Alpha Males, Calling Out, and Frown Power

In the comments of my earlier post on the idea of alpha males jeffliveshere asks:

What would be an example of a man calling another man on sexism that doesn’t also fall into the problem of domination hierarchies–if, indeed, we (men, women and those of other genders) find ourselves steeped in them like fish swim in water?

The Problem of Domination Hierarchies

Feminist men calling other men out on sexism are invariably going to be employing forms of privilege. Simply by virtue of being male, they are going to provoke a different reaction than women would – often this is going to mean that they are paid more attention to, either because their audience is prone to dismissing women or because it’s not seen to be in a man’s self-interest to call out sexism. This privilege is, in fact, one of the main reasons why it’s so important that men as well as women call out sexism.

When fighting sexism, is there a difference between using one’s status as a man to be listened to and using one’s status in a dominance hierarchy? Should we consider it acceptable to use forms of persuasion that we would otherwise consider abusive, because they’re being used for subversive ends? I’m not sure on this one – I can’t decide whether some uses of patriarchal institutions to fight sexism do more good than harm.

Confrontation and Personality

Hugo Schwyzer weighs in on the alpha males confronting sexism issue as well, saying (among other things), that our personality influences our feminism:

And then there’s the other obvious issue, one which Jeff and others have addressed, of personality differences. Not all feminist men are the same! To use Myers-Briggs language, those of us who are Es (extroverts, I’m ENFP) are going to meet challenges differently than I’s (introverts). I doubt anyone has done a typology of feminist men to discover if those of us active in the movement have personality characteristics different from the population at large! I’m certain, and indeed, I know from experience that feminist men have widely varying degrees of comfort with issues like public speaking, leadership, and confrontation.

Somehow, feminist men have to be committed to putting that belief into action. But the actions we take, particularly in our relationships with others, are going to be largely congruent not only with our politics but with our personalities.

I’m pleased to hear this coming from Hugo, who in the past has failed to acknowledge that we’re not all as gregarious as he. And I concur completely, and disagree with the argument that “beta males” can’t be feminist because their personalities and their politics would conflict. I think there are plenty ways to tailor one’s fighting of patriarchy to one’s personality without compromising effectiveness.

So, getting back to jeffliveshere’s question: what are ways that feminist men can confront sexism that (a) don’t reinforce a domination hierarchy; and (b) don’t rely on a feminist man being strongly extroverted and confrontational?

Frown Power

One way to fight sexism (and racism, classism, or any abuse of privilege) without resorting to is through the use of “frown power.” The idea is credited to Stetson Kennedy, and it’s a simple one – pointedly frown at people who are being sexist. I usually say something as well along the lines of “dude, not cool” (in my best Jorge Garcia impression). The idea is to express social disapproval of the act (not the person, which is another reason to add the vocal component). This doesn’t reinforce a dominance hierarchy because the message is one of peer disapproval rather than of asserting dominance, and it’s a lot less taxing on the introvert than a long tirade.

Not relying on a hierarchy of dominance also means that I can call out sexism in situations that would otherwise raise some troubling intersection problems. One of the places I encounter overt sexism most often (or am at least most aware of it) is when I’m riding on the bus. Most of the time it’s coming from either kids on their way to the mall, or factory workers returning from a shift. Neither group is going to listen to a lecture from the white guy in dress shirt and slacks, but if I react as their peer, the message might not be so easily dismissed.

The other advantage of “frown power” is that there’s really no way to fight it without looking like a fool. If I’ve expressed myself with merely a frown and and a “not cool” in psst-your-fly-is-open tones, what response is there? Arguments, threats, etc. make them the one who’s overreacting. If they argue that their sexism “is too cool,” they look dumb – as we all know, coolness is like humor in that if you have to explain it, it’s not there.

The Temptation of Passivity

Returning to Hugo’s post:

Feminist men must avoid several temptations: the temptation to passivity as well as the temptation to play the role of the “white knight” chief among them! Based on personality traits, some men will find it difficult to summon the courage to speak out; others will find it difficult not to fall into traditional masculine roles like that of the Hero or the Rescuer. Most of us will make mistakes along the way, but learning to be as gentle and harmless as doves — while retaining “serpent wisdom” — is a good place to start.

