Contesting Essentialist Theories of Patriarchal Relations: Evolutionary Psychology and the Denial of History

By Crane-Seeber, Jesse; Crane, Betsy | The Journal of Men's Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Contesting Essentialist Theories of Patriarchal Relations: Evolutionary Psychology and the Denial of History


Crane-Seeber, Jesse, Crane, Betsy, The Journal of Men's Studies


Why do empowered females often choose to date, have sex with, and marry jerks, males whose performance of traditional masculinity brings them positive attention from other powerful males, but who often treat females and 'weaker' males poorly? Despite research revealing that women do like dating nice men (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003), practitioners of evolutionary psychology have strongly argued for the genetic and evolutionary basis for dominant-male attractiveness to females (Delton, Robertson, & Kenrick, 2006; Ellis & Symons, 1990). One early sociobiologist summarizes the conclusions of evolutionary theory as, "Nice guys finish last" (Ghiselin, 1974). As part of a 15-year-long, mother-son dialogue on this question, we examined the literature on gender from the earliest human societies until the dawn of patriarchy to understand why women are desired because of how their bodies look while men are valued for their social status, power, and aggressiveness, and why women choose such men.

This essay revisits myths about the origin of patriarchy, arguing that they play a role in the social-historical constructions of sexuality and relationships that they ostensibly explain. We argue that legitimating myths are part and parcel of the reproduction of patriarchal relationship patterns, characterized by male domination accepted by males and females, repression of the feminine and homosexuality, as well as the disciplining of masculinity. As McCaughey (2008) recently argued, a "caveman mystique" based on evolutionary theory permeates popular culture, granting privileged epistemic status to "scientific" discourse such that men experience their sexuality as "acultural, primal" (p. 3). Highlighting the ways that humans produce identities through performative interaction, we offer an alternative narrative that can produce more dynamic ways of relating. Our perspective entails the rejection of an essential self that precedes action, we instead interpret identity as something we do through habit and repetition, producing our sense of ourselves in recognizable way (Butler, 1988).

Central to our discussion is the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the "configuration of gender practice, which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of the patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women" (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 77). Historical and evolutionary explanations of male dominance act to legitimate these disciplinary practices that shape gendered expectations of heteronormative identities and relationships. In our analysis, patriarchy shifts from being something men do to women and becomes a shared logic that we all respond to. Considering what gender relations could look like outside of a male-supremacist model of social power, we offer a historically contingent view of how patriarchal relations developed.

Critically important stories of our how ancestors once lived have long been minimized or erased. Traces of other ways of relating are easily trivialized, like indigenous communities today that struggle to protect cooperative economies from governmental and corporate ambitions. The prevailing story told to children at home and at school is that men have always been dominant, implying that current social relations are the result of survival of the fittest. Not surprisingly, this his-story, whether based on ancient religious texts or Victorian interpretations of archaeological findings, was crafted by elite male authors raised in cultural systems that naturalized an emotionally distant approach to knowledge and society (Seidler, 1994). History is recorded from the perspective of the conquerors and their decedents, for nearly 10,000 years, the power to narrate history has been exercised by those who identify with and legitimate male-supremacy.

It is not true however, that all males have been winners in these historical struggles.

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