Self-described “conservative feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers delivered a speech outlining her primary objects to contemporary feminism. Item one: “Today’s movement takes a very dim view of men.”
And here is the problem with the play and with the gender feminist* philosophy that informs it: Most men are not brutes. They are not oppressors. Yes, there are some contemptible Neanderthals among us, and I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. But to confuse them with the ethical majority of men is blatantly sexist.
In the video clip (but not in the transcript), Sommers is more over-the-top in defining feminists as male-haters, going so far as to express pity for boys whose mothers are feminists.
I’d like to see a serious discussion of male-bashing in feminism. Unfortunately, Sommers’ treatment of the subject isn’t serious. She cites one, and only one, source to show that “the gender feminist philosophy” considers “most men… brutes”: Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues.
But The Vagina Monologues isn’t a non-fiction essay. It’s a play about women’s experiences surviving rape and abuse. That’s not the sole subject of the play, but — just after the importance of women loving their bodies — it’s the primary theme. Complaining that a play about the abuse and rape of women has too many abusive men in it is unreasonable and unfair. She might as well complain that Romeo & Juliet has too much teen suicide, or Rent has too many poor characters.
There is a positive male character in The Vagina Monologues, a man who so loves vaginas that he teaches his girlfriend to love her own vagina. Sommers dismisses this character entirely, for the transparently ridiculous reason that the character is described as being bland on first meeting (although he later proves to be a fantastic lover). It’s hard to respond to Sommers’ argument, because it’s not even an argument; it’s just an irrelevant statement. He is a positive character; he doesn’t mysteriously cease being a positive character because he seems bland at first, or because he loves vaginas.
In this speech, that’s Sommers’ only evidence that contemporary feminism considers most men brutes — in one popular play about rape and abuse, many but not all of the male characters are negative. I find that evidence underwhelming.
Note what Sommers doesn’t include: A single recent quote from a feminist leader saying “most men are brutes.” If this is indeed the common viewpoint of contemporary feminism, I’d think that Sommers would be able to find a dozen such quotes easily; yet Sommers doesn’t provide even one.
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Sommers’ case is ridiculous, overstated, and the “evidence” she introduces is embarrassingly weak. But I’d like to consider the question of feminist hatred of men a little bit more.
I strongly contest her theories about feminist hatred of men. For the past two decades, I’ve now been a very outspoken feminist man on three very different university campuses, within one prominent feminist legal advocacy group, and as a frequent blogger on this blog. With the advocacy group I worked for for 7 years, I worked with many other feminist legal advocacy groups. In none of these settings was I ever once treated in any way that made me feel that the (mostly all, but not exclusively so) women hated me or men generally. They (as do I) hate men who do bad things to women (and other men). But, there is no general hatred of men. Sommers’ claims to the contrary are just wrong. In fact, I often found (and still find) myself in a position I didn’t want to be in — being praised for my feminist work because of the work but also because I was a man. I appreciate the first part of that but feel like the second part is wrong-headed and unnecessary.
That seems right to me. I can’t claim to have worked as much with feminists as David Cohen; but I’ve been a women’s studies major, occasionally volunteered for feminist causes, and virtually all my friends for the past 20 years have been feminists. And, with one exception, my experiences have been similar to David’s. If man-hating is so pervasive in contemporary feminism, why don’t men in feminism encounter it more?
Furthermore, in my experience, feminists are more likely than non-feminists to be supportive if I say men are screwed over by sex role expectations; that the targeting and bullying of wimpy boys is a real and significant problem (non-feminists are more apt to respond “boys will be boys”); that being cut off from feeling free to express ourselves emotionally does real damage to men; that men who go into traditionally female fields like child care are unfairly looked at with suspicion; and so on. Again, with one exception.
That one exception is, the internet. Years ago, on Ms Magazine’s feminist bulletin board (this was in the dark ages, before blogs even) I met a handful of self-proclaimed radical feminists who’d say genuinely man-hating things: men are biologically inferior to women, all men consciously plot to keep all women in fear of rape, and so forth. These women were a minority of posters on the Ms boards (and a minority among the radical feminists there), and many other posters objected to these statements.
Nonetheless, these bigoted, anti-male views do exist among a small minority of feminists, and ever since the Ms Boards I can no longer say I’ve never encountered any genuinely man-hating feminists. But to claim that such views are the dominant philosophy of contemporary feminism is nonsense.
It’s also through the internet that I first encountered men’s rights activists, also known as MRAs. MRAs, of course, are extremely sympathetic to the idea that boys and men are being harmed by contemporary sex roles — but for many, their sympathy is exclusively for males. Their is a tone of bitterness and hatred in how many MRAs discuss women and harms to women, very similar to the way some feminists on the Ms Boards discuss men and harms to men. The difference is that those feminists are, in my experience, a small minority among all feminists; but a huge portion of MRAs exhibit rage towards towards women in general and feminists in particular.
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There’s a more subtle form of sexism against men that I think is much more common than the “men are mostly brutes” mentality that Sommers criticizes (but provides no examples of). In the last 20 years — and due, in my opinion, to the growth of the MRA movement (which was itself strongly influenced by Sommers’ book Who Stole Feminism?)– too many feminists have developed a knee-jerk resistance to discussions of how sexism harms men.
This is understandable. After a hundred conversations with MRAs, feminists have learned that when someone begins talking about how men are harmed by sexism, they’re often leading up to the anti-feminist conclusions that women have nothing to complain about, and feminism is a morally terrible movement. Concerns about harms to men are sometimes use by MRAs to crowd out discussion of harms to women. Feminists, frankly, have become defensive, and in some cases have circled their rhetorical wagons.
But although this is understandable, I also think it’s unfortunate. Men are harmed by sexism, and although I wouldn’t want that point to crowd out discussions of harms to women, it should be part of the spectrum of issues feminists discuss.
(*Although Hoff Sommers uses the term “gender feminist,” which she coined, she never defines the term in the transcript of her speech. (In the video, she says she uses the term interchangably with “victim feminist.) For more about the term “gender feminist,” see this series of posts. Although she wouldn’t put it this way, in practice Sommers categorizes all feminists who aren’t libertarian conservatives as “gender feminists.”)
To allow intra-feminist discussion, comments on this post on “Alas, a Blog” are limited to feminist and feminist allies only. However, the cross-post at “Blog By Barry” is open to feminists and non-feminists.