Banal Misogyny

We live with unrelenting, terrible, normative misogyny. Indeed, the misogyny we inhabit is so pervasive and so unrelenting, that, as I remarked to a friend, Audre Lorde’s essays from the 70s and 80s feel much too present, much too relevant. It is not simply that we are dealing with an ugly remnant that every so often reminds us of an even uglier time. Rather, it is that the ugliness of then, cloaked in masculine benevolence, is too much with us. And we seem to have lost the ability to recognize it, to name it, to respond to it.

At least this is the way it feels.

I use “banal misogyny” because I want to register something about the moment we inhabit. Something about our ability and desire to see gender work, to see gender differentiation insist on diminishing, infantilizing, and degrading women. It has become too easy to be a man, too easy to understand women as quirky girls with charming habits and idiosyncratic style. It has become too easy to forget and un-learn all the lessons of feminism.

To speak of something like “the oppression of women” one must ignore nuance and specificity. One must accept the shame that speaking in such broad terms is now meant to invoke. This shame interests me, for while part of it stems from necessary critiques against universalizing impulses, a more insidious part stems from patriarchy’s sneer at the very concept. The danger is that the ethical injunction not to universalize can meet patriarchy’s sneer, and one wanting to feel responsible can feel ashamed, coerced into the impossibility of choosing from a range of unimaginative options.

I realize, belatedly, that when I write “banal misogyny,” what I really mean is “banal.”

Banal means dull, boring, uninteresting, unremarkable. What passes without comment. At once background and foundation. What can be taken for granted. I am interested in how misogyny backgrounds banal—how it becomes banal, expected, unsurprising, the thing that need not be named. Indeed, the ground on which choices about, for, and by women can be made. Misogyny is dull.

How did misogyny become dull?

By dull I mean unremarkable and uninteresting. Unable to “cut” through the social.

Misogyny, like racism and homophobia, is a word (concept-metaphor) designed to “cut” through the social. To arrest an action, create a space for reflection, create a route to action. The “dulling” of misogyny is not an accident. Patriarchy actively works to dull concept-metaphors that arrest its action, to render such terms laughable, dull, banal, impossible.

Yet the banality of misogyny should not blind us to its active, hyper-active life: misogyny is not inert. It is dynamic and active, always working to shore itself up, to make itself felt and invisible, always working to hide in plain sight. Always working, especially, to recruit young women to its cause. And so the young, too many of them, sneer at the idea of misogyny. Or, rather, sneer at the idea of feminism. There are many ways to read this too-common scene: I read it as a symptom of misogyny’s labor to recruit women so that they will be against feminism.

I tell a friend that I want to see the word patriarchy used more. Used often. I want to hear its harsh syllables “cut” across the social. I want it to labor, to work on unmaking the ordinariness with which patriarchy masks itself. Unfashionable as it might be, I want to talk about the oppression of women. Not in our too-polite languages that say women are getting more choices today. I want to “cut” across the social, to make visible patriarchy at work. To refuse its sneer and its grin and its cocky walk and its hatred for and exploitation of women. To refuse its wink and its nod and its casual invitations to join “men’s clubs” where we shake our heads at “women” and marvel at their shrillness. To refuse its laugh and its glazed eyes when it’s confronted with its violence.

And because she helps me think this way, I give the final words to Shailja:

Because you never know enough / but you can learn / you’ll never be / ready but you can fake it / because the when and where / are here and now the answers / to who and what / are you and this is the how / and why will reveal themselves / in the making.

Because ready / is never a question just a reminder / to breathe / and jump (“The Making”)

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