Saturday, April 27, 2013


Words get bandied about in our national conversations without too much thought.  Social Security, for example, is often called an "entitlement" program in a way that sounds disparaging.  In fact, recipients of Social Security benefits - not just retirement benefits, but the Supplemental Security Income program and other benefits Social Security pays - are, indeed, entitled to them.  Because they've paid in to the system.  It's their money, after all, and so it isn't exactly something people are receiving for no reason.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, the word entitlement has three distinct definitions.  It is the third on which I prefer to focus attention at the moment: belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges.  With all the discussion recently about rape, one thing emerges quite clearly.  Too many men, young and old, feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to women.  If they've taken a woman out on a date, they are entitled to something in return.  If a woman has had sex with other men, then they are entitled to have sex with her.  If a woman begins an intimate encounter with a man, the man is entitled to full consummation.

If a young man, or young men, are accused of raping a woman, the man is entitled to defend himself, this is true.  Too often, that defense assumes a certain air of entitlement.  Consider the young men in the Stuebenville rape case.  The assumption was the town would rally to their defense; their coach, their parents, the teachers and school administration, all would come to defend them.  The victim in this case, however, was entitled to no such presumption of social care and concern.  She was attacked online and in the press.  She received death threats, threats of further sexual assault, her reputation was attacked.  When the young men were convicted, the best they could come up with as an apology was an admission that passing around photos of the young woman's violated body wasn't a good idea.  Not that forcing a young woman to drink to unconsciousness, then raping her, then putting her in a car and taking her elsewhere to do it all again, sharing the event with friends; not that any of this was wrong.

Or consider some concern-trolling Beyonce has received.
When Beyonce kicked off her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour two nights ago, wearing her sheer bodysuit with nipples showing, to me she performed the final degradation of her talent; a retrogressive transformation that has taken someone stellar and otherworldly, and made them into something dreadfully familiar and sad.
Variations of Beyonce's body suit can be found in brothels, strip clubs and red light districts across the world - where sex is for sale and it happens to be dispensed through a woman's body. That she is a human being with feelings and dreams, perhaps a sister, a mother, a leader, a teacher, a student - ALWAYS - a daughter - all of this can be forgotten. In those surroundings a suit like Beyonce's would look far from glamorous. Maybe just downright heartbreaking as a woman somewhere becomes an object, available for the gratification of a desire - at a price dictated by her 'managers'.
She has been the target of a lot of discussion, beginning in February with her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show.  There was this near-universal shriek of horror at a woman daring, among other things, to display her body and include her sexuality as an attribute not for delectation but of inherent power.  Consider for example, Madonna, who's decades-long metamorphoses have always seemed rooted in an assurance that she will be yours; unlike, to take another example, Britney Spears, who was offered up as fodder for older men to ogle a too-young girl, insisting she wasn't "that innocent" in a way that came far too close to the edge of child pornography; and like a contemporary of Ms. Knowles, Lady Gaga, whose sexuality is simultaneously on display and downplayed precisely because it is part and parcel of a far larger set of attributes she wishes to show the world; like these - and so many other female performing artists - Beyonce always stands on the thin blade of a very sharp sword.  Regardless of what she does or how she presents herself, there will be those who either insist she overplays her sexuality; or, conversely, that by not emphasizing her sexuality enough, she is losing an opportunity, variously, to be a "role model"* for young women, or be a bad "role model" for young women.  Through all this, there is the assumption that women's sexuality is not their own but rather a thing to be used and manipulated by and for men.  As one commenter wrote at Raw Story:
Women are like a beautiful work of art, they should never be hidden behind a curtain (burka) - Iranians are making their country less beautiful by covering women.
Women are not people, who can choose how to live their lives, including the manner, time, and place during which they may or may not display their sexuality among their other attributes.  Rather, women are a thing, a product to be seen gazing through a store window or museum, to be judged not by whatever merits they might possess, but rather on how they add to the beauty of the world.**  The point is not the integrity of the women, their agency in the world, or the freedom to live their lives as they see fit.  Rather, the point is that men are entitled to enjoy women as they see fit.  Women step out of line by displaying their sexuality in a way men disapprove?  They get slut shamed, like Beyonce was at Huffington Post, and all around Twitter and Facebook after the Super Bowl halftime show.  Women in positions of power and authority who dare to act like the boss?  Obviously, they're bitchy, unapproachable harridans who just aren't feminine enough.  Because, you know, men know what it is to be "feminine" and any woman who isn't "feminine" needs a stern talking-to.

We swim in a sea of male entitlement, and fighting back against it takes a lot of work.  The first thing we need to do is get men to understand that we do not deserve anything from anyone just because our genitals are different.  If we really want a different world, a better world, the first thing we need to do is give up the idea that we are entitled to dictate the terms of that change.

*And could we please just dispense with the idea that public figures are role models?  This on-going, desperate search for idols to worship is really quite troubling.  Most young people are intelligent enough to know their role models are their parents; that's who they rebel against, after all.  Celebrities, athletes, politicians are NOT role models.

**When Beth Spencer highlighted this comment at Lawyers, Guns, & Money, there was a whole lot of manspalinin' in the comment section.  At a liberal blog.  Which, again, shows how far we still have to go.

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