“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)
My title is, more or less, a joke. Or that’s what I would have said before I read the responses to this article by Bridget Christie, an extract from her new book, which brilliantly satirises the kinds of bone-headed idiocies people come out with when they think you might be Too Much Feminist. She opens, promisingly and amusingly, with the line:
“I am a feminist. All this means is that I am extremely hairy and hate all men, both as individuals and collectively, with no exceptions.”
She goes on to develop a beautifully surreal self-profile, ticking off (and exaggerating) all the good old myths from bra burning to lesbianism (but no male-baby hating. Come on, Bridget, it’s a classic for a reason). Reading this, I was slightly stunned to discover that some people didn’t realize it was, in fact, satire. Amazingly (or so it seems to me), no sooner had the article come out than I saw comments approving its honesty and accuracy: yes, feminists are man hating, yes, they do have that reputation, isn’t it good to see someone acknowledge this?
Often, I’ve heard women try to counter this point by denying it. I don’t hate men. I have a husband/son/father/brother. I have a beloved male teacher; I have kind male neighbours; I have wonderful male students; I have loving male friends.
I do this myself. I started to write this post and found myself thinking: but what about that colleague, who is always so thoughtful and kind? What about my fellow blogger, who writes brilliantly on being a feminist ally? What about my lovely friend, who’s transitioning into an amazing man? What about all the men in my life, right down to my baby nephew … how could you possibly, if you knew me, imagine I might actually hate men?
This is all good, and one or another point will be true for virtually all feminists. Short of living in a separatist commune, you are going to struggle to eliminate men from your life, and I think it’s fair to say most of us wouldn’t want to. My feminism is hugely informed by feminists who are also mothers of sons, and I think they add a particularly forceful perspective to this debate.
And yet. I have problems with this approach.
For starters, there’s always the pushback question. But some feminists hate men! They must! I’ve seen them! This response is unanswerable: how can you know all the feminists in the world? How can you be sure you know their innermost views? You can’t, and so you must dissociate yourself (splitting us nicely into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminists), or you must stand with them, jointly and severally responsible for the Man Hating.
We have to put this in its structural context. Statistically, women may be walking around hating men and there may be fallout from that, but – by and large – women are not acting on that hatred with physical violence. To put it bluntly, women are not murdering men. Men are murdering women – and indeed other men – because toxic masculinity, the brand of approved masculine conduct our society promotes – is, at its extreme, a violent mode of action. I often link to Karen Ingala Smith’s project, Counting Dead Women, which surveys some of this gendered violence, and I often hear the same response: but aren’t young men more at risk of violence than women? What about the men?
Well, the men are at risk of violence: from other men.
Take me as an example. If I did – truly – hate men, how much impact would it have? It would have an impact on my students, because I’m in a position of power over them. And if I discriminated I would deserve be sacked pretty swiftly. But it’s worth noting that, even in this situation, my bias would be a tiny, tiny drop of water compared to the ocean of comfortably normalised bias in the other direction. It wouldn’t be excusable, but its impact would be, in the general scheme of things, very weak.
This is where the quotation from Atwood, at the top of my post, starts to ring true. Men (NAMALT, etc etc) are insulted that women might dislike them, might object to them, might lump them all together with their violent brothers. Plenty of women are insulted by this too. Women, however, are actually at significant statistical risk from men, and that doesn’t stack up against hurt feelings. Men are, also, at significant statistical risk from violent, hyper-masculine men – that is, from a culture of toxic masculinity – and that, too, doesn’t stack up against hurt feelings.
The other problem with these defensive responses is that, as you will notice, they frame the debate in terms of participation in a particular social set-up. When we say ‘but I have a lovely husband’ or ‘but my dad is wonderful’, what we’re really saying is ‘I’m part of the hetero-patriarchy’. I’m not one of those man-haters, the lesbian ones … or if I am, it’s ok, because here are my credentials: I too, once, existed in a heteronormative family set-up. Whew, thank goodness for that.
‘Man-hating’, you see, is an accusation designed to make us rush into making denials, rush to dissociate ourselves from other women, rush to avoid the implications of aggression and lesbianism and all of those other evils.
I find this particularly sad because it conceals one of the huge positives of feminism, at least as I’ve experienced it. There’s an ideology, coming out of the work of intersectional feminism, that loving yourself is one of the most radical feminist acts, because it involves according yourself worth in a patriarchy that is fundamentally inclined to devalue women. But, in my experience, what makes that ideology liveable is other feminists around you who support each other and affirm each other. I really like women. I enjoy being around them. The idea of ‘man-hating’ feminism is partly designed to splinter that community, to make us all hurry to align ourselves with men, lest anyone should think we enjoy spending time with women. It’s framed as ‘hatred’ not because (I believe) any thoughtful person really imagines that vast numbers of feminists hate men, but because the idea that women might like, and respect, and work together with other women is a radical threat.