Shame in the Patriarchy

Shame can arguably be said to be one of the worst emotions out there. Emotions like fear, grief and jealousy are strong contenders, and yet these feelings, strong as they are, don’t quite work in the same way that shame does. Dr Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist, positions shame as unique in that it “lead[s] you to feel as if your whole self is flawed”, eating away at your sense of self-worth until you can no longer bear to face public scrutiny, or indeed, yourself.

Beautiful without makeup

Given the deep-reaching effects of shame, it is not surprising, then, that it makes a remarkably effective tool for maintaining the patriarchal order. Women are shamed for a whole host of reasons— for being fat, being ugly, being hairy, being an airhead, being sexually promiscuous, being sexually conservative—the list goes on. Men are shamed when they behave too much like women—when they show emotional sensitivity, when they dress like women, or enjoy traditionally feminine activities, or when they (horror of horrors) allow themselves to be subservient to a woman. The result is a preservation of the status quo, where men act in dominant, assertive, stoic ways, and women walk the fine line of adhering to decorative ideals, but careful not to take it so far that they are labelled ‘sluts’.

It all seems pretty straightforward when laid out this way, but the waters are muddied by the invisibility of these forces. Indeed, it would make things far less complicated if we could identify a group who had nefariously and deliberately devised these rules for the purposes outlined above. When a man laughs at another for being “pussywhipped”, he (usually) isn’t consciously thinking, “My friend doesn’t have power over his girlfriend. This is a threat to the position of men and women in society! What should I do? I know- I’ll mock him and make him feel humiliated. Everyone must know that this is an unacceptable position for a man to be in!” Likewise, when a woman talks about how fat another woman is, she isn’t trying to make a statement about the female obligation to always maintain our sexual attractiveness. No—they’re doing it because this is what they’ve always known, because they’ve never lived in a society that gave them an alternative lens through which to view men and women. And from a societal point of view, it doesn’t matter that their statement was merely a throwaway remark; the effects are the same as if we’d all pulled together and orchestrated it.

Next time we hear a friend engage in a bout of casual shaming, let’s make sure they have a little think about what they’re really saying. Let’s ask them why they feel that a woman’s worth is bound up with her sexual activity. And why they gave their male friend a high-five for sleeping with loads of women. Let’s ask them why Hillary Clinton’s appearance is relevant to her role in politics. And if they continue to think it appropriate to criticize politicians for completely random and irrelevant traits, ask them why they never thought to judge Obama’s competence based on his pottery skills. Ask why no newspaper has ever run a feature on how ugly David Cameron is. Finally, let’s ask them why they’re telling their sons that ‘being a gi-rl’ is the worst thing he can be. And what message that sends to their daughters.

Then let us reserve shame for activities that actually deserve it. Let violence, rape, and the exploitation of women be shameful. Let the horrors of war and mass murder be a source of shame, not glory. Let the next generation of children grow up knowing that shame will never touch them for abandoning gender roles, and give them a world defined by love and harmony, and not by domination and power.

27 thoughts on “Shame in the Patriarchy

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. And I totally agree with the majority of it. I’m not sure how I feel about labeling “power” as a negative thing. I suppose you meant “bullying power” or maybe “coercive power”, but as written it includes all power. Power is not inherently good or bad; it all depends on how it’s used. It seems to me though, that many women view “power” as a bad thing, so they unconsciously deny and throw away the power they do have. “Dominance” also is a dirty word to most women, so they may unconsciously hold back from speaking, because they don’t want to ‘”dominate” the conversation or deny their competence because they don’t want to “dominate” a situation. I think these words are as emotionally loaded as the other words listed in your blog,such as “fat”. I think that’s what so tough about this issue- so much of the problem takes place underneath our level of awareness, and it sneaks up on us even when we’re on the lookout for it. This post will definitely have me being more vigilant about the emotional value I place on words. I definitely found this a very thought- provoking piece and I look forward to the next posting.



