This Ain’t Quite a Patriarchy

Here’s a world that’s hard to describe. Possibly the only postmodern non-patriarchal city-state on Earth besides Cristiania, Black Rock City is built and run by women and men. If not in race, at least in gender, BRC seems, to this writer at least, as equal a place on Earth as anywhere that’s ever been.

The American sense of freedom (and freedom to complain) lies at the heart of Burning Man. Sure, when the gates open, some media outlets gravitate toward boobs, painted boobs, and sparkly boobs — making BRC look like a giant strip club to the dude-bro Youtubing us from the flyover states. Fact tho: Everyone’s mostly naked because it’s hot, and because we can be.

Muthafluffa: “It’s nice to be judged on your performance, nothing more. There’s a lot more understanding, on all levels, of everything here. As long as you work. Right?” photo by JHFearless
Muthafluffa: “It’s nice to be judged on your performance, nothing more. There’s a lot more understanding, on all levels, of everything here. As long as you work. Right?”
photo by @JHFearless

In real life, people run this place. Women and men. Burning Man would be nonexistent without the Cacophony Society and its predecessor the Suicide Club, both of which were founded by an equal number of men and women. Burning Man’s LLC has always been equal gender-wise as well. The women have insisted on it.

When a majority of the population doesn’t feel powerless in some way, systems can thrive. There’s a larger rant about patriarchy, monotheism, capitalism, and two-party-system-government’s controlled effect of subjugation here, and/or the steady pressure of negative realism meant to demoralize the masses into feeling too powerless to take any action for change … but we’ll spare you it. However, the point can be corseted into this: Imbalanced power relationships keep capitalism humming at the expense of the user, while collaboration breeds respect, community, and anarchy (the good kind).

Beesknees: “It’s definitely less sexist than it used to be, like a lot, even in the ten years I've been here. There are a lot more women in management positions -- strong and powerful women who support each other.” photo by @summer_burkes
Beesknees: “It’s definitely less sexist than it used to be, like a lot, even in the ten years I’ve been here. There are a lot more women in management positions — strong and powerful women who support each other.”

Women run the top echelons of Burning Man, along with the men. It’s a slight majority, even. That may be why this event is such a modern touchstone; a cultural breath of fresh air; something nobody can pin down but everybody likes to complain about and tear apart.

What’s more, so many people, justices, and injustices go into this dirt-rave production and its worldwide yearlong tentacles, we’ve collectively found the patriarchal idea of ‘leader’ or ‘figurehead’ to be outdated. We prefer leaderless, radical interdependence, and for our IRL bosses, we just defer to their individual ability, thanks. Lattices of benevolent dictators and dictatrices are welcome if they’re nice.

Panda Rat: “It’s not totally equal. There are a lot of opportunities for women out here but we still have to try harder. You have to be a bitch about it or know somebody, just like the real world.” photo by JHFearless
Panda Rat: “It’s not totally equal. There are a lot of opportunities for women out here but we still have to try harder. You have to be a bitch about it or know somebody, just like the real world.”
photo by @JHFearless

Through the decades (especially in the early times) there have been disagreements, unfairnesses, and creeper things that happened around us in the DPW, but at a fraction of the percentage they occur in the default world. Most DPW women will tell you nobody has ever taken the tool out of our hand. Mansplaining is socially illegal and, in the rare event it arises, it’s hilariously rebutted before spectators.

This change was so imperceptible over time, it took this writer 18 years of DPW life to even realize that’s what’s so refreshing about working out here. These men building Black Rock City, the men who respect women as equals and don’t try to vibe them off the forklift … they are the sexiest men alive.

Relay: “I like that we talk about our outside culture as one that’s different than we have here. It’s awesome to feel supported that way in this community -- if people are acting in aggressive ways that are part of the default-world culture, then people notice and speak up if it’s not ok.” photo by @JHFearless
Relay: “I like that we talk about our outside culture as one that’s different than we have here. It’s awesome to feel supported that way in this community — if people are acting in aggressive ways that are part of our default culture, then people notice and speak up if it’s not ok.”
photo by @JHFearless

Things haven’t always been so equal-feeling. In the earlier, grittier days of the DPW, our crew wasn’t only patriarchally-based — it was a slap-up sausage fest. Fledgling DPW women like this writer just happen to be attracted to traditionally dude-ish things like explosions, construction, heavy machinery, people with weapons and apocalypse skills, and a full-contact sovereignty lifestyle.

