The True Meaning of Misogyny

(This post is dedicated to the memory of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani social media star and feminist)

So much gets thrown around these days in terms of what the word misogyny means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines misogyny as “a hatred of women,” from the Greek misein to hate and gyne woman. Our own cultural connotations of this word in American society vary greatly. Is a man staring at an attractive woman on the street and example of misogyny? Or only when he makes a comment? Is the fact that we do not really encounter a female Mozart when studying European culture and music a sign of misogyny? I would argue that we have to be careful, when defining misogyny, not to negate or deny certain things that are naturally or even inherently masculine, certain things that may be harmless. Also, a male acting in traditionally masculine ways is not necessarily being misogynistic. I, like many women, love chivalry and find it charming when a man opens a door for me, whereas other women may find it demeaning. We need to distinguish between superficial misogyny and genuine, deep-rooted misogyny.

In the first example, a man staring on the street may be acting simply out of his own biology and own masculine nature; while it may be uncomfortable to some women, we have to be careful not to label this as misogynistic in all cases. Same for opening a door –a man may see himself as being a gentleman and doing his duty and a chivalric way. In the second example, we are dealing with a more complex situation. Indeed, our history books and curricula have often neglected women entirely, or minimized their contributions. (Hence the presence of this blog, and its title that seeks to honor women in cultural positions). And needless to say, in earlier centuries, women were not educated to the same level as men, if at all, and female Mozarts may have existed but were instead expected to do needlepoint and then be married off at age 16. But we cannot use our modern standards to evaluate the Canon and earlier eras; to do so would simply be ridiculous and anachronistic. I frequently take issue with modern politically correct scholarship and interpretations of earlier works and time periods, for it shows a deep ignorance of history and a certain shallow Americanism. Sometimes I even have to laugh when the whole issue of calling a woman a “girl” becomes a subject for debate, because some of the most old-fashioned men who call a woman a girl might be the ones who treat her with the most respect as opposed to the politically correct men who call a woman a woman but whose behavior is not respectful.

What, then, does misogyny mean? Because we can’t deny it exists, and on some level, we deal with it every day in America.

I would argue that true misogyny means denying things that are at the very unique essence of what it means to be a woman, things that are particular to our gender. Misogyny, at its deepest, means a denial of female emotion and female energy.

-Interpersonally, probably the worst example of misogyny is a man’s inability to accept and understand a woman’s emotions in a romantic context. Labeling women as “crazy,” or fearing that “she’s going to go out of control” are all ways in which the fundamental nature of a woman, to be emotional in a way that a man cannot be, is quashed and destroyed. Women are taught logic and rational thinking; men are seldom taught how to understand women’s emotions (though we have to understand that biologically there may be a limit to what they can comprehend). But the point is that this imbalance leads to a lot of anger and hostility in relationships. These days, with social media, it is easier for men to hide behind a screen rather than hear, see, and feel what his woman is experiencing.
These days, it seems that the more educated and professional the man is, the less he is able to deal with a woman’s emotions, and would not hesitate to end a relationship. Whereas a less educated man might be able to cope better, perhaps by going out for a beer with his friends and accepting he said something stupid and go back home, accepting to a certain degree that there are certain gender traits and one must accept them.

-Many women may criticize the above, but that proves the next point: women are not allowed to be women in all aspects of life. In order to do well in their careers, too many women have been forced to adopt masculine ways and to stifle their femininity. This is especially prominent in certain fields, such as finance, law, STEM fields, even academia. In order to get ahead, a woman has to play the game. And when our culture dictates that work life consumes most of our day, it becomes difficult for women to relax into their femininity when they are not at work. This has made gender roles difficult for both genders, and many men complain about masculine, controlling women. This is a legitimate complaint, but its origins come from a male-dominated society that has pushed women to be this way.

-Misogyny is patriarchy gone extreme. Notice that I did not say misogyny is patriarchy, but qualified it with an adjective phrase. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can say that there are certain aspects of a patriarchal society that could be beneficial to women–a male who is a provider, who will stay in a relationship, who will be a responsible father, and who will allow a woman to be her feminine self. It can provide a sort of social safety net. However, in too many countries and cultures, including America, this patriarchy can push women into unwanted or undesirable marriages, motherhood, deny them an adequate education or work opportunities, and worst of all, result in domestic violence. The latter is the most tragic example of men trying to maintain their power and values at all costs, but sometimes the cost is death.

