The attack on men


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From: Manumit Exchange <
To: Manumit Exchange <
Date: 17 May 2002 14:57
Subject: [MANUMIT] Crunch time - The new movement against men - A new leash
on Life

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Another book review of Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men
in Popular Culture, by Paul Nathanson, Katherine Young (McGill-Queen's
University Press, $52.95).

It appears to be essentially a feminist review of the book, with a few good
points allowed to get past the blatant bias.


Australian Magazine, Edition 1
4 May 2002, Page 001

Crunch time - The new movement against men - A new leash on Life
By Miriam Cosic

The latest wave of billboard advertising, and popular culture in general,
is reversing the roles of sexist aggressor and victim. Is it a case of
feminist revenge, and do men really care?

When Thelma and Louise gunned their '66 T-bird convertible over a cliff in
Utah's picturesque Canyonlands, ending their lives and the movie about
them, women all over the Western world sent up a victory shout. Here was a
triumph over patriarchy, a win for untold generations of women who had
suffered at the hands of men, a eulogy to feminine freedom.

Who were they kidding? Here were a couple of half-witted women, chronically
attracted to bad men and losers, who, during the course of the film, seemed
to become criminally insane. Descending into a miasma of psychological
torture and murder, and even then unable to keep hold of their autonomy or
their cash, they ended up killing themselves because there was no way out
from the ghastly corner they'd backed into.

It's a sordid story about political and economic impotence, intersexual
violence, lack of self-respect: the frustrations, in short, of poor white
trash living in late 20th century America.

Now there's a third reading of the movie to depress us even further: Thelma
& Louise is a perfect example of a hatred of men which is permeating
contemporary Western society - the misandry that is displacing the age-old
prejudice against women.

"Something, like, crossed over in me, and I can't go back," says Thelma.

"I'm awake, wide awake, everything looks different," says Louise.

"They have seen the light," comment Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young
in their new book, Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in
Popular Culture.

Their interpretation of the movie's underlying theme is chilling: "Better
dead than alive as women in a man's world."

When the book was published in Canada late last year, it predictably
ignited a storm of controversy. It is the outcome of years of research and
rumination by the authors, who were increasingly unnerved by the depictions
of men they saw around them - in movies, on television, in print, even on
greeting cards.

Their examples survey exports of the American entertainment industry:
Silence of the Lambs, Sleeping with the Enemy, Cape Fear, Fried Green
Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, The Color Purple, even Little Women in
its latest incarnation, and many more. Each movie unrelievedly shows men as
mad, bad, or not very bright. Women are invariably more intelligent and
better human beings. On television, sitcoms such as Home Improvement,
Dharma & Greg, The Simpsons, Roseanne and Men Behaving Badly portray men as
nice enough but oafish or dumb, women as the centre of the moral universe.
Liberal talk show hosts and comedians not only start from a feminist
perspective, but even the men among them are so brainwashed they routinely
malign their own sex.

Daytime television programs directed at women are even worse. From the
confrontational style of talk shows hosted by Ricki Lake and Sally Jesse
Raphael to the middle-class platitudes of Oprah Winfrey - all of which,
though produced in the US, are staples of Australian television - men are
routinely shown to be losers, philanderers, rapists, wife-beaters,
absconded providers, and emotionally absent. Women are their victims. "The
views of men, qua men, are not expressed in the public square," says Young.

Unlike the usual men's rights suspects - the angry, white, largely
under-educated males who fight family law and gun law reform and who seem
psychologically incapable of accepting women as their social and,
especially, legal equals - Young and Nathanson have two useful trump cards
to play against their critics. She is a woman; he is a gay man. No
backward-looking defenders of the patriarchy, these.

Young, who is professor of the history of religion at McGill University in
Montreal, came to realise that men were the new victims via her lifelong
work on women and religion, which had made her hyper-aware of gender as a
political issue. Nathanson is a writer and editor who had been Young's
graduate student. Both authors are opposed to bias against women - the
androcentric view - but they claim that the gynocentric view, equally
discriminatory, has overtaken it in both virulence and scale.