Over time, Burning Man’s traditionally most macho department has become a beacon for multitalented, alpha-level, overly-skilled women and the protective-fixer-type dudes who love them. Like moths to a blowtorch, seemingly every badass woman on the West Coast with a bent for — or proficient in — explosions, construction, and heavy machinery came a-runnin’.

Now, except for a male-dominated DPW council which is in turn run by a woman, we’re just about even-steven in representation. The old-world patriarchal types all went away or learned quick.

Some of them are still learning quick. If they enter our culture all sexist and old-world, commenting or ogling and elbowing barroom-style or chimping out like betas do, we try to let them figure it out for a couple tries before they have to pack up and skedaddle.

Jedi: “Some people are sociopaths and need to be pushed out, sure. But the average person who doesn’t get it, we help them get it. It IS really refreshing to have the men stand up and tell people when they’re doing wrong.” photo by @JHFearless
Jedi: “Some people are sociopaths and need to be pushed out, sure. But the average person who doesn’t get it, we help them get it. It IS really refreshing to have the men stand up and tell people when they’re doing wrong.”
photo by @JHFearless

Describing the supported lack of patriarchy in the everyday functioning of a major event’s setup and strike is hard. Gorgeous women and men populate forklifts and kitchen equipment, none above the other, all working in an atmosphere of equality.

“I can say that of all the jobs I’ve ever had,” says StAbby (sign shop, line sweeps boss), “in this one I’ve felt the most empowered, been given the most responsibility, and been entrusted more than anywhere. They’ve put a series of failsafes in place that if anything f’d up starts to happen … I feel no matter what happens it could quite easily be taken care of. You’re given a lot of chances here. Most people make adjustments.”

DPW women showed their support for the tribe these past couple years by making LAFFs: the Ladies' Addendum for Festival Formalities zine. Topics: Mental fitness, partying, STIs, bullying, trans issues, "regretamine," and how to find meaningful opportunities for advancement in this crazy place. Illustration by DPW's Duck Hunt
DPW women showed their support these past few years by making LAFFs: the Ladies’ Addendum for Festival Formalities zine. Topics: Mental fitness, partying, STIs, bullying, trans issues, “regretamine,” and how to find meaningful opportunities for advancement in this crazy place. Illustration by DPW’s Duck Hunt

Disrespect based on gender isn’t tolerated. Neither is sexual harassment, unless it’s a joke between friends, and then it’s pretty much the norm. Just like when you call someone “baby,” it’s all about the tone and context.

“I like being able to sexually harass men here the way they do me in the real world,” says Relay. “I hoot and holler and I like it and so do they.”

“I see just as many men as women in short skirts and booty shorts,” adds Two Cents. “I like that.”

Two Cents: “I’ve not been given certain positions because I’m a woman. I know that for a fact. But compared to other festivals I’ve worked, I feel like I can speak up and not lose my job.” photo by @JHFearless
Two Cents: “I’ve not been given certain positions because I’m a woman. I know that for a fact. But compared to other festivals I’ve worked, I feel like I can speak up and not lose my job.”
photo by @JHFearless

As this writer is fond of saying, BRC is the only city on Earth where we, as women, could theoretically walk around naked, at night, by ourselves and feel reasonably certain nothing too bad would happen to us. Sure, don’t drink from any strange glasses, and maybe wear a knife on a string if you’re going to be nude all night, but you get our meaning. The default world is so bogged down in uneven power relationships based on the subjugation of women, nobody gets to do anything like that out in commodification-world.

There’s also DPW’s now-dissipated tradition of Ladies’ Night, which is too strange to try to explain again. It’s a mostly-dead party which pops up now and then secretly, but the larger point was, these men are confident enough to bend to the ladies’ will to wear dresses and makeup and look fiyah doing it.