  2. Beautifully written, and so powerful. Again.

    I remember calling a boy a “faggot” when I was nine, just because he played with us girls. I remember telling racist and misogynist jokes as a teenager. Everyone did. I remember more than a few other instances where I casually shamed people, without thinking, without even knowing what it was that I was doing. And being shamed back. I am ashamed today (and I mean the proper kind of shame!) to remember those moments because I cannot believe they are part of my personal history. It feels so natural not to share any of those attitudes today, so who was this person that uttered those things?? It is the ‘casual’ character of it all that is scary indeed, because it is so easy to acquire, imbibe by osmosis, internalize through socialization, and so difficult to un-learn because it must be by conscious effort. I appreciate the people who took the time over the years to explain certain things to me, instead of writing me off. This is what people do for each other, and what you do on this blog. The whole damn thing is reversible 🙂


  3. End slut-shaming and sister-shame once and for all. This article should come in every girl’s baby shower gift basket. When we make it casual or trivialize our perpetuated “places” in society… we are giving up on living truly whole lives. It is my life goal to end stigma!


  4. Matrina, I feel you! Thanks for opening up and I am glad to see you come around.


    A male Feminist who is guilty of similar things growing up


    • Hey Nick,
      It’s funny I sound like a recovering criminal visiting high schools and telling people what an asshole I used to be. I wasn’t. I was an ‘average’ member of society with ‘typical’ attitudes and comments, whose brain figured out as it went along that some things just did not compute. It feels unreal to think that I ever felt otherwise than I do today, which includes loving the phrase “male feminist” and wanting to encounter it more often 🙂 That is why posts like these rattle my cage, in a good way.


  5. Thank you for a great post!
    We had an interesting case here in Norway a couple of years ago. The leader of the Conservative party is a woman who weighs more than what most women in politics/in media weigh. A professor at one of our business schools went out in the media and claimed that her party was doomed to fail with her as a leader because people would think that her being “fat” (his word – not mine) showed that she didn`t have any will power. Or as he put it “if she can`t even control her weight – how can she be in control in politics?” as if the two are related.

    He probably said what a lot of people were thinking, but like with the trolls (we have trolls, didn`t you know :-D) – if you bring them out in the sun, they burst. His thoughts, shared by many or few, created an outrage when they were spoken and Erna Solberg, the politician in question, had a boom in popularity. A boom that hasn`t stopped. Both she and her party haven`t had as many supporters in ages and the internal quarrels the party had before this stupid professor and his cruel words, have all but stopped.

    The professor is often ridiculed now for saying what he said (he claimed she would be thrown as a leader – which didn`t happen).

    Now, I would never vote for a Conservative party but it has been interesting to see how Erna Solberg`s leadership is not questioned at all.


  6. Please allow me to disagree on one point. When men employ colloquialisms, some, if not all, are disparaging men who can’t control “their” women. Referencing a conversation with a male buddy where he called my male boss “short on balls” for not reining in his wife, who wants my job for one of her relatives. He failed to comprehend that boss man lets her run her mouth, but he has repeatedly turned down all proffers of younger, prettier, softer-spoken replacements in favor of his tough, straight-spoken old hand.


  7. I definitely agree with what you’re saying here! There is so much misogynistic language being used by people every day who might even call themselves feminists when asked—i.e. “boys will be boys”, the term “slut”, etc. Everyday language is difficult to change, but I think that it’s important that people at least realize the meaning behind their words.


  8. Thank you for liking my post! I really appreciate it. I am thankful to have had the chance to read your blog, too. This post is excellent–shame has a way of seeping in and hijacking our total perspective and sense of self worth. It’s insidious. And you’re right that calling our friends out when they shame themselves is a chance to dig a little and reveal the roots and underlying assumptions that are fueling their self-doubt. The light of honest inquiry has a way of banishing shame. Thanks for writing!


  9. Fantastic piece. The word ‘shame’ is spot on. I have a draft of a post about how just about every feminine characteristic is seen as a liability to success.
    Loved, loved, loved this piece. x


  10. Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s essay ‘Queer performativity: Henry James and The Art of the Novel’ looks at shame in a really interesting way. From what I remember, she talks about how shame delineates identity without giving it content – the subject is shamed but only defined as shameful. So someone’s made to feel bad about themselves without having a self to feel bad about. It’s really interesting, worth a look even if you’re not into literary criticism.


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