A House Called the Patriarchy
“I may have to keep some place where I can go to be by myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.”
From a letter written by Amelia Earhart to George P. Putnam on their wedding day. Putnam proposed to Earhart six times before she said “yes.”
Earlier this month, I visited a handful of girlfriends in Toronto and Montréal. I spent enough time in both cities to allow for long, lazy, cozy nights indoors, my hosts and I typing away on our respective laptops, stitching together new stories that felt inherently better than the ones crafted at home alone. It was a reminder of the power environment has over a person; where I am informs who I am, and vice versa.
At the tail end of an evening spent writing in the relative silence of my friend Nula’s apartment, she suggested we watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, citing similarities between the titular character (Midge) and us. In an early episode, Midge’s husband leaves her for his secretary, Penny. When Midge shows up at his new apartment to “see the new digs,” she realizes he’s living “the Methodist version” of their old life. Eye-to-eye with Penny, she says, “You know what’s funny? I don’t have my apartment anymore. You have my apartment. You have a lot of my things, actually.” Midge can’t help but voice her surprise over the similarities between the environment her husband left and the one he fashioned for himself as a newly-minted bachelor.
Of course, the environment Midge thrives in was never the one she established with her husband – it’s the one she creates for herself. Underground at places like the Gaslight Café, she sparkles under a spotlight, behind a microphone. Her upward trajectory as a comedienne is in direct correlation with the dissolution of her marriage. To reset, Midge moves back in with her parents, and in this environment, too, she locates herself anew.
I am locating myself anew. With each small success comes a separation, a growing wedge between me and those I’ve previously placed on altars and knelt to worship. I am living with my parents as well as my brother, who baits me with mentions of Jordan Peterson and the struggle he perceives young men have with assuming responsibility for something. “‘Lift a load! Lift a load!’” my brother shouts jokingly at my dog during a game of tug. As women increasingly assume responsibility for themselves, the argument goes, men are left with little direction, little duty, little motivation to serve.
But what have they historically served?
I recently heard a theory that older women’s fondness for jewelry may be informed by their lack of legal agency in marriage. In Canada, it wasn’t until 1964 that a woman could open her own bank account without her husband’s signature. During a time when it was better to be a widow than a divorcée, jewelry provided women with a way to accumulate financial assets that could easily be liquidated in case of emergency (say, for example, your husband left you for his secretary).
This tidbit came to me from the comments on a post my friend made to Facebook. In essence, it argued that behind every happy grandma is a heap of secrets, stories she wouldn’t dare share for fear of what it might do to her family, her image, her family’s image. (“Men thinking our grandmas were happy is a product of women keeping their stories private & the culture of coddling men by not telling them things.” – @LenValyrian)
Melissa Febos writes about coddling men, too. In a 76-page essay titled “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself,” she describes the experience of attending a “cuddle party” – a “playful social event designed for adults to explore communication, boundaries and affection.” Though the rules around communication and boundaries are made clear from the outset, Febos describes her struggle to say “no” to men at the cuddle party:
“Do you want to cuddle?” he asked.
“No,” I said, and my mouth involuntarily stretched into a smile, as if I needed to soften the refusal.
“Would you like to spoon with me?”
“Sure,” I said. I did not hesitate to assess if I really wanted to spoon with him. I had no lucid thought about it at all. I simply agreed. […] My uneasiness did not occur as a thought at all. It was more like a shift in temperature, a change in the light, a texture inside me that roughened. […] I wondered how long I needed to remain in this position to avoid seeming rude.
In her essay, Febos doesn’t blame the men at the cuddle party for her unease; instead, she investigates “how powerful [the] instinct was to give them what they wanted.” She considers her response in the context of the patriarchy, noting that women “are socialized from birth not to reject the hands of others, except in the rare case that they emerge from a suspicious van holding a lollypop.” Febos’s impulse to forfeit her own comfort to spare a man’s feelings only serves to reinforce the happy grandma narrative.
I coddle men, too. Often. Daily. When did I assume this responsibility? It’s surely not the type of responsibility my brother points to in conversations about the emotional state of men his age. My brother thinks that men lack community as a result of debilitating sadness; I argue their debilitating sadness is a symptom of their lack of community. What do men bond over? How do they connect with each other?
In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge insists on friendship with her personal manager, Susie. Susie opens up in exchange for Midge’s hotdog and fries. Female friendship = forged. Watching this scene, I’m reminded that Nula was my first friend in Montréal. She didn’t have to feed me to forge a friendship, but it was still direct and easy from the start: after sitting at opposite ends of the table at a campus bar during post-lecture pints, she said, “I know we didn’t get to talk tonight, but I’ve decided we need to be friends.” Now, Nula suggests we live together when I return to Montréal in the fall. I imagine long, lazy, cozy nights indoors. I imagine the sort of environment I long to come home to, and there’s not a man in sight.
I’m not seeking a hook on which to hang blame for my newfound cynicism. I’m only looking for more opportunities to create the environments in which I best thrive. That those environments typically exclude men does not feel like a coincidence. In Montréal, I sit with Nula as she reads aloud to me from an article in The New Yorker. It’s an article that has been shared with me by more than one friend – “What’s the Matter with Men?” its title asks. While Nula reads, I grip my wine glass and grow frustrated. What is the matter? What’s going on?
Febos writes, “Patriarchy is the house in which we all live. Even the most self-actualized women I know have embedded voices in them still faithful to the power structures they have long intellectually condemned.” I remember shaking hands with each of my male friends in high school, making them promise that if we were both still single at thirty, we’d find each other and wed. Now, I can’t imagine a less favourable future. I spend ten days with my girlfriends in two cities ripe with opportunity. We are each of us greedy, and all of us know exactly where to look. As Montréal shrinks below the plane carrying me home, I cry unapologetically for what I’m leaving. I can’t wait to be back.
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