Trump and Gender Domination

The social workings of domination and denial of dependency.

Posted Feb 14, 2018

Wikimedia/used with permission
Source: Wikimedia/used with permission

The election of Trump has catalyzed new cultural awareness around women’s rights. The Women’s Marches and Me Too movement amplify women’s experiences of oppression and spotlight gender domination as a social problem.

Domination is a problem of human relationships written about insightfully by feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin. A situation of social dominance between two people annihilates the existence of one person. The dominant person negates the separate reality of the other; He exists in a narcissistic bubble. As Benjamin describes it, the person in the dominant role is “unable to make ‘live’ contact with an outside reality, to experience the other person’s subjectivity.”

In Trump’s offhand comments about grabbing women’s genitals, subjugation takes the form of violating the female body, transgressing a woman’s physical boundaries. We see an intensification of this abusive dynamic in last week’s news of domestic violence perpetrated by former White House Secretary Rob Porter and in photos of his ex-wife Colbie Holderness displaying the marks he has left on her body. Ruth Parcus, a Washington Post editor, characterizes Trump administration’s as a “singularly morally bankrupt strain of tribalism,” one I suggest is based on gender domination in response to male anxiety. 

Despite increased flexibility of sex roles and new possibilities of gender expression, or perhaps as a repressive wave in response to this, domination still often occurs as an expression of discrimination against women by men.  How do dominance and submission come to be associated with masculinity and femininity?

Benjamin claims domination represents intense male anxiety and defensiveness originally experienced in relation to the mother.  She explains it this way, from a developmental viewpoint. Women have historically been the primary caregivers and a small boy at some point realizes his body, his sex, is different and his experience of being different from her is absolute. The thought goes something like this:  She is nothing like me. She is totally other. This snares the psychological process of separation. This is a false separation. In Benjamin’s description, differentiation from the mother is experienced as a need for total negation of her. And all dependency is denied.

The denial of dependency is a basic characteristic of domination. Reliance on another is perceived as a form of surrender, a threat to autonomy and an intolerable compromise of the self.  It incites feelings of anxiety and chaos. Benjamin concludes, “Since the subject cannot accept his dependency on someone he cannot control, the solution is to subjugate and enslave the other.” In other words, the need for the other is transformed into the domination of her. It is impossible to experience self-assertion in relation to another without dominating the other. I need to dominate and control you in order to feel a sense of my own power.  

On a cultural level, denial of dependency is a particularly American trait, an attitude permeating our social, economic and political institutions. Our culture prides itself on individualism and self-reliance. We are founded on The Declaration of Independence. Denial of dependency is prevalent throughout American leadership styles and typically expresses macho, authoritarian, and war mongering attitudes.  This form of governance is equated with an old model of masculinity. 

Depth journalist Pythia Peay discusses how this kind of “dinosaur leader” confounds negotiation, cross-cultural respect and often performs unilaterally in the international arena, a lone cowboy within NATO shooting from the hip. She emphasizes the limits of this kind of “hard power” that charges at problems, prioritizes action over self-reflection and denies vulnerability.  “The presidency has not caught up with the rest of culture” and our evolving norms of masculinity, Peay says, and she goes on to explore leadership styles that engage the emotions of our electorate on a more mature level.

The Women’s Marches of 2017-18 struggle to convert social relations of dominance and submission into ones of "mutual recognition," where women and men meet in an egalitarian and reciprocal way. This is a model of social relations that requires psychic “contact with the other.”  I see you exist as your own autonomous, active, speaking, desiring subject.  There is likeness and difference between us. You overlap with my world, yet you also exist separate from it. 

In this kind of relationship, the situation is transformed from that of one person regulating another to two people recognizing each other.  Recognition hears and valorizes the feelings, intentions and actions of the other. The key is to be able to assert oneself while also recognizing the other with care and concern.  

The "grab back" meme expresses women's rage in response to Trump's denigration of women. I am reminded of when the White House requested a Van Gogh from the Guggenheim and the museum gave a 18-karat gold toilet instead: “America” by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan.  

Wikipedia/used with permission
Cattelan's satirical sculpture “America” (2016)
Source: Wikipedia/used with permission

The gold toilet might have been more gender specific, a gold urinal in gesture of this genital grab back at patriarchy. How does that feel between your legs, Mr. Trump? When you have Starry Night, they let you do it. You can do anything.  

Despite the temptation, Benjamin suggests we avoid this kind of role reversal, which perpetuates a polarity of dominance and submission with only the positions switched. She urges we address the dualistic structure, itself, what she calls the structure of gender polarity, which underlies dualisms such as male/female, subject/object and autonomy/dependency.  

The hardening of opposition between male and female subjectivity usually corresponds to the idealization of the masculine and devaluation of the feminine. This kind of either/or system of values prevents mutual recognition in society as a whole.  In Benjamin's words the task is "to transcend the opposition of the two spheres by formulating a less polarized relationship between them." Masculine and feminine exist along a continuum rather than as absolute determinants. We must recognize their infinite and idiosyncratic variations within all of us.

References

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, & the Problem of Domination. NY: Random House, 1988.