When it’s seventy-seven degrees in in Chicago, a rare comfort and joy in the Windy City, you wear shorts to go out in. It’s what you do.
When you meet your friend for a drink at a local spot two stops away from home on the L, even though she’s running a little late, you walk to the bar by yourself because it is literally right there.
But when you decide to head home early after only one beer and a good conversation about being Black women in the academy and how this requires us to unlearn ingrained notions regarding partnership, marriage, and family life prospects, you might walk to the train a little more slowly while contemplating. When a random man sees your perfectly appropriate, warm-weather shorts, and waves a $100 dollar bill in your face (yes, he is close enough to touch) in exchange for the body you are covering with those shorts, you walk away faster in 3 inch heels than you ever have before. You nearly trip and fall off of the CTA platform. Desperately waiting for the train to pull in, you look around and think to yourself, “I am the only woman here.” You remember another man who just two hours earlier yelled “Hey baby, why do you look so mean, you know you’re gorgeous,” as you walked by, an experience that you dismissed as “normal.” Your heartbeat quickens and your hands tremble and you realize just how alone you are.
Waiting for the train, feeling isolated, ashamed, and vulnerable, you look to your usual source of refuge: social media. Desperate to communicate with anyone but the man who propositioned you, and furious with how afraid you are, you make a post on Snapchat that says “men are trash” and mean every word. You try not to cry. You come home and read This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, for comfort. And when you wake up the next morning, when the fear has left your body, the rouge left on your lips from the night before feels less like an adornment and more like a reminder of your thirst for blood, of your rage. You roll over in bed and begin to write, wearing the same shorts that nearly cost you your safety the night before.
This essay will trouble conceptions and manifestations of sexist norms through the hashtags #MenAreTrash and #MeToo, a critique of toxic masculinity, and include my personal metacognitive approach to dismantling the patriarchy.
#MenAreTrash and #MeToo: Rallying Cries for the Oppressed in Patriarchal Systems
Over ten years ago, Tarana Burke, a youth social worker, had a heartbreaking conversation with a 13 year old survivor of sexual assault. The shame and silencing that survivors of sexual assault endure inspired her to create the “Me Too” campaign as a means of empowering survivors to share their stories, deeply empathize with one another, and create space to process the pain of their trauma. #MeToo represents yet another social liberation and resistance movement ignited and lead by Black women. It is in kinship with #SelfCare, #BlackLivesMatter, #MenAreTrash, and #SayHerName. Each of these hashtags represents Black womens’ self-advocacy; they are rallying cries for us, as we continue the uphill battle of fighting for recognition of our experience within intersecting systems of oppression.
With the rampant revelations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry, many celebrities, as well as many of our friends and family members have taken to social media using the hashtag #MeToo to demonstrate the staggering number of women, nonbinary folx, and men, have been victims of sexual harassment, stalking, and gender-based violence. #MeToo is an honorable movement, and one that may be a catalyst to conversations about gender-based violence that may not otherwise occur. More importantly, it is a catalyst for healing for survivors. However, I am tired of having to shout my stories from the mountaintops, stories of pain, shame, and despair at the hands of men, to be heard. When I do muster up the bravery to speak out when I am triggered, oftentimes it is only to later be challenged or refuted. I am tired of having to re-traumatize myself at every turn by describing harassment in my interactions with men, as I have done above, only to have my story dismissed as “business as usual” in our sexist world. I’m not interested in “just getting over” or “moving on” from the mistreatment I have endured, any more than I am in raising my hand and saying #MeToo.
When people, especially women and nonbinary folks say “men are trash,” they often receive two types of responses. One, a hasty and long-winded list of exceptions- “Not all men,” or “that’s not fair”- or two, the dismissal of the notion of male privilege or fault, altogether. This is especially true when men’s abuses of power are questioned by Women of Color. For example, among Harvey Weinsteins’ astoundingly long list of accusers and survivors of sexual assault is revered Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong’o. Hers was the only accusation that Weinstein formally refuted. In reality, #MenAreTrash is yet another rallying cry for the oppressed created by Black women and spread through social media as way of fighting back and subverting the norm that women should be silent about their oppression, and particularly the violence they endure at the hands of men. It is very much akin to #SayHerName in that it is a phrase created by Black women standing in the intersection of numerous forms of oppression and on the front lines of being adversely affected by, while receiving the least recognition or validation of our trauma.
“Yes-And”: Leaning in to the Complexity of Resisting Patriarchy
One of the most important things I have realized in working for social justice, is that the key to understanding and validating the myriad narratives and responses to inequity is to take a “Yes-And” approach. A “Yes-And” approach welcomes all voices and narratives into the conversation on dismantling oppressive structures. It allows us to say “YES,” in validation of another’s story or experience, while offering up our own “AND” to add our approach to the solution. For instance, while one woman or nonbinary person may feel empowered by sharing their story in the form of hashtag #MeToo and participating in the women’s march, another, such as myself, may not do either. Instead, they may console friends who feel discouraged or triggered by being vulnerable on social media. They may reject
respectability politics, and refuse to be quieted by the pressure to makes our anger palatable, our rage less-demonstrable. Some women may use hashtag #MenAreTrash as I do, to disrupt the normalization of the misogyny and discrimination they endure. A Yes-And approach welcomes both methods of resistance as valuable to the struggle for liberation.
The culture of willful ignorance, upheld by men and women alike, to the nuances of patriarchal oppression are the primary reason why it continues. For example, many believe that patriarchy is named exclusively by acts of misogyny, violence against women and nonbinary people, or public slights in the workplace. However, just as racism continues to thrive in the United States although lynchings, for instance, have been made illegal, so also can the patriarchy exist without the explicit biases of men with oppressive personalities and beliefs. Men do not need to actively conspire with one another to defend male privilege. They retain their power by staying silent when a friend makes a joke about rape during a night out, or cat-calls a woman in the street, or talks on top of her in a meeting. Some men, for instance, have no problem decrying an inhumane disregard for a woman’s life. However, as numerous studies on college campus safety show, even those men who decry harming women are likely to perpetrate sexual assault, and even more likely not to report an assault that they know has taken place.
Misunderstandings about the pervasiveness of the patriarchy come to light in the refusal to identify implicit biases and unfounded opinions against woman and nonbinary people as misogynistic. This is why #MenAreTrash is not a statement directed only at those who are agreeably so. It is an affront to the entire social construction of patriarchy, which allows the overtly oppressive and covertly discriminative behavior of those seemingly few, but truthfully numerous men to become normalized.
As with any system of oppression, resisting the patriarchy mostly involves a willingness to unlearn what we have been socialized to believe is normal or acceptable behavior. As women, I think it is vital that we constantly examine our own thoughts and actions for ways that we may also enact patriarchal notions of male dominance and superiority, even unknowingly. The patriarchy is a male-dominated system, historically put in place to defend male-centered characteristics by normalizing what is stereotypically male, and forcing it on all levels of people in society through socialization. Although it is unjust that we must take up this work, as women, if we want to free ourselves from patriarchal oppression, have to work together to invite men to challenge the way they perform their manhood, their masculinity. We have to raise sons that realize they can define themselves outside of the traditional notions of female objectification, hypersexualtiy, and aggression that they are socialized to believe reflect what it means to be a man.
Acknowledging the nuances of unraveling the patriarchy is very daunting, especially when we address our own complicity in others’ oppression. But if we have the courage to do so, we may finally begin to confront the binding oppression that we all live with. A “Yes-And” approach allows us the freedom to believe in, and validate the experiences and perspectives of all people. It positions us in a space to finally begin to heal.