The patriarchy’s greatest victory

I’m a pretty girl. People tell me this makes me lucky. They say it will make me more successful in life. People will respond more positively to my presence and what I have to say just because they enjoy the appearance of the person saying it. People who judge others based solely on their looks will be more likely to favour me over other women. This is supposed to be a blessing. I am supposed to consider this a privilege.

That is, at least, until society’s idea of “pretty” changes and I find this “privilege” suddenly revoked.

The patriarchy’s greatest victory has been convincing us we’re not as oppressed by it as we think. By granting us false, conditional privileges based on attributes it values, a patriarchal society has a built-in method of keeping women in line. As long as we focus on the privileges we’ve supposedly been granted – by being conventionally attractive, by being able to “run with the boys”, by being, in short, pleasing to men in various ways – we won’t think to look around us and wonder why our so-called privileges seem contingent on what people other than us find valuable.

Being pretty only confers privilege because men say it does. By striving for conventional attractiveness, women are seen to be making themselves more pleasing to men, which gains them a modicum of acceptance. (Whether or not pleasing men is their actual intention is ignored, as it is assumed that women have no higher ultimate purpose.) In some cultures, women who fulfil some arbitrary standard of “virtue” (dressing modestly, allowing men to decide how and when they express their sexuality, etc.) are granted conditional privilege contingent on their continued obeisance to male-defined societal standards. Should a woman decide to act in a way that men do not consider pleasing – say, by dressing how she likes or having sex with whomever she wants – this privilege is revoked.

The illusion of “pretty privilege” (or “virtuous privilege” or “modest privilege” or any other kind of conditional privilege based on pleasing men) is an excellent way of turning women against each other, encouraging them to tear each other down so that men don’t have to. Women who are seen as going out of their way to please men are turned on by their fellows, and women who are seen as not doing enough to please men are judged by those who are. By holding these conditional privileges over our heads and forcing us to effectively fight each other in order to attain them, patriarchal society is able to keep us from uniting and calling them on their bullshit.

Because, you know, that’s what it is. The idea that I’m only worth something to society because I’m pretty isn’t flattering – it’s degrading, demeaning and dehumanising. Would my intelligence, my personality, my passion mean nothing if it wasn’t packaged in a way that men find pleasing? Would women willing to compromise their comfort and principles in order to “fit in” with men be so lauded if they decided that for once, they’d like to set their own boundaries? (If you don’t know the answer to this, go to a pop culture convention some time and see how women who dare to stand up for their rights are treated by the men who’d conditionally given them their approval.) As long as our privileges are contingent on measuring up to patriarchal standards, they aren’t real privileges at all – merely crumbs thrown our way to keep us from demanding a full meal.

The idea that some of us are “better girls” is a comforting but toxic lie. By leading us to believe that we can have a share of male privilege by conforming to a set of standards, the patriarchy is not only devaluing those of us who meet said standards, but those of us who don’t. What of women who aren’t conventionally attractive and have no desire to be? What of women who don’t feel the need to put on a show of virtue in order to appear more wholesome and thus more pleasing to men? What of women who don’t want to change their personalities in order to fit in with their male companions at the expense of their own personal boundaries and comfort? What of women who don’t do the things men want them to do in the way men want them to do it? As long as we are judged by the patriarchy’s standards, we are all equally dehumanised, equally objectified, equally stripped of our agency.

Privilege that is contingent on male approval isn’t privilege. Privilege that is contingent on meeting arbitrary external standards isn’t privilege. Privilege that requires us to compromise ourselves in order to attain impossible ideals isn’t privilege. Privilege that pits us against each other in battles to see which women can be most pleasing to men and therefore objectified in the most “positive” ways possible isn’t privilege. Privilege that asks us to stay quiet when our boundaries are breached – when we’re harassed on the street, when we’re forced to laugh along with sexist jokes, when we’re made to exercise our sexualities only for male pleasure – isn’t privilege. This is oppression dressed in nicer clothes, packaged to make it just appealing enough to us that we can believe that we’re somehow being given our due when all we’re really being given is a pat on the back for pleasing the people who make the rules.

