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June 4, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 2 Faves: 0

Gender Power Play: The Lifeboat

By Goldilocks More Blogs by This Author

The Scenario: 

You’re on a sinking ship in the middle of the ocean.  Everyone around you is running and screaming and you can’t seem to think straight because you never expected this to happen.  Of course you didn’t, how could you?  You wander, dazed, over to the lifeboats.  The crew is loading people on steadily – their eyes are wide with fear as they funnel people towards what might be their salvation – those tiny little boats that swing back and forth, dangling precariously over the inky black waves.  You watch them load the boats and realize that only women and children are being allowed on. 

And how does this make you feel? 

Confused, dazed, scared?  Angry?

Regardless of your gender? 

This whole concept of men sacrificing themselves for the sake of women is a concept known as the “disposable male” and it is a fairly widespread idea that seems to contain some elements of truth.  It makes sense right?  The expectation of men to move out of the way for women makes them less valuable, less important.  Sound logical?  This whole notion – aren’t we all nodding our heads in agreement right now?  Thinking “why yes, we do expect men to die for women, that must mean that we value women more than men” is natural in this scenario.  It’s expected.  But then, if women have it so much better than men, how is it feminism came about?  If women are treated as more important, why all this uproar over rights for women? 

What's wrong with the picture

The whole notion of male disposability is absurd.  Just because we as a culture expect men to go to battle or give up their seat on the lifeboat does not mean we value them less.  We have a pervading sense of hero-worship built into our society that permeates almost everything we do.  To die in battle is glorious.  To give up your life to save a helpless innocent?  Angelic.  Women, on the other hand, by taking that seat on the life boat are shown to be weak and petty because they did not give their lives for the greater good.  We look at the men in this story and think “aren’t they getting the raw end of the deal here?” but did we ever stop to look at how this story portrays the women?  Typical, don’t you think?  To ignore the women?  But that’s another problem entirely. 

The men are portrayed as noble – their fates sealed in the icy depths – but they will go down with their head held high knowing that back home their friends and family will shower their memory with praise and heroism.  The women on the other hand are forced to take a seat on a lifeboat – they didn’t really have much of a say did they?  They sit there, huddled together, not thinking about the philanthropic acts of the gentlemen but rather on the difficult future before them.  But that only makes the women seem thoughtless – even cold-hearted.  Taking that spot without a single proper tear shed for that noble gesture that placed them on that wretched lifeboat.  But no one ever asked if they would have done the same as the men.  No one ever considered if they wanted to be there or not.  The men are the heroes of this story – the women merely fill their traditional role: damsel in distress. 

But seriously?  Who has to make that choice now?  Why are we even using the life boat analogy?  It’s a sad, overly simplistic, Victorian attempt at explaining a very complex issue concerning authority, privilege, and choice.  Things women were not granted until recent decades and in many aspects still have to fight for.  The first feminist movement centered on basic rights that we now take for granted like owning property, the ability to sue for divorce, or the most significant – the right to vote.  The burden of living is placed squarely on the women but they get no stories told about their endurance and strength while the men go down in history. 

Sinking to the bottom line

The whole act of dying, especially in such situations as these, is not what makes you disposable.  The idea these stories embed in our skulls, is not that woman are better, but rather that women are weak and need to be saved.  That they cannot make the sacrifice – that they are not brave, strong, compassionate – any adjective you want – enough to say no and stay on that sinking ship.  The lesson learned here are that the men are good, strong men.  And the women – whom you don’t give a second thought to because you objectify them by placing them on that boat as some sort of treasure you don’t wish to sink to the bottom of the ocean and let’s face it… gold just doesn’t think for itself, prove themselves in need of a good strong man to save them. 

Male disposability is a little discussed male rights issue for the simple fact that it doesn’t exist.  Think about that story of the life boat again, think about whom is the focus of the ordeal.  Is it really the woman on the boat?  She has no voice, no say.  The man is the center of that story.  You don’t need to know if she expects that seat to be there – she is told by the man to take it while he dons the mantle of hero and sacrifices himself.  How is that “disposable?”  It elevates his choice over hers. 

Dying does not make someone disposable.  Especially in our society where we value the sacrifice of life and have a rather morbid fascination with suicide.  Rather, by dying, the man elevates his life over hers by saying “I am the one in charge – I decide who lives and who dies."

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  • Wow, I love this perspective! Great insight. Big into feminism myself, it's good to see a post like this.

  • haha thanks, i can be very articulate when i rant. This one is rather inspired because i like to look at the negative space in stories. Who's not talking is just as important as who is talking. :)

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