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Violence is a Man’s Problem

In 1970 the RadicalLesbians wrote and distributed The Woman-Identified Woman, a treatise outlining how the patriarchy hurts women. However, there are also clearly stated negative implications for men as well. In 2012 my class was discussing this landmark second-wave feminist piece when I offered to the class how glad I was that there was a discussion about how the patriarchy (which dominantly manifests in a really toxic way) hurts men as well. “Why should we care about the men?” my professor scoffed. At that time I was not confident enough in my own voice to assert that we are all in this together and my fledgling identity as a feminist meant that I wasn’t sure of the right words to use or scholars to call upon.

Since that time, when I need help shaping my opinion on masculinity and how it shows up in popular media I turn to Jackson Katz. The context he gives to masculinity in our society is comprehensive and he explains things in a way that makes a lot of sense to me. In my mind, no series on masculinity is complete without bringing up what Katz has talked about. To that end, I wanted to talk at least briefly about the TED Talk he gave in 2012 (after my disconcerting classroom experience). In his talk, Katz discusses the fact that violence against women is truly a men’s issue. He opens by saying:

. . .  I want to share with you this exercise that illustrates on the sentence-structure level how the way that we think, literally the way that we use language, conspires to keep our attention off of men. . . It starts with a very basic English sentence: “John beat Mary.” That’s a good English sentence. John is the subject, beat is the verb, Mary is the object, good sentence. Now we’re going to move to the second sentence, which says the same thing in the passive voice. “Mary was beaten by John.” And now a whole lot has happened in one sentence. We’ve gone from “John beat Mary” to “Mary was beaten by John.” We’ve shifted our focus in one sentence from John to Mary, and you can see John is very close to the end of the sentence, well, close to dropping off the map of our psychic plain. The third sentence, John is dropped, and we have, “Mary was beaten,” and now it’s all about Mary. We’re not even thinking about John, it’s totally focused on Mary. Over the past generation, the term we’ve used synonymous with “beaten” is “battered,” so we have “Mary was battered.” And the final sentence in this sequence, flowing from the others, is, “Mary is a battered woman.” So now Mary’s very identity — Mary is a battered woman — is what was done to her by John in the first instance. But we’ve demonstrated that John has long ago left the conversation.

Katz continues by talking about the fact that, ultimately, it is men who are most often the perpetrators of violence toward everyone. The single largest indicator that someone is going to be violent against another person is the fact that they are a male. So when we talk about “violence against women” like it’s just a few (bad) men who do it we completely ignore that anyone who suffers violence is going to suffer it at the hands of a male. It’s not just a women’s issue. But rather than admitting that our version of masculinity – the version that took Superman from a figure worried about infantile paralysis to a figure worried about alien invasion – is problematic we continue to use language that fools us into thinking that violence is something that happens to other people rather than something people do to other people.

 

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