Ladies' Nite trophies in 2005. Lovingly handcrafted by this writer, Actiongrl, Maid Marian, Katy Bell, and whiskey. Of course you didn't expect to see any actual pictures from DPW's actual Ladies' Nites, did you?
Ladies’ Nite trophies in 2005. Lovingly handcrafted by this writer, Actiongrl, Maid Marian, Katy Bell, and whiskey. Of course you didn’t expect to see any actual pictures from DPW’s actual Ladies’ Nites, did you?

It seems in Black Rock City we’re proving that leaderless society is a natural result of equality. Or vice versa maybe. The hugest power imbalance of all, consistently throughout human history, is between women and men. Out in this T.A.Z. experiment, there’s no deference to a boss, merely submitting to another peer’s expertise and agency. Few are the underhanded power-plays that aren’t immediately broadcast through the grapevine at DPW’s home bar.

Your word is everything out here, plus your character and integrity — not your might, your wealth, your physical assets, or your ability to manipulate or bully. Our world isn’t perfect, but underneath all the LEDs and explosions, Black Rock City is the most sane and balanced (and balancing) place many of us have ever experienced.

StAbby: “I also appreciate that I’m an old hag and I still get appreciated out here. I get to walk around in my panties.” photo by @JHFearless
StAbby: “I also appreciate that I’m an old hag and I still get appreciated out here. I get to walk around in my panties.”
photo by @JHFearless

Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter.

About the author: Summer Burkes

Summer Burkes has been rousting about at Burning Man since 1998. She first met her dusty DPW / Cyclecide / Bike Club fam-dambly on the back of The Bucket. A Cacophony Society enthusiast, Summer loves explosions and cake.

17 Comments on “This Ain’t Quite a Patriarchy

  • Toot says:

    There are a lot more women who pull their weight at Burning Man than in the world outside of the event. That has sort of created a myth that women do 50% or more of the work at the event. That’s not true by a long shot, regardless of the numbers of pics posted of women swinging hammers on the playa. Women are typically pushed to the front of any photo opportunity to reinforce the myth that they do half or more of the work and that the event is some kind of egalitarian utopia.

    Women do occupy half or more of the mid-level management positions within the Org, which is typical of any small municipality. But where the rubber hits the road, it’s still the men doing the majority of the actual work, especially within the citizens’ camps which more closely represents regular society and the 80/20 rule… more like 90/10, but who’s counting?)

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    • Will Chase says:

      Would love to see your objective, peer-reviewed scientific research on these suppositions you’re throwing out as “fact” — implying women are inherently lazy, incompetent, or incapable. Or were you just licking your finger and sticking it in the air? I ask because what you describe doesn’t at all reflect my experience of reality at Burning Man.

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      • Canuck Bunny says:

        A scientific research study into the question of whether women are inherently lazy, incompetent, and incapable would never get funding. If an individual funded the study it would be viewed as biased and the results would never be published.

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    • Sean McPherson says:

      Wow. This is not my experience. Our camp is a generic citizen camp, no ties to the org, etc. We’re 9 strong, with 2 Couples (M/F, not that it matters) and a total 5F/4M mix. The ladies in our camp drive rebar, hang tarps, shove water barrels, and drag generators with zero difference in ability or tenacity. I can probably say without annoying my camp mates too much that even tho we’re very much a do-acracy and we have to tell each other to take Union breaks, if anyone is generally providing rational direction it’s the ladies. I know beyond a doubt when I was looking for “what needs doing next” direction, I would have been looking to one of them for it far more often than one of the other gentlemen because the ladies seem to have the best handle on logistics and the ‘plan’. They’re freaking engineers, designers, and artists and they simply kick ass at being burners and great camp mates. Sure, from time to time one or the other of us says “hey, can you grab cause it’s heavy and you’re stronger” but that’s not much of the time, and just as often we’re saying “hey, can you grab because I’m too tired to lift my arms” so what’s the difference? We’re each doing work that needs doing when the other isn’t in the right position to do it. That’s teamwork, and community. Screw the idea that women aren’t pulling their weight in the city, even if you want to cherry pick grunt work out. The ladies I know out there kicked my ass, far as I am concerned. I couldn’t pick a better group of folks to bust my ass with, and gender is just something that gives them a different and often better perspective or plan than I might have. I’d be a fool to ignore or disrespect that. I can’t wait to camp with my few again next year, regardless of any gender make-ups.

