29 April 2005

Exploring a female way of "doing power"

Subject: Exploring a female way of "doing power"
From: zinya
Date: Apr 29 2005 11:32AM

In the now offscreen fascinating, meandering thread which was launched the other day by Fritz's reactions to and reflections on the LaraCroft ad image adorning the fray [fray.slate.msn.com], way down mid-thread, a query was posed by MsZilla which uptook some issues raised by her, myself and others in the course of our collective thinking through of the nature of women's "power" past, present, future and the ways the media and society portray it vs. the ways it could or should be conceived differently... Here is the synopsis query as framed by MsZ...

Not just the men who make those movies...
.... but most men in general, and most women. It's one of basis of this entire discussion.
Can you think of a way a woman could express her power in a way that isn't a derivative of a male feature?
I can't. It just isn't in our lexicon in fiction, or in real life. And it's going to be more and more of a problem.

I'd like to see this specific issue/question opened for discussion a bit further...

I had offered in that thread in one post my own lament for what has too-oft proven to be women's cloaking themselves in established male ways of doing power, perhaps unwittingly by the time they break through the glass ceilings overhanging them, they've so 'bought into' the ole-boys-club ways of 'doing power' that they themselves only know or remember how to 'do power' from the top by doing it the established (and essentially male) way ...

Here are my own instinctive responses to this question as to what could be truly 'female ways of doing power' (some of this being devil's advocacy, and beginning first with some sketches of what constitutes 'male power' as a backdrop to seeing the alternative that could be said to be more 'female'):

To me, what most typifies male power-- along a continuum where military ways of doing power is on the far end but which has 'bled over' into civilian concepts and practices as well -- is the notion of acquiescence to authority, in the extreme a propensity which results in authoritarianism, totalitarianism, repression, etc etc... Now one could say this is 'human' rather than male but -- given that we are inherently dealing in gross generalizations here but recognizing that there are grains of truth to be found in most gross generalizations, i do think it on balance fair to say that it is more the male of the species who have "done' and carried to its extremes the notion that power is most manifest in hierarchical control and symbols and practices by which others reify their power via displays (thus causing those at the top to demand such displays) of deference, obedience, capitulation, at the least acquiescence to "the guy on top."

A male orientation to power is also manifest in co-optations of rationality, imo. To wit, statistics and (more utilitarian) insistences on the equivalent "of what is good for the measurable 'average' of the social system is therefore à priori good for the system as a whole, thus favoring reliance on even such things as polling data and leading to reification of the whole concept of "normative" behavior, beliefs, aspirations such that people internalize (almost panopticon-like) the 'desirable' obeisances and constraints on conduct which the PTB (powers that be, almost inherently male) find will be complicit with and reinforcing of their own power -- status quo and all that... (This also leads, as corollary, to such power-serving notions as "what is good for GM is good for the nation.")

Well, i could go on (with other specific features of ways of displaying power or achieving power) which i think are essentially male, but let this suffice for now as backdrop to make the following points about (potential) female redefinitions of ways of "doing" power...

I believe that females -- when they don't just acquiesce to the prioritized ways of doing power which males have long "instituted" (and made seem to be synonymous with power but which in fact are only manifestations of 'staying inside the box' and not allowing for paradigm shifts or new growth or new ways of seeing) can bring to bear instead a real foregrounding of such ways of 'doing power' as:

#1. Listening as (display of) power.

Rather than the implicit -- and broadly accepted -- focus on thinking that displaying authority requires "having the answers" and being the speaker, telling others what to do, when, how, etc. (a more military-like notion of command authority: don't speak unless spoken to, don't dare challenge authority, turning the notion of 'underlings' into one of being 'sponges' expected to absorb, listen, not question, do as told, etc etc... In everything from parenting to schooling, too often this 'male' notion of doing power (which many a mother buys into, i'm not saying women don't do this) means that children grow up feeling unlistened to and resenting and then seeking compensation by getting in their own position of 'power' from which they can make other people 'shut up and obey' ... etc. Cycles of societal non-growth result from such plantings of seeds of resentment and cravings for feeling "heard" ... Imho, some wise parents (mothers and fathers alike) now increasingly recognize and implement a more listening-oriented concept of the priority and responsibility (and power) of and in parenting... What i'm suggesting is that this is inherently a more 'female' way of proceeding and of understanding that power is NOT manifest in having to speak and have answers, but in thoughtfully listening to questions. So too could be "female' ways of doing the role of CEO or Governor or film director...

However, true 'power' imho [sorry, &kath - it's sincere though -- and necessary to show that i don't presume these assertions to be 'fact'] ... true power is (or could be) evidenced by those who show themselves to be genuine listeners, sure of themselves enough that they don't display a need to "have all the answers" (a real self-defeating pitfall all too many parents fall into, thinking their job is to have the right words more than to have the welcoming ears) ... Women (on balance) more likely than men COULD bring to bear a whole other notion of a real display of power in that listening could be foregrounded more than it is in our society ... and honored for the sign of control that it is (and, not insignificantly, perhaps largely due to the degree of self-control it often requires to be a good listener).