-So much is discussed about abortion rights — something that indeed must be kept safe and legal – and birth control, but what about birth rights? If only a woman can give birth, and is capable of that magical creative act, why does our society fundamentally not support that? This is not a liberal-conservative debate, but simply one that asks to honor a woman’s ability to reproduce. Why do so many women opt to have abortions? The first reason is that the birth control has failed (again, a failure of effective birth control for women, and a lack of birth control for men), and so a woman has an unwanted pregnancy. But another reason is that she is not in a culture that supports her pregnancy. Financially, America is a very difficult place to raise a child. Many women may not wish to embrace motherhood, and that is an equally valid choice. But for others, they may want to but find themselves torn between earning a living, pursuing a career that will lead to her earning a living, or abandoned by the man who made her pregnant. Where is the support for these women who want to keep the child?

-And let us not forget the pathetic joke of maternity leave: a Forbes article from April 2016 presents the grim situation of how the U.S. is the worst in terms of maternity leave of developed countries. Twelve weeks of unpaid leave – if you and your workplace meet the criteria – is inhumane. We can’t even think about paternity leave until we get better maternity leave, which is a shame.

-Pressuring women to look a certain way – even unfeminine – in the workplace. Must a female attorney who clerks for a Supreme Court or federal judge be condemned to a lifetime of navy and black suits? Is an investment banker any less qualified if she wears shoes with stripes? Or if a woman wears a pink dress to give a speech when she is running for office, is she relegated to being “cute”? The problem should not be placed on women and their sartorial choices, but on the men who cannot understand them.

These are just some examples of everyday misogyny and a deep lack of appreciation for the female and feminine energy. What many men fail to recognize is that to deny the feminine externally is to also deny the feminine inside them. While men are not wired to be women – thank goodness – and it can be physiologically harmful for them to process emotion at the same level as women, they still need to accept that we all have our masculine and feminine elements within us. In turn, women need to relax into their feminine sides and accept certain elements of masculinity, however unpleasant or strange they may seem. Feminism cannot work without understanding men.

To conclude with a classic joke– isn’t it the ultimate misogyny when a man doesn’t understand that the woman is always right?!

Truths about American Culture

Life in the United States is very often misunderstood, especially by those who come from countries that are fairly isolated from American influence, or that have a very old history of which its citizens are proud. Needless to say, the American media does much harm (and perhaps some good) in portraying life in the United States, full of stereotypes. One can only wonder how many American-hating terrorists have ever set foot on American soil or ever interacted with Americans before waging a campaign of hatred against them. Here are some characteristics about American culture that those overseas may not realize:

-Americans really ARE that friendly. Many visitors to the United States are surprised to find out that Americans in general are nice. They don’t usually have some agenda, ulterior motive, or centuries-long opinion by which to judge someone. American culture places a high value on being “nice,” friendly, pleasant, and smiling. (Americans are probably the only people who smile in their passport photos). Of course this can vary from region to region in the United States, with the brusqueness of the Northeast contrasting with the take-your-time-to-get-to-know-someone manner of the South. One must not read into the friendliness of Americans too deeply. Rather, it must be seen as the necessary social glue that holds us together, a country of nearly 320 million people made up of every imaginable culture, spread out over thousands of miles.

-All people in America are considered “Americans.” It is sadly true and hegemonic that race is based on a white standard in the United States. But the most insulting mistake foreigners make when coming to America is not understanding that “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity, and it relates to birth and living here. This is especially difficult for Western Europeans, who generally come from extremely ethnically homogenous societies, to grasp; in their societies, nationality and ethnicity are one. Even those who accept that African-Americans are also “legitimate” Americans along with those of European ancestry fail to realize that the fabric of America is multicultural. People overseas might be astonished to find that even white Americans have a diversity of cultures in their ancestry: it is not uncommon to have German, Irish, English, Scottish, and perhaps some Native American blood in one’s “white” background.
And now, with the racial mix of America increasing further, many people have a mix of white and non-white ancestry, or a mix of non-white ancestries: many half-white/half-Asians in California, Hawaiians of European/native Hawaiian/Japanese ancestry, many individuals whose international parents of different races who met in graduate school or the military overseas (Indian and Filipino, Persian and Italian, etc.), and modern Americans of mixed races who marry others of mixed races which produce truly multicultural children (for example, someone who is half Korean, one quarter white and one quarter Cuban, someone who is Puerto Rican, Italian, and Jewish, etc.).
President Obama has brought some awareness globally to this issue, but still, American diversity is extremely difficult for many foreigners to grasp. It is of note that there are indeed other countries and cultures that are arguably more progressive with matters of race, such as Brazil, and with the recent spate of police killings of African-Americans, we still have a long way to go with creating a more harmonious society.