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    • DFC says:

      All shifts I worked this year had women as my direct reporting supervisor and they were the smoothest, most well-led ego-free buillshit-free shifts I’ve worked on playa to date. There wasn’t any peacocking, pissing contests, there wasn’t any yelling, or attempted intimidation, or pranks. They were poised, intelligent, level-headed, in many cases showed vast amounts of care and tact. It really made me appreciate burning man even more to see how much of a matriarchy it can be. All the way to the top leadership roles are filled with strong intelligent women that I look up to, including my wife.

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    • Toot says:

      >…what you describe doesn’t at all reflect my experience
      >Wow. This is not my experience.
      >All shifts I worked…

      It’s not about your individual experiences, which are merely exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that the efforts of a few carry the many.

      The idea that the event is gender egalitarian, and is neither a patriarchy or a matriarchy is simply idealistic, and not based in reality. To say that the ‘leadership’ derives from a sort of collective consensus and the effective results are owned equally by everyone is like handing out participation trophies in children’s sports – the only children who think that’s cool are the benchwarmers.

      If you’ve ever lived within a socialist system you’ll understand the pains of dealing with a bloated bureaucracy that exists merely to perpetuate its existence, where very few people actually do any real work within the system. The Org is like this.

      Almost every human endeavor has unequal distribution of labor (the kind of labor that is effective). The point is that most things are not 1/1, where each unit of “input” (effort, time, labor) contributes exactly the same amount of output. Gender egalitarianism and socialist governance would have you believe the opposite.

      In GENERAL (because one can’t make a generalization without first saying they’re making a generalization in order to avoid the charge of making a generalization), while the ladies are working hard to arrive at collective consensus and to call that ‘leadership’ (more meetings more talking more management), and then take credit for the end result (because of magic), the men get on with the work and create the necessary hierarchies and labor divisions that create the results. Pointing out your personally observed exceptions only proves the rule (or generalization).

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      • Greed says:

        That’s a long way of saying you don’t have any scientific evidence, I guess.

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      • DFC says:

        You want to talk abstractedly about division of labor across a community while we are providing specific examples which make your armchair opinions to seem quite wrong, and incredibly sexist. I wouldn’t have even made the distinction of gender if A) it hadn’t occurred to me this year that my shifts were better because they were bullshit-free and peacock-free and that happened to coincide with having intelligent, poised females directly in charge. B) also noticed that several founding members on the board currently and of each department individually (this is a substantial fact, not my opinion) are women who are for the most part fucking amazing and worthy of ANYONE’S admiration (my opinion), and C) these things make burning man quite the matriarchy, WHETHER YOU AGREE OR NOT. Division of labor is about how many gizmo’s I pick up and put down, how many yurts I construct. Burning man has a currency- it’s called my time. My energy and intention. I give it to those departments which I find to be an equal exchange of my time, as does every one of these women that I mentioned. Have YOU volunteered your time to build this city?

        I really think you should take up the offer of a rebar, tequila, and meltdown triatholon below. Put your money where your mouth is. Then maybe you’d be able to back up some of your mansplaining bullshit.

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      • King Charles says:

        >It’s not about your individual experiences, which are merely exceptions that prove the rule.

        Right, anecdotal data isn’t evidence, except when it’s your anecdote. Except you don’t even have anecdotes, just a lot of nonsense theories you made up. Do you even know any women?

        Living in your parents’ basement and listening to talk radio doesn’t count as living in a socialist system, btw.

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      • Toot says:

        I was hoping for more than the typical shaming language, and charges of sexism. But oh well, I didn’t expect more.

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      • PC Principal says:

        I totally agree with Toot’s comment. It’s not that women are lazy, incapable, or incompetent, which was Will’s ridiculous interpretation of his comment. It’s that, for whatever reason, the majority of projects on the playa are still started, managed, and created by men.

        This is anecdotal and there’s likely no published evidence to support this either way. Does anyone who believes the gender representation is equal have any data besides their anecdotal experience? It would be interesting to look at art, mutant vehicle, and camp placement applications and see the number of leads of each gender. I hypothesize it would be a 80/20 men/women split at most.

