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Jul 31 2012

Batman doesn’t need to seek help

Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins were chatting about feminism one evening on Twitter. [interjection: I've been there! I've done a good deal of chatting about feminism on Twitter. Some of it with Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins, though not at the same time as far as I recall.] They decided to make it a non-Twitter conversation, with more room to swing the arms. They chose the spacious airy riverview Independent. It’s a very good conversation.

Martin starts by saying that “Feminists are fighting a centuries-old system of power that benefits nobody but the elite.”

Laurie: What you’re talking about is structural violence, and the difficulty people have in understanding that there’s more to sexism than individual men doing individually nasty things to individual woman. In a world where we’re encouraged to see ourselves purely as atomised individuals with no relationship to any sort of broader social context, that’s a tough distinction to make.

So we get people – many many people – telling us to shut up, stop “playing victim,” toughen up, just Be Strong and get on with it – as if it were possible to overcome systemic obstacles by pure will.

They talk about the way “patriarchy” (for want of a better word) is bad for women and men.

Martin: This is where I think ‘male privilege’, while accurate, can be a distraction – because the privilege really in modern society is that men are held back maybe 10% while women are held back more. Nobody is ‘winning’ any contest aside from a shrinking elite at the top of the pyramid who have an uncanny knack of getting the proles to fight among themselves.

They talk about sexist men and lonely men and male roles in popular culture.

Martin: And I think that’s a function of how we’re raised. Look at male role models in popular culture – they tend to be lone wolves or alpha males in a group. Loneliness can be hard to define. You can be surrounded by people and be alone. The NHS have some good research on men my age, one of the biggest problems is not being able to discuss their feelings, and an inability to seek help.

Laurie: Yes, although it wasn’t always like that. Again, the model of masculinity changes according to what success and power is supposed to look like. Sixty years ago it was being the head of a household, an important role in your organisation or company or union, a pillar of your community. Now success for men is far more likely to mean lonely entrepreneurism. Seeking help is seen as weak.

Martin: Batman wouldn’t seek help.

Laurie: Batman doesn’t need to seek help, he has a butler.

Martin: And a billion dollars.

Laurie: And an enormous tower with his name on it.

Martin: Yes. No issues there at all.

They talk about sex and power and sex-as-power.

Laurie: I’ve had men tell me that actually it’s women who have all the power, because they have the power of sexual refusal. Women are also informed that this is the only power we have or are expected to want – and ironically, of course, when we do say ‘no’ we’re rarely believed. Sexual refusal is the battleground, and if that’s women’s main power, it’s a shit power to have – particularly as it mainly works for young, hot women. For a lot of men, though, it seems like ‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place. Sexual refusal as a limited, contingent form of control is double bullshit for women and girls, because it means that if we actually happen to like sex and seek it out, as most of us would were we free to do so, we’re judged harshly for it. We like to think we live in a hugely sexually free culture, but we don’t. We don’t.

Martin: Well, that’s another point I wanted to hit. With men’s magazines, say, we’ve developed this weird lad culture that’s almost grown up in opposite to feminism – except it’s counter-productive and infantilising. And in a weird way a lot of examples of ‘rape culture’ – Brendan O’Neil’s “how can I help wolf-whistling at women” for example – are immensely infantilising. It’s like being told you’re a dribbling animal, so weak-willed that you’re guided by your penis. This weird clique of writers at magazines gradually fading out of fashion have an almost hysterical need to define what is and isn’t allowed to be sexy, and it seems not to bear much relationship to what people choose in real life. I remember, growing up,  a lot of pressure on finding the right type of woman attractive – namely FHM’s sexiest 100 women, which as an exercise is like asking all humanity what their favourite foods are and then blending all the results into a sort of bland gruel.

Laurie: I like that. Ever thought about writing for a living?

Martin: Not sure there’s any money in it!

They talk about the difficulties of male feminism.

Martin: …Feminism can be a daunting area for men. Feminism has its own language, codes, like any cliquey area of writing. I’m keenly aware of blundering in as a man and saying stupid things, it put me off writing about it for a long time until I had the confidence. I was nervous about this chat. I’m keenly aware that you could probably make mincemeat of me on this topic.

