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The Cloak of Goodness: Patriarchal Weapon Against Women

April 20, 2010

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I want to talk about the concept of “goodness” for a minute.

In the United States, we have a problem with goodness.  We have a problem with assigning the quality of “goodness” to ourselves and others, then allowing that assignation to overrule mountains of evidence to the contrary.  And as feminists, we need to start examining this problem.  It’s going to hurt us long before it hurts anyone else.  Because “goodness,” just like so many other things, is patriarchally defined.

Take, for example, the popular feminist deconstruction of the Nice Guy, or my related discussion of the Myth of the Decent Guy.  The Nice Guy is someone who self-identifies as “nice” based on a set of specific behaviors – his politeness and “love of women,” his willingness to lavish a girlfriend with attention, his sense that his girlfriend is not just his equal, but his better.  He is always surprised when he can’t keep a girlfriend because he’s “nice” (by his own definition) and therefore think he ought to be exactly what women want.  In the hands of a feminist, however, the Nice Guy receives a different interpretation: he’s not “nice” at all, but selfish.  All of his “nice” actions are attached to selfish intent (his determination that he “deserves a girl,” his drive to get laid).  And, as SweetMachine at Shapely Prose points out, the Nice Guy often ends up “blaming on feminism what is really the fault of sexism, thus imagining himself the True Victim of both.”  So when he doesn’t get the women he so desires, he blames the women themselves, and the groups that protect their interest – thus making him NOT A FRIEND TO WOMEN, despite his self-proclamation of “niceness.”

The important thing to note here is that the guy’s definition of “nice” and the feminist definition are inherently different.  And yet, because the guy’s definition is based in a patriarchal standard – one that is accepted by much of mainstream society – he is able to hide the worst of his actions behind the Cloak of Goodness (or Niceness).  He gets to self-proclaim his virtue from the tops of mountains, while the women who shun him are bullied and harassed for their refusal to buy into his definition.  But the arena of the Nice Guy is not the only space where this problem occurs – and it’s not the only space where the problem is harmful to women.

Not too long ago, I was listening to the Ask LadyBrain podcast – a (usually) light-hearted advice show starring two very candid straight married ladies of the Sex-In-the-City ilk.   While I don’t always agree with what the ladies have to say, they can occasionally provide me with a laugh or two on my way to work.  But on a recent podcast, when discussing domestic abuse charges being brought against Charlie Sheen (for, among other things, holding a knife to his wife’s neck), one of the ladies said that she used to work for “Charlie” and that he really is a “nice guy.”

Excuse me???? A man against whom there have been repeated domestic violence charges (from more than one wife) is a “nice guy?”  In what way?  In the sense that, although he held a knife to his wife’s neck, he refrained from killing her?  In the sense that he stars in a sitcom that is widely regarded as misogynistic horseshit?  In what exact way is Charlie Sheen a “nice” guy?

Because the woman on the podcast knew him, and because he had apparently been kind to her, she felt a need to qualify his behavior with a Cloak of Goodness.  She waved the magic wand – the word “nice”, the word “good,” – and made his obviously horrifying actions just disappear.

This sort of thing happens all the time in the public sphere.  On his weekly podcast and his blog at The Stranger, Dan Savage has instituted a feature called “Youth Pastor Watch,” in which he keeps an eye out for youth pastors committing crimes against the teens and children who are their charges.  There is no end of material for the feature.  And yet many of the men who commit these crimes are only incarcerated after a string of repeat offenses.  Why?  Because in our culture, pastor = good.  Religious men are given the benefit of the doubt because of the Cloak of Goodness.  They are presumed “good” even after they are proven otherwise.  The same is true for the priests involved in the Catholic Church’s ongoing sexual abuse scandal.  Rather than being immediately fired and tried for their crimes, priests accused of sexual abuse are merely moved to a different parish, in the hopes that they will one day somehow recover from their misdeeds.  They are “good” men, and so they are given another chance.  Even though large portions of the public clamor to see men like this behind bars, paying for their crimes, there are still plenty of people hesitant to see their actions for what they are because of the Cloak of Goodness.

It works in the private sphere too.  About six months ago I broke up with a boyfriend who was not at all a nice person.  He did countless things that are basically unforgivable, things that would fall under most domestic violence definitions of emotional (and occasionally physical) abuse.  And yet I overlooked many, many of the things he did for over two years.  I overlooked them because, when we began dating, I was certain he was a “good” guy.  He was an RN.  He was close to his family.  He was good with children.  He was kind (seemingly) and understanding when I told him about the sexual assault I had undergone a mere five months before we met.  And so, when the “good guy” facade slowly began to wither away, I kept on forgiving him, overlooking atrocious behavior because of a label that I myself had assigned based on a string of arbitrary information – information that had nothing to do with how he treated me, personally.

