Wear Pants to Church Day has come and gone. Many women did wear pants to church (most significantly, this includes women who would not have done so if not for the Pants movement) and many women did not, including otherwise supportive women. Many men wore purple ties in solidarity. By all accounts, Sunday appears to have come and gone without word of trousered women disrupting the taking of the sacrament or calling undue attention to themselves. Their quiet and dignified comportment was no surprise, not even, I think, to detractors. In fact, looking back to Sunday, many might now dismiss it as much ado about nothing after all. But there is a significance, I think, underlying this whole phenomenon, which I know has already been discussed and debated and gnashed on ad nauseum, but a significance that has been more or less overlooked. It’s not my intent here to provide an overview or some kind of a philosophical sum-up of the import of what occurred. You can find much more eloquent and incisive essays of that type than I could ever write all over the Bloggernacle. Here, if you have room for one more, I just want to analyze what I see as some curious parallels between the massively vitriolic response to the Pants movement (particularly on Facebook) and the experiences of the woman in the above video, Anita Sarkeesian.
By way of quick summary (but please watch the video, it’s excellent): Sarkeesian began an online project through Kickstarter to explore the ways that women are portrayed in video games. The project is actually a subset of her overall project exploring the ways women are portrayed in media generally. (The brief answer regarding female portrayal of women in video games and media in general is: sexist <—> misogynistic). It wasn’t long before she was bombarded by what she referred to as a “cyber mob”: boys and men (mostly men) who viciously harassed and attacked her on Twitter, Facebook, message boards, personal emails, and on all of her social media sites with everything from belittling and generally disrespectful comments to (much more commonly) outright vicious misogynistic slurs and sexually violent threats. They would then report these virulent comments on her social media as inappropriate, harmful, dangerous, etc., in an effort to have them suspended. Some of the offenders even created pornographic images in Sarkeesian’s likeness being raped, and repeatedly sent these to her.
What was perhaps most disturbing to Sarkeesian, however, was that the perpetrators openly referred to their actions as a “game.” They were the players, she was the villain. The superficial purpose was to take down the villain saying mean things about their video games, but the underlying goal, she points out, was ultimately to protect the male-dominated space of video-game playing (I should note that in a much broader sense this doesn’t work flawlessly because there is an increasingly growing number of female gamers, and in some formats female gamers dominate that platform). But as far as the male perpetrators here are concerned, they were nevertheless protecting a space perceived as exclusively male from a female who was intent on (by their lights) invading or altering that space by putting a negative element of the space under the analytic microscope.
Now, any attempt at drawing a parallel line between one phenomenon and another is going to be rough, but I couldn’t help but see some of these lines in many of the responses to the Pants movement. First, I think it should at least be considered that labeling the movement an overt social protest is weak. Like Sarkeesian’s essentially innocuous efforts to examine the portrayal of women in video games (no call to arms, no organized boycotting campaign, no provocative interviews with newspapers or letters to Congress about proposed anti-gaming legislation) the Pants movement never officially billed itself in a way that was meant to call for invasive social revolution. Others have described it in this way, both proponents and opponents, but most who advocated for it that I have seen more or less followed this line from the event page itself: “It is merely an invitation to entertain the notion of wearing pants, and to help others overcome the fear of being faced with discrimination and disapproval when they challenge the cultural norm so that all may feel welcome to worship.” That a statement was being made about unofficial cultural norms, and therefore about inequality is true. But that this statement somehow constituted a symbolic March on Temple Square and a disruption of communal ordinances didn’t hold water (for what it’s worth, in any case, I find social activism and public protest in our authoritarian church environment–as opposed to a political/cultural one–problematic, especially as a matter of utility, because, with some exceptions, it doesn’t seem to be very effective).
That being said, the overwhelmingly disproportionate response by those who saw evil and villainy in the Pants movement demonstrates, as many other bloggers have noted elsewhere, that the problem really wasn’t about the pants. Here is where I see some interesting parallels. First, Sarkeesian describes the men and boys who went after her as a “cyber-mob” and they employed many of the same tactics to take down her social media that were employed in in the Pants response: misogynistic comments, violent aspersions, flagging posts for abuse and spam, etc. We’ll likely never know, but it is very plausible that among those reporting abusive posts and comments to Facebook (and if you didn’t see any of these then you were spared a wave of filth and violence that might have made you physically ill) were the misogynistic posters themselves, in order to have the original site removed in an attempt to squelch the movement.
Nearly all of these abusive commenters were men and boys, typically on the younger side (20s). And that leads directly into the next parallel. Sarkeesian notes that her cyber mob (also comprised of young men and boys) described their abusive behavior as a “game” they were playing, complete with heroes, villains, and quests. This roughly confirms a suspicion I had concerning many of the abusive comments and posts, that a lot of the young men posting were seemingly one-upping one another for outrageous comments and behavior. Some of the posts seemed almost a caricature of abusive comments, and indeed, if they were–if some of them were not written wholly from a place of anger and resentment–that would lend credence to the idea that some of them saw what they were doing as a game, a way of pushing boundaries, competing with one another, seeing how far they could go before direct action was taken in response. But even if some of them weren’t entirely serious, the mere act of engaging in such online behavior was telling of some kind of deep-seated dissatisfaction and resentment directed at the movement.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sarkeesian observed that the men and boys attacking her were protecting a male-dominated space that she was encroaching on. In other words, she was perceived as threatening their identities both as individual men (who are not, emphatically, women) and as a community of men where male bonding could be enacted and performed in a safe, non-shameful way. This is important, I think, in a society where male nurturing and love through male-only bonds might be seen as a feminine and, relatedly, homosexual trait and therefore generally discouraged. The gaming world for these boys was just such a safe space. Sarkeesian, then, was a bringer of war, threatening to disrupt a space that was already only tenuously constructed and therefore fragile.