Laurie: Unfortunately, it is true that there’s a small but serious risk of getting painfully jumped on if you get something wrong, particularly with the internet.

Martin: You almost need a sort of training arena where you can say stupid things to feminists and not get shot down in public. When I was struggling to understand patriarchy, I found feminist blogs unhelpful. I was asking questions I now realise were a bit stupid, but out of naivety rather than anything else.

Laurie: I’ve thought about this a lot and unfortunately, I do think female feminists are going to have to be a bit more forgiving and generous in our corrections from time to time, if we can do that without diluting the message – firm but fair. Which of course sucks balls, because we’ve spent our lives being told to be forgiving and generous and make men feel better.

Yes. We want to be (ahem) assertive, but we get called cunts for being it.

Martin: Why are more men not talking about this? Where are the spaces where men can stand up and say – actually, this is fucked up? I wish feminism was seen as a discipline in which we discussed men’s issues as much as women’s.

Laurie: We need some more outspoken male feminists. Maybe you should be one. I’ll train you, we can be like Pai Mei and Beatrix. I’m Pai Mei.

[Insert elaborate training montage where Martin is made to climb an enormous mountain of privilege-comprehension, dodge the tar-pits of in-fighting and finally destroy Rick Santorum in hand-to-hand combat armed only with a copy of The Dialectic of Sex ]

Martin: *gasps* I…I know feminism.

Laurie: Now you’re ready.

He’s trained. Booya.

 

24 comments

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  1. 1
    Stacy

    I do think female feminists are going to have to be a bit more forgiving and generous in our corrections from time to time….

    Maybe you should be one. I’ll train you, we can be like Pai Mei and Beatrix. I’m Pai Mei.

    So much for being forgiving and generous in our corrections! (Not Pai Mei’s training style. Nosiree.)

  2. 2
    Amanda Marcotte

    One reason that men get jumped all over when they ask what Martin calls naive questions is that 99% of the men doing that aren’t asking questions. They’re trolling and baiting. I call them “questions” instead of questions, in fact. The person asking them never wants to listen; they ask them so they can pounce all over the answers and poke holes in them and demand impossible levels of evidence and basically do anything but consider the argument.

    We’ve all seen creationists do the same thing on evolution boards. Being patient and generous and all that with them isn’t really effective, because they are only pretending to be persuadable. Yelling at them and telling the to f–k off is a more sanity-preserving strategy.

    I realize if you’re in that 1% that’s not trying to be a dick, it can seem frustrating, but in that case, I would recommend rethinking your strategy. One reason that we can tell men who do this aren’t sincere is the resources to answer their questions are there. The assumption that random women on the internet drop everything we’re doing to answer questions that have been answered a million times is insulting and sexist; it goes back to the belief that women’s duty to serve men comes before all other considerations. There’s even a blog called Feminism 101. Instead of demanding that feminist women drop what they’re doing and answer questions, I recommend men who sincerely want to learn read up first.

  3. 3
    smhll

    I can be patient with a real person asking questions, if he’s behaving decently, but I don’t have patience for a troll or a teenager who has credulously soaked in the crap in the worst corners of the internet, or even a decent human being if he comes close to using too many tired adjectives that are overused by MRAs. His reply to my first reply is also very telling. If someone can’t be not hurtful and not argumentative that close to the start of the discussion I’m going to stop caring whether he understands me or not.

    Laurie: I’ve had men tell me that actually it’s women who have all the power, because they have the power of sexual refusal.

    My brain quickly inverted this problematic idea to see it as “difficult to quench sexual desire is a weakness for men”.

    (And I want to dot that phrase with a dozen disclaimers, but am lazy ATM. So I will attach the disclaimers retroactively, if anyone has a problem with my statement.)

  4. 4
    NateHevens, resident SOOPER-GENIUS... apparently...

    Fascinating. I can sympathize with Martin’s nervousness on the issue. I’m afraid sometimes to write about Feminism myself because it is a hard area to traverse as a man. It shouldn’t be, of course, and I’d venture that this is at least partly the fault of men and the patriarchy, not women/feminists.