Don't tell them this new nastiness may be an inevitable, and temporary,
swing of the pendulum of social change which, after millennia of
discrimination against women, should come to rest at some real
approximation of equality and respect between the sexes. "It's
understandable to swing to gynocentrism, but the problem with this is, do
we endorse it? Do we say it's morally legitimate?' Young asks. "And I think
here Paul and I have a fairly strong moral argument that goes through the
book. Two wrongs do not make a right. Androcentrism was wrong, and
gynocentrism is wrong."

In the United States, glamour academics such as Camille Paglia have used
the media astutely to push a new pro-man agenda. Men who switched sides
have been given shorter shrift. The once high-profile US commentator Warren
Farrell claims he was cold-shouldered by the mainstream media, and suffered
a concomitant loss of income and lifestyle, when he stopped talking
feminism and started talking about the disadvantages of men. "When we care
as much about saving males as saving whales, we will also save ourselves,"
he writes. "When we seek to find boys' inner world, we will give a gift to
our sons in the 21st century that we gave to our daughters in the 20th

In Australia, Fairfax newspaper columnist Bettina Arndt is the highest
profile apostate. She regularly feeds feminine outrage by chronicling the
frustrations of post-feminist men and boys who are marginalised in their
fathering roles and failing at school. She is hotly debated by other female
writers, who take the now-conventional feminist viewpoint: that women are
only slowly overcoming the effects of systemic prejudice, that men still
have the upper hand economically and politically, and therefore only
women's rights have to be promoted.

Although books have been published here and overseas about sexist
representations of men in popular culture, it is a discussion that has yet
to penetrate the mainstream. Perhaps that's because men are taught to take
things on the chin, and not to admit vulnerability. Perhaps it's because
they really are too powerful to care.

Don't you believe it, say those who do care. "The media are replete with
images of stupid men. There is almost a gloating over the stupidity of
men," says Don Bowak, NSW president of the Men's Health and Well-Being
Association. "But nobody is naming it." He says all those ads, played for
laughs, where men are shown to be incompetent in the kitchen or the
laundry, are not funny at all - especially when working women still
complain of having to work the "second shift" at home. "They make me feel
sad, because men's attempts to take up the slack get mocked. And that's
painful." Bowak adds that the worst effect of the demeaning of men is on
the morale of young boys. "They are soaking up these negative images.
There's huge anger and they don't even know where it's coming from," he
says. "And we, as society, don't even pay attention."

Condescension towards men is the flavour of the moment in advertising.
There's the inarticulate, presumably testosterone-dazed adolescent who
rages against health food and then reaches for the nutritious cereal, while
his parents and his sister smile smugly. There's the complacent mother,
having sorted out her husband, who croons "silly Daddy" over their baby.
Now there's a good start to encouraging respect between father and child.
Then there's the smartly dressed professional woman who smiles lovingly at
her confused partner and indulgently murmurs "idiot!" - which might be kind
of cute, but it's impossible to imagine anyone reversing the sexes these

"I think people are overly sensitive to these encapsulated messages," says
Greg Daniel, co-founder of the communications group Issues and Images.
"They basically reflect things which are going on every day of the week.
People do say things like that. Boys are testosterone-driven. Advertising
is a mirror of what is going on, and the speed with which advertising
reacts to trends in popular culture is a sign of how efficient the agency
concerned is."

The shift in portrayals of men, Daniel suggests, is a typical endpoint of
social and political movements; when their message starts being
incorporated into popular culture, their most zealous proponents start
getting shriller to differentiate themselves from the mainstream. And then
the inevitable counter-reaction sets in. The good news is that, since
Federation, Australians have shown little interest in extremist politics.