Or take the incredibly interesting case of Amanda Palmer.  Feminists have been letting Palmer have it as of late for her ableism and her “ironic” racism.  Palmer has said some things that are, frankly, inexcusable.   However, when Sparkymonster covered a particularly offensive Palmer Tweet over at her blog, oodles of folks jumped into the comments in support of the former Dresden Doll.  The interesting thing about this particular case, though, is that there was absolutely nothing in their defenses about Palmer herself.  They never made any claims that she is a “good” guy.  They didn’t grant her the Cloak of Goodness received by all the people in my discussions above.  Instead, they pointed out that Palmer is engaged to author Neil Gaiman.  Gaiman is an admired and respected writer.  Admired and respected writers must be “good,” thereby anyone they love must also be “good.”  The cloak in this case doesn’t belong to Palmer herself.  Were she detached from the beloved novelist, she’d likely be thrown to the wolves.  But in this case she gets to share his cloak.  Her actions are excused because of her fiance’s presumed goodness.

The situation with Palmer is also evidence that the Cloak is MUCH harder for women to obtain than men.  And if they do obtain it, it is by being a woman that the patriarchy can really approve of.  Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol have the Cloak.  They are forgiven for countless hypocrisies because they are “good” women according to the patriarchal definition of the term.  Hillary Clinton would never be given the same allowances that are granted to Palin every time she opens her mouth.  Because Clinton falls outside the patriarchal definition of a “woman.”  She therefore has no chance of ever being identified as “good,” no matter how many great works she does.*

The Cloak of Goodness is also part of rape culture.  Because rape is such a loaded term, it is often viewed as something committed by only the most hardened of villains.  So when a defense attorney stands before a courtroom and attempts to prove that his client is a “good” or “decent” man, the implication is that his actions could not possibly be classified as “rape.”  Because “rape” is something for evil people only.  A good man would not commit rape.  My client is a good man.  therefore, he did not commit rape.  No matter what his accusers say he did!  (The defense attorney also gets bonus points if he can prove the opposite about the victim – that she was “bad,” a slut, a naughty girl, someone with bad grades who cut school and liked to party.  Someone who wore short skirts.)

I realize that as kids we’re fed a steady diet of Good vs. Evil.  And things don’t get much better once we’re older.  But as feminists, it’s our duty to recognize the danger of dichotomies.  It’s up to us to prove that the Cloak of Goodness is insufficient – that wrong actions are wrong no matter who commits them.  Rape is wrong.  Abuse is wrong.  And no one should be able to stand behind their self-proclaimed “goodness” in order to hide from their own actions.

So from now on, I’m on watch.  I’ll be bringing you instances of the Cloak of Goodness as often as I encounter them.  We need to start calling to account for what they’ve done.  No matter how “good” we might think they are otherwise.

*Stay tuned for more discussion of how much harder it is for a woman in general to be identified as “good” than a man.  The standards of behavior are so vastly different for the genders that a woman is expected to be nearly perfect naturally, at all times.  Anything short of perfection leaves her classified as “bad” – much like the maligned women in hundreds of rape cases.  Men, on the other hand, are largely expected to be boors, to be badly behaved ogres.  For them, a little bit of politness and self-control is the only key necessary for unlocking the door to Goodness.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. #kiwifingers permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:39 am

    cloak of goodness, i think i mite make one soon. a good cloak and a bad cloak, just to show how ridiculous the “good” and “bad” thing is.

  2. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    April 20, 2010 10:27 am

    I think this is really interesting, especially given some of our prior discussions of privilege, complicity and guilt. I notice that, when trying to teach white students about white privilege and covert or unconscious racism, there’s a lot of Cloak of Goodness stuff bandied about: “But I’m a Good Person, how could I be *racist*?” And in general, people are so accustomed to breaking the world down into Good People and Evil People that it actually results in a significant difficulty in recognizing themselves (or others they care about) as *doing* stuff that is in fact Very Bad. Like, in the face of evidence to the contrary, we/they will suggest that things must not be what they appear, since this would contradict their settled view of themselves/some other person they have a vested interest in maintaining this simplistic view of. As one of my favorite philosophers would say, we become so habituated into this way of thinking that we find it easier to come to a self-contradictory conclusion than to rethink the assumptions that require it!

    All the more reason *not* to repeat this Good/Evil myth to kids when they’re young–the world is complicated, and it’s worth paying attention to this fact. It makes it a good bit harder to assume that you, yourself, are necessarily a Good Person…but I have the sense that this is probably a good thing.

  3. April 20, 2010 10:58 am

    Your comments about “Nice” guys reminded me of something I read over at Shakes recently:

    “And being a “nice guy”—defined here as someone who “puts a girl’s [sic] demands first,” “puts women on a pedestal,” and “gives [them] thoughtful gifts,” all in the interest of getting sex—isn’t being “nice.” He’s being manipulative. And pathetic.”

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