    If I could get in touch with Martin, I would recommend Feminism 101. It is a great blog that does provide a ton of information. The vast majority of the questions are, I think, answered quite well at Feminism 101. Everyone should have it bookmarked, IMO.

  5. 5
    Beauzeaux

    “‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place.”

    Best sentence in the whole thing.

    “I can be patient with a real person asking questions, if he’s behaving decently”

    Aye, there’s the rub.I’ve been reading a couple of blogs about transgender issues because I felt totally ignorant of the subject. I read. I didn’t comment for a long time and only comment rarely now. It’s not my space and it’s not about me.
    This is not typical behavior for men. Many come storming in, spoiling for a fight. They read nothing from before they arrived and expect you to take the time to “educate” them.
    That’s not how it works, son.

  6. 6
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Batman doesn’t ask for help? Bad example, since Batman has a whole bat-family that includes/included (haven’t read the books since the relaunch) Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwoman, Catwoman, Oracle, the Huntress… come to think of it, Batman relies on a lot of help from women.

    /geekery

  7. 7
    smrnda

    The problem with patience for people who are asking questions is, come on, feminism isn’t some horribly obscure topic and gender studies isn’t some totally obscure discipline that you can’t find out about. True, some things are pretty academic and unreadable, but it’s a pretty widely discussed topic. The ‘feminism’ that some men go raving about exists nowhere outside of MRA websites.

    On the whole ‘individual’ thing, we could think that way, but we’d be missing the fact that some individuals have way more power than others, and these privileged individuals make choices that affect tons of other people. So my ‘individual choices’ are kind of a pile of left-overs that the elites have thrown my way, so that I and a whole pile of other ‘individuals’ (= society = people who share common interests and common struggles) can fight each other for them.

    And the whole ‘power of sexual refusal’ if someone is citing that as a power, that’s kind of a last-line-of-defense-i’m not your property type ‘power’ to have. Wow, I get to say no to sex, and that’s my huge power. Makes me think I must not have much else then.

  8. 8
    quietmarc

    Improbable Joe> But I wonder how the balance skews on average: Batman asking for help from women vs women asking -him- for help?

    But I agree that he’s not a great example: as the (sometime)anti-hero, he’s supposed to subvert and undermine our culture’s ideas of standard heroism.

    Superman doesn’t ask for help. Unless there’s kryptonite.

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Amanda – another word for that, at least around FTB, is JAQing off. I’m not sure if that’s local slang or all over the place.

    Nate – well Martin Robbins is on Twitter, so you could tell him that. @mjrobbins

  10. 10
    A. Noyd

    I think one way that sincerely curious but uninformed men can differentiate themselves from the men who are just JAQing off is to, over the course of a discussion, make substantial concessions and articulate what you’ve learned.  Do it as often as you gain some insight or your mind is changed or you’re starting to doubt your previous opinion.  The trolls only ever make trivial concessions (or pretend to).

    Another is to approach only one or two issues at a time, and if you feel you’re not getting what you’re being told, go away for a while and think about it on your own.  You can announce you’re doing that, but don’t make the mistake of saying “don’t talk to me about [tangent]” or “I’m not interested in [other topic]” when others bring in more issues.  The idea isn’t to keep them on point but to keep yourself from avoiding and/or appearing to avoid what they’re telling you by jumping from topic to topic.

  11. 11
    Amanda Marcotte

    Thanks, Ophelia! I have seen that phrase before, but forgot about it. It’s perfect.

  12. 12
    H2s

    RE the

    “‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place.”

    Bit … What is this actually saying? One way to interpret it is that some women do not feel as if they are being treated as a woman unless a man is trying to chat them up. Which seems silly.

    This seems
    A) Demeaning to themselves – their interaction with any particular man is surely not defined by this alone? If they not in the category woman, how are they treated? Like another man? So in this case the complaint becomes – men interact with people they are interested in differently than people they are not..
    B) Seems to imply that men should not actually exercise choice in choosing who they pursue – that because men are seen as indiscriminately promiscuous, any behaviour that doesn’t match this is cruel to those they do not pursue?

