We don’t need more open letters filled with what amounts to nicely constructed and high minded chivalrous sentiments. We can no longer afford to stroke fragile male egos.
Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is shocking to many people, but none so much, perhaps, as to men who are used to a certain power and are now feeling a sense of disappointment and failure. Aaron Sorkin articulated exactly these sentiments last week in a beautiful mea culpa to his daughter and wife, published in Vanity Fair. His letter has resonated with millions of people who feel, like Sorkin, the pain of not being able to shield their families from ugly truths and their very real dangers.
Sorkin’s letter, however, is the perfect example of the problems that girls and women face.
The letter, which he addresses, I kid you not, to the “Sorkin Girls” is an explicit statement of the very traditional gender roles that Trump himself exploited to cultivate racial fears and to win. “…The world changed late last night,” Sorkin writes, “in a way I couldn’t protect us from.” Framed around his feelings of his failure to protect, the letter reinforces male centrality, gender segregation, roles, and hierarchy. This is Trump’s worldview and it oppresses girls and women, and explicitly relies on racism and xenophobia.
The girls and women in Sorkin’s life should have no need for male protection or intervention. No girls and women should have to access safety and power vicariously through fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons engaged in their social dominance over others. Until everyone thinks in those terms, we will always have more men like Trump, Pence, and Bannon and their freight train of contempt and hatred.
There are many thinkpieces about why Trump won, but sometimes the simplest and clearest explanations are the best: Trump won because of what I think of as the Pedestal Vote or what Amy Alexander calls “Miss Anne’s Revenge.” Trump and Pence were successful because older, white, religious women voted for them instead of Hillary Clinton. This was a monumental act of systems justification for a binary gender hierarchy that is, in the United States, almost entirely animated by systemic racism.
Prior to the election we had two full weeks of millions of women being triggered by stories of Trump’s sexually predatory and abusive behavior. Therapists were overwhelmed by patients, hashtags such as #NotOK trended for days. Women of every shade and class felt the sharp pain of their own humiliations, assaults, and adaptations to male sexual entitlement. This campaign, more than any other, made the relationship between these experiences and power clear in unprecedented ways. That relationship, in a world where we are told over and over again that women are equal, is a very hard one to swallow for most people in the United States.
When women face the reality of their own vulnerability they have a few options. One, develop resilient ways of adapting—for example, hypervigilance, anger, and feminism. Two, turn in on themselves—anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Three, turn to self-affirming Just World theories and benevolently sexist and inherently racist frameworks, such as those offered by Trumpism.
Trump ran on a Powerful Man Who Will Protect You strong man platform, right? “Women vote for me because they know I will protect them,” he continues to say. The nation needs a “broad-shouldered” president, in possession of a large penis, according to the man himself.
Protect women from what exactly? Terrorists? Poverty? Ill-health? No, what Trump promised was to protect mainly white women from mythologized violence and a loss of status, and he did it by aggressively touting racialized fear. “Mexicans are rapists,” the Central Park Five were guilty, and Muslims will terrorize you.
The promise to protect that Sorkin describes is rooted in old school gender binaries that Trump, ironically, given his apparent atheism, cruelty, and lack of moral compass, believes in. Complementarianism, the belief that men and women are separate in their inherent natures, roles, responsibilities, strengths, and dignities, is the basis for this world view, which sees gender not in terms of just how people look or perform, but in everything: how we love, how we work, how we think, how we dress, how we govern, and whom we trust with power.
But, here is what is most crucial in this world view: Girls and women are socialized to quietly trade away their agency, rights, responsibilities, and public authority in return for strong male public protection and financial support. We are all supposed to go along with the pretense that this is an arrangement of equality and that, in any case, people’s private lives and religion are not of public import.
The single most powerful social lever in perpetuating this system of institutionalized male domination in the United States is racism. In the United States, racism, homophobia, and transphobia, are central to maintaining this state of affairs. Otherwise, what is it exactly that women need protection from? Why bargain away their own self-interests if the threat is not external but intimate?
In the United States, women are overwhelmingly hurt by men they know and live with, men of the same race, class, and education level. We have excessively high rates of sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence—all of which are primarily perpetrated by men against women they know, in the same demographic group. The exception, in the case of rape, is Native American women, who are more likely to be assaulted by white men who are not also Native American. It is an incontrovertible fact, for what those are worth anymore, that the most dangerous man an American woman will encounter is probably the one sitting at her own dinner table or across the room in her school or at work.
This isn’t only a matter of private violence. As Melissa Jeltsen wrote last year, “The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence.” Seventy percent of mass shooting incidents occur in homes. There are never any political promises to protect women from their own family members. The specter of muslim terrorism and the demonization of men of color, on the other hand, were the lingua franca of Trump’s campaign.
If racialized stranger danger to white women is a myth, and clearly it is, then the core gender bargain is bankrupt. If that’s true, how can religious and conservative women committed to their families and these relationships function in society? Only god, literally, knows.
In the end, Sorkin’s letter was more about his altered sense of self than about changes in the world. Black people, LGBTQ people, Muslim people, disabled people and, yes, all women to varying degrees, whether they care to acknowledge it or not, have long been living with a heightened awareness of “Trump’s America” and its anti-Democratic ethos and violence. This election is a simple expression of the power to humiliate “losers,” as Trump would say, en masse, instead of by the more typical death-by-a-thousand paper cuts that we regularly fold into our selves.
Girls and adult women don’t need more paternalism and protection, we need less.
We don’t need more open letters filled with what amounts to nicely constructed and high minded chivalrous sentiments. We can no longer afford to stroke fragile male egos. That’s what insurance, while it lasts, and therapy are for. We need our own names, our specific dignity, our individual rights, and public authority.
The saddest part, attesting to how profound the misogyny and racism are in our society, is how early these dynamics take root. Last year, a Harvard School of Education study of 20,000 high school students’ attitudes about leadership found that students—all of them—showed the most confidence in young white boys and the least confidence in young white girls. Students have far greater confidence in black girls, one of the few benefits of intersectionality is that, as leaders, black girls confound both the racial and gender stereotypes that feed implicit biases about competence and authority. The students who were the very least likely to support a white girl and support a white boy were…white girls, the younger versions of the women who just voted for racial and class privilege. This makes sense given that our media portray white girls and women, hugely overrepresented visually, as the most cherished, the most vulnerable, the least competent, and the most deserving of vicarious power and protection. How much do those princess T-shirts cost exactly?
If angsty men with disproportionate social influence really want to live in a socially just world then they should address their aggrieved male privilege to the men, yes, they are almost all men, and overwhelmingly white, who continue to run Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Congress, the criminal justice system, churches, synagogues, and mosques. Until men with such grossly disproportionate power break fraternal and race-based ranks, letters like Sorkin’s, as virally popular as they might be, are little more than masturbatory psychic balms.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism, and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media, and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded the school’s first feminist undergraduate journal, and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.