Neda Semnani,  September 15, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Patriarchy



Over at Slate last weeka place where half-thought memes go to die almost hourly, it seemsHanna Rosin declared the end of the patriarchy. On paper, of course, I (and countless other ardent feminists like me) should be out in front of the wake for this sturdiest of historical oppressions, gleefully heralding the damn thing’s death knell. Still, a rather big question rankles: If patriarchy is indeed dead, just how did an entire vast global corps of feminist thinkers and activists grow so besotted with our own “exquisite vulnerability” (as Rosin calls it) that we’ve ignored all signs of our own heroic progress? How, in other words, did everyone but Hanna Rosin completely miss an event so epochal?

The answer, in large part, appears to be that the rest of us aren’t Hanna Rosin. Despite the imperative voice of her piece’s click-baiting headline–“The Patriarchy Is Dead: Feminists, Accept It”–Rosin has disclosed far more about the rote packaging of insular pundit contrarianism than about the state of gender equity in our time.

There is, first of all, the clear whiff of marketing opportunism in the exercise, right there in the author’s bio: Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, is coming out in paperback this month–and patriarchy’s obituary announcement comes from the updated epilogue to this new edition of the work.

Fair enough–the repeated flogging of polemic books, in all their lush variety, is a Washington cottage industry, and Rosin–strategically located at the intersection of many prized editorial nameplates, such as The Atlantic Monthly, where she’s a contributing editor, and Slate, which is guided by the firm but unpatriarchal hand of her husband David Plotz, would naturally avail herself of the relevant synergies at her disposal to get people chattering anew about the The End of Men.

Still, even by the usual standards of such things, Rosin delivers a remarkably airless and self-referenced meditation on her boldly contrarian subject. There is, just for starters, not a single moment where she pauses to define her rather indispensable basic terms: “feminist” and “patriarchy.” Instead, she confines herself to the work of two Atlantic pundits – herself and Anne Marie Slaughter – Sheryl Sandberg’s notorious manifesto of managerial feminism, Lean In, and two op-ed pieces taking issue with The End of Men in the New York Times.

This is unserious material for a simple book-flacking event, let alone for the internment of a civilization-wide system of gender oppression.It also permits Rosin, quite amazingly, to sidestep the basic legwork of spelling out patriarchy’s characteristic excesses and laying out just how the now looks, in its alleged dying throes.

Nevertheless, we plunge onward, with an outburst at the Atlantic-sponsored forum from a woman quite sensibly demanding to know just why discussions of gender inequality no longer reference the idea of patriarchy. In lieu of responding in any direct way to this challenge, Rosin lapses into an extended reverie about her first year of motherhood, when she decided to cut back her professional commitments in order to be more present in her daughter’s life.

And it turns out, what do you know, to be a remarkably frictionless transition. Rosin had the opportunity to work just four days-a-week and she grabbed it. Did her husband – and sometime boss – care either way? No. Did her employer – an elite media outlet–care if she scaled back hours? Again, no. Did she feel staying at home was her duty? Nah. This was all just a matter of personal preference–a first-time mom discovered that she’d prefer to have more time to spend with her infant daughter, and her flexible employers cheerfully agree.

Rosin says she doesn’t see any actual persons or profession playing patriarch in her life, so how can she know that the thing really exists, at least in the way all those glowering feminists seem to understand it? It certainly helps matters, when it comes to keeping her own selective blindspots on these questions intact, that the very occasion for these wall-eyed musings was an event thrown by her employers at <e,>The Atlantic. Indeed, she casually refers to her end-of-patriarchy as a “Slaughter moment”–since they echo the impressionist pensees of her Atlantic colleague Ann-Marie Slaughter, late of the Obama State Department, in a similar skylarking essay for the august monthly on why “women can’t have it all,” goddamnit.

Weirdly, Rosin announces that the post-patriarchy gambit is intended to elicit the “sympathy” of her audience at the event–and by extension, of her readers today–a strategy that seems, on the face of things, destined to backfire. She also recounts that she was trying, however haltingly, “to convey that the ‘patriarchy’ was not a fixed monolith we could never get around but something shifting and changing and open to analysis.”

One can, of course, understand how the scheme of gender relations might look this way to the author of The End of Men, which insists that as a group, women, and not men, are now prospering disproportionately in our brave new economic order. But there are plenty of women–most of them across the world, actually–who do not experience things this way.

<p=”parabody”>What’s more risible still is that Rosin also takes it upon herself, in the serene unselfconsciousness of the practiced pundit, to speak for these women as well. When her interlocutor at The Atlantic event demands–again, sensibly–to know just how Rosin’s vision of placid mae-brokered professionally subsidized caregiving might work out for “the woman who picks up your trash after you leave [your office] at 5,” Rosin sets back to musing–this time about some of the interview subjects in her book. These women, she found, would warmly welcome a touch of male economic privilege, should it allow them to loosen up overscheduled lives a bit:

They generally appreciate their new economic independence and feel pride at holding their families together, at working and studying and doing things on their own, but sometimes they long to have a man around who would pay the bills and take care of them and make a life for them in which they could work less. And they want the men in their lives to be happy. It’s elite feminists like my questioner and me who cling to the dreaded patriarchy just as he is walking out of our lives.

Well, no. This is more unmoored speculation, masquerading as reporting and analysis. Rosin says she’s spoken to “many” such women, but doesn’t cite any evidence whatever to support the wider claim that low-income, single mothers maybe, kind of want a man who will take care of them, at least financially. Instead, we’re again reminded, from Rosin’s well-heeled pundit perch, that critics who insist upon pointing out chronic of social class in the house of feminism exhibit “an irrational attachment to the concept of unfair.”

The same dynamic plays out in an ill-advised lurch into empirical research, when Rosin takes actual expert Stephanie Coontz to task for picking and choosing her data selectively to support her claim that the tales of male decline have been exaggerated. The implication then is that Coontz may pick her numbers, but Rosin doesn’t and wouldn’t do such a thing. In the very next sentence, however, Rosin goes ahead picks and chooses an uncited study–neither linked to or named in her text–which is supposed to show that female-headed single-parent households are growing exponentially.

Such, it seems, are the pleasant, evidence-neutral dispensations of composing the brunt of your epilogue to the newest edition of your book at a panel largely designed to promote your book. But let’s pause a moment to consider what some other studies show us about the state of gender relations beyond the version of the world that exists in The Atlantic and The New York Times. Just in the past month or so of such research, you’ll find that there is a wide world of women and men who are living in deeply patriarchal societies–including these United States. Indeed, the same week that Hanna Rosin stepped forward to declare patirarchy dead, the UN ratehr inconveniently released data showing that one in four Asian men acknowledges committing rape. There’s also been an altogether wrenching set of hearings about gender-based violence in the American military. In other words, most of us, though perhaps not the elite writers at the Atlantic and Slate, live in a world where the power structures have shifted, but not nearly enough to make a difference in our daily lives.

So, let me define patriarchy for you, Hanna Rosin. It is an organizing social structure, a foundational institution, that positions the feminine in subservience to the masculine. This structure uses assertions of power in all sorts of formal and informal spheres–including, oh, let’s say–the fretful rounds of family-themed punditry–to maintain masculine privilege. This has very little to do with women and men as divided by their sexes, and has everything to do with the kind of behaviors and traits our society rewards. And yes, Hanna, there is a patriarchy, very much alive and thriving, at home and abroad.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t ever, ever call me “exquisitely vulnerable” again.

~Neda Semnani is the web editor at the Baffler.~

Neda Semnani is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Week, Los Angeles Review of BooksBuzzfeed, and others.

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