    There does sometimes seem to creep into some feminist critiques of male behaviour a sort of decrying of male sexual agency/ability to be picky. I don’t think it helps at all.

  13. 13
    Lyanna

    Ugh, I really HATE that “power of sexual refusal makes women SO powerful” trope. It’s god-awful. It equates control over YOUR OWN BODY with controlling the economy, the government, and the religion. It equates basic control over YOUR PHYSICAL SELF with the ability to oppress others.

    Since we’ve been talking a lot about men in intellectual/geeky circles with regard to the sexual harassment issue, I’ll just say that any woman who has spent any time around geeky men will have encountered this trope from some whiny unwashed creep who thinks that women are exerting power over him by denying him sexual access. Words like “ostracism” and “strong” (to describe women who dare to say ‘no’) and “weak” (to describe the poor little men who can’t get laid) get thrown around.

  14. 14
    John Morales

    Amanda,

    One reason that men get jumped all over when they ask what Martin calls naive questions is that 99% of the men doing that aren’t asking questions. They’re trolling and baiting. I call them “questions” instead of questions, in fact. The person asking them never wants to listen; they ask them so they can pounce all over the answers and poke holes in them and demand impossible levels of evidence and basically do anything but consider the argument.

    I have come to accept that many of those 1% who are genuine but uninformed tend to expect to be given 101-level explanations and justifications for people’s stances—effectively diluting if not derailing the discussion—and feel aggrieved when they are pointed to resources and asked to inform themselves before continuing.

  15. 15
    Nepenthe

    @H2S

    It refers to sweeping anti-feminist statements about how all women have to do is sit around and look pretty and men will give them everything and how women reject all the nice guys and how they’d love it if women hit on them all the time etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

  16. 16
    Godless Heathen

    @H2s,

    No. What women are saying when they say that is that some men only pay attention to women they want to sleep with and all other women are invisible to them. The only women they treat as even vaguely human are the women they want to sleep with. When they say women don’t want to sleep with me, they are only referring to the women who are hot enough for them to want to sleep with, even though there very well may be other women who want to sleep with them that they aren’t interested in.

    Then, when the women reject them because THEY aren’t interested, those men get upset, while forgetting that there are plenty of women that they rejected.

    ALSO, not being a real woman or enough of a woman is a common means of discounting the opinions of more outspoken women. It’s commonly used against feminists. It’s a problem.

  17. 17
    Arkady

    @H2S

    “‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place.”

    Bit … What is this actually saying? One way to interpret it is that some women do not feel as if they are being treated as a woman unless a man is trying to chat them up. Which seems silly.

    Can’t speak to the original commenter’s intended meaning, but it’s familiar enough to me. There are more than a few unpleasant men out there who make it very clear that if they don’t want to fuck you, they don’t consider you to be a woman, e.g. I’ve had a few ‘SHEMALE!’s thrown my way since I gave up leg shaving, shouted by complete strangers. Turning down propositions can also result in anger and not-a-real-woman insults, especially if the guy considered you his last desperate chance of finding a female-shaped fuck-hole that evening (they make it clear when asking that they consider you unworthy and that you should be insanely grateful that anyone would deign to want you)

    In milder terms it’s often couched in the ‘you’re not a Real Woman(TM) if…’ bullshit. Often seems like there’s an awful lot of us unwomen out here!

  18. 18
    Godless Heathen

    @Nepenthe,

    Yeah. And then when a woman they don’t think is hot hits on them, they get disgusted and/or angry. Because they want women to hit on them, but not those women.

  19. 19
    A. Noyd

    H2s (#12)

    “‘women who I want to have sex with’ are the only ones admitted into the category ‘woman’ in the first place.”

    Bit … What is this actually saying? One way to interpret it is that some women do not feel as if they are being treated as a woman unless a man is trying to chat them up.

    Try putting it into the context of the rest of what Laurie is saying. She’s talking about the power women get. Rather, the power women are allowed to have. The way you should interpret what you quoted is that the only women who are allowed the one, shitty power of sexual refusal are those who are sexually attractive to men. The rest of us get nothing.

