The term ‘misandry’ often strikes me as a kind of urban myth in the world of gender politics. Its origins are real, and the lessons it can teach us are certainly relevant – but it has been so distorted by time and hysteria that it’s become monstrous, to the point where we often don’t understand what it is or where it came from. A bit like a vampire, or Cory Bernardi.
Let’s start with the bare bones. Misandry is defined as the hatred or dislike of men or boys, characterised by discrimination, denigration, sexual objectification, and/or violence against males. It is often considered a feminist reaction against misogyny, the dislike or hatred of girls and women also manifested through discrimination, violence and sexual objectification. And in the strictest technical sense yes, misogyny and misandry are natural opposites. But the practical manifestation of misandry in our society is rather different, and the portrayal of misogyny and misandry as equal and opposite reactions to one another is pretty inaccurate. And *drum roll* here’s why….
(1) Misandry is not institutionalised.
First off, let me say this – I do believe misandry exists. I believe that there are people out there who really do hate men simply because they are men, who treat men as emotionally stunted sexual objects and as generally lesser beings. But people who truly hate men just for being men are very much in the minority. They are individuals, and sometimes small groups. They are neither a widely accepted part of mainstream Western culture, nor the invisible but powerful architects of a feminist apparatus to systematically oppress men throughout society. Such an apparatus doesn’t exist, and people who hate men just for being men are emphatically not feminists. Misandry is sporadic, not institutionalised.
On the other hand, there’s a wealth of evidence to support the idea that misogyny is institutionalised, both in our own societies and throughout other cultures in history. Factors such as the continued exclusion of women from all or most political and economic power; the double-standards which still persist regarding male and female sexual activity; the extraordinary prevalence of violence committed by men against women; and the prejudice which still exists against women in innumerable sectors of the work force, are just a fraction of the evidence supporting the existence of widespread and systematic discrimination against women. Almost every aspect of our culture – sport, religion, politics, media, sexuality, body image, work, violence, military service, finance, parenting – has either heavily excluded women, or else placed them under legally and culturally imposed restrictions which do not apply to men. I don’t for a second think that this is some kind of male conspiracy; it is simply the way our society has evolved, dominated largely by heterosexual ‘masculine’ white men who are simply building on the ideas of those who came before them. They rarely intend to be harmful or discriminatory, they just think that that’s the way things should be because that’s how they’ve always been.
But don’t take my word for it! There’s plenty of people far better qualified than me who have studied this field. Sociologist Michael Kimmel recently published a book called ‘Angry White Men’ which I seriously recommend everyone should read. Analysing contemporary American masculinity, he states that “…it is truly ridiculous to argue that feminists have managed to infiltrate America’s political and cultural capitals to such an extent that they now have the political capacity to institutionalise misandry.” Marc A. Ouellette, author of the ‘International Encyclopaedia of Men and Masculinities’ argues that misogyny and misandry are not comparable because “misandry lacks the systemic, transhistoric, institutionalized, and legislated antipathy of misogyny.” Just one more! Noted anthropologist David Gilmore claims that misandry and misogyny differ because misandry “…has never been ratified into public, culturally recognized and approved institutions (…) As a cultural institution, misogyny therefore seems to stand alone as a gender-based phobia, unreciprocated.”
Misandry does not permeate culturally approved aspects of our society; and it is not enforced through legislation, institutions and widespread beliefs. It is simply (and sadly) the hatred of men by individuals, and as a cultural phenomenon it’s neither equivalent nor comparable to misogyny.
(2) Misandry is not about hating men.
Well, it is and it isn’t. As I said before, misandry as the hatred of men just for being men does unfortunately exist, though it is neither widespread nor institutionalised. For the sake of clarity, let’s call this ‘Personal Misandry’ But it also exists as another form, one which is far more widespread and is in some ways the opposite of hating men. Let’s call this one ‘Cultural Misandry’. David Gilmore writes that in this sense, misandry refers “not to the hatred of men as men, but to the hatred of men’s traditional male role, the obnoxious manly pose, a culture of machismo; that is, to an adopted sexual ideology.”
Now I think this is critically important for two reasons. The first is that it provides a vital distinction between misogyny and misandry as cultural phenomena. According to Gilmore, “misogyny…targets women no matter what they believe or do,” simply because they are women; but cultural misandry does not indiscriminately target men simply for being men, regardless of their actions or values. The second reason is that cultural misandry is the hatred of an idea, not of people. It is about hating not men, but the Man Box that I mentioned in my previous post – that list of restrictive ‘traditional’ male behaviours that supposedly characterise a real man. In one sense, cultural misandry may be said to encourage acceptance of men, rather than hatred. One could argue that theoretically, rejecting traditional masculinity sends the message that not conforming to this stereotype is perfectly OK. All those men who don’t fit into that stupid little Man Box – and let’s face it, there’s a lot of them – are still real men, good men, worthy of respect and love and the same rights as everyone else. It rejects the gender stereotype, but welcomes the human being.
Sadly, there can be a real gap between theory and reality. Somewhere between hating the idea of traditional masculinity and encouraging alternative masculinity, misandry (and sometimes feminism) gets pretty lost. The negative is not balanced by a positive; there is too much focus on rejecting ‘macho’ masculinity, and not enough on highlighting the alternatives and how they’re equally valid. So I can understand why some men might feel that widespread hatred of macho culture is in fact a widespread hatred of men – they’re told that their traditional gender role is bad and oppressive, but not what sort of roles they should adopt instead. They might feel like their identity has nowhere to go, so I do get why some men fall back on angrily embracing the Man Box. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be critical of the Man Box, because we should; but paying more attention to a problem than to a solution can sometimes just create even more problems. It is neither fair nor wise to reject traditional masculinity without putting just as much energy into increasing awareness and support of alternative identities for males.