        There are plenty of women in leadership positions within the org, but that’s hardly something to be proud of. The org’s bureaucracy and increasingly misguided attempts to update policy does not reflect well upon those who work there. This isn’t because of women, it’s because of a groupthink mentality. The org does have some amazing people who do great work, but overall it’s a giant clusterf*ck of incompetence that restricts the artists.

        I’d love for this article to be true and I think it’s something we should continue to strive for, but for us to pat ourselves on the back for our amazing gender equality is a big, naive circlejerk.

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      • Dan Miller says:

        I have some factual data from the nineties… (from before there was an established DPW even). I managed the building of the man, lamp posts and the 5 straw-bale man-bases, from 1990 through 2000. I still have many of those years lists of the volunteers. What I remember, without digging them up, is that they were remarkably equal, 20 women, 20 men, on average. Though, in the Baker beach years, ’86 through ’90, it was Larry and Jerry James and for a time Jerry recruited a number of carpenter buddies, so there were more male builders at one time. But, with a bit more research… a balancing factor, perhaps… in ’90 and ’91, there was the retained heat oven, bread baking co-event/ritual to the burn, that was almost exclusively female.

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  • Corvus says:

    “Like moths to a blowtorch” — I’m so stealing that.

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  • k8 says:

    As a woman who has, in my 13 years at the burn, held a leadership role in the less-than-feminist worlds of both major sound camps and also the Rangers….A-F*cking-Men. Thank you, people of BRC for enforcing the notion of do-ocracy…and for being willing to talk and to listen when gender roles get weird. And Toots, I totally challenge you to a rebar pounding, tequila drinking, campmate meltdown triathlon.

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  • Witchy says:

    Yes. This. I love this about Burning Man.

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  • Jennifer says:

    As a woman who runs a women-led theme camp (Camp Mystic 2 o’clock & G inside a larger village with another theme camp that is led by a woman….Chakralicious), I thought I’d chime in with actual data for our camp and am curious if perhaps Burning Man could include this in a census in the future.

    100% Camp Leadership Women (2 of us fine ladies co-lead camp) of 167 souls
    46% of our teams are led by women (We have 37 teams and 17 of them are women) 38% of our early arrival crew are women builders who kick ass and take names right alongside the men.

    I probably put in 1000hrs running camp each year and do the most in terms of the actual work and the leadership and I do it with the concept of integrated leadership meaning that I use what works to make shit happen which includes BOTH having a focused vision and clarity and a leadership structure that has leaders who take responsibility for things happening (traditionally masculine values) AND a radically loving and collaborative atmosphere where a lot of attention is spent on people feeling great, nourished, well supported, well led, inspired to be the best version of themselves on playa, where there’s focus not just on the functional but also on the sacred – on creating art and beauty and a vibe that everyone loves to be inside of (traditionally feminine values).

    I don’t think we need to seed more divisiveness, more cutting each other down, more people focused on who gets to take the credit, more on finger pointing whose doing more than who….thats not what we need at Burning Man and that’s not what the world needs. I think what we really need is to BOTH respect each other’s incredible contributions and capabilities and respect that both the hard skills which require more muscle and more of the masculine in all of us AND the soft skills of human to human contact and relating and creating the vibe and atmosphere that feels loving and good are both incredibly important in creating the experience we all LOVE at burning man.

    You men wouldn’t have as good a time if the women didn’t bring and create so much beauty and love and goodness. You women wouldn’t have as good a time if we didn’t have the ‘stages’ built for us to dance on. We need to respect each other’s gifts and respect the masculine and feminine inside each of us and the particular balance it has inside us which is as unique as we are.

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  • Pixel says:

    The relative maturity of this thread is encouraging and personally I value highly the space that creates for something resembling discussion.

    Having said that, Toot, did you interpret this article as a utopian propaganda piece? It seemed to me like a celebration of something many women and men are enjoying creating and experiencing together, where some traditional work/gender social “norms” are at the very least improved upon and made more interesting than in our default.

    Shit man, I’m sorry you’re missing out on the fun.

    P.S. Myself I’m not keen on the idea of matriarchy. I dislike it exactly as much as the idea of patriarchy. Let’s get it done together.

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