J’accuse? On women who “collaborate” with the patriarchy

Being highly aware of sexism can be a tough gig. I sometimes wish I could turn off that nerve-jangle I get whenever someone says “he throws like a girl” or “don’t be such a pussy” or “she looks like a whore”. It’s tiring to go through every day constantly weighing up how we want to react. More specifically, for women who wish to actively resist the patriarchy, making everyday decisions becomes complicated: do I shave my body hair or not? Do I wear makeup to cover my pimple? If I want to wear socially-coded “sexy” clothes, am I actually subconsciously wishing to gain heteromale approval? Once you’re aware of sexism, you can’t easily switch that awareness off.

It can become very tempting, as a result, for feminist women to resent other women who seem oblivious to these concerns. It is dangerously easy to feel that women who happily wax all their body hair off and diet themselves into the smallest size in the shop and pout at us from the cover of Sports Illustrated and flip their hair in L’Oreal advertisements are our enemies. If we aren’t careful, we start to think of them as collaborators. But it is absolutely crucial that we resist this temptation.

Too often, hyperfemme women are unfairly accused of collaborating with the patriarchy. Yes, it’s true that the more people adhere to social gender norms, the harder it is to destroy these norms. There is no denying that some women are doing it explicitly to get heteromale attention, thereby buying into social power structures – and reinforcing them. But a lot of women just genuinely like presenting in a socially-coded feminine way. And if that is so, then presenting in that way is not collaboration at all. It is ridiculous to demand that women curtail their self-expression to further the feminist cause, when the aims of feminism include making it safe and acceptable for women to express themselves however they like.

Worse, a lot of the denigration of hyperfemininity is actually sexist. We associate lipstick and pink with women (this century, anyway) and then associate women with “weak” or “inferior”; when feminism tells us to destroy that second link, we just leap to “lipstick and pink must be inferior”. A lot of social opposition to traits or clothing or activities that are socially-coded-feminine is actually unexamined misogyny.

So hyperfemme women are not “collaborators”. But there are women explicitly propping up sexist social structures. First, women who overtly push androcentrism as their chosen replacement for “traditional” sexism are actually reinforcing sexism. Androcentrism is the glorification of socially-coded male attributes, which is the thing that causes women to say “I can’t be friends with other women, they’re all backstabbing, catty bitches”. Or “Women are so boring, they’re obsessed with shoes and lipstick! I like to play Halo and watch football!” Or “Why do women care about their appearances? They’re so shallow! I get on so much better with men, because they care about real issues.” Or “Why do you have a problem with women being seen as sex objects? You sound like you just need a good fuck.” (Thanks, Olivia Munn). These ideas do prop up sexist social norms. They buy into ideas that socially-coded male things are great and socially-coded female things are pathetic.

Of course, this is not the only way for women to collaborate with the patriarchy. There is good old fashioned sexism being espoused by plenty of women. Sexist views do not magically become feminist when espoused by women. Women who say that we all need to return to traditional gender roles, and get women back to the kitchen, are being sexist. Women who slutshame are being sexist. Women who say that women should never appear in public with pubic hair, or leg hair, or armpit hair, or fat bodies, or masculine features are sexist. Women who insist that women should never go out in public without makeup? Sexist. The minute you start policing other women’s behaviour to enforce sexist social norms, you cross a line – then you really are a collaborator, no matter your gender. Women who endorse genderised tropes as mandatory behaviour are engaging in social control for the patriarchy. They are policing other women’s behaviour to ensure those women toe the line.

They are also policing themselves. So even though we recognise that sexist and androcentrist women can and sometimes do collaborate with patriarchy, we shouldn’t condemn individual women for their actions. To the extent that we can accurately identify genuine cases of collaboration, which is difficult, we should see it for what it really is for those individuals: a survival response in a sexist society. That doesn’t make the behaviour any less problematic. That doesn’t mean it’s a good outcome. But it does mean that the individual is not the core problem. She is stuck in a system that makes certain demands on her, and this is how she’s going to play it.

That sucks, but clearly on some level that’s what she feels she has to do. It’s not anyone’s place to tell individual women how to respond to their situations. Of course we can call out hurtful and policing behaviour when we encounter it. Indeed, if we are able to do so, we must do that. But we must also criticise social norms that demand these behaviours from women, and in so doing, we shouldn’t let individual women become collateral damage. Our sexist opponents hate the idea of allowing women to make their own decisions, free from social norms, free from community pressure, free from judgement. We need to be absolutely sure that we never collaborate with them on that.