(3) The illusion of misandry in popular culture.
Once again, there is an aspect of reality to this section that is far outweighed by the myth. Let’s tackle reality first; I believe that our mainstream media is sometimes guilty of true misandry in the form of objectifying men. For example, a few days ago one of my female Facebook friends put up this picture…
Now I get that this is meant to be a joke. And yeah, I personally think it’s quite funny. But at the same time, it also severely pisses me off because I know that if it was 12 bikini clad stereotypically beautiful women in this picture, instead of 12 shirtless stereotypically handsome guys, there’d be plenty of people who’d call out this picture as sexist. And to my complete annoyance, I’d probably be one of them. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting images like these, but what I see is a pretty glaring double standard. And don’t even get me started on some of the bilge that gets published about men (and women) in magazines like Cosmo. Some of you will probably think I’m making a big deal out of nothing over this, but I just don’t think it’s OK to treat sexualised pictures of women with outrage, but sexualised pictures of men with humour. Quite apart from the fact that double standards are the quickest way to look stupid, I think this reinforces the idea that women’s sexuality can be exploited, but men’s sexuality cannot (which is just ridiculous).
Alas, many of those who proclaim the scourge of feminism in mainstream media have spectacularly missed these instances of what could be considered misandry, and instead charged enthusiastically toward a far more ubiquitous and much less relevant target. This is one of the biggest talking-points for critics of misandry – media that stereotypes and makes fun of men. In a (highly selective) analysis of films from the 1990s, academics Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young claim that misandry has infiltrated American media to the point where “there is nothing about men as such that is good or even acceptable.” They analyse a number of films such as ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (the fuck?) in an attempt to prove that misandry in media mocks, blames and dehumanises men on an epic scale. A slightly less ludicrous example might be seen in American sit-coms – ‘Two-and-a-Half Men’, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, ‘Home Improvement’, ‘The Simpsons’, ‘King of Queens’ – all of which include stereotypes of men as workplace bunglers, henpecked husbands, and heartless womanisers. Men in these shows are often the dupes, the butt of every joke, outsmarted by their wives, children, and gargoyle-esque mothers-in-law.
It’s quite understandable why someone might interpret these texts as hateful or mocking of men, but they’re really no such thing. In Angry White Men, Kimmel points out that these shows don’t actually make fun of men at all – they make fun of patriarchy. They mock ”…the inflated sense of entitlement, the arrogant bluster, and the silly prerogatives that any illegitimate form of power would confer on the powerful.” Think about it – in these shows, how often is the man being the butt of a joke the result of him trying to tell someone else what to do, to assert authority over others? These shows are not mocking men for being men, they’re mocking the outdated idea that men are somehow entitled to more power and respect than people who are not men.
To put it another way, let’s look at an Italian theatre form called Commedia dell’Arte, which is often considered the basis of the modern sit-com formula. These performances were characterised by masked actors playing recognisable stock characters in familiar settings, and was highly popular throughout Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Two of the most famous stock characters from this form are Pantalone (a stupid, miserly and lecherous merchant) and Il Dottore (a quack doctor with a colossal ego). The thing uniting these two stock characters is that they both hold positions of power in society to which they are not legitimately entitled – Pantalone because he is stupid and petty, Dottore because he is arrogant and ignorant. Their position is a facade, masking the fact that their supposed authority far outweighs their ability. What Commedia dell’Arte mocked was not doctors or merchants, but the social system which gave power to people based on superficial factors, when they had done nothing to really earn it.
It is exactly the same in these modern sit-coms. It’s not men that are being mocked; it is the idea that being a man somehow gives you authority over others. It’s all those stupid cliches about ‘real’ masculinity – being aggressive, dominant, virile, athletic, unemotional – that they are making fun of. And let’s not forget that these stereotyped men are surrounded by other stock characters; wise-cracking kids, loving but domineering wives, and intolerable in-laws, each as ridiculous as the next. To select the male stereotype from this wealth of one-dimensional characters and claim that it’s evidence of misandry is to completely ignore the context, and to misunderstand the text itself. Yes, denigrating and mocking men would be misandry. But mocking an already stereotyped version of masculinity is not misandry. And I find it very interesting that the supposed humiliation of men through mockery raises far greater outcry than the objectification of men in sexualised images. If critics really do have a bone to pick with misandry in media, it might be more useful to focus on sexual objectification of men rather than on mockery of patriarchy.
Fact or Fiction?
I truly hope that nobody reading this gets the idea that I don’t think misandry is a real problem. And I understand why people sometimes think that feminism is a misandrist movement, because some people who identify as feminists are quite absurdly vitriolic against men. I’m genuinely sorry for those men who have been dismissed, insulted or hated simply because they are men. Individual victims of misandry are deserving of the same sensitivity and support as individual victims of misogyny. What I’m trying to say in this repulsively long post is that as a social phenomenon, misandry is not the equal and opposite reaction to misogyny. It does not occur on the same scale as misogyny as it is not incorporated into our social, cultural and political institutions in the same way. Also many people and cultural products accused of hating men are in fact hating traditional masculinity, the patriarchal definition of man’s rightful behaviours and social position. To claim that our society is now imbued with a kind of ‘reverse sexism’ against men is just one of many factors which distorts the issue of gender rights. It makes this problem about deciding which gender is more oppressed and trying to combat that oppression, rather than working towards greater benefits for all people regardless of their gender identity.
Is misandry real? Absolutely. But the myth of institutionalised, popularised man-hating has consumed and obscured the true manifestations of misandry in our culture. And the more we dismantle such myths, the more effectively we can combat the real ‘evils’ of gender discrimination – for men, for women, for everyone.