Unmasking machismo

2011-08-13 11:07

I couldn’t help but notice the irony this Women’s Day, when I saw a young man lying on his own, spread-eagled with mouth agape and belly exposed, sleeping soundly in a park.

Only metres away stood another man urinating against a tree. They demonstrate the gendered nature of the claiming of public space and the embodiment of male privilege and entitlement.

The same goes for public discourses, where we are witnessing an expansion of patriarchal power expressions.

The gendered and sexualised character of attacks on women who challenge the dominant political agenda of male politicians is increasing in tempo. Women who talk out have been vilified as “black snakes”, “cockroaches” and “bitches” to be “burned”.

Their claim on public voice is delegitimised as they are disqualified from a political project that seeks to assert a “true Africanness” and “true South Africanness”.

This racialised misogyny displayed by many powerful patriarchs occurs in a context where legislative and policy reform in support of women’s formal rights has not translated into changed conditions for most women.

Gender relations are being formed by particular practices of hegemonic masculinity, which have in turn been shaped by colonialism and apartheid – predicated on heterosexuality as fundamental to the making of manliness. Men’s demonstration of heterosexual prowess, whether as sugar daddies or young men “sowing their wild oats”, is glorified.

Those on whom this prowess is enacted – the pregnant schoolgirl and other “sluts” – remain vilified.

Violence against women and those men perceived as “weaker” or dissenting, such as gay men, are central to this construction of hegemonic masculinity.

The “man of success” is associated with unbridled access to money and women, which promotes mutually reinforcing sexual and economic greed. The gendered display of multiple wives and supping sushi off women’s bodies reinforces this idealisation.

Like the powers of whiteness and heterosexuality, oppressive masculinity is often rendered invisible and seldom interrogated.The public sphere becomes masculinised as we become uncritically preoccupied with the “big men’s” politics, and as certain utterances and practices related to women and men become the norm to aspire to.

Against this backdrop, feminist organising appears to be in a state of relative paralysis. Perhaps we have placed all our eggs in the state feminism basket.

In many respects, it has delivered little for most women – who remain locked out of the formal economy;
are targeted for sexual violence; and are still expected to feed, clothe and clean this infant democracy into adulthood.

The simple freedom to bask in the sun, alone and belly exposed, remains elusive.

The machinations of the national gender machinery and its accompanying bureaucracy have done little to counter discourses that entrench particular forms of economic and sexual privilege that actively undermine women.

Women’s bodies are increasingly commodified – bought and sold through advertising, trafficking and pornography.

This is facilitated by a corporate media establishment that seems incapable of distinguishing between freedom of speech and verbal attacks on women’s equality and dignity.In media and other discourses that operate within a neoliberal order, materialism is conflated with sexual freedom.

The economics of women’s subjugation makes transaction appear as liberty. In the absence of more basic freedoms, women are “free” to sell their bodies.

The “I’m a free bitch” generation is heralded as the embodiment of women’s equality. This post-feminist perspective
masks the insidious interplay between capitalism and patriarchy.

A cause for celebration is the resistant voices of women who are holding dominant masculinity to account and staking a claim in the entrenchment of the Constitution and democracy. Another positive reality is that there are multiple and contesting masculinities operating in our society.

Many are silenced and stigmatised by the prevailing messages of how to “be a man”.

The new movie Skoonheid drives this point home.

It juxtaposes the brutality and violence of the traditional patriarch on the one hand, and the beauty and transformative possibility of alternative masculinities on the other.

We need gender discourses that build rather than break, that repair dignity rather than incite violence, and that bolster our fragile democratic project while celebrating the diversity of people who inhabit it.

Equally important is leadership that is able to break with the past by demonstrating practices of power that are dignified, humble and inclusive.

» Judge is a feminist, an associate of Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement – and an executive member of the Coalition of African Lesbians. She writes in her personal capacity

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