Last week the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland made one of his periodic forays into gender politics, sparked by the Liberal Democrats’ saga of sleaze, the latest Twitterstorms and a tacky plastic surgery game app.
I fully endorse the main message of the piece, that men should actively involve themselves in challenging and combatting misogyny and gender oppression. Beneath that I had several disagreements. I despise the ‘man-up’ cliche on which he concludes, especially when applied to the type of chivalrous protector role suggested here. This type of benevolent sexism seems to me very much part of the problem, not the solution. His suggestion that the forthcoming Southbank conference Being A Man should focus on what men can do to help women merely amplifies that.
At the heart of the piece is a section on the part played by women in propagating misogyny.
Some would seize on this evidence gleefully, to say women are to blame for sexism along with everything else routinely laid at their door. That’s adamantly not my point here. Rather, just as ethnic minorities can internalise the very worst things said about them over many centuries, so some women have imbibed so much misogyny, it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.
Viewed like this, the battle for equality no longer resembles the war between men and women of old. But there is a war going on. It’s a war against femaleness itself – one that is, to stress again, prosecuted chiefly by men, but all too often with the collaboration of women.
The notion of a ‘war against femaleness’ seems confused to me. Is he talking about the social construction of traditional female gender? If so, I’d say the opposite is happening – if there is a war here it is actually being waged on deviations from subordinate, compliant, superficial femininity. Or does he mean there is a war against women? That’s a familiar claim and one which I believe (just like the same claim about men) founders on its own hyperbole, to the extent that it becomes neither instructive nor functional.
What I really find intriguing in this section though is the way in which Jonathan seems to imply that misogyny is “imbibed” and expressed in ways that are fundamentally different for men and women. He’s not alone in this, a lot of feminist and pro-feminist writing makes the same assumption, that misogyny is something that is fundamentally owned by men, created by men, somehow essential to men, and when women join in it is as tourists, cheerleaders or bandwagon jumpers, rather than central co-instigators and participants.
I’m not convinced this is true. it makes more sense to me to think of men’s misogyny in the same way that Jonathan here describes women’s misogyny – that men have imbibed so much misogyny it’s eventually got under their skin and found a home there.
While people of different genders are, of course, differently socialised, they are not raised on Mars and Venus. We all swim in the same ideological waters, breathe the same culture, absorb the same messages. Boys (in western liberal societies) are not raised with specific instructions to hate or fear women, rather both boys and girls are raised with almost identical messages about socially acceptable gender roles, about socially acceptable (and gender-specific) sexual behaviour, how nice girls behave, what it is to be a real man. Consequently boys too often grow into men that despise women who fail to meet exacting beauty standards, but so too do women. Women who depart from the script of demure, modest and restrained sexuality will be reviled as sluts or slags by women and men alike.
In that sense, misogyny is not something men do to women with an occasional female collaborators. It is an ambient dynamic in society, a collection of attitudes, beliefs and values that are passed down through generations and shared, gradually evolving to survive and thrive in new environments, whether changing workplaces and cultural loci or the new reality online. In other words, misogyny can be understood as a rather classic example of meme theory.
I appreciate that at this point some readers will be spluttering that I’m trying to get men off the hook for the oppression of women. With respect, I don’t think I am. What I’m saying is that challenging misogyny and all forms of gender or other oppression will need to be a shared project.
I also consider this a rather more optimistic way of considering the issue. Analyses which describe misogyny as being somehow inherent or even essential to men or masculinity strike me as being ultimately disempowering. I refuse to accept that gendered hatred and oppression (of any flavour) is inevitable or invariable. If we consider misogynistic attitudes and values to be broadly memetic, then we accept that we can change our society in such a way that they will either wither and die or evolve beyond all recognition. I consider that a rather comforting thought.