-America is not the same country everywhere. Many visitors or foreigners who come to the United States do not realize how regional America is in character. A Bostonian is as different from a New Mexican who is as different from a “Hoosier” (Indiana citizen). Midwesterners place a high value on community and non-confrontation; Californians value personal fulfillment and ambition; Washingtonians (from DC) value family name and status. Even among ethnic groups, one can contrast, for example, Indians in other parts of the country and Indians in California, or Jews around the US and New York Jews. Again, the homogeneity of finding the same McDonald’s, Target, or Trader Joe’s in different places may be what helps unify us when we are so physically spread out.

-The American education system, at its core, is about teaching students to think flexibly and differently. Many countries in the world, such as former colonies, place a high value on rote learning and a more hierarchical system of imparting knowledge (think Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education). Communist countries focus(ed) on history and ideology (the verb in both present and past tense, given that there are still a few remaining communist countries). Western European countries focus on tracking students at an early age and specializing in high levels of sciences, humanities, etc. and ground students in their culture and deep-rooted history. The Nordic countries value academic as well as vocational education, and developing the whole person.
But here in the United States, what matters most is your individual opinion, even if it means challenging the system. Our heroes are individuals who did that–Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and George Washington defying the British. Being creative and innovative are highly valued traits.

-Religion plays a significant role in the United States, even if many people are atheists or not religious. The irony is that we are by law a secular society. America has a strong reputation overseas of having a very conservative, Christian right-wing religious streak. However, there are many Americans who live quite to the contrary who oppose the religious conservatives and fight ardently for a culture free from religion. They oppose the teaching of religion in schools or even wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” There are also many Americans who practice a variety of religions, who are Christian as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American, etc. who are rooted in their traditions and also respectful of other traditions. Many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, fail to realize that America is a haven for the religiously persecuted from around the globe. Diana Eck of Harvard has done much to shine light on America’s religious pluralism.

-Success is not a taboo. Granted, this will differ in degree in different regions of the country. More traditional parts of America that are highly community-based may frown on being too successful and regard it as being “too big” and a betrayal of one’s humble origins. But generally speaking, one is expected to be a success, there is no sin in being upwardly mobile or a social climber, countless courses, websites, seminars, and TV shows focus on how to improve oneself. The “can-do,” positive spirit is something that always takes foreigners by surprise, but again, like American friendliness, it really is true.

Since 1776: Britain and/vs. the United States

With Independence Day soon approaching on July 4, I thought it would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between British and American culture. As a devoted Anglophile who has studied abroad in England, visited the London area many times, and has family and friends there, I am always fascinated by America’s “homeland” and the culture there. There are a few things that absolutely make me scratch my head in wonder (the English fry up–baked beans at breakfast??), and other things I admire or can relate to. In no particular order, here are some of the similarities and differences I have noticed:

-England’s English is more ornate, flowery, and wordy than American English. Our use of language here is very direct, efficient, and about not wasting anybody’s time. One can see this in the language of our obsessive, dumbed-down text culture. While this efficiency is often very admirable and shows a certain confidence in expressing one’s ideas with an economy of words, at the same time, we can lack the eloquence, visible erudition, and even clever wordplay (there is nothing like British sarcasm, nothing!) that we find in the same language used across the pond. The language has had a longer time to develop in its homeland, and there are much deeper roots and history entwined with British English. American English’s strength is its innovation, which has surprisingly led the Oxford English Dictionary to include slangy words that might not have been considered decades earlier.