    If they not in the category woman, how are they treated? Like another man?

    Feminists don’t want to be treated “as women.” But, at the same time, we don’t want the alternative to be “as men.” We want to be treated as people, defined in a way to encompass both women and men (and anyone identifying outside the binary). Our gender should be acknowledged without it affecting how we’re treated.

    Seems to imply that men should not actually exercise choice in choosing who they pursue…

    Again, notice the context. Laurie isn’t talking about choosing sex partners, but about empowerment. A woman’s power shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not a man approves of her as a potential bedmate.

    There does sometimes seem to creep into some feminist critiques of male behaviour a sort of decrying of male sexual agency/ability to be picky.

    Not unless your sexual agency can only operate in the absence of women’s sexual agency or your pickiness causes you to treat women unattractive to you with less humanity.

  20. 20
    H2s

    Ok, some of those responses do explain it better than the original sentence. (to me)

    As a (sorry) “attractive/hot” man (yes, having succumbed to the social pressure to conform to a body/lifestyle stereotype, blah blah blah), I think this convention of men preemptively hyper-rejecting women they are not interested in is damaging to everyones well being and also contributes to mens loneliness as expressed in the article. I really do try to talk to people (on first meeting) as much as possible the same way (friendly and interested in the conversation) whether they are men or women, straight or gay.. This does lead to being called “completely gay”, queer, etc by women who felt I was leading them on by not being nasty, or having a decent conversation. Or whats wrong with you etc? Which really isn’t all that fun, othering etc.

    But, I am glad I do this because some of my best friends I have met are women I don’t find sexually attractive but are great people – I would never have had a decent interaction if I preemptively treated them like crap.

  21. 21
    khms

    It’s strange. Or maybe I just have had a strange selection of people to interact with in my life.

    But the only case of this strong power to say no I’ve ever encountered was Lysistrata (could she count as an early (fictive) Feminist?), or people explicitly referencing her.

    (This is not to say that stuff like “no means no” was unknown (it wasn’t), just this particular variation.)

  22. 22
    callistacat

    @Lyanna

    “Ugh, I really HATE that “power of sexual refusal makes women SO powerful” trope. It’s god-awful. It equates control over YOUR OWN BODY with controlling the economy, the government, and the religion. It equates basic control over YOUR PHYSICAL SELF with the ability to oppress others.”

    I was at a book store and came across this book called “Women Have All The Power, Too Bad They Don’t Know It.” I was very curious about this power I was clueless about, so I picked it up read a few chapters. Can you guess what that power is? It was written by a pastor or reverend so he delicately avoided the medical term and street slang and called it our “kitty” (you know, wink wink). He says he who has all the gold rules, and our gold is our kitty.

  23. 23
    Godless Heathen

    I think this convention of men preemptively hyper-rejecting women they are not interested in is damaging to everyones well being and also contributes to mens loneliness as expressed in the article.

    Yes, it definitely does. (see Howard Wolowitz in the first few seasons of the Big Bang Theory).

    The problem is that for women this rejection of women that men aren’t interested in can hurt them in other areas, too. It often leads to the women being ignored in non-sexual settings as well, like at work, for example. Which is not good.

  24. 24
    Deborah

    I contribute to a small feminist blog, and what we have found even more exhausting than the MRA trolls is the hyper controlling complaints of supposed allies. Some of my friends barely write anymore for fear what the next condescending criticism will be. We have discussed in our backchannel what makes people think it’s okay to go to someone else’s space and tell them they aren’t writing about the correct things or using the correct terminology, especially in such a constant barrage and so rudely. This has varied from demanding we refocus from media criticism to discussion of veganism (animals are oppressed and eating them is selfish), multiple personalities being oppressed baby not being recognized as a valid way of life, and perpetual policing of language and topics. Maybe that’s just life in social justice activism, but I have to say when we were starting out ten years ago – in our own blog not bothering anyone else, and all women – we were regularly jumped on for using everyday language instead of arcane jargon and to criticize our conclusions and our topics and our focus.

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