Ending the Patriarchy is Men's work

Statera Arts National Convention

In advance of presenting at Statera Arts' 4th National Conference for Women in the Arts, Jens was invited to write a blog post related to the work he has been doing with the Bechdel Project.

Ending the Patriarchy is men's work.

There. I said it. Some may find that statement controversial. Others may find it self evident. My work with the Bechdel Project has convinced me not only of its truth, but that we as theatre-makers, and as storytellers, have the power to make it more true. We have it in us to engage male allies, to change our culture, and build a more equitable society.

I have one disclaimer before we start. Absolutely nothing in this piece should be construed as advocating that men should direct, control, or decide what women want or need in their struggle. Instead, I hope it's understood that more men should work alongside women and seek to support, listen to, and take direction from them on this journey.

Why should men even want to end the patriarchy? The short answer is because it is also destructive to them. There is a considerable body of research on the harms caused to men in our society that pressures to define themselves in opposition to women. Men who do this are more likely to suppress emotions, abuse substances, and behave more violently. But, convincing men of the harms of sexism or benefits of gender equality does not interest me as much as breaking down barriers to those men already inclined to join the fray.

What does science tell us about male allyship? Researchers at the University of Washington’s Department of Pysychology recently synthesized the small but emerging literature around male allyship. They suggest, one of the most significant barriers to male allyship is men’s inability to see sexism. This will be no surprise to women, but the research found that even when men are specifically tasked with looking for sexist behavior, they have trouble identifying it. However, there is some glimmer hope. Studies show that men who can recognize sexism and are willing to confront it have two critical traits. First, they reject legitimizing beliefs - the belief that one’s success or advancement is due solely to one’s hard work. Secondly, they possess relationship orientation, which is a set of beliefs characterized by social responsibility and the desire to help others.

Additional research shows that legitimizing beliefs and relationship orientation correlate with another human quality: empathy. Empathy is, of course, a theatre-maker’s stock and trade. The better we do our job, the stronger our audience’s empathy muscles grow. As theatre-makers, we already have the tools to build allies in the fight against the patriarchy.

How can we use these tools for the greatest impact? Bechdel Project believes, as Bertolt Brecht did, that “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer to shape it.” We are interested in presenting viewers with women’s untold stories, as well as visions of how a more equitable society might look.

This firmly held belief in the power of stories led to the creation of Bechdel Project’s Culture Bending workshops and residencies. They are specifically designed to powerfully build empathy through a unique progression of exercises and discussions that are intended to confront legitimizing beliefs and foster relationship orientation. They create a safe space to look at our society with fresh eyes and allow women’s experiences to be validated in a gender-inclusive way.

Bechdel Project teaches and advocates for storytelling on every level of human interaction, from classrooms to boardrooms and beyond. Yes, we still need theatre stories, but we also need the stories of the #metoo movement and the stories of #sayhername. We need the stories of Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s Congressional testimony, stories of reproductive rights, body positivity, and stories of women in sciences. Stories that explode across the twitter-sphere and stories that are whispered in bed. Every one of these stories has the chance to change both women and men.

I have seen the profound impact of this work at universities and conferences across the country, and I and am thrilled to be sharing it in even more communities this moving forward.

A version of this post first appeared on the Statera Arts site.