There is certainly a potential criticism in “frown power” that it creates the “temptation of passivity” – that because it’s easier for some of us to simply frown at people, we’ll forgo more direct confrontation even when it’s called for. I don’t believe this is a big problem – I think it’ll encourage more people to act for equality, and that in turn will encourage the people to more directly confront these issues, knowing that society’s got their back.

More Ideas?

What ways do you all call out sexism in your life? What have you found works (for whatever definition of “works” you care to use), and what doesn’t?

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4 Responses to Alpha Males, Calling Out, and Frown Power

  1. I appreciate you opening up this discussion to a larger audience, Jeff. I think the ‘frown power’ idea is a good one, and is one of the least ‘dominant hierarchic’ ways of calling out sexism among men. Still, I’m not quite sure about this:

    This doesn’t reinforce a dominance hierarchy because the message is one of peer disapproval rather than of asserting dominance, and it’s a lot less taxing on the introvert than a long tirade.

    The notion of peer disapproval is a good one, and probably is an important facet of describing power balances among men; still, I think even ‘peer’ relationships have a power dynamic, and I still think that men interact with men within a domination hierarchy, whether among peers or not. For instance, if you frown at somebody, that could very well cause him to fall into ‘hierarchy mode’–and he may respond defensively because he feels like his power is being taken away from him, rather than respond thoughtfully because a peer is trying to help him. That sort of defensiveness is likely, I think, even among men who think through the lenses of gender and hierarchy and everything.

    As for other suggestions: One thing that I’ve been trying recently is to point out men’s relationships to women in their lives, when I see sexism. Lots of men do have some respect for sisters/mothers/teachers/daughters, for instance, sort of ‘built-in’–and appealing to that can be a way of approaching things. I still think there’s a problem of dominance hierarchy, though, because “What if that woman were your sister?” can not only appeal to patriarchy in general (i.e. ‘men must protect women’) but also is still a ‘challenge’ to the man being called out. How to make it not a challenge is, of course, the problem–and I’m beginning to suspect that it’s going to just be a matter of degree.

  2. jfpbookworm says:

    still, I think even ‘peer’ relationships have a power dynamic, and I still think that men interact with men within a domination hierarchy, whether among peers or not. For instance, if you frown at somebody, that could very well cause him to fall into ‘hierarchy mode’–and he may respond defensively because he feels like his power is being taken away from him, rather than respond thoughtfully because a peer is trying to help him.

    Hmm. I agree that the respondent can become defensive and try turn it into a power struggle in an attempt to regain respect (though usually the “frowner” can simply refuse to play along), but I don’t think this makes using “frown power” an act of dominance. I think the difference is that it doesn’t assert any special status on the part of the person doing it (which also means it avoids the “white knight temptation”).

  3. Dora says:

    jeffliveshere: Another problem with the “What if that woman were your ______?” tactic is that a lot of sexists (as with racists, homophobes, etc.) will acknowledge that individual members of a group are good, but still hold stereotypes about the group. So, for example, if you called out a man for sexually harassing a woman by bringing up his sister, the man might respond by saying something like, “My sister is a woman who deserves respect, but this women doesn’t because she acts/looks/dresses slutty.”

    I do think it’s a useful tactic in some situations, though. It depends on the person doing the speaking and the person doing the listening, and how each one feels about dominance plays. I’ve seen men use “frown power” to great effect in a group that is close and casual; I also know men who would react as poorly as you describe. You’re right, in that it’s always a matter of degree.

  4. I think the difference is that it doesn’t assert any special status on the part of the person doing it (which also means it avoids the “white knight temptation”).

    You may be right, and I may be just trying to ‘push’ dominance hierarchies into any sort of description of an interaction between people–but it still seems to me that the frowner can’t help but say something about status by frowning–i.e. ‘I know you’re doing something wrong’ isn’t divorced completely from ‘You have a lower status than I do’–at least from the perspective of the frownee.

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