While His Life is Rich in Meaning, She is Living in a Ghost World

An interview with Dr. Merlyn Mowrey

Dr. Merlyn Mowrey is an Associate Professor in The Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University. She took the time to talk with us about Becker’s feminist thoughts, gender hierarchies, and masculine heroism in patriarchal society.


Q: How do you think that Ernest Becker’s work has informed our understanding of the patriarchy and feminist issues?

A: Although there are times when Ernest Becker seemed unaware of his oversights concerning women, some of his work in the 1960’s offer incredible insights into gender relations. In two papers, he examined the differences between the social roles and status of men and women, and he puts forth incredibly sophisticated feminist arguments for his day. In a paper he wrote in 1963*, protestBecker discussed the uniqueness of middle-aged, menopausal women’s depression and what it revealed about the lack of opportunities for meaning provided by cultural roles and sanctioned female identities. At the time, most middle class women’s roles were limited to that of wife and mother. At midlife, women discovered that raising children is not life’s work and that once their children are grown they have decades ahead of them that do not involve child-care. While men received further education and developed careers in which they gained greater expertise and power, society provided no form of “heroism” to middle-aged women. Without a cultural language or cultural willingness to listen, women expressed the lack of meaning they experienced through their depression. Becker asserted that their depression was a “wordless protest against inequality,” and a “reflection of male’s social tyranny.”

In two papers, he examined the differences between the social roles and status of men and women, and he puts forth incredibly sophisticated feminist arguments for his day.

In this article, Becker saw that there is a fundamental problem with the way in which heroism works because it is defined in almost exclusively male terms. This feminist insight is ahead of his time, yet he failed to integrate these insights into his fuller developed thoughts on heroism and hierarchical culture. In his overall formulations in The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, we see that he recognized how patriarchal culture works, but he never questioned what this means or asked what sort of heroism is available in society for women. For example, he recognized the tyranny of the patriarchal family and men’s power over women and children, but then he failed to offer an explanation for why women are not empowered or what a woman can do to achieve heroism. He failed to ask these questions, even though a decade earlier he examined these issues and concluded that hero systems are for men, and this is social tyranny. While he failed to challenge gender hierarchies or analyze the implications of this for women, he certainly has given us plenty to work with moving forward.

Becker saw that there is a fundamental problem with the way in which heroism works because it is defined in almost exclusively male terms.

Q:  How do you think that masculine heroism is structured in society?

A: As Becker noted, meaningful heroism is defined in primarily male terms. In patriarchal culture, the human characteristics we value we attribute to masculinity, and femininity is defined as its opposite. For example, in a dualistic patriarchy, culturally and historically men are perceived as being strong, rational, and independent whereas women are perceived as being weak, irrational, and dependent. Patriarchal culture determines the dominant definitions for what it means to be a woman, and this system creates narrow restrictions for the type of heroism that is available to women. girl-readingThe patriarchy prescribes that women acquire value when they accommodate the system that gives more value and power to men. Their worth is tied to their subordinate status and winning the approval of the heroic sex, and this has implications for how women see themselves. Why? In The Birth and Death of Meaning Becker makes very insightful points about how socialization works. We are born into a culture and we learn what we are supposed to be like by seeing how people like us are valued and considered desirable and worthwhile. We take on our culture’s expectations for how to grow and acquire meaning, power, and value. Gender socialization encourages women to identify with the masculine culture that defines females as the accommodating other, and discourages women from developing valued masculine characteristics. We learn to accept stereotypical gender differences as true and meaningful. While patriarchal culture’s definitions of femininity are designed to accommodate men, women experience them as their own standard of judgments and enjoy it because it feels good to be accepted and treated as though we are worthwhile. When male standards become our own opinions about what it means to be a woman, women become unintentionally complicit in patriarchal culture. Once we have internalized what the world tells us we ought to be, it speaks to us in our own words and our own voice, shaping our identity and desires. How do we take on this power? We become self-aware and critical of the patriarchal perspective and challenge the ways in which culture tells us to be valued. 

*[Becker, E. “Social Science and Psychiatry: The Coming Challenge” in The Antioch Review, 1963, 23:353-366.]