Clothing Restrictions and Mature Patriarchy

“Go back home and change! You’ll distract the boys! This place is for teaching!” You know the drill. School people deciding that some girl’s clothing is supposedly too alluring to be worn, because reasons. Here are some examples, which are mostly similar in their essence: one, two, three, four.

It’s fairly easy to point out that these acts of discrimination create women as sexual objects and problematize their bodies instead of addressing men’s vision of women, as several of the female victims point out. As the girl in the second article put it in the posters she pinned, “Don’t humiliate her because she is wearing shorts. It’s hot outside. Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects”.

However, what these discourses forget, truthful though they are, is the harmful conception of male youth built through clothing bans. Because, let’s face it, in clothing regulations, it’s not the supposedly “distracted” young boys who ask girls to go home. The people who do this are adults talking about what young men supposedly feel.

This fits what I call “mature patriarchy” (as discussed in a previous article): the intersection between discourses against women and against youth, or the combination of patriarchy and gerontocracy. In this composite dispositive, the categories of women and young men are constructed as either identical or opposite. For example common traits attributed to both young men and women include irresponsibility and sexual desire — though women and men’s sexuality is framed differently. They are both accused of being thrifty spenders, weak-willed, and incapable of participating in politics (in fact, the idea of a female politician is more accepted today than that of a young politician). However, men are seen as strong and violent, while women are physically weak and passive — here, they are opposites.

Both are important parts of society in mature patriarchy, as young men are capable of defending the community, and women are productive through procreation. What frames the discourse on femininity, thus, is sexuality, which must be protected; young men are rather identified with strength, which must be maintained and not wasted. This requires a directing force — that of old men, or in the case of schools, just adults in general — because both women and young men are weak of will. This justifies the power of older men over the rest of society. The difference between young men and women is that the former are expected to follow their place in the age hierarchy, whereas the latter cannot change their gender status.

Militaristic discourses on society from the early 20th century followed this exact logic: women were necessary for creating young men, and these young men were necessary for staffing the army — while older men stayed home and directed the war. Obviously, the actual experience of mature patriarchy is also modulated my the experience of class, but this is the basic schema: women produce, youth fights, and elder men rule.

Incidently, this coincides with George Dumézil’s trifunctional hypothesis. According to the scholar, in Indo-European cultures, there were three functions in society: sovereignty/religion, war and productivity. It would be rather easy to identify sovereignty with mature men, war with young men and productivity with women, and I’m not expert enough to judge if this is true. Indeed, the three functions could be further divided, but what can be observed is that 1) women could rarely occupy a position other than productivity, although men could also hold the third function 2) the attributes of the second function are similar to the characteristics attributed to male youth, and the same applies to the first and aged masculinity.

In “clothing violation” incidents, what really happens is not only sexism on the part of the staff. The assertion that 1) female dress needs to be controlled because 2) boys’ sexuality is beyond control does more than just problematize women’s bodies and appearance, and more than construct men as incapable of constructing their sexual urges. By positionning women as weak and their sexuality as something to protect, and boys as weak and incapable of controlling themselves, school staff justify the very asymmetry of the schooling system, and reinforce a hierarchy that not only sexualizes women’s bodies, but delegitimizes the experiences and assertiveness of young people. It constructs not only femininity, but also youth as problematic, so as to enable the power of adults.


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