A Thought Adventure

Monday, February 15, 2016

37. Womanhood

I started out this blog by arguing that equality between the sexes is a dictate of ‘natural law.’ As opposite and complementary forces of nature, men and women represent two sides of the same physical phenomenon, homo sapiens, and to define that phenomenon in its entirety we need to take both into account. I concluded that the sexes exercise an equal amount of power in society 
(regardless of whether they are granted equal rights or not), and that women therefore are as responsible as men for its sexist bias.

Western culture
Womanhood's systemic influence on our view of manhood isn't much talked about or analyzed in the West. As if we were more reluctant here than elsewhere to admit the power women have to shape our outlook on the world. Yet there is one interesting post-Freudian theory (put forward by psychologists like Erik Erikson, D.W. Winnicott and others) that no longer traces men’s struggles with manhood to oedipal traumas and castration fears but to the relation between mother and son.

But instead of exploring the role of nurture, i.e., the individual mother's relationship to her son--and holding out hope of finding the cause of men's fear of intimacy--this theory puts the onus on nature. It declares that it's harder for a boy than for a girl to grow up because, unlike her, he can't acquire an individual identity by simply reinforcing his early symbiotic union with mother. Since he is born male he must break that same union and create a masculine identity all by himself. Which supposedly explains men's regressive, so-called Peter Pan syndrome, or wish to remain in the blissful primeval oneness with mother.

Here again we have an example of the preposterous view of the sexes we inherited from the matriarchs: that masculinity is not a congenital characteristic in males the way femininity is in females but a quality men must develop, and prove worthy of, through their own efforts. A view that ranks men as Nature's stepchildren at the same time, admittedly, as it also offers them a chance to develop hero status. 

Back-piercing to please goddess Kali

Eastern culture
Other cultures are more outspoken about the power women exercise and its consequences for men. The theme of the evil mother (who holds back food and/or tempts her son sexually) is universal but, as Doniger O'Flaherty puts it,“seems especially prominent in India.“ The goddess Kali only loses her demonic characteristics and becomes kind and gentle in exchange for absolute male submission; or as G. Morris Carstairs puts it in The Twice-Born, “only when one has surrendered one’s manhood and become a helpless infant once again.” According to Doniger, in both old and contemporary local Indian mythology, tales abound of “male devotees who cut off their own heads in an act of devotion to Kali.” 

Because Hindu culture--in which androgyny is a powerful theme--puts great stress on virility, there’s much anxiety about it among men not only in India (where men‘s attachments to mother are unusually strong) but also in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. According to Carstairs, Indian men regard women, especially their wives, as more libidinous than they; if men can’t satisfy them, women become witches who may send the men to hell. A belief, writes Gudhir Kakar (in The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India), that makes many men adopt “an avoidance behavior in sex relations” causing women to extend a provocative sexual presence towards their sons. And that in turn produces “adult men who fear sexuality with mature women.

From Gilmore we learn that although manhood has an androgynous quality in Chinese art and religion, the stress is firm on a real man to have a ’manly temperament’--be decisive, strong (both physically and mentally), never complain or cling and be devoted to work. A pronounced fear of losing manhood lies behind a male psychosomatic disorder in China and Southeast Asia, called koro.. Symptoms are anxiety, palpitations, trembling and intimations of impending death. Prominent is a belief that the penis is shriveling or retracting into the belly. 

So again, sisters, who besides ourselves do we think we’re kidding when playing the game of victims sacrificed on the altar of all-powerful men?

To more fully understand the impact the female half of humanity has on the male half, we need to look more closely at men's role as fathers, in particular at the father’s place inside the family. A place that I argue has been as overlooked and undervalued as woman’s place outside the family. See next post.

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