Well, I know FF is late this week, but I thought I should post something anyway. I’ve had quite a whirlwind two weeks, I must say – taking two summer classes where you have to go for several hours a day every day is kind of tiring. I’m looking forward to having a little bit of time off, just to be leisurely for a change.
It’s Mister P’s turn to have his question answered. Although I haven’t seen him around much lately! His suggestion for FF was:
“I would like to see a discussion on ways in which people exploit their own (real or purported) powerlessness to wield power–i.e.: in order to maintain the status quo, to compel somebody else to accept a course of action, etc. In other words: How does male powerlessness get used to take advantage of women? How does female powerlessness get used to take advantage of men?”
So, I’m not sure I understand what Mister P is getting at with this question in the first place, but I’ll give it a shot.
First of all, I want to make it clear that many factors go into the construction of power, and that men are not monolithically powerful across the board, and neither are women always powerless. Gender is not the only factor that determines power – there’s also race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexuality, and class. It is possible that certain women have more social power than certain other women who are marginalized in more than one way – and it is possible that certain women have more social power than certain men. That said, “male powerlessness” is not a term I use on a regular basis!
But I think what Mister P is getting at is perhaps ways in which people play a certain powerless role, but are really covertly holding all the cards. Like, for example if a woman were to play the role of not knowing how to, say, set up a bookshelf because “women aren’t good at building things” – so she can manipulate a man into doing it for her? Or if a man were to play the role of not knowing how to, say, change a diaper because “men aren’t good at caring for children” – so then it falls to the woman to do it instead? Does this make sense?
I suppose this sort of thing takes place all the time in personal relatinoships. Does anyone have any stories to contribute about this? I think we’re talking about microcosm stuff here, am I right? The intimacies of relationships, where people play roles all the time, some of which are gendered?
It becomes problematic when people play these roles, even when they have the ability to empower themselves to do the things that are outside of these roles. It is a compounded problem when one person in the relationship is in a position of social power, and the other is not, because society reaffirms gender roles and gender roles are in themselves problematic and limiting. When two people are equally capable of doing a thing, but it consistently falls on one or the other to do it, because of gender roles and not because, say, one person likes doing that thing, or maybe it has been negotiated between the two of them that they will each share chores that neither of them much care for equally – when this happens, we have to examine the reasons why certain tasks always fall to one person or the other. Because women have been excluded from the public sphere for so long, and have been strongly associated with the private sphere of home and family, a good deal of the domestic labouring falls with women rather than men. The small “p” politics of home life become very important. The personal is political – it is by making changes within the private sphere that allows women to get one foot out the door and into the public sphere of work, politics, and society.
There is something interesting going on with these sorts of transactions that we’re talking about. There is a certain power in knowledge – but it seems like there is also power in NOT knowing – not HAVING to know. Like when George Bush Sr. went on a publicity stunt to the grocery store in his campaign for re-election. Remember? He didn’t know what a checkout counter was? He lost credibility with that little move – but the point is, he didn’t ever HAVE TO know what a checkout counter was. His power was one riddled with ignorance. And his son has carried on the family tradition in spades – his power is all about ignorance, not having to know, not making any effort to know, not wanting to know. He’s so powerful that he doesn’t even have to be good at anything. But yet, there is a powerlessness about this as well – a practical powerlessness. What happens if George Sr. has to buy gorceries one day? Will he know how? Will he know how to make himself dinner, where to pick up his dry cleaning? Of course, the point of all this is not to point out how “disempowered” Bush sr. is because he can’t do basic things in life – it could never be argued with any strength (not by me, anyway) that Bush sr is anything other than a very powerful and privileged person. But it’s a power that privilege has purchased for him. If that privilege were removed, things would be harder for him because he never had to know certain things.
So does this happen a lot? I’m not sure it is an area I have much to say about in terms of theory. I think it’s problematic to just thoughtlessly assume a role that society has constructed for us based on some arbitrary feature or characteristic. I think it’s problematic to pass off certain tasks based on a gendered notion of who can or should do those tasks. (I also think it’s quite different if you simply don’t like doing a certain thing for practical or personal reasons, and you’d be happy to pawn the task off onto anyone who could possibly do it for you!) In lots of ways, I think that empowerment can only come about from multiple small acts of individuals rebelling against traditional socially constructed roles. (Incidentally, that’s not all I have to say about empowerment, but I’ll save that for another time.) So if you think you can’t do something, maybe you should think about why it is you don’t know how to do it in the first place, and think about maybe learning how, so you won’t be rendered even more powerless by your own ignorance!
Mister P, I don’t know if this is anything like what you were thinking about when you asked the question, but I hope you at least enjoyed the read!