"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What Men Can Do Wednesday: Avoid Being the Hero

I have long suffered from a tendency toward white knight syndrome, or wanting (subconsciously and consciously) to be somebody's knight in shining armor. As a feminist guy, it's actually a pretty easy default to slip into--when one is taking close looks at the world regarding how women are treated in the workplace, how much violence toward women is perpetuated by men, and the ways in which many women (and men!) are trapped, to various degrees, by rigid gender roles, it's disturbingly easy to see oneself as the Bringer of Logic and Reason, as The Hero, even as The Guy Who Gets It. Boys are taught that this is part of their job, of course, so it's not a huge surprise that this is something I have had to guard against in myself for a good deal of my life.

We all need to be rescued, from time to time. That's what friends, lovers and family are for, in part. Our social networks are also, to some degree, our rescuers, our safety nets. There's no shame in wanting to help people, or needing some help, gender be damned. However, men are trained from boyhood that they not only need to tend to their own needs, but they must rescue those women who need saving. They are also often taught that women are going to need a lot of saving, because they aren't as strong as men, or as resilient, or as brave, etc. This all sounds really heavy-handed and sort of silly, but you can see how pervasive this mindset is when you find men who identify as feminists who still have trouble not seeing themselves as saviors of a sort. (There are other ways of suffering from 'white knight' syndrome, of course, not the least of which is white folks coming into the spaces of people of color and telling them how bad they have it, and how to fix things, just as a for-instance.)

One key to overcoming this sort of behavior is to better recognize women as just as strong, independent and powerful as men. Overly simple, perhaps, but I find myself having to be reminded of it, because the training is pretty deeply-rooted, again and again. But it's not only the training; it's also the self-fulfilling nature of certain gender norms. It is a fact of the world that women get raped more than men get raped. How easy is it to go from that fact to an idea that a particular woman, or women in general, need to be protected, and protected by men? Of course, women do need to be protected--but they need to be protected as people, just as we all need some protection sometimes. Men have to be protected, too--much violence done in the world is violence against men, by men. And, of course, there are men (and boys) who need to be protected from women--this isn't always the main focus of such discussions, but that it happens warrants that we take it into account as well. So we all need some protection, sometimes. Do any of us need a knight in shining armor? Not generally. We need safety nets, we need places to heal, we need safe places to work, to love, to live. Individual white knights aren't likely to help in that regard--but men (and women, and people of all genders) who take action against violence, who create safe spaces for everybody, who recognize that independence can best happen when there are others we depend upon, and when others depend upon us; people who can recognize these things, and take action around them, are the people who we need most.

(Note: I do, on the other hand, really, really need to be rescued by Cate Blanchett riding up on a white horse wearing a suit of armor. So if you see her wandering around, send her my way. Thank you.)

8 comments:

Doug S. said...

By the way - have you discovered the TV Tropes Wiki yet? As a catalog of storytelling conventions and common themes and occurrences in fiction, there's lots of comments about the prevalence of gender stereotypes and sexism, such as in Faux Action Girl and Most Writers are Male.

jeff said...

Thanks for the links, Doug. Pretty interesting.

Januaries said...

Hi, I just found your blog and have to say I like it very much.

What you call "the white knight syndrome" has long been one of my personal nightmares.

As a little girl, I could never bring myself to like Prince Charming. In Snow White I admired the wicked queen's cunning with the apple plot (not because she was evil, but because she had ideas), in Sleeping Beauty I adored the fairy godmothers, the same in Cinderella. I just couldn't understand why the main heroines weren't allowed to do things for themselves. I wished they could be as strong and inventive as the women with magical powers but without being evil. I shocked my deeply religious grandmother by revealing my first dream profession: to be a witch. At six, I wrote a fairy tale in which the princess divorced the prince and set out on a quest of her own.

Growing up, I felt genuinely embarrassed by boys' attempts at chivalry for many reasons: they were clumsy at it and I saw they were often as afraid as I was of challenges and conventions; my crazy spontaneity and talkativeness made me very unfeminine if the fairy-tale heroine/victim be taken as model.

You speak of the white knight syndrome, I name my pet peeve "the princess myth." Girls are supposed to play the princess, to have things happen to them and not make things happen (cf. Sandra Cisneros' short story "Woman Hollering Creek"). And then comes a moment when most girls discover there's a limited number of openings for the position of princess. Many of them end up somewhere alone in the night, trying to get their basket to grandmother and there is no knight or hunter to protect them but many, many wolves...

Just like you I love Cate Blanchett in shiny armor. No one should have their claws taken out, man or woman, or try to play the hero, but practice a genuine kind of courage to be themselves. (Preferably without evil;-))

All the best in 2008!

jeff said...

Januaries--
Thanks for stopping by and giving us some more insight. Not only are there limited number of openings for princesses (and princes), who really wants the job once you see what it actually entails? :)

curiousgeorge said...

Hoping you can help...

Wondering where you got the picture of the knight on horse.

Did a bunch of searches and spent a couple of hours looking for it to no avail...

It looks perfect for something I want to send my brother...

jeff said...

curiousgeorge--

I'm not sure where I found it. You can grab it from this page. Right-click, save image...if you're on a windows box. Not sure how you do it on mac, but I'm sure it's doable. I imagine I got it from a google images search originally.

curiousgeorge said...

Thanks for responding. I did copy the image from your site, but it appeared to be only a partial picture (because of the word cut off the right-hand side)

did searches last night for on white knight, knight on a horse, hero on a horse, white horse, dragonslayer... nothing...

found it today by searching for knight on a white horse, but still can't find who it belongs to...

baby221 said...

The pictures are from an advertising campaign Disney did a bit ago for their Year of a Million Dreams thing, done by Annie Leibovitz. You can read about it here.

Yes, I am that huge of a Disney geek.

Also, I'm glad there are guys out there who recognise the whole White Knight thing for the farce that it is. I had a guy in one of my classes earlier in the year whose primary problem with women stemmed from the fact that they didn't want/need to be saved when that's how he understood masculinity and relationships - he grew up on videogames and comic books, not to say that either are intrinsically evil, but the entitlement complex he seemed to have derived from them was just terrifying.

It's funny because I grew up on Disney, but I never really got into the whole princess thing. Maybe it was just because the princess merchandising didn't become huge until I was way past their target age group, but it wasn't hard for my younger self to get that Peter Pan had way more fun than Wendy, and that princesses weren't good for much except singing and strutting around in high heels. I couldn't do either with any degree of grace, so - as they say - I did it my way.

And now the thought of White Knights just sets my teeth on edge.

I'm having a baby boy in another six to seven weeks, so these issues are weighing particularly on my mind now. I don't want to raise a White Knight! So I've been trying to collect children's media that subverts or otherwise upends traditional archetypes - The Paper Bag Princess and Princess Smartypants are my favourites so far!