Surviving in a patriarchy is a daily struggle, which is why I’m instantly suspicious of anyone who thrives in this kind of environment. The people at the top are the ones to watch; success is not something that comes with complete honesty and integrity in capitalism. It infects every little corner of the society we find ourselves in, permeating every creed and culture so that somehow, wherever you are (in most parts of the modern world), women are considered inferior and incomplete without men to shield them from other men (70% of the entire world’s population of women in fact). We literally cannot escape the monster; it’s in our beds whilst we sleep at night. It’s in the workplace, the gym, outside your front door. It’s in our homes on our TVs and not just in the films with explicit content notes at the start but out of the mouths of our British darlings; the ‘comedians’ and soap ‘stars’ with their freedom to speech that actually physically harms the vulnerable; this little island is heaving with perpetrators of violence against women and girls.
I am so wound up by the film I just watched I started blogging before it ended. I wanted the disgust and fear to feel fresh when I pinpointed why my reaction felt so visceral. Firstly, I have established it is not cos I’m a man hating shrew, I quite love a few of them actually, it’s you other pricks I cannot abide and it’s all your own fault cos patriarchy.
With that out of the way, I want to get the WTF? lessons in structural patriarchal oppression off MY chest. The film Blue Valentine starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling centres on the relationship of a “contemporary married couple, charting their evolution over a span of years by cross-cutting between time periods” – IMDB. Now I don’t know what other people saw but I saw patriarchy ignore a woman’s bodily autonomy repeatedly until she caved. I have spoken to countless women who have done this, me included. To feel so battered and exhausted by the onslaught of unwanted sexual attention, you step outside of yourself and give in. At no point did Williams’ character ask for her space to be invaded but then neither do most targets of patriarchal entitlement, we’re just conditioned to believe it is something we should expect and tolerate.
I wanted to scream/punch the TV because of the way the film attempted to sweeten their ill-fated tale with flashbacks to their miserable beginnings. They were trying to depict the heady romance that brought them together and how it started in earnest but y’know relationships break down because people stop needing each other. Except that’s not what happened. I wanted to see what other people thought about so I googled (much easier than asking people I find…)
I found this piece and decided not to look any further. For the record, we cannot change the common dysfunctions we find in relationships if we refuse to acknowledge first the role patriarchy plays. The phrase ‘common couple violence’ describes a situation where people are equally to blame for escalations of violence and aggressive behaviour, incidents rarely result in serious injury or the other person fights back. This, in contrast to ‘patriarchal terrorism’; which, to be honest, is my understanding of all domestic abuse not just the ones where the survivor looks like a victim. It’s possibly telling that the person to coin this phrase is a man. There is also the fact that Wikipedia presents a criticism of his idea suggesting that he was accused of reporting bias but who knows, maybe an angrier feminist got there before me.
Let me explain something to the many men presenting their own truths about matters that affect people affected by patriarchal entitlement. We didn’t ask to be born only to witness our mothers being physically and sexually assaulted. We’re so used to seeing men strutting around, their chests puffed up all pigeon like, invading the space of the person we love most in the world, despite our very early protestations before we were even able to verbalise. When we cried, he just ignored us. After a while we stopped crying because we realised it made no difference. Some of us will have learnt to tune out our surroundings and ingratiate ourselves with the man whose hand felt like a frying pan on impact. Best not to say anything, better to pretend it didn’t affect you, maybe this is normal life, who knows? This is what happens to some victims of child abuse; they internalise the toxic relationship as being something that is within the boundaries of ‘normal’ because of how it is widely accepted in society.
I cannot watch a single film from my childhood without critiquing the impact of the messages I was being fed about my role as a female. Everything revolved (and in many cases, still does) around relationships; this belief that there is a princess out there for every man, someone to cherish and obey them. It’s not something that is restricted to any John Hughes/Mickey Rourke movie of my childhood. Gosling’s character makes a remark about how men marry for love whereas women just settle for someone with a good job. In the context of the film he snaps her up when she is most vulnerable. She’s absolutely terrified; when she finds out she is pregnant, possibly by another guy, that he’ll react angrily so she doesn’t immediately tell him. He then threatens to jump off a bridge (as you do if you’re a menacing, manipulative privileged male). Threatened with the possibility she would be responsible for his death because she didn’t jump to his command she blurts out her news. He reacts in the way no male should ever react to a pregnant person; he shouts her and demands a decision about what she is going to do. Not in a supportive way, just belligerent he was not having his needs met. In fact, this was the whole premise for their relationship. He repeatedly makes advances on her and she is not exactly coquettish in her repeated rejection of him yet senior practitioners of human psychology, the people we turn to when we want to behave ‘normally’ are telling us that guilt and innocence shift depending on which person’s perspective you look at it from. It is no wonder we allow patriarchal abuse in societies and in many cases actively encourage men to assert their dominance when we have the attitude that sometimes, women are just asking for it. Williams’ character opts for an abortion but just as the speculum is inserted, she changes her mind.