-Britons and Americans are both rather good-humored people. But there is more public bawdiness allowed on TV, in the media, etc. A streak of Puritanism still can run through American culture despite the fact that one can very easily find extremely racy, dirty, and vulgar American humor in the media. But the bawdy humor runs back centuries–think of Shakespeare, and the actors performing the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet’s nurse teasing about the pleasures of the nuptial bed in Romeo and Juliet.

-Both the United States and Great Britain are large, Anglo-Saxon-based multicultural societies. While there is the dominance of culture, there is also a huge inclusion and tolerance of diversity, minorities, and various ethnic groups. Part of this is due to the countries’ history of colonization and/or slavery. While someone who is Jamaican British for 2 generations would be considered British, someone who is Moroccan in France for two generations would still be considered Moroccan. Britain is very unique in Europe, and cannot be rightly considered Continental in her values, despite EU membership. Britain has proudly retained the pound sterling as her currency, and with the current economic crises in the EU, that was a wise decision.

-I once read a quote (I believe it was by JB Priestley) that England is “reasonable, not rational.” This has its pros and cons. As above, England is less puritanical overall, can accept more behaviors with a reasonable point of view. The long traditions of the English imagination, dandyism, architecture, royal culture, even its religion (Catholicism which then morphed into the Church of England) all illustrate a certain sense of grace and luxuriousness beyond the practicality of American day-to-day life. However, day-to-day life is run with much more smoothness and efficiency in the United States. Ours is not a bureaucratic country, and many institutional processes happen much more quickly here. Each visit to London makes me realize how disorganized the country can be—train stations are a mess, nobody knows which bus goes where, and one must either freeze or burn one’s hands when deciding between the cold or hot taps on the sink.

-Both the US and UK rely heavily on processed, prepackaged foods. Perhaps it is a leftover habit from the war, but supermarkets offer any variety of edible or prepare a bowl in a box, tin/can, or bag. Both the US and UK have gone through a foodie revolution, so to speak, in the past couple of decades, and the number of excellent restaurants has exponentially increased in both countries (primarily in urban areas). Britain does have the advantage of being a smaller country in that the distance from which locally grown foods are shipped is much smaller, although a number of items are imported from southern Europe and northern Africa. But this general reliance on processed foods is still very prevalent in both countries, and perhaps it is no surprise that both the US and UK have high rates of obesity (with the former having the highest rates in the world).

-Naturally, the reason for the colonies’ split from England was the dislike of monarchy and the love of freedom. But what does it mean to have a monarchy and how does this filter out into society? The primary factor that comes to mind is class. The UK is still very class-oriented, and though the upper class is a very small percentage, their landholding and wealth can be quite staggering. With any nobility-holding society comes a great tradition of the arts, high arts. In the United States, we are still developing an arts culture, and it tends to be based more on wealth and individualism rather than something historical. A sense of monarchy also lends itself to a more complacent society, in my opinion. People are more willing to be deferential in the UK in a way that we do not see here in the United States. Social harmony and well being are a higher priority than the extreme individualism and freedom we see in the US. Everything seems more calm, accepting, and unquestioned in the United Kingdom. In the United States, people are much less willing to accept what is put in the baby’s bottle, so to speak, without thinking it through and seeing if it meets the individual’s needs.

-Class differences and social structure are very different between the US and UK. Americans might falsely present an image of our country being a classless society, while the UK still retains the reputation of being run by the upper class and royals, while the rest of the country lives in detached houses. The US does indeed have different social classes, but the markers are often less obvious. Speech, for one, is relatively homogenized compared to Britain. How one speaks does not clearly indicate one’s social position. Also, people cross class barriers much more frequently here. For example, the child of multimillionaires may be working as a waitress in the summer during high school, or a plumber may be on a luxury cruise with passengers who are wealthy professionals. However, it is rare that we discuss class in the United States or very distinctly portray working-class people in our media. One of the rare exceptions was the groundbreaking TV sitcom “Roseanne” which was unabashedly working class. The idea in America is that everyone works, and everyone is self-made, whether or not this is entirely true. We would never have, financially or culturally, a social designation such as
“long term unemployed” as does the UK (as per the Office of National Statistics)!

The comparisons are endless, but the discussion must end here for now. Happy July 4 to all my American readers, and hopefully the Britons aren’t still bitter over 1776…