What's more, Daniel says, men are most likely to shrug off an irritant and
move on rather than agonise over the rights and wrongs of it, something
their blooding in contact sports as kids and their competitiveness as
adults trains them for. Which is why women are more likely to complain
about sexism than men. "I don't think anyone who has watched, read or
listened to anything in the past ten years could have missed some of the
vitriol being directed at men as a group. How seriously one takes this at a
personal level is another matter," he says.

Elspeth Probyn, lecturer in gender studies at Sydney University, says
claims of anti-male bias are "overplayed". "There is a backlash, a
resentment that has been voiced by some very powerful and influential
writers on masculinity. It's that cry of the weak: 'What about us?!' That
used to happen with the women's movement, too. It wasn't great politics
then, and it isn't great politics now."

She points out that men have not become the weaker sex: "Let's get back to
the bare facts of life. Women still earn 73 cents in the male dollar."

Young and Nathanson begin by quoting the Jewish writer Jules Isaac: "I am
told I would do better to devote myself to some constructive task rather
than denounce the teaching of contempt. It is impossible to establish the
teaching of respect without first destroying the remnants of the teaching
of contempt. Truth cannot be built upon error." This establishes the extent
of their claim: misandry in Western society today has not only overtaken
misogyny, but is comparable to anti-Semitism in its threat to human

And yet men so clearly still have the upper hand in the West. They are the
lawmakers and the corporation builders. Men earn more, dominate politics,
still sound more authoritative to our ears, and network with each other at
the top.

So what do Western men, as a group, have to complain about? Unfortunately,
the truly appalling examples that Nathanson and Young give rather get lost
in the general whine. The problem with criticising an ad that depicts men
as slobs, or incompetent in the kitchen or laundry, is that many men - and
this may be a generational thing - would laugh at it themselves. It lets
them off the hook when it comes to domestic matters, much in the way that
the odd feminist wilts girlishly when faced with a flat tyre. Stereotypes
are to be avoided at all costs, except when they come in handy.

Some stereotypes are in a league of their own. Take, for example, the
Voodoo hosiery advertisement in which a sassy young woman leads two naked
men on a leash. The men are portrayed literally as animals - domestic
animals, what's worse, and their handsomely naked bodies, together with the
leash, suggest exactly what they might be used for. "It's humiliating,"
Bowak says. "How do you get away with that?" (People magazine didn't get
away with it in 1992, when the sexes were reversed.) There are female
equivalents to the TV sitcom depictions of nice but bumbling husbands.
Carrie in Sex and the City, or Fran in The Nanny, appear to be strong, but
are ditzy man-mad fashion victims who have no life plan beyond catching
their man. Such characters, of both sexes, are indeed stereotypical; but
even if they are deeply irritating, they may not be so dangerous.

Far more significant is the stereotyping of men, usually in the cinema, as
violent and sexually predatory. Some movies, such as Sleeping with the
Enemy, portray men as irredeemably evil. Others, such as the
testosterone-pumped Rambo-style action movies, only seem to portray men as
heroes. Movies such as these, Young and Nathanson say, are a perversion of
masculinity, a pathological reaction to the progressive emasculation of

"The machismo of today is not based on manhood at all; it's based on
adolescence," Nathanson says. "These are people who take no responsibility
for themselves, let alone for others. Some forms of machismo have always
had swagger, but even John Wayne, the king of swagger, behaved in ways that
required him to take responsibility for others. You might not like that
style, but at least there was a moral dimension."

Young identifies the "three Ps" - being a protector, a provider and a
progenitor - as the traditional and cross-cultural pattern for masculine
identity. Today, she says, these roles are no longer distinctively male.
Women have joined the workforce and can now provide for themselves. They
expect the state to protect them and they pay for policing out of their
taxes, just as men do. "And as for progeniture," Young says, "that's still
around to the extent that we need a teaspoon of sperm, but, you know, I can
go to a sperm bank . " There's nothing left with which men can drive their
identity, she says. "And this shift creates a vacuum which this resurgence
of machismo fills. But it's a machismo which is no longer functional, which
no longer has any serious purpose."

