When I wrote recently on the misandry isn’t a thing thing, the counter-argument which I found most interesting and challenging went something like this:
All the examples Ally provided were cases of PHMT [patriarchy hurts men too]; if femininity and woman-ness weren’t considered bad things, then men wouldn’t be punished for “adulterating” themselves with such girl-cooties. And if women weren’t seen as inherently weak and passive, it would no longer be an Unthinkable that a man could be the victim of a woman. [Comment from Jadehawk]
A shorter version, put to me by several people on Twitter, was that what I describe as cultural misandry is nothing more than misogyny in disguise. Is it true? Not quite, in my opinion.
I would and do accept that misogyny and misandry are not opposing forces, but parallel, and very closely related. They grow from the same socio-economic roots and they complement, even actively support each other. That does not make them one and the same. There is a very similar theory about prejudice against gay men and transgendered people – that these stem from a hatred or fear of femininity in men. And yet nobody demands that we drop the words homophobia and transphobia as a result and simply refer to them as ‘misogynistic’ attacks. To do so would make invisible the specific nature of the offences, and imply that, for example, when gay men are beaten senseless in homophobic attacks, the real victims are women.
To illustrate, let’s look at one of the more infamous examples of cultural misandry from recent years. In July 2011, US chatshow The Talk discussed the gruesome sexual mutilation committed by Catherine Kieu Becker on her husband. The show’s hosts and guests, notably Sharon Osbourne, discussed the case with relish and celebratory delight, hooting and howling with laughter for a good five minutes. The case that day was real and new, the victim was at that very moment hospitalised from his wounds, and the section on The Talk (for which they later offered a fulsome apology) was genuinely shocking and stomach-churning.
It is surely unarguable that this was a case of misandry. No other noun could suffice. The gender dynamics are obvious and inescapable. To describe this as misogyny would again imply that although it was a man who had been grotesquely mutilated and then gleefully mocked, the real victims here are still women. That strikes me as a rather inhumane approach to the issue, which actively excludes a man’s suffering from the equation.
It would seem to me that a better way to understand cultural misandry is not that our society holds that male=strong / female=weak. It is that our society wants to constrain and imprison us into gender roles that match our genitalia. It is often noted that character traits which are considered positive in a man at the workplace (such as assertiveness or aggression) will be seen as negative in a woman (strident, bitchy, bossy). So assertiveness and aggression aren’t held to be negatives or positives in their own right, but become so when they are mis-gendered. The exact same thing is true of sensitivity and caring – seen as positive when displayed by a woman, negative when displayed by a man. It is certainly true that across the board typically female traits are considered less valuable and admirable than typically male traits – I am not saying our society is a post-patriarchal utopia – but it looks to me like the real crime in society is not so much displaying female characteristics per se as displaying characteristics which do not match one’s socially prescribed gender roles.
I don’t argue that patriarchy is the single dominant force in society, I think of it as just one of many oppressive dynamics which holds Global Inc together. Misogyny strengthens the patriarchy, which in turn props up the economic system. So too does homophobia, so too (indirectly) does racism, colonialism, the class system and, crucially, so too does misandry.
The related point, made by many of my detractors, is that oppression is not the same as prejudice. Oppression (such as sexism or misogyny) is prejudice + power. My own position is that while men do indeed have a dominant position over women in society, and this is a real and huge issue to be addressed, the systemic ruling class has vastly more power over both binary genders than either has over the other. Men and women alike are oppressed by capitalist culture. Yes, a significant part of men’s oppression is the imperative to oppress others, but to argue that men are not oppressed because they oppress others, or because they are not oppressed by women seems to miss the bigger picture.
I have no problem acknowledging that patriarchy hurts men too. I would go further, and argue that reciting patriarchy hurts men too should not be a way to end a conversation, but to begin one. Why does patriarchy hurt men too? How does it do so? How do we help those who are hurt? How do we prevent others being hurt similarly? Those, primarily, are not questions for women/feminists to address, but for men. We’re not only the ones who sit on the receiving end, we are also often the ones doling it out to others.
When a feminist says in one breath “patriarchy hurts men too” then in the next breath “misandry isn’t a thing” it seems to me a contradiction. If patriarchy hurts men too, then we need the language and terms of reference with which we can discuss that. If misogyny is one principal mechanism by which the patriarchy hurts women, misandry is a principal mechanism by which patriarchy hurts men too. Denying the existence of misandry effectively denies that patriarchy hurts men too.
As a general political principle, it always seems to me that we don’t overthrow the existing order (whether we’re talking patriarchy or neoliberal capitalism or whatever you want to call it) by exploding the entire edifice in a big bang. We undermine it by chipping away at every strut, every pillar, every beam that supports it. I don’t call on feminism to solve men’s problems for us. I do assert a need for the essential intellectual space and terminology to address them ourselves.