Shaming, Public Humiliation, and Patriarchy
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
Serious question: in your opinion, which man (or woman) has publicly humiliated me the most? What was your reasoning for choosing that individual? What stories get regurgitated about why that memory stands out as the most humiliating? Would you say that the humiliation was justified? Was the person trying to punish or discipline me? Was the humiliation meant to signal a call to action for me, like, acting better, behaving, or getting in line? Were they fighting shame with shame, tit for tat, because I shamed them first? Did shaming me teach others a lesson about never messing with this person?
Did they humiliate me to make them look mighty and powerful to you? Or was it a pathetic show and a pitiful look into their own insecurities and unresolved shame? Did the humiliation work to manipulate or control me? How did I act or present differently after this public humiliation? Did this person shaming me publicly make you like them even more? Did you agree that I needed to be reduced to size and taught a lesson in humility and respect? What about the whole thing was cringe-worthy? Did it trigger memories of when you’ve been humiliated by a man? Which “gender” humiliates the most? Can humiliation and shame present differently depending on “gender”? Who shames the worst, and why do you think that is so?
I asked these questions to offer up prompts for tangible examples of some of the things at play in public humiliation and what Judith Butler calls, “performing gender.” In using myself, I’m hoping we can get a better sense of how the stickiest part about shame is all the different things it intersects with. Like, humiliation; heteronormative scripts and patterns; toxic masculinity; patriarchy; toxic internalized masculinity; self-hate; girl-hate; misogyny; misogynoir, etc.
The weaponization of shame and humiliation is far from benevolent.
Once we learn how powerful shaming is when we see how it moves others. Sometimes, against their own will. The truth is that some of us will continue to use shame and humiliation to stay on top, assert power over others, and flex our domination. In my research study, I’ve witnessed men (women, people in general) in positions of power continue to weaponize shame for personal gain, to teach lessons, send messages, and right what they perceive as, wrongs. Even I’ve gotten caught up in this mix-up myself, and weaponized shame, for research purposes, and, because shame, like power, is just that seductive.
It’s no secret that I repeat certain themes over and over. Some include how shame gets used against others to get them to 1) conform, behave better, or change, 2) as a disciplinary tool to punish people, 3) as a form of social order and control. Meaning, if I shame you publicly, a part of me knows that you will suffer in ways that I know will damage and hurt you. That’s the low-blow approach that emotionally abusive heterosexual men will typically take (over-generalizing here). Just kidding (not really), we all do this. Only, het cis men, because of the power and domination afforded to them, will use this psychological warfare in the most hurtful and damaging of ways. Patriarchy is real, and if you don't think so, you probably are benefiting from it, or completely seduced, or traumatized from it.
I just finished Netflix’s Maid, created by Molly Smith Metzler. If you pay attention to the show, it becomes clear that the protagonist Alex, played by Margaret Qualley, finds that her emotionally abusive partner, played by Nick Robinson, tries to humiliate her repeatedly in front of others to assert control over her. I can think of the scene at their daughter’s birthday party, where Sean gets Alex and their daughter Maddy kicked out of their living arrangement. He couldn't stand to see her doing better without him, and in turn, sabotages her life, humiliating her in the process. Oblivious to how disgraceful he himself looked in the whole matter.
If you’ve watched Maid, can you identify when Sean or Alex’s bipolar mom’s “Aussie” boyfriend weaponize shame against them to get them to 1) conform, behave better, or change, 2) as a disciplinary tool to punish them, 3) as a form of control to manipulate them?
We know from shame research that shame moves us maladaptively. It will make us erratic and childish. We will fight shame with shame, project, deflect, judge, blame or get petty and really aggressive. No matter how petty you think you are, those with power will always win “the most petty award” because they have the power and resources to back them up. Take Sean in Maid, or the Aussie boyfriend in the Casino scene, they both show us that pettiness is actually quite violent when there is a lot of power behind it, leaving us reeling from the consequences of power abuse.