The maleness of pants on a woman in a sacred space might be seen as symbolic of this. Here’s where it might actually matter that was pants and not something else that was potentially visually disruptive in some way. Pants, after all, though not formally prohibited at church, are more or less formally prohibited for women in temples, at least within actual temple ceremonies like the endowment, where the only ceremonial clothes available for women are dresses (my thanks to Brad Kramer for pointing this out) and we’ve seen a lot in the discourse on this issue revealing the conflation of sacred spaces in temples and chapels (where the sacrament is passed), a conflation that has made these sacred spaces nearly interchangeable (I think this is extremely problematic–a temple is simply not a chapel on so many levels– but it was there in the discourse). But this leads me to wonder if the ultimate source of fear and insecurity centered on the principal male space in Mormonism, which is priesthood–if women start wearing pants to church as a deliberate (perceived) political protest of some kind, this could be viewed by some as a direct line to and encroachment on that male-dominated space. Wearing pants to church as a social or political statement (so-perceived) actually then makes the statement (so-perceived) that your next target in male-only space is precisely the space itself, structured by the priesthood, and therefore the defining experience of what it means to be a man in Mormonism. Consequently, men’s identities within a Mormon context were, for the most outspoken and virulent, potentially threatened.
I know that these parallels themselves point to evidence that this was a larger phenomenon and not just a Mormon one. I agree that those violent, over-the-top comments weren’t exclusively or reductively Mormon. This type of behavior obviously exists on a much wider scale generally. But I do see a Mormon angle in this from the very apparent absurdity of such a response to such a seemingly equally absurd issue like women wearing pants to church, which everyone outside of our community and not a few in it saw, as a serious issue, as laughably ridiculous . It’s not ridiculous, however, when you include possible variables that reveal the very LDS significance of of the disproportionate retaliation.
There is one quite obvious difference, however, between Sarkeesian’s experience and the Pants movement, and that difference is women. From my own perusal of the Pants site before it was taken down, comments from women outnumbered comments from men by a considerable amount. They were almost never as abusive as the blatantly violent and misogynistic male comments, but they were nevertheless sharply critical and piercing in distinctive ways, ways that probably only women criticizing other women could accomplish. I think, in fact, a case could be made that the most effective opposition to gender equality in the church, whether you think it mostly exists or mostly doesn’t exist (and in this case cultural equality specifically) are not men alone, but other women, women protecting and preserving so -called male space (the current structure of men alone holding the priesthood and women having access to priesthood only through men) from other women because of the social and spiritual advantages that such protection incurs on the protectors by virtue, especially, of their status as their wives or potential wives. For example, a married LDS woman (assuming a temple sealing) is endowed (no pun intended) with a distinctive and weighty social status compared to a single LDS woman. Other than marriage being the highest universal ideal in LDS culture and practice, your chances of being directly connected to decisions of power and administration (wives of members of the bishopric, stake presidency, mission presidency, etc) and the social status that those incur (whether trivially or not) only exists for married women. The same holds true, with some exceptions, for being able to participate in local leadership. A married woman also has easier access to temple ordinances (non-married women usually need to be called as missionaries or otherwise receive special permission to be endowed). This applies to men too, of course, but because missions and priesthood administration and practice are exercised solely by males, the act alone of being connected to a wife does not carry the same significance. In other words, female space and the female experience are structured by male space in fundamental ways, ways that are not precisely structurally mirrored the other way around. This is just the nature of Patriarchy. Thus, the preservation of the status quo, even for single LDS women who nevertheless hope to become married to a holder of the priesthood is a serious matter, and attempting to transform, even just in perception, any aspect of that male space, has serious ramifications for both men and women and their concomitant identities.
Conversely, when women become more sympathetic to the arguments for equality made by those sympathetic to feminism, such sympathy is usually generated through other women, not feminist men and their arguments. Perhaps in this way, any kind of real, substantive, on-the-ground equality is only ultimately gained through women, who, as the ones on whom the burdens of any inequality rest, are the ones that must choose to accept, reject or create equality if and when it comes, even if it is extended through men (as in a hypothetical scenario where the [male] prophet extends the priesthood to women, but they would still need to choose to accept it or reject it).
In the end, of course, silence is not what happened in Sarkeesian’s case, and it is not what happened in the case of those who supported the Pants movement. When others saw Sarkeesian being viciously attacked, they donated to her project in waves, and she raised 25 times what she initially requested to fund her project. This is precisely what occurred in the case of the Pants movement. Scores of women, who were reticent or indifferent about setting aside an actual day to wear pants to church, many because they did not like the politicization of the event, were galvanized into action by the vitriolic responses of those who opposed it.