I don’t hate men.
In the sense that ‘men’ just means the 50.2% of humans who have been identified as male*, I can’t claim to hate them all. I like a lot of them. They’re some of my favourite people. And I certainly don’t hate men for being misguided, poorly informed, or for being constrained by the same cultural constructions of gender as I am. However, I have a big problem with maleness—the cultural construction of it, the representations of it, and the way that ‘men’ and ‘women’ internalise particular ideas of gender behaviour based on inequitable cultural models.
This means that, in response to Clem Ford’s article ‘Why Women Still Can’t Enjoy Sex‘, one of my favourite men, a close friend on FaceBook, suggested that the problem with feminists is their tendency towards zealotry. Zealous feminists ‘take that fight to arenas where things generally do just fine without them’. In my opinion, it is not overzealous for a feminist to ‘take the fight’ to areas that aren’t the proper battleground. The patriarchal bias against women spreads to a wide variety of arenas (including popular culture, as my friend suggested) and there’s no reason that feminism shouldn’t do the same. You’re uncomfortable with feminist readings of Game of Thrones? Fair enough, if you think that energy would be better directed elsewhere. But if it’s because you think Game of Thrones isn’t feminist—if you think that film, literature, music, politics, sport, philosophy, education, your local pub or your next dinner party or your weekly Dungeons and Dragons game aren’t feminist battlegrounds—then it’s doubly important for feminists to show you that the ‘fight’ has already been taken to these places.
Feminists fight battles anywhere and everywhere that maleness and femaleness assume naturalised, ideal forms, everywhere that masculinity and femininity are treated as transcendental models for all human behaviour rather than reflections of one particularly narrow categorisation of a multiplicity of lived human experience. Feminism needs to be everywhere, because so much of human interaction in the Western world is viewed through the lens of gender. It colours our cultural output as much as, if not more than, our day-to-day interactions. I see it more clearly in Olympics telecasts and pop music–where female athletes are questioned about their domestic lives and where ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ are treated as commodities–than when I walk down the street. And, as I pointed out to my FaceBook friend, publicly and unapologetically, denying the significance of this kind of representational misogyny is dangerously naïve.
I am not discounting the very real gender-based oppressions enacted all over the world. Feminism always needs more people to stand up and fight for political changes. But, as I told my class last semester, if you’ve read your Kristeva you know that symbolic feminism is a necessary part of dismantling patriarchal discourse. Pragmatic feminism fights for practical changes that ensure gender equality–suffrage, equal pay for equal work, access to resources (ranging from physical resources such as food, water and shelter, to basic human rights and freedom of speech, and education, and the means to control one’s reproductive capabilities). Symbolic feminism fights to change the language that we use to think about and to communicate about gender, and particularly the ways that the oppression of women works within our symbolic cultural framework.
Feminism, in order to be a cohesive project, needs to consider representations of femininity beyond the material conditions of women’s oppression. You can’t hope to change people’s behaviour without changing how they think. The idea that feminism can be ‘overzealous’ is one particularly insidious form of symbolic misogyny. Too often, it’s used as an excuse to dismiss women’s opinions simply because they are held by women. I’m certain that my FaceBook friend didn’t intend to be misogynist. But his suggestion essentially boiled down to the idea that women should keep their noses out of places they don’t belong.
This approach suggests that feminism is casting its man-hating net too widely, capturing supposedly harmless cultural productions and (forgive the mixed metaphor) sucking the fun out of them. Of course, it’s also possible for feminism to be too blinkered, to focus on the behaviour of individuals and unjustly treat them as representative of all men. This is a real problem. But it’s also a straw man that many men use as an excuse to further marginalise opinions expressed by women.
In the comments responding to Ford’s article, Jon from Sydney asserts:
The only objection I have to this article is that she uses Rush Limbaugh as her example. I mean seriously, Limbaugh? The guy is crazy as a coconut. Everyone knows that. He’s one of the crazy, right-wing shock-jocks they have in the US. These guys are fundamentalist ultra-right wing nutjobs. They appeal to the lowest common denominator and are intentionally outrageous and despicable.
Limbaugh does not reflect greater public opinion. You might as well get a quote from the Aryan League.
This is a classic example of discrediting feminist arguments for being ‘too narrow’. The patriarchy says that complaints against a minority of men lack legitimacy because they aren’t universal—that the men making these biased claims against women do not ‘reflect greater public opinion’.
Except that it does. This isn’t just about what Rush Limbaugh said; it’s about how that reflects the views, conscious or not, of many white Western men, and about how it is possible for Limbaugh, or anyone, to believe they have a right to such views. Government legislation is punishing women for their sexual choices. Popular culture is perpetuating the virgin/whore dichotomy that closes women into one of two equally uncomfortable and unrealistic subject positions. And white males (right-wing or otherwise) believe that they have the right to label a woman, any woman, as a slut—arguing, in effect, that any woman who chooses to have sex is forfeiting her social value and her right to control her own body. And more broadly this speaks towards the assumption that men are the ones who determine how a woman’s social value is judged. Patriarchy has dictated what is considered ‘slutty’ behaviour, and what has been deemed ‘ladylike’. Like it or not, this is ‘greater public opinion’.
And even if it were just a minority viewpoint expressed by a ‘crazy, right-wing shock-jock’, that doesn’t make Ford’s argument less valid or less valuable. If this was a niche issue, Ford would still be drawing attention to a form of injustice. Discrediting that based on one case study—which, in fact, isn’t even the whole focus of Ford’s article, merely a jumping-off point—is grossly unfair. Women’s rights are the issue here, regardless of whether the threat comes from one radical position or from the central patriarchal authority underpinning gendered existence in the Western world.
Jon from Sydney wants a particular kind of feminism, one that doesn’t generalise masculine behaviour from the actions of an outlier like Rush Limbaugh. That’s a legitimate concern, since women should be just as careful about gender generalisation as we call upon men to be. However this should not invalidate the examples that an author like Ford has chosen, or the argument that she constructs from them. Ford did not invent her evidence, and she makes it clear that she is talking about ‘particular pockets of society’ that express their misogyny in such a blatant manner. But she is alluding to much larger problem, and one which, sadly, drops below the radar for many men.
*As it happens, the sex ratio worldwide is remarkably even, as Wiki, the CIA and the CSIRO will all attest. The male-to-female ratio is slightly higher in younger demographics and slightly lower in older ones (notably the 65+ age bracket). But, much as nature abhors a vacuum, it also seems pretty adamant that there should be an optimal number of potential reproductive pairings in any population, so here we stand at roughly 50/50, like a well-organised inter-schools dance.