Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Male as Boogeyman in Evolutionary Biology? Gee, What a Surprise!

Three days ago I read this Slate article and felt a familiar sinking feeling. I doubted I could articulate my reaction at all, let alone in a way that spoke to anyone. I started writing about it anyway, because I am not a concept. I am not The Patriarchy. I am not misogyny, feminism or misandry. I am not my resentment or my despair. I am my experiences.

I was born in 1970. My mother was forty-one and my father was forty-six. They, like most of their generation, knew little of the social movements of the late twentieth century. They passed their World-War-II-vintage conceptual frameworks on to me, so those were the lenses through which I viewed their interaction.

My mother was an unhappy housewife and my father was oblivious. Looking back, I see auras around them, each having a distinct color and texture yet both suffused with self-conscious melodrama. Each of my parents played a long-suffering and benighted character on a separate stage.

I grew up seeing my mother as her character, sympathizing with her. Sometime during my teens I started to see that she had made me into her confidante. I began to resent her, and to appreciate my father more. He had faults, but at least he never tried to get me on his side.

My mother inhabited the role of the harried, underappreciated housewife. My father inhabited the role of the hard-working, henpecked husband. She made me her confidante because she could. He tuned out because he could.

My parents followed generational tropes down diverging paths. By the time I was in my teens they'd started sleeping in separate bedrooms. Playing those clich├ęs must have been easier than working together as a couple. Already I saw gender roles as tools of sad convenience.

I went away to Cornell and was exposed to those late twentieth century social movements and their antitheses. Struggling to make heads or tails of it all, I erred on the liberal feminist side. I internalized the rampant assertion that I was at fault for being a white male oppressor, and for the most part I kept my mouth shut dutifully.

As I grew to resent having been marginalized, I began to see a pattern. Arguments between males and females seemed to boil down to the former saying "You're ugly" and the latter replying "You can't get it up." Feminism and misogyny were the tools that came most readily to hand as each fumbled for something hard and sharp with which to hurt the other. My cynical view broadened and deepened. I began to see not only gender roles, but movements such as feminism, liberalism and conservatism, as further tools of convenience.

Cornell taught me to disdain political correctness, but not enough. I became involved with a woman who used feminism as a cudgel. She was verbally abusive to the extent of trying to convince me that I had a developmental disability. She was physically abusive to the extent of hitting me in front of our daughter. I became more convinced that feminism, whatever it once may have been, had become just another tool of convenience.

Thirteen years ago I met a woman whom I continue to love more than ever. She showed me that the kind of relationship I'd always wanted wasn't a dream. The thought of seeing her as merely a woman is laughable to me, and I aspire to be worthy of a commensurate laughability. Neither of us retreats into the convenience of gender roles. We are partners. We do the work.

During those thirteen years I stayed out of gender dialogues. Recently I saw those dialogues as more dysfunctional than ever, and felt compelled to enter them. In retrospect, it was inevitable that my old bitterness over the misuse of feminism would surface and muddy the waters. I expressed myself clumsily, coming across as anti-feminist.

The clumsiness was necessary. As I write, I process old experiences and my vision clears. I see that feminism is not the handful of people in my life who used it as a cheap veneer for misandry. I concern myself less with feminism having been misused, and more with pursuing its goal of equality.

Then I read an article like Ms. Waldman's and descend into bleak befuddlement, resentment and despair. Here's the part where my heart began to sink.
Fine. But then Wade derails the whole thing with a perfectly silly evolutionary biology just-so story. He quotes Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, as saying it all comes down to pretty ladyparts.
As Wade summarizes Akey's point: “thick hair and small breasts are visible sexual signals which, if preferred by men, could quickly become more common as the carriers had more children.” In fact, as Wade paraphrases Akey, “the sexually visible effects of EDAR are likely to have been stronger drivers of natural selection than sweat glands.”
Basically, the genetic mutation flourished because men wanted to do the no-no-cha-cha with women who carried it. Oops, I’d forgotten that science, the world, etc., revolves around what males find attractive. Never mind that this assumes an alarming passivity on the part of the females. Did they have no say in their mating partner? (That’s a rhetorical question: Studies throughout the animal kingdom show that it’s usually the females who decide who gets action and who doesn’t.) And even supposing that the women had no agency, were prehistoric East Asian men really so very picky? Did they typically refuse intercourse with large-breasted or fine-haired women? I am trying to imagine a caveman turning down a willing sexual partner on account of a triviality like insufficiently luxuriant tresses, and not just one caveman but the entire sperm-producing Pleistocene population.
I wonder if Ms. Waldman understands the irony of her words. The idea that male preference drove genetic selection seemed reasonable to me: not, as she might think, because of misogyny or androcentrism, but because of feminism and liberalism.

None of those women could have dismissed and abused me had I not let them. My knee-jerk response to guilt was to accept all offers. The reasons for this general acceptance are beyond the scope of this article, but my specific acceptance of misandry cloaked as feminism is not. I accepted it because I was trained to accept it.

In order to grow, progressive social movements must convince people that a playing field needs to be leveled, so they tend to present that field as always having been vertiginous; they emphasize the contrast between the world of the past and the new world they want to build. The feminist culture of the nineties did this by telling the story of human history as a story of male oppression and female victimhood. The capital T and the capital P in The Patriarchy are made of those stories.

I cut my teeth on those stories. I was trained by those stories. I was brought to heel by those stories. And now, Ms. Waldman, you scorn a man for thinking that male sexual preference caused a genetic shift. You put words in that man's mouth, scoffing at him for thinking "that science, the world, etc., revolves around what males find attractive".

Ms. Waldman, that man thought up a story about male oppression and he believed it. And if he's anything like me, he believed it for reasons diametrically opposed to misogyny. He believed it because feminism has trained people to believe stories of exactly that sort. He believed it because, for the purposes of feminist ideation, that image of women having had "no say in their mating partner" is pure gold. He believed it because he was trained to make the most odious possible assumptions about his gender.

Say he was stupid, that I was stupid. I won't argue with you. I don't claim that my acceptance of such "dingbat" sexual selection theories is smart. But I know my own mind. I know where my credulousness came from. It came from feminism. So go ahead and take your cheap shot. But when you're done, I want to know one thing.

What did you expect?


ashleyk328 said...

Linked to this from the Slate article. I read them regularly but often disagree.

I like your writing.

Hugh Yeman said...

Thank you! As you can tell, I'm nervous as hell about expressing myself in the feminist arena, so that means a lot to me.