This is more than a teachable moment. This is a recall election on the patriarchy. And the gorillas are on our side.
Since Donald Trump was caught bragging about his ability to sexually assault women and get away with it, a growing number of self-described victims of his self-described predation have begun to crowd the news cycle. Trump’ subsequent denial of his bragged-about offenses then snowballed into a national conversation on sexual violence.
“Too many are treating this as just another day’s headline. As if our outrage is unwarranted. As if this is normal,” Michelle Obama said this week. “This is not normal.”
Of course, Trump’s response to adversity has always been a focused counterstrike: denials, lawsuits, and more insults. This last week has been no different. After all, there are “killers,” Trump’s father drilled into his children, and there are “losers.”
There could perhaps be no better backdrop for a full-frontal assault on male entitlement than one so dominated by the “broad shoulders” that loomed so menacingly behind Hillary Clinton in the last presidential debate.
This display of what Pence continually adores as Trump’s “broad-shouldered leadership” similarly titillated the leader of the United Kingdom’s right-wing populist UKIP party, Nigel Farage.
“I thought it was like a big silver-backed gorilla prowling, prowling the studio,” Farage said after the debate. And, for the record, that’s “prowling,” you know, in a good way. In a “king of the jungle way,” you might say.
Trump’s misogyny is no surprise to anyone.
“As the possessor of a penis, celebrity and a fortune, Trump has never questioned his right to inspect and rank women in terms of his own interest in having sex with them,” Leslie Bennett writes for the Guardian.
“For decades his objectification of women has remained as consistent as the ugliness of his values; as a self-appointed judge of female worth, he and his beauty pageants and reality shows have perpetuated the misogynistic standards that nullify the value of any woman who is not very young, very thin and conventionally attractive.”
But, Bennett adds in a welcome analysis, “women are becoming ever less compliant—and female insurrection is particularly upsetting to men who are already anxious about their ability to maintain their authority.”
Insurrection—the rising in revolt—is where we are.
And the targets, the justifications for these centuries of male dominance, when we get down to it, are fictions.
Our entire survival-of-the-fittest economic rubric that pits worker against worker is built upon a perversion of Charles Darwin’s work, a man who found empathy and cooperation exponentially more vital to natural systems than competition.
Guardians of male privilege love to reference the natural order. The “titans” of industry, too, benefit by these assumptions suggesting they are simply more capable people. But dispatching these notions that it is the big, bold, and abusive that reign in human nature is a cakewalk.
Speaking of Darwin, the director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, and author of the book, “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” Dacher Keltner recently said:
We so often assume both in the scientific community, and in our culture at large, that Darwin thought humans were violent and competitive and self-interested in their natural state. That is a misrepresentation of what Darwin actually believed, and where the evolutionary study of human goodness is going. …
The first take away is found in Descent of Man, where Darwin argues that we are a profoundly social and caring species. This idea is reflected in the two quotes below, where Darwin argues that our tendencies toward sympathy are instinctual and evolved (and not some cultural construct as so many have assumed), and even stronger (or perhaps more ethical—see his observation about the “timid man” below) than the instinct for self-preservation:
“For firstly, the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them. … Such actions as the above appear to be the simple result of the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive; for they are performed too instantaneously for reflection, or for pleasure or even misery might be felt. In a timid man, on the other hand, the instinct of self-preservation might be so strong, that he would be unable to force himself to run any such risk, perhaps not even for his own child.”
The second take away comes from close study of Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, published one year after Descent of Man. There, Darwin details descriptions of emotions such as reverence, love, tenderness, laughter, embarrassment and the conceptual tools to document the evolutionary origins of these emotions. That led me to my own work on the physiology and display of these remarkable emotions, and to the science-based conclusion that these emotions lie at the core of our capacities for virtue and cooperation.
Not even those enormous lumbering male silverbacks deserve Donald comparisons, a la Farage.
In the wild, male dominance is much less striking to primatologists; instead they witness complex, nuanced behaviour where interaction between mothers, and attention to the young is just as important for group cohesion. Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent has larger enclosures and bigger groups of animals. It’s still captivity but it permits a glimpse of wild gorilla behaviour where maternal attentiveness and group cooperation is just as defining of a gorilla’s essential nature as the dominance behaviour of some males.
There are, in short, just as strong grounds to call someone a gorilla if she’s an attentive mother. But that wouldn’t suit the likes of Farage, who seek not just to naturalise but to excuse certain types of human behaviour, making it seem as if treating women with contempt is something eternal and unchangeable. Maybe we should laugh [Farage’s comparison’s] off. Except gorillas need all the help they can get at the moment and being associated with some of the least endearing examples of the human male is not good for their image.
After we have routed these least-endearing examples of human male-dom from the company of gorillas, we find they still have more than enough company. Just not in the natural order. There’s is the economic order and political order.
See, the language of male dominance in the political sphere didn’t start with Trump, it has only reached its most conspicuous heights because millions of Americans have propelled him forward despite (or in many cases because of) his unapologetically abusive personality and behaviors.
In other words, what has come to define this election was already waiting for us in innumerable elections past.
Writing on the “testosterone takeover” in a not-to-miss chronicling of the long-standing usage of masculinity to sell candidates, Danielle Kurtzleben writes that Trump “weaponized” his masculinity. Trump teased and taunted. There was “Little Marco” and “Low Energy Jeb.” After being told he “didn’t have the energy” for the job, ex-Governor Rick Perry challenged Trump to a battle of pull-ups.
“The most blatant example of Trump’s manliness as a focal point was the debate over his hand size in this election — and that because of that, he became the first presidential candidate to, in a debate, bring up the size of his penis,” Kurtzleban writes.
But there was also Kennedy’s “vigor” and Teddy Roosevelt’s backwoodsiness. The “wimp” factors that dogged Dukakis and the Bushes, etc.
So it’s important not to let this conversation stop at the cultural water’s edge. It is vital to see this gender-based violence as deeply entrenched in political power, and long before Trump. Only then can we begin to dismantle it.
“Because consider this,” the First Lady urges, “if all of this is painful to us as grown women, what do you think this is doing to our children? What message are little girls hearing about how they should look like and how they should act? What lessons are they learning about their dreams and aspirations? And how is this affecting men and boys in this country?”
It should be said, patriarchy punishes men, too. It fills us with messages that our own worth is based upon these twisted notions of masculinity, often defined by our own ability to oppress others. Those who resist the mold are oftentimes corrected with violence. So men must rise for the defense of woman, but for ourselves, as well. Merely nodding in approval for any oppressed group is never enough.
Nature, would we come to understand Her, offers a perfect guide.
The title of this post was changed from the original to cut through the gobbledygook, the weeding out of which is a constant challenge.