crafted by her deft career maneuvering and commitment to the conservative cause.

That woman is Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to lead a Republican presidential campaign, after starting her own nationally reputed polling and trend company. She has an aptitude for knowing what the people want, but especially the consumer preferences of American women. She has parlayed this skill to become the GOP’s resident “Women Whisperer.” She specializes in taking the worst the party has to offer and making it work. Conway tried to put out the dumpster fire that was Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin (who claimed that women who were “legitimately raped” could shut down pregnancies and thus did not require abortion). Now she is tasked with attempting to make Donald “blood coming out of her whatever” Trump appeal to women, a nigh impossible task.


Though I disagree with nearly every single one of Conway’s political beliefs, I find her work inspiring in it’s own way. She exists a toxic pool of misogyny, whether she would admit to it or not.  I believe in a better world, she would be a New York congresswoman, or a chief-of staff. Instead, she works within the reality of a male dominated space fighting for her own success. I cannot fault the path she is forging for herself.

There may be an impulse to negatively judge Conway for her part in the election, and her recent antics in the media. Again, I do not agree with a thing that she says on television. However, her willingness to lead the Republican presidential campaign has cemented her place in political history. Like Rhee, she had to get her hands dirty but ultimately achieved her goal.

Link to Phyllis Schlafly obituary: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/phyllis-schlafly-a-conservative-activist-has-died-at-age-92/2016/09/05/513420e2-73bc-11e6-be4f-3f42f2e5a49e_story.html?utm_term=.5dbde6f816b9

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