Problematic Patriarchy in Jackson Katz’s ‘Violence and Silence’ TED Talk

Written by Rachel Redfern

Jackson Katz’s incredibly popular TEDxFiDiWomen talk has a lot of people excited and I understand why. He’s engaging and passionate about his incredible support for feminism and minorities and that’s an amazingly positive thing. However, upon review of his solutions to the great problems of patriarchy in the United States, there are actually some very problematic ideals that he’s promoting.

The first ten minutes of Katz’s talk is filled with effusive praise for feminism and what it’s accomplished. Past that though, during the last 10 minutes of his talk he says that he wants to change people from the level of leadership. He suggests that we work within the existing framework to change patriarchy by teaching patriarchs (CEOs, coaches and other leaders) to stick up for women.

Say hello to corporate feminism.

This corporate feminism is basically the patriarchy co-opting feminism and using it, not only as a way to make money for their leadership seminars, but also as a way to continue to promote the status quo of women being taken care of by their male leaders in jobs that are notoriously difficult for women to get. Within Katz’s idea, women are still held apart from the leadership positions that could help to make the changes that directly affect them.

What ‘leadership’ should look like. I suppose.

Worse than that, those leadership seminars continue to promote ideas of hierarchy and authority. What do these expensive leadership courses say to their students? “Someone has to be in charge.” “Life is like a boat; there has to be a captain, otherwise it would be chaos.” “People need to listen to you because you’re in charge.” “Take control of a situation.” Hierarchy, hierarchy, hierarchy. Move within the system: Maintain, maintain, maintain.

Katz believes that these leaders of men should be held accountable for the disparaging and inappropriate things that they say. I agree; of course men in powerful positions should be held accountable for their actions and for the things that they say. I hope that media, bloggers, and viewers will continue to go further in demanding such levels of accountability from those around us. And then comes the sales pitch: “We need more leadership training.” Guess what Jackson Katz does for a living? Leadership training. He wants to teach men in power to stand up for women. Are we, as a culture, saying we live in a world where in order to attain a level of common human decency men have to participate in weeklong, over-priced corporate leadership training programs?

Are we so naïve that we believe adult men don’t already know that they should be nice to women? These men (the ones in those amazing and out-of-reach-for-thousands-of-qualified-women leadership positions), are most likely men of education and world experience, and they know that disrespecting women is inappropriate. It’s like telling a group of college kids to not answer their phone during a lecture. Everyone knows you shouldn’t answer your phone during a lecture and we shouldn’t even give the idea credence by positioning it as an option of ignorance. They know better and cries of, “my leadership training program didn’t teach me not to say sexist, disrespectful things about the other half of the population” just isn’t a good excuse and we shouldn’t allow it to become one.

If people say sexist, racist, homophobic, and other offensive remarks, more conveniently placed “corporate feminism” isn’t going to save the day. The day is going to be saved when good people speak out (yes, even those who don’t get to become NBA coaches) using a strong sense of justice and morality without relying on leadership training to do so.

Katz states (timestamp 16:37) that it is “institutional authority” which will save us all. In a larger sense, perhaps it will, as in the case of policemen who arrest perpetrators of domestic abuse, and violence and the justice system which tries and judges them. However, propagating “institutional authority” and its intense vestiges of patriarchy and hierarchy are the problem. We can no longer be happy with the meager scraps of freedom that these ideologies continue to throw at us; we need to be more assertive, more demanding of our rights and the need for respect for others and ourselves. Don’t worry; I’m not calling for torches and pitchforks to storm the castle, but I am saying that we shouldn’t rely on the overblown theories of benevolent authority and patriarchy.

Demotivator® genius. Demotivator® truth?

This leadership training is a minor subversion that ultimately still reinforces the establishment of control that is already in place.

I’ll be honest. I resent the notion that I have to rely on the good will of university presidents, coaches and CEOs to lead the way in my own beliefs of right and wrong. I don’t need their leadership though; rather, I need them stop doing bad things and getting away with it. I’m freely capable of knowing good from evil, offensive and inoffensive, without Joe Paterno’s expertise, thank you very much. This idea puts down everyday, good people and robs them of the ability to make powerful changes, by placing that ability on the shoulders of other, more distant folks.

Now, on a few things I do agree with Katz: these issues affect everyone and they should not be designated solely as women’s issues or men’s; rather they are overwhelmingly society’s issues, humanity’s issues, human rights issues. And I believe that there are wonderful men and women out there desperately trying to fix these problems; even Katz’s sincerity and excited approach is necessary. But continuing to perpetuate the systems that are doing the damage by reinforcing so many structures of control and hierarchy is not the way to fundamentally change all the problems inherent within those systems.

Katz closes with this statement: “We need more men with the guts, with the courage, with the strength, with the moral integrity to break our implicit silence and challenge each other and stand with women, not against them.” I would posit that we should change that “men” into “people” and say that just as much as we need people with the courage to speak out, we also need people with the courage to tear down and rebuild the systems of privilege and hierarchy, not reinforce them.

What do you think? Is the Katz talk a brilliant harbinger of change and feminism? Or relying too much on patriarchal authority?

Rachel Redfern has an MA in English literature, where she conducted research on modern American literature and film and its intersection, however she spends most of her time watching HBO shows, traveling, and blogging and reading about feminism.