This is the “privilege” that leads to the belief that women should be flattered by street harassment, that they should be honoured by male attention in all its forms, even the most violent. It is the “privilege” that allows cisgender women to feel superior to their trans* sisters because it is men, not women, who decide what a “real woman” is. It is the “privilege” that leads to the death of women who can’t or won’t toe the line, and society’s implicit acceptance of this as a punishment for not trying hard enough to follow the rules.

It isn’t privilege at all. It’s enslavement.

Do not judge yourself by the patriarchy’s standards. Even if you are not found wanting (and you will be, no matter how close to perfect you are), you will spend your life being weighed and measured against someone else’s yardstick. Your worth will always be externally granted, never internal and intrinsic. This is not privilege. This is a way of making sure you never question the privilege of others.

The patriarchy’s greatest victory has been convincing us all that if we can’t beat them, we should just give in and join them.

14 thoughts on “The patriarchy’s greatest victory

  1. Loved this post! I recently wrote a rantpost about how I’m tired of people telling me to “go into modeling” (I happen to be tall and skinny), even though it is a terrible career choice and I’m already in the science-tech. field. The fact that multiple people encourage girls to do an unskilled job centered on their looks, rather than something actually productive and rewarding, is abysmal.

    Also guys tend to always frame a woman’s power in terms of her beauty and sexuality. I’m always told by guys that “beautiful women get whatever they want”, and they just resent attractive girls for supposedly all being spoiled. It’s ridiculous.

    • I should point out that I don’t have anything against women wanting to go into modelling or other looks-based professions if that’s what they want. We all have different dreams, why shouldn’t we be allowed to follow them? I have several friends who do glamour modelling, porn or sex work voluntarily. It’s what they want to do, and I’m not going to judge them for it just because it’s not a choice I’ve made myself.

      • I understand that. I was just criticizing other people over-encouraging me to choose this career path over something more profitable/intellectual, and even without considering that it is something I would actually like doing. I feel like there is sexist undertone in comments like “you should quit being a scientist and go into modeling instead”. They are basically telling me my looks are more important than my skills. At the same time, I am not trying to tell other girls that they SHOULDN’T model, and I can see where the implications get confusing.

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  3. Thank you for writing this piece; it’s been a long time since I have been so motivated to respond to a blog post. Firstly I’d like to apologise for the patriarchy, I had no idea they even existed, let alone that they were responsible for inventing the concepts of beauty, attraction, privilege and subjugation. This surprises me because, as a man, I would have thought that I would have been invited to the planning meeting. If you give me the names of these ‘patriarchy’ people I promise I will track them down and tell them it was all a bad plan, that in the end it would lead to, literally, the enslavement of all women. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, I’m sure they’re a reasonable bunch, although I’m not really sure who they are, do I need an invitation to join them do you think? Where do they meet to discuss these ill-conceived plans of theirs? I tried to google them but they don’t have a meet up group… Are you sure they exist, or could they just be a homogeneous block of stereotypes created to attempt to make self-absorbed waffle like the above sound like a coherent argument?

    The patriarchy didn’t invent the concepts you are talking about, men don’t own the concept and rules of being pretty, nor do they wield it to make themselves powerful as you seem to be suggesting – these are cultural, social issues that affect everybody individually in different ways – to make sweeping generalisations against one arbitrary section of society is exactly what we should be fighting against, as feminists, or as humanists. The kind of privilege that you talk about in terms of being pretty doesn’t exist, any more than that which is bestowed upon people who are likeable, charismatic, or intelligent, or who have any other arbitrary value. Each has their own subjective view on the world and to feel that you are somehow ‘privileged’ to be thought of as pretty is at best self-absorbed. To even accept the concept of male-given privilege is to completely misrepresent the agency that you enjoy as an individual. If you feel enslaved then you are only a slave to your own view of the world, no one else has the right or responsibility to let you to feel empowered enough to define your own agenda.

    It is clear from your barely strung-together narrative that you are fundamentally unsure about whether or not you are considered ‘pretty’ by society, my advice would be to take ownership over your own issues rather than trying to pass the blame onto some imagined misogynistic monolithic monster. You have every right to maintain agency over your own emotional response to your appearance, only you have the ability to exercise that right and if you don’t chose to do so then I don’t see you have any basis to complain.

    Bon continuation.

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