7 Comments on J’accuse? On women who “collaborate” with the patriarchy

  1. Lily says:

    This is a great post.

    Just one point I’d clarify (rather than disagree with). You’ve given the example: “Why do women care about their appearances? They’re so shallow! I get on so much better with men, because they care about real issues.”

    I wouldn’t call women “shallow”, or men “real” as a blanket statement, but I have made similar comments to this before. More along the lines of:

    “I sometimes find talking to men more instantaneous than with women, because I find being around a very image-conscious attitude is damaging for me, and that tends to be common in women. If someone near me obsesses with their weight, I start looking at myself negatively.”

    My point being – while women should absolutely have the freedom to identify and be hyperfemme, I also retain the right to choose to separate myself from that some of the attitudes potentially inherit with that (and often created by patriarchy) if I so wish.

    • Rachael Rachael says:

      I think what you have said is totally valid! I have similar needs, and I cannot spend much time with people who obsess about weight. However I actually have found that it’s a reasonably equal gender balance in my life in terms of who is judgmental about weight. Indeed my closest female friends are all completely committed to fat acceptance and body positivity, while my male friends are much less committed, although they don’t tend to obsess too much I admit!

  2. Alyx says:

    I love this post. I’ve been waiting to hear something to the fact that women are bashing their own gender. I can’t even count how many times someone has said ‘I’m not a slut and I don’t party like every other girl’ , really? You are going to degrade and insult your own gender just to get attention? It’s absolutely insulting and I wish I could make them understand that they are being sexist.

  3. Erin says:

    Great post – I feel similar to this everyday. Being a feminist makes you question everything, even yourself sometimes, as we struggle to amalgamate our views with our lives.
    For example, I don’t expect my partner to buy me an expensive engagement ring, but I still want one – do we go halves? Do i reject such an object altogether? Do we both get one?
    I also sometimes struggle with people around me making sexist comments around me – not realising the harm that such statements make because “everyone says it” or “well, you know what I *mean*”.
    In the end I tell myself that I can do my best in my own life to espouse my beliefs and try to eliminate sexism from my environment, but we cannot win every battle.
    Also – as you said, feminism is so much about CHOICE, which helped me when I was struggling with the makeup/hair removal dilemma.
    As to Lily’s post, I agree that SOME women and SOME men may be like that, but I try not to say “WOMEN are catty, vain, bitchy” etc, instead attributing those characteristics to the person, not their gender. Also remember, these ‘catty’ women you speak of are filling the role that society creates for them.

    Anyway – great post, thanks!

  4. Clark says:

    Great article! You brought out an idea that I have been nibbling around at for a long time — the idea that women (and men for that matter) who hold feminist ideals can still be succeptible to Stockholm syndrome.

    I would argue that we all suffer from it to some degree because it _is_ about survival.

  5. Chelsea says:

    Late reply, but I wanted to thank SJL for this article. This is something I’ve personally struggled with, not wanting to appear ‘girly’ because in most of the media I was exposed to it was condemned. Too many people try and say “You don’t have to be that” and end up saying “You CAN’T be like that”.

    I can wear dresses and still be feminist. I can shave if I want to, because I think I look better this way. The colour my hair is dyed is very culturally acceptable (It’s a very brassy blonde), but I didn’t dye it to please anyone but myself.

    It’s nice to see the message somewhere else, and it really made my day. `We can be feminine if `we `want to, and still feminist.

  6. Melody says:

    I want to agree, but I’m not sure I can.

    You write: “It is ridiculous to demand that women curtail their self-expression to further the feminist cause, when the aims of feminism include making it safe and acceptable for women to express themselves however they like.”

    That’s a lofty goal, but the question is: How do we attain it? Coding as hyper-femme represents many things that we do not, as women, own, and that no number of slut-walks is going to reclaim.

    It’s also not clear to me that coding as hyper-femme is a “free” form of self-expression. Chelsea’s comment above, about being a feminine feminist strikes me as self-indulgent. It’s like, yes, we will buy into every norm of appearance and dress we like, but reject the connotations and implications they purchase.

    How is that supposed to work? We are not going to change our culture with words alone.


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