men who hate women : can men be feminists too?
I teach Year 11 and Year 12 English at a state school in Canberra and towards the end of last year a student of mine delivered a presentation about the book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I haven’t read the the Steig Larsson trilogy but my ears pricked up when my student informed us that the literal translation of the book’s Swedish title is: “men who hate women”. She went on to describe the plot which sounded like the sort of lurid dross redolent of a Law and Order: SVU episode. But I put my English-teacher-snobbishness to one side and noted the central theme of abuse towards women. Surprising and alarming statistics on domestic violence in Sweden followed and when the presentation was finished several students in the class were sufficiently moved to start an impromptu discussion that touched on rape, domestic violence, Slutwalk and female circumcision.
I sat back, watching the erstwhile reticent class finally fire-up for the first time in the semester. Where I had largely failed with my camp histrionics and pseudo-intellectual aphorisms to engage their passion for a well articulated essay or for allegorical readings of novels, I was now happy to see half a dozen of the 17 students in the class really fervently expressing themselves.
At a natural lull in the back and forth the students suddenly became slightly self-conscious and one girl pointed out that I was sitting there apparently afraid to join in because of my sex. Of course I hardly need to tell you that the students doing the talking were all female. Male students do not make feminist statements in class — or out of class. But surely I don’t need to point that out.
So then I got involved in the discussion and it moved on to territory well covered in the pages of Lip. There was the usual point about how the word “feminism” has become uncool, evoking thoughts of bra-burning, hairy-legged, man-hating cartoon feminists and other insidious clichés that bedevil the f-word.
But the revealing moment was when the consensus emerged, naturally and ineluctably, that men can also be oppressed, also be abused and also need some kind of movement to maintain their rights. The girls, finally on the verge of perhaps their first radical political statement had checked themselves and invoked — of all things — that ludicrous ‘90s trope of men’s liberation. Then they said that feminism would only regain its strength if it worked along with men to improve conditions for men and women alike.
And this is where I fired-up. I pressed the point that this was a pipe-dream. They responded indignantly and innocently by saying that men should stand up for feminism as well. And then I launched into some kind of diatribe about how men should stand up for feminism but won’t and how men will never voluntarily cede power — political or personal — to women. Incredulous, they said I was being way too cynical and so I asked them how they could be so naive when not a single word had been uttered by any of the embarrassed boys in the class. And then I asked them how many men they had ever met who called themselves feminists.
In the silence that followed I got so frustrated I was unable to properly explain the point I was trying to make. It’s actually quite simple when it comes down to it. There are many different side issues and angles I could take but the only thing I can think of that is worth saying in this article is: girls need to take up and maintain feminist causes across all areas of life and in all parts of the world, because boys never will.
I’ve read a lot of feminist theory and many books and articles about gender relations. Amid almost intractable debates over biology and essentialism, sexuality and raunch culture, porn and prostitution, the piece of writing that seems to press the salient point most strongly, yet indirectly, is Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. The incomprehensible cruelty that has been inflicted upon women around the world in the last 50 years is viscerally communicated in this superb study which mixes statistics with personal stories. What emerges is the painful fact that most men are in fact men who hate women: some more than others, some only some of the time. And when a culture is not vigilant against this hatred (even in Sweden apparently) it can manifest as physical violence and abuse. In fact I think misogyny is so ingrained in men that the best we can expect is to merely have men begrudgingly accept feminism’s demands, as they did in the West in the ‘70s; demands which, incidentally, Western men continue to insidiously resist to this day.
When I read articles here and elsewhere about feminism, the missing voice is obviously that of the male; but this is not because the male is excluded, it is because the male voice does not want to be heard defending women, beyond the basic social conventions that require men to agree that women shouldn’t be domestic slaves.
Yet even the girl who gave the presentation in my class about the still rampant domestic abuse in a progressive place like Sweden, even though she comes from a background where men have, let us for privacy reasons use an odious euphemism: “let her down” repeatedly — even she seemed to think that men were just waiting for some encouragement to get involved with feminism. But the majority of men in the world seem to be capable of inflicting upon the women they putatively love, acts of malevolence they would never conscience in any other sphere of life.
So because of everything detailed in Half the Sky and perhaps even The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, because of the push-button revulsion many Australian men have towards our PM merely because of her sex, because of the silence of the otherwise liberal boys in my class and because of the hiding-in-plain-sight record of the totality of human history, I suggest feminists stop even thinking about how men feel about all this because men don’t give a damn. There might be the odd guy here or there who actually gets it but in my experience (which includes years studying with the most liberal people around) even progressive men won’t call themselves feminists and won’t do much more than pay lip-service to equality for women. Women need to fight against what seems to be the more dismal fact of the human condition and work ceaselessly to assert their interests despite, not with, men.
By Jamie Freestone
Ed’s Note: I think Jamie has articulated his point really well, although I personally disagree – what do you think? Can men be feminists? Should we even care? Is this an argument to have outside of feminism?