Monday Feminist Lost Blogging: On Being “A Good Man”

April 14, 2008 at 11:18 am (feminism, sexism) ()

Okay, so Lost is very easily the most egregiously sexist* work I’ve ever enjoyed. Ever. There’s no use trying to dissect the incredible level of gender-stereotyping that goes on on that show — there’s just too damn much of it. If I spent time doing that, I wouldn’t have any left to wonder about the meaning of the numbers, or what happened to the Dharma Initiative, or who the Others really are. I wouldn’t have any time to think about how “Adam and Eve” could plausibly be Amelia Earhart and her navigator, or to work on writing Lost songs with Emily, or to work with Emily on creating unlikely but hot pairings of characters.

But one thing that’s jumped out at me, lately. I don’t think a single episode goes by without a mention of someone being “a good man.” As in: “You’re a good man!”

“He was a good man!”

“I know you’re really a good man!”

Etc., etc.

The reason this has me thinking. “Good man” is a phrase with meaning, and it’s a good and powerful meaning, too. It means that, on a fundamental level, the man in question is moral, upstanding, and brave. It means that he wouldn’t hurt other people, that he would instead protect them. Right?

But never in all the gendered compliments on Lost has someone been called “a good woman.” Because that phrase is meaningless, or its meaning is so disturbingly sexist one cannot use it, not even on ABC.

What would it mean to call someone “a good woman”? To tearfully proclaim, “I love you because you’re a good woman”?

I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean principled or courageous.

For this reason, I will never call someone “a good man.” When I want to say that someone is fundamentally kind, strong, righteous, noble, ethical, etc., I will use one of those adjectives, or call her, simply, “a good person” — “a good human being.” There’s nothing in the Y chromosome that brings bravery, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t hold all adults up to the same standard of risking oneself to protect others.

* And racist. And heterosexist. And…

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10 Comments

  1. katkmeanders said,

    I tend to use “gentleman” and “gentlewoman” or “genteel” to mean pricipled/courageous/person with integrity/well mannered person all at once, and more. It means the same for a woman as it means for a man when I use the term. *smile*

  2. Daisy said,

    That’s certainly a good way to navigate it, kat. And welcome back! It’s been awhile. : )

  3. sam said,

    “Because that phrase is meaningless, or its meaning is so disturbingly sexist one cannot use it, not even on ABC.”

    Hmm, why is that? I’m not an English native speaker, but I wouldn’t have any problems calling a good woman a good woman, although I think, as a compliment, I’d use “wonderful” instead of “good” when I’d want to communicate the things you see embodied in “good man.” But there’s no problem in saying “wonderful man” either, or is there?

  4. Daisy said,

    Hmm, why is that?

    I think it’s because the phrase “good man” means just that — good man, not person. Culturally, there’s an expectation that each male will “Be A Man,” and Being A Man is a kind of achievement, something to be proud of. Manliness is considered good. “Being A Woman,” on the other hand, is an idea that is either meaningless (no qualities attached to it) or offensive (attached to submission); womanliness is a trait that is both ill-defined and considered undesirable.

  5. sam said,

    Hmm, well, I think it means “good (male) person”. Having the qualities you describe is some kind of achievement in some circumstances, and being responsible, protecting other people, is something to be proud of. I would consider that a good thing. I don’t think those are particularly male or female qualities, though, which is why I suppose I’d have no problem calling a woman who is “on a fundamental level, … moral, upstanding, and brave. [who] wouldn’t hurt other people, [who] would instead protect them” a “good woman/great woman.”

  6. leta said,

    It can also mean that by default women are judged to be good where as in men goodness is something that has to be earned.

  7. Daisy said,

    Sam, they’re certainly not male or female qualities. That’s exactly what I’m complaining about.

    Leta — yes, that’s an another way to look at it. Either way, the underlying discrepancy — that men and women are judged differently and have to meet different expectations — remains.

  8. Sidewriter said,

    This is something I never thought of before, but you nailed it.

    “Man” can refer specifically to what our society expects men to be (qualities you’ve named already and which are desirable), but it can also be used as the default, and therefore be interchangeable with “person.” So “good man” is a compliment either because so-called manly qualities are desirable, or because it refers to qualities that are considered desirable for all genders.

    “Woman” refers specifically to what our society expects women to be (nurturing, passive, supportive, never angry…) These qualities are typically framed as undesirable in everyone else, and women who don’t have those qualities are themselves undesirable (certainly not “good women.”) “Woman” is not used as a default for “person” though, so there is no second meaning that refers to qualities that would be good in any gender. So the phrase “good woman” ends up being quite insulting because it’s the same as saying “you’re really good at doing what you’re told.” or “you’re really good at something I would never want to be.”

    Hmm, this is a hard one to articulate, but I think my point is there.

  9. Tom Head said,

    Hmmm. When I hear “good man,” I almost think of the Yiddish word mensch. (You’re a Mensch, Charlie Brown? I can actually see that.) “Good man” is stronger than “good person” to my ears, and that fact bugs me; “good person” sounds to the absence of sins of commission, to speak (“You’re a good person; you don’t tear the wings off flies”), while “good man” affirms masculine virtue (“You’re a good man; you saved my life”). “Good woman” refers to Proverbs 31 and/or a homemaker and/or… Nobody would say “You’re a good woman; you rescued my unconscious body from a pack of wolves.”

    We will do better as a culture, I think, when folks can call a woman a “good man” or a mensch when it fits. Women do have masculine virtues; men do have feminine virtues; most people are smart enough to realize that, but our language is still too dumb for it.

    Alternately, our entire system of masculine virtue might fall apart if we can ever get past the rhetoric of violence and fear–if we can think of crime as a social disease rather than a military metaphor, and if we can cut down on or eliminate entirely the violent warfare that currently shapes our world. We might not need “good men” when there are, with apologies to Betty Friedan, no more bears to kill.

  10. Daisy said,

    Sidewriter: yes, your point is certainly there, and it’s a good one. : )

    Tom:

    “Good man” is stronger than “good person” to my ears, and that fact bugs me

    Yes, definitely. Me too. And:

    Nobody would say “You’re a good woman; you rescued my unconscious body from a pack of wolves.”

    Exactly. Right on to the rest of your comment, too.

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