On hearing this news, Gosling’s character scoops her up, obviously thrilled that he finally has his own little family. Now, contrast the two ways in which he reacted to being told what her intentions were. When she didn’t respond he became aggressive; men don’t have the best reputation for handling sensitively the subject of them potentially inseminating anyone or the fact that it might not be theirs (cos human beings are property like that) and she hurried away, afraid at what he might do. After the trip to the abortion clinic he sweeps her off her feet and then carries her in his lap on the train home. SHE apologises to him for getting pregnant, telling him it isn’t his fault. I think you’ll find it probably was though. It is possible that he was attracted to how vulnerable she suddenly was and knew she wouldn’t leave him; a tactic often used by emotional abusers, pregnancy creates an immense amount of dependency. Or perhaps she behaved in the way she did because she is accustomed to men turning when they don’t get the answer they want, like her father for example, smashing his plate of food on the table because it wasn’t prepared to his exacting standards. Even her grandmother advises her on matters of love, stating she was never really that in love with her grandfather indicating a sense of duty to explain why she stayed in the relationship.
Williams’ character has been socialised into believing that what HE wants, goes. She looks almost afraid in her early run ins with the future father of her child. Alan Ravitz MD argues that Williams’ knew what kind of character she was getting involved with because she was aware of his personality from the very start. He suggests that she chose to be with him because of how he fulfilled her needs at the time; “pregnant with an abusive father and passive mother”. Historic victims of child abuse, even the ones who weren’t being directly abused themselves but witness their mothers suffering it hear warning bells regarding abusive partners, like most people, but their brains do not interpret them as a negative thing. The need for stability and love mutes the voice flagging up any concerns. For them it’s so familiar in how it reminds them of their childhood for example that many don’t even question inappropriate behaviour until it is pointed out to them (even as a domestic abuse worker, I was unaware of the fact I was still experiencing abuse in my own life). The psych also suggests that the relationship perhaps soured when she no longer had any use for him completely disregarding the fact that Williams’ character is holding down a full time job yet still doing all of the ‘women’s work’ too. The scene where Gosling spoons cereal onto the table to encourage their little girl to eat at least the raisins; Williams comes across as rigid and without a sense of fun when she insists the girl use a spoon. Is she being a killjoy or is this a nod to the fact that she has to clean it up (which she explicitly states)? Also, when fathers give their children the impression that fun is there to be had but mum won’t allow it, this pits a child against their mother creating a special relationship for the feckless father and his child where they can be mad at mum instead of ever examining their own behaviour. The little girl pleads with her mother with the logic that dad says it’s ok.
Dads, by all means get stuck in with the child rearing and be as silly as you like but think about the poor mug who has to clean up after you. What about her? Is anyone really that surprised when a relationship breaks down for seemingly no good reason, except for the fact that we live in a patriarchy? How many times is Williams’ character approached with sexual intentions when all she wants is to have a drink or get some sleep? How many times is she touched without her express consent? He doesn’t cuddle her; he gropes her at every opportunity, pulling at her flesh, kneading her breasts. She is slimed on at the supermarket, when she’s visiting her grandmother in an old people’s home, on her own front porch. She gets her child and herself ready for work. She is the one to cook the food and put it on the table. In practically every scene she is buzzing around the room, tidying, organising, planning. She isn’t comfortable with any of the attention she receives from any of the men in the entire film but do they care? No, they just put her down for being so ungrateful.
Like, she should be grateful he gets jealous of the thought of her with other men. It is her duty to assuage him with reassurances that other men do nothing for her even though she is frightened whilst she does this. He demonstrates has no regard for her professional working life when, after she repeatedly tells him that she cannot go have sex with him in a sleazy motel because she is on call (as a nurse at a hospital) he goes against her wishes and books it anyway. HE made the decision he was going to use her body, it didn’t matter that she might be needed in an emergency or that she was tired, they did what HE wanted to do. Alan Ravitz MD downplays this patriarchal control by labelling it ‘pathological romance’ instead. There’s nothing romantic about men wanting to take at will and asserting their right to this at every opportunity, in fact, that’s called harassment, it is male privilege and entitlement.
Williams’ character separates from her husband because she suddenly becomes aware of the influence her father abusing her mother had had on her as a little girl. She won’t speak to her father in the closing scenes where the couple go their separate ways. Her dad asks her what is happening and she specifically says she won’t be discussing it with him emphasising she means him in particular. Here is a grown woman who is suddenly furious with her father for shaping her into the woman another man could take advantage of. In that moment she grows as a person. How could a senior psychiatrist miss something as glaringly obvious as this? Simple really; he IS the patriarchy. It is men like him who control the moral compass. How else do you think we got into this mess in the first place? Men have been tripping over themselves to depict women as deranged, hysterical, out of control for simply asserting their rights to autonomy. Of course they wouldn’t want you to think like this, it would mean having to fend for themselves, making their own goddamn sandwiches, having a cry wank instead of raping you.
Patriarchy is protected by the law (check out rape statistics), by healthcare professionals (as we have discussed) and perpetuated by the ways in which we view unacceptable behaviours on the part of men, choosing to reward them for it (see all the rich and famous exonerated by the law, cherished by their fans). This won’t change until we call patriarchal oppression when we see it. There are some very basic links missing to achieving equality.
Call out culture may have been ridiculed by patriarchy but we always knew it would, it makes taking advantage of the vulnerable a lot more difficult.