Men, women and nature; a hierarchy

One of the ideas that came up when I was looking at the line between humans and animals was the idea that there is a hierarchy, with men at the top, followed by women, then nature.  So as a woman, I am ‘better’ than an animal, but I can’t begin to think I am as ‘good’ as a man.  Living in a patriarchal society as a well informed feminist, this wasn’t a new idea but it got me thinking.

Women have long been ‘lumped in’ with nature, with animals and this has affected how women have been treated.  It has also affected men.  With women being seen as other, and by default lesser, than man, men then must separate themselves from the devalued femininity.  They must act manly to preserve the distinction between male and female and to preserve their status.

There are a number of ways in which animals and women have lived parallel lives.  Animals have been portrayed as being limited by their biology, being driven by instinct alone, and so have women – we are depicted, for example, as being a slave to our hormones.  Science has historically had little respect for women, just like for animals.

And talking of science, studies of animals and their society have been, and still are, used to reinforce ideas around humans including our beliefs about gender and sexual orientation.  Animal studies incorporate and reinforce our beliefs about masculinity and femininity.

We can see this play out when we look at the theory of evolution.  We often see survival of the fittest portrayed as a competitive display of strength and power, individuals pitted against each other in a show down, a somewhat masculine image.  This is also despite the numerous examples of mutuality within nature.

Another concept around evolution is that of sexual selection.  This is almost exclusively talked about as being one sex (male) competing against others for the limited reproductive resources of the other (female) and thus:

“the language of evolutionary theory, then, has helped to construct images of gendered animals, the prototypes of gendered people.”
– Lynda Birke

Whilst we’re looking at evolution, we should also note that the iconic image of ape turning into man, suggests a “linear progression towards the apex” (Birke) and reinforces the idea of humans are at the top of a scale.  This, and other ways of talking about and illustrating evolution, conflates placement in time with judgement of worth.  Stopping and thinking about it, you realise how paradoxical it is – we are the new kids on the block and for some reason we think we should automatically be neighbourhood king.

Western thinking tends to see nature (and women) as something to be dominated, to be conquered and this has consequences for how we treat nature (and women).

“Western imperialism and global exploitation assumes that it can appropriate nature’s resources without significant consequence; those resources may be other peoples, or they may be directly affected by western destruction of their local environment.”
– Birke

In addition to colonising the world, we see this played out in the male conquest of the wilderness; hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and of course hunting.  Hunting feels like it may be the ultimate act of subduing nature and hence a badge of masculinity with the furs and taxidermy used as status symbols.  And if hunting is a way of showing how well you can dominate, to then eat the animals you’ve killed, is even better.  Eating is loaded with symbolism; ‘real men’ eat meat, vegetarianism is effeminate and so on.  Even our pets can have something to say about our gender; owning a rottweiler is a sign of masculinity whereas a poodle is a sign of femininity.

The language we use to describe or denigrate women – chick, pussy, bitch etc – all reinforce the idea of women as part of the ‘non human animal’ group, separated from men.  They reinforce the difference between men and women and are used to reinforce gender stereotypes which in turn reinforces the hierarchy.  And just as some men react by rejecting any suggestion of femininity, some women reject the suggestion of animality.

There are some reasons why women may want to separate themselves from animals, a major one being that all the time we are seen as animalistic, we can be treated as animals, which at this point in history opens us up to abuse and suffering.  In the late 19th century, women became concerned about the treatment of animals because they feared that the fate of animals could easily become the fate of women.  Being grouped with animals may feel, to some people, like they are being denied their humanity.  Thinking of women as animals is certainly it is a form of objectification which is inherent with all kinds of issues…

In separating women from animals, there is the possibility, the hope, of aligning ourselves next to men and thus claiming a place at the top of the hierarchy.  But is this the end goal we really want to head towards?

“Animals in western culture are ‘other’, objects of scientific enquiry.  We have defined ourselves in opposition to a generality of ‘animals’, irrespective of the qualities of individual species.  It seems paradoxical that at a time when much feminist theory is moving beyond simple dualism of gender (outing great emphasis on differences between women, say) it should do so by implicitly building its analyses on another simple dichotomy – humans verses ‘other animals’.  A more consistent approach, indeed, might be to extend the emphases on plurality and difference, and to begin to deconstruct the (punitive) boundary between us and other species.”
– Birke

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