Aspects of Ernest Becker’s works invoke regressive patriarchal ideologies that reinforce the institutionalized pattern of male dominance in society. The Ernest Becker Foundation does not endorse such regressive views and recognizes and supports gender equality as a fundamental human right. In this section, the EBF seeks to open a dialogue about the problematic aspects of Becker’s work in regard to feminist issues, and explore how Becker’s insights inform our understanding of women’s rights issues and unequal treatment.
Many present-day readers of Becker are struck by the male-oriented perspective that characterizes theories of his era. Despite the fact that Becker’s theories aim to explain human social behavior, he used gender-exclusive language—the norm of the day—and never prioritized the applicability of his theories to the lives of women. Although he emphasized the universality of immortality striving, noting that both women and men have a desire for heroic distinctiveness in culture, he remained ambiguous as to whether his death anxiety thesis applies equally to men and women. He contemplated that men and women respond differently to death anxiety due to women’s unique relationship to reproduction. He noted that women can find meaning within their own bodies due to their relationship to reproduction: the female body is the locus of the creation of life, granting women the unique opportunity to satisfy their immortality drive by creating children. Men, on the other hand, cannot find meaning within the physical form, and must seek meaning and immortality in the symbolic realm of culture. Such rhetoric valorizes gender roles within patriarchal frames and parameters: women as wives and mothers and men as powerful, creative and intellectual actors. It is unlikely that Becker’s intention was to narrowly define creative and intellectual qualities as masculine, and child care as feminine. He oftentimes noted that the subordination of women to men in patriarchal families was tyrannical and he astutely called attention to the lack of meaning provided by culture to women after their children were grown.
Perhaps Becker’s greatest contribution to the conversation about misogyny and the plight of women is how his insights have catalyzed work that integrates existential and feminist perspectives to examine the motivational underpinnings behind the patriarchy and women’s rights issues today.
Perhaps Becker’s greatest contribution to the conversation about misogyny and the plight of women is how his insights have catalyzed work that integrates existential and feminist perspectives to examine the motivational underpinnings behind the patriarchy and women’s rights issues today. As we will see in the following sections, Becker’s analyses help us explain why we don’t like to talk about periods or see women breastfeed in public, why we objectify women, why women internalize the male gaze, why we love cleavage but don’t like nipples, why men want to control women’s reproductive rights, why a woman taking care of a dead body is a feminist act, and how patriarchal culture is facilitated. Despite Becker’s problematic language, his extraordinary insight on human social behavior is a powerful tool we can use to inform modern liberation struggles.