Toxic masculinity is what I’m specifically speaking to. Most men will say they aren’t toxic or refuse to identify as abusers or see anything wrong with their ways and patterns of abuse that get handed down generation after generation. Men will really humiliate and disrespect their wives, fiancés, and girlfriends, and in maddening ways, and act like they were justified in doing so. They embarrass and shame the sh*t out of their sisters, daughters, cousins, and friends, and think it makes them look powerful. Bad boys love to use shame as their arsenal, don't let the good boys fool you either. Everybody loves using shame to their advantage. In this way, I can think of some epic public humiliations where men have absolutely demolished women in public, not only or just physically, but emotionally.
When power is often on their side, they will use whatever ammunition they have to humiliate women who have slighted them. The lower, the better, the stronger, the more dominant. Men will use shame against women to get them to behave, and all of it goes as, “totally normal,” “boys-boys,” “just how things are,” “the way it’s always been,” “don’t be so hard on the men, see all they endure.” Which turns into more violence against women and the “man-hating feminist,” “die whore,” or, "we'll kill you ourselves" comments. Seriously.
In, Virtual Reality and Black Futurity, I wrote, “Jessica Valenti introduces readers to
feminist gamer Anita Sarkeesian, a notable face of online abuse. Sarkeesian has been the victim of death and bomb threats. She was stalked and intimidated, her accounts hacked, and her, and her family’s information leaked. Men have created video games simulating her rape, reported her to the IRS and the FBI, and produced whole documentaries in an attempt to destroy her reputation and discredit her work. Sarkeesian attributes this online violence to toxic masculinities and misogyny toward women and feminists.” Men get this angry and destructive when women challenge their fragile egos. These are the lengths men will go to in order to humiliate women and prove their point. So secure, so manly, so powerful. *cue Darla batting her eyelashes, gushing over Alfafa, or was it that Richie Rich kid?*. This brings me to the complacency of women.
More times, women are so desperate to be chosen that we will take this sh*t, expect it, blame ourselves, think we did something wrong, say we deserved it. I’ve been there myself. Humiliated over and over. When men left nothing on the field, dug real low, hit below the belt, "b*itch be humble," type of humiliation. And I still stayed, was loyal, silent, and thought myself deserving of abuse and unworthy. All the yikes! in the world. Never again.
Now, I truly want none of this. I’m trying to investigate for myself why I continued to attract these men (and women) who were so comfortable publicly humiliating me. I'm thinking about all the times before when my own father or men in my community publicly humiliated my mother and other women, and I was sent the message that good wives take such emotional abuse in silence, that the woman deserved it, no matter how cruel the embarrassment was. I’m now invested in checking my own core beliefs that leave me emotionally abusive and publicly humiliating others myself. In a sense, public humiliation has transformed my life in many ways.
So not all hope is lost.
Shame is not completely useless. It can actually teach us a lot. In these circumstances, we tend to find that it takes public humiliation, sometimes, the dirtiest and lowest displays of public shaming, for women to really see their dire situation. Shame gives us a wake-up call. That, “woooow, you really gon play me like that, huh, okay, I see you,” fall to your knees type moment.
That’s exactly what the literature says about shame. That it raises our consciousness. It teaches us a lot about life lessons, and ourselves. In shame, we are brought to self-reflection needed to take a deeper look at circumstances we might have wanted to avoid. Shame sweeps us out of denial. It’s so painful that it nags at us. The very thought that others now see us on display in our shame is enough to wake us up to the truth of the matter. In being publicly humiliated by men we loved, some of us arrive, fed up. “We’re not gonna take it,” becomes our rallying cry. Some of us leave, and others may choose to stay, more knowledgeable and aware of how shame and humiliation can be used against them, especially by those who claim to love them.
All to say, when we allow it, shame can teach us so much. It is loaded with so much data. Information that can literally, transform our whole lives. We’ve just got to sit with it long enough, and not chase it away. Stop making an enemy out of shame and it just might show you who the real enemy in your life is.
For those of you like myself, who find that we have publicly humiliated ourselves pretty badly too, maybe I’ll do a post to talk about shame and self-sabotage in the near future. It’s a topic that’s dear to my heart. Also, no one humiliates us worse than the empires that be. That's where the most insidious forms of patriarchy meet extreme power and arrogance. The state and its officials will use the most powerful of men (and women) to really send a powerful message. Humiliation top-down knows no bounds. But that's another blog post too.
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Until next time, in solidarity.