(Political insertion: Bush gives lipservice -- ah , the irony -- to being someone who listens to the people [well, what poltiican doesn't?, but he does so in a particularly - sorry - smarmy way] but who ever sees signs of his ACTUALLY listening -- e.g., when he's out on the stump -- instead of pretending to listen but having his own preformulated pat stance that does not budge and does not truly show that he's listened with openness ... That, alas, is what a male-determined society has come to take as a given, that listening is something to give lipservice to but not to really do, to actually hear, to "hear" from another's point of view [Note that of the four skills -- reading, writing, listening, and speaking, listening is the ONLY one that is never deemed necessary to be taught in schools, but is taken as a 'given' -- Ahhh, the folly! Can you count on more than one hand the number of folks you think of as being REALLY good listeners in your life?? the skill and art of listening is vastly underrated and indeed not 'validated' in a mostly male-structured society].. More often than not, people do not truly attempt to understand where another person is coming from, checking to make sure one has 'listened well and heard not just the letter but the spirit of the other guy, especially when that other guy is less empowered, which in the case of a Pres of the US means virtually everybody else ... well, except those Mega-CEOs yanking his chain daily...

#2: Narrating stories, "anecdotal" storytelling as power.

Now while, indeed, because it was already a male-dominated public sphere when civilization developed oral and then written storytelling, narrating stories began and prevailed for centuries as the domain of men (Homer thru Chaucer/Cervantes thru Shakespeare thru modern times, with growing but still rare, "minority-voice" exceptions as women began to find their voice in recent centuries, in novels and elsewhere).. But still men dominate the telling of stories which gain traction.

Nevertheless, i posit that storytelling itself -- and recognizing the importance to us all of the anecdotal experience of individuals, fiction or nonfiction -- is an inherently female value and priority (epitomized, alas, perhaps in the notorious linkage of females to gossip, which itself may be a complicitous redirection of this female orientation -- and god knows there is power -- or at least the grasping for power -- manifest in the telling of gossip, the kind of behind-the-scenes, surreptitious basis for 'power' which women were too often reduced to historically, being denied the public sphere and instead finding -- and manipulating -- private power, on a more domestic front -- through such daily 'strategies' as the storytelling known as 'gossip')

Well, i dare say that a privileging of individual stories and a foregrounding for public consumption of what it is could be a more female approach to 'doing power' -- notably because it is a more ready access to the emotional core of social problems and issues -- as opposed to the rational approach that turns instead to expository argumentation, to poll-taking, number-crunching, finding 'normative' or 'average' assessments. Narrative storytelling offers as resonating touchstones into the emotional/spiritual core of humanity ... I think that, on balance, this is more of a female trait and instinctive sense of where 'power' lies or can lie (the power to truly 'touch' emotional truth, finding the universal messages in individual personal stories of experience) ... Society has tended, at least in the public domain -- and you hear this mostly out of the mouths of men -- to pooh-pooh the esteem which stories could hold by dismissing such 'reportings' as merely "anecdotal" ... Think of how established medicine (again, a still-male-structured domain) pooh-poohs as "anecdotal" the experience of sufferers if it can't be "proven" to have a replicable, broad-based existence. It's only been in the recent era of "postmodern" shifting of epistemological bases which are validated as 'legit' that academia, for example, has begun to accept that dissertations can take the path of 'narrative argument' and stand up to scrutiny without instead having to privilege the more 'scientific' or "objective" expository and numbers-crunching ways of doing argumentative 'proof' ... Slowly but surely now, narrative argumentation has gained some still-marginal traction in academia and, I would posit as have many feminist scholars, that such foregrounding of narrative argumentation is indeed a female contribution.

And, i dare say, it offers increasingly a way in which females can "do power" and use their increasing frequencies in higher ranks (e.g., CEO, Governor) by attending to the 'anecdotal' experience of underlings in whatever organization rather than dismissing it if it isn't provable as a "majoritarian" or normative, average pov. In a sense, the privilege of narrative bases for knowledge is a key way of recognizing minority voices and thus is anti-authoritarian and privileges 'individuality' and diversity of voice over what i would propose is a more male-privileged view of systems of power which depend on conformity and normativeness. (Please don't misunderstand: of course, women are as prone to men to enforce modes of conformity and normative behavior in our present society. My argument is that, in doing so, they are -- unwittingly? -- yielding to and buying into what is at bottom a male way of gaining complicity and enforcing hierarchical order which ultimately serves a more male authoritarian model of power.)

Well, okay, i'm exhausted. Too much blather [my own knee-jerk internalized acquiescence to male standards of exposition and feeling guilty for not being pithy and concise :-)]. Stopping here and opening this hopefully to feedback from at least some of you and then thinking through what holds up and what doesn't in these initial answers of mine to MsZ's very important and well-posed query ...

No comments:

Post a Comment