Why you should care
Because a secure patriarchy doesn't behave this way.
Patriarchy may be in trouble.
One has only to look at the response by some to climate activist Greta Thunberg’s recent visit to the United States to see it. Her zero-carbon boat trip across the Atlantic, her participation in numerous protests and her public appearances at the United Nations and elsewhere generated a flurry of responses from powerful political and media figures. Many commentators have noted how her words and actions specifically antagonized powerful men.
Conservative Australian pundit Andrew Bolt dubbed Thunberg “deeply disturbed” and “freakishly influential.” Arron Banks, the former U.K. Independence Party funder, offered this rather threatening tweet: “Freaking yacht accidents do happen in August.” And Brendan O’Neill of Spiked referred to Thunberg as a “millenarian weirdo” with “the look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes.”
U.S. President Donald Trump opted for the sarcastic route after Thunberg admonished world leaders for their inaction on global warming. He took to Twitter and wrote: “She seems like a very happy girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
These caustic comments are just the latest examples of contemporary men directly attacking women who voice strong ideas, boldly express their interests or refuse to relinquish their integrity as individuals within a patriarchal society. The attacks on Thunberg were, of course, rather glaring because she is just 16.
In previous generations, powerful men would not have needed to use such assaultive comments. Instead, they would have strategically downplayed the importance of a little girl with braids, ushered her away or trivialized her impact. But we have recently witnessed men, and women, pursue a different tactic — a tactic that suggests patriarchy may be in transition.
Feminist thinker bell hooks memorably defines patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance.” When patriarchy functions effectively, men do not justify their “right to dominate”; they are “inherently dominating.” When patriarchy functions effectively, men do not lob insults at women; instead, women and others “deemed weak” consent to its authoritative protection.
But when patriarchy struggles, men must adjust by pursuing alternative strategies to reclaim their presumed privilege. Patriarchy’s recent struggles, engendered by such phenomena as the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March and the proliferation of female leaders in Congress have fostered men’s, and other women’s, hostile offensives against women, exposing its desperate condition.
We saw this desperation when Trump used Twitter to levy attacks on four Congressional representatives of color in July. He angrily tweeted of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”
this is not a partisan issue. One could easily review a series of shameless and inappropriate indictments of Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Hope Hicks.
While plenty of commentators addressed the blatant racism of his language, few noted how the president’s tweets were also the latest example of his and other patriarchal figures’ aggressive assaults against women who actively spoke up for their beliefs and acted with conviction. Trump didn’t critique their policies or exploit political differences to expose features of their positions; he attacked them — as a group of women, directly.
Such women of conviction are increasingly generating these harsh critiques from men (and women) in power, critiques that have ranged from petty name-calling to vindictive ad feminam assaults — a trend that may have restarted with Trump’s infamous denunciation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman” — a denunciation that he reprised with his description of Sen. Kamala Harris as “probably very nasty” in her questioning of Attorney General William Barr and, later, with his calling Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen “nasty” after she dismissed his attempt to purchase Greenland.
Trump is most assuredly not the only powerful man to engage in such name-calling, and this is clearly not a partisan issue. One could easily review a series of shameless and inappropriate indictments of Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Hope Hicks. Patriarchy does not belong to a party, an inclination or even a gender, and these vicious attacks illustrate its distressed condition.
A healthy patriarchy does not lob insults; it convinces women, and men, that they want it. And when patriarchy is threatened, as it has been repeatedly of late, it employs various mechanisms and devices to contain the threat, reassert control and maintain cultural stability.
When patriarchy functions properly, these operations go unnoticed; possible threats are contained, coopted or silenced before they become hazardous. It is only when patriarchy is insecure that it must counter, complain or, as we have seen lately, strike back.
Patriarchal men and women are now name-calling, verbally assaulting and explicitly denouncing strong women.
These actions expose the anxiety of contemporary patriarchy. And while patriarchy has traditionally used more subtle mechanisms to regain control, it is exposing its fragility through desperation.
Michael Kramp is an associate professor of English and director of the film and documentary studies program at Lehigh University.