“Miley is not a victim of patriarchy, but she is a volunteer. She is heavily involved in patriarchal bargaining. This means that in order to thrive within a system that values a woman’s appearance as white, young, thin, able-bodied and heteronormative that she accepts her place and does not challenge objectification.”
I wanted to share this post from blogger Danielle Paradis on “patriarchal bargaining.” It’s a term I’d never heard before that describes something I’ve thought about many times. It’s a practice I’m sure I’ve described many times as ‘being practical.’ Patriarchal bargaining makes it sound more sinister. It’s victimizing and accusatory at the same time. I like that.
bar·gainnoun, often attributive \ˈbär-gən\
: an agreement in which people or groups say they will do or give something in exchange for something else
If you are bargaining, you are by definition an active participant. Even if disadvantaged, you’re still exhibiting agency. You’re still choosing and compromising. The phrase “patriarchal bargaining” requires you to locate yourself in a context, to acknowledge you are exchanging something for something. It’s a bit Randian. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images describes patriarchal bargaining as:
a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.
It immediately made me think of Betty Draper and conservative female pundits who renounce feminism in exchange for inclusion/platform (Caitlin Flanagan et al). But it can be much subtler. Paradis writes about putting up with objectification and sexual harassment as a waitress when she was younger. “In learning to disassociate from what was often sexually inappropriate behavior at work I gained monetary stability,” she says. “This was no small thing for me.”
It can be: acting okay around behavior that’s not okay because you don’t want to be that girl. It can be feeling too exhausted to say more than “I don’t think so” when a male friend says earnestly that because you like rough sex, you might enjoy being raped (so glad Joanna Valente wrote about the distinction this week). It can be conforming to certain beauty standards. It can be distancing yourself from girlishness per se. It can be much bigger, darker and more insidious.
We all do it, to some degree. Sometimes it’s easy to be sympathetic. The worst workplace harassment I ever put up with was at a mall cigar store where I worked Christmas breaks from ages 19 to 21. I’m not sure anyone even knew how uncomfortable they made me. Who was telling them? Not me. I wanted to fit in. But also sheesh, I was a baby. I didn’t have the language. I remember thinking my 34-year-old boss was “middle age.”
Other times you catch yourself patriarchal bargaining and you can’t believe it. You have no explanation, at least not one where you come across well. This is why people like Flanagan, Katie Roiphe and Kay Hymowitz wind up rubbing so many people the wrong way. The bargaining seems too blatant. I have a perverse respect for it, really. At least you know where they stand.
“Sometimes it is the only way we can play the game,” Paradis writes.
“Sometimes it doesn’t bother the individual woman and sometimes it does. If there were an easy fix to this solution, we would have found it already. So what do I think? I think that there’s a need for awareness that objectification exists and well as the effect it can have, but there also needs to be love for a woman forced to navigate through this maze because our individual choices play into a system that does not benefit everyone—we do that as an entire society, and often because we feel as though there is no alternative.
As always: Don’t hate the player, don’t hate the game. But it’s also important to be aware and catch ourselves when we’re falling into this behavior—if not necessarily to stop it, then to examine and evaluate at least. To weigh motivations and magnitude. And to remember that all patriarchal bargaining must involve, on some level, believing you are an exception. If you do this, this and this (or don’t), you won’t get caught by the paradoxes and ceilings that affect most women. But that’s bullshit. Sexism, misogyny and objectification hurt all women. No matter how many talismans and head pats you’ve collected you will never be immune, because by colluding with any system that places women as less than fully human in any way, you are always implicating yourself, too.