Nathanson points to one, though hardly recent, example of a fine
idealisation of masculinity. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck plays a
white lawyer in a Southern town, just before the civil rights period, who
defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. "His way of being a
man is based on intelligence rather than ranting or violence. It's based on
sensitivity to his children. It's based on a sense of responsibility
towards others, to the political and social fabric of society."

But isn't that what makes a good person, regardless of sex? "That's a nice
idea; I'd like to agree with it," Nathanson says. "But there's something
more than that going on here." Humans, he says, are not abstractions but
living flesh and blood, and we need to relate to our bodies. "We do need to
see ourselves as human beings, but we also need to see ourselves as men and

Unlike men, Nathanson and Young point out, women still have something
unique, something that is inalienably theirs: childbirth. Young says that,
in the past, men's unique function was to be conscripted for battle. So
far, it still is. Although American women have been sent into combat
support roles in recent engagements - and other Western countries haven't
mobilised women even that much - they have never been conscripted and have
yet to be sent into theatres of hands-on combat or even into dangerous
peacekeeping roles.

What's more, September 11 saw a resurgence of respect for the physical and
moral strength, the selflessness and bravery, of archetypally masculine
blue-collar men such as firefighters and police. And New York's mayor,
Rudolph Giuliani, was lionised for the strong fatherly leadership he
displayed - the comfort of having a traditionally masculine figure of grim,
practical but caring determination in control in a dangerous world.

Don Bowak and Elspeth Probyn think aspects of Australian culture make our
experience different to North America's. "There is more acknowledgement
here of a complexity in what it means to be a man, and what it means to be
a woman. The pitting of the genders here doesn't seem to have happened in
the same way," says Probyn, who, like Nathanson and Young, is Canadian.
"And there is a specific articulation of masculinity here which a book from
Canada wouldn't quite be able to touch - the grand tradition of taking the
piss, for one thing."

She suggests two current Australian television series as models of balance
and intelligence. In Always Greener, she says, "all the male characters are
multifaceted depictions of masculinity - with their weaknesses and their
strengths, and in a really nice engagement with the female characters". The
Secret Life of Us, about a group of young Melburnian friends, also examines
men and women in all their complexities, highlighting their emotional
similarities, yet sympathetic to their inherent differences. "That is the
distinctive thing I can see emerging in the Australian popular scene," she
says. "An acknowledgement of difference, but getting over the kind of
polemical facing-off you see in North America."

Bowak says our essential egalitarianism is the key to handling the evolving
relationship between the sexes. "If women hadn't rattled the bars of the
gender cage, then men wouldn't have done it. But the trouble is, the whole
structure is falling to pieces. The feminine side of our society was
repressed and now, in psychological terms, there's a return of the
repressed - and it's come back fairly pissed off. That's perfectly
understandable," he adds.

"I regard this as a sacred time. Unless we got into this mess, nothing
would have shifted. But something is growing out of the mess."

It does seem early in the piece to get into he says/she says arguments,
when inequalities that women face in the Western world have not been
eradicated, and when women in other parts of the world are being denied the
most basic freedoms guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. You want recurrent, unpleasant imagery in the popular media?

Turn on the nightly news and see pictures of women unable to show their
faces or walk down the street alone, much less participate in the
political, intellectual and economic life of their country. Read stories
about women who are hospitalised after gang rape, then tried by a
legitimate court and condemned to death by stoning for adultery. These are
images that girls still grow up with.

But the critique of Spreading Misandry still makes sense, and any decent
feminist would agree. One form of sexism doesn't cancel out another. And
surely we're all smart enough, and have enough goodwill, to bear in mind
two such similar warnings at once.


Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture, by
Paul Nathanson, Katherine Young
(McGill-Queen's University Press, $52.95).