Patriarchy and misandry: Same difference?

Imagine there’s an issue you really, really care about. It’s a serious one, one which causes harm to billions of people the world over. In some cases it leads to death. You attend conferences about it, write articles on it, try desperately hard to raise awareness. And then someone asks you what this issue really is – what are its causes, how does it operate – and you tell them “personally, I don’t really care”. Wouldn’t you find that just a little bit odd?

This is the problem I’m having with Ally Fogg’s Guardian piece on International Men’s Day. As the mother of two boys – and, on a far more basic level, as a human being who at least tries not to be a total tosser – I have no objection to engaging with problems that are more likely to be faced by men than women. I don’t want to have rights that my sons couldn’t also enjoy nor for them to feel afraid of expressing views that hold no stigma when they are voiced by women and girls. All the same, I tend to think that in order to challenge what Fogg describes as the “spider’s web” of “specific social injustices that specifically or disproportionately affect men and boys”, the most obvious port of call would be feminist analyses of gender injustice. If something is happening to men and not to women, it says something about what we think of women as well as men.

Fogg argues that the problems men and boys face “are often the same one”:

What is it? Some would call it anti-male prejudice or misandry, some call it socialisation, some call it the workings of capitalism and some call it patriarchy. Personally I don’t really care, most of the time it all describes the same effects

I am surprised Fogg doesn’t care, not just because there’s a world of difference between the voice that cries “misandry” and that which cries “patriarchy”.  I am surprised because it’s not enough to “describe the same effects” without examining root causes and underlying ideologies. I don’t see how we can treat others fairly unless we genuinely understand why we’re being unfair – and why we’ve developed these unjust beliefs about others – in the first place. Simply hating men and positioning men within a power structure in which roles and attributes are not permitted to cross arbitrary gender boundaries strike me as two different things. Before we start shouting it’s important to know what or whom we’re shouting at. We can’t shift our judgments if we haven’t shifted our expectations first.

Despite his own professed lack of curiosity on the matter, Fogg goes on to have a pop at feminists and their silly, simplistic solutions:

The old refrain “patriarchy hurts men too” is undoubtedly true but it is not a solution. It implies that all we need to do is achieve full social justice for women and male-specific problems will simply wither away. That’s not only a bit daft in theory, it is patently not working in practise.

But “patriarchy hurts men too” does not simply imply this. It reiterates that men and women are not defined in isolation, but in relation to one another. The perceived deficiencies of one poorly-defined group become the perceived qualities of another. Male-specific problems aren’t just male-specific. You are not allowed to be weak; I am not expected to be anything more. A shift in women’s position necessarily involves a shift in men’s. One of the greatest barriers to “full social justice for women” – which, incidentally, has not yet arrived and hence offers no measure against which to see what would happen to men ­– is the failure to acknowledge that this would change how everyone is perceived and valued. If it is important to “support boys through early life through good fathering” (and I don’t necessarily think it is – good parenting, not gender essentialism, is surely the key), then this will ultimately mean men taking on a greater proportion of unpaid work. This isn’t about problems “withering away”, it’s about tackling them with honestly and a willingness to share.

Of course, I could be dismissed as one of those feminists who, for no apparent reason, finds men’s rights “threatening”. Luckily Fogg sees my fear as “misplaced”: “I believe a unified men’s sector can not only peacefully co-exist with the women’s movement, but actually complement it”. Yet what is being described is not a movement which “complements” feminism, it’s one which undermines it by dismissing broader understandings of gender inequality in order to focus on specific examples taken out of context. And yes, it may sound like feminists are saying “you should do it our way” – but what is wrong with a feminist reading of gender inequality? If you see that as a straightforward portrayal of women as victims, then you’ve misunderstood feminism. And if you think something else is wrong with feminism but are choosing not to say what that is, then you’re not “complementing” anyone. Unless you engage with the debate, taking an interest not just in cis, heterosexual boys and men but in gender stereotyping, sex and sexuality, you’re forging your own path, alone.

Men’s rights activists who refuse to engage with feminism – dismissing “those nod-along male feminist academics and activists who are less concerned with problems facing men than those caused by men” – remind me of privileged feminists who refuse to engage in discussions about intersectionality. What’s often said of them is that they can’t really care about equality as whole but simply want to exploit the notion of fairness in order to have a self-serving moan. Feminists can do better than this, and so too can men’s rights activists. We can all do better, but it depends on whether “personally” we really care.

10 thoughts on “Patriarchy and misandry: Same difference?

  1. Hi Glosswitch, Ally Fogg here, thanks for a really interesting response.

    Let me pick out a couple of points.

    And then someone asks you what this issue really is – what are its causes, how does it operate – and you tell them “personally, I don’t really care”. Wouldn’t you find that just a little bit odd?

    You’re misunderstanding me, I’m afraid. I care enormously about the causes of these problems, and write about them from time to time. What I don’t care about is how we label them.

    Let’s take a really important example – the raising of boys with violence normalized in their lives – whether in cultural gender role models or in direct tuition “hit him back” stuff and all the rest. An anti-feminist MRA type might recognise this and attributes it to misandry, a deep seated hatred of men and boys. A psychologist might call it the politically neutral ‘socialisation.’ A feminist might think of it as training in patriarchal habits. A Marxist might say it is necessary preparation to fight and die in the wars of the ruling classes.There may be varying degrees of truth to some or all of those, and it’s an interesting and important debate to be had between those positions as to their relative significance, but the bottom line is that we all want it to stop. I don’t think we need to settle the theoretical debate before we say “oi, knock it off.”

    That’s horrifically simplistic of course, but I’m trying to be brief!

    Yet what is being described is not a movement which “complements” feminism, it’s one which undermines it by dismissing broader understandings of gender inequality in order to focus on specific examples taken out of context. And yes, it may sound like feminists are saying “you should do it our way” – but what is wrong with a feminist reading of gender inequality?

    I have several problems with that. I have some core differences with many models of feminism. I don’t believe the best way to understand the world is as one gender oppressing the other. I’m more inclined to see it as capitalism imposing sociocultural gender roles upon men and women which include, but are not restricted to, patriarchal roles.

    Secondly I have many reasons for not identifying as a feminist. High among them is that I think the correct focus of feminism should primarily be women and women’s interests. There’s nothing wrong with that. There would be something wrong with me, as a man, saying “OK as a feminist, here’s how I’m going to try to help sort men’s problems.”

    Finally, I think it is right and proper that women develop frameworks for understanding society from women’s perspective. I don’t accept the standard line that society is understood everywhere else from a male perspective. I’m old fashioned in that respect and I believe the values of every society are the values of the ruling class. Men are not the ruling class, IMO. Although the ruling class is largely made up of men, it is not their gender that motivates them.

    Men’s rights activists who refuse to engage with feminism – dismissing “those nod-along male feminist academics and activists who are less concerned with problems facing men than those caused by men” – remind me of privileged feminists who refuse to engage in discussions about intersectionality.

    This is probably our key disagreement. I don’t think the likes of John Stoltenberg, Michael Kimmel, Hugo Schwyzer etc really do engage with feminism. What they do is agree with feminism, which is not the same thing at all. Unless you’re prepared to disagree with an idea, you’re not actually engaged with it.

    Personally I try to engage with feminism constantly and always have, admittedly for no one’s benefit but my own. I read and listen to feminists at all levels, from tweets and blogs to big fuck-off books. I often agree. I sometimes don’t. I always try to absorb the perspective and use it in how I think about men and politics more generally. I don’t know if you clicked through from the Cif piece to the transcript of my presentation at the conference, if not it is on my blog (click my WordPress login name) but in that I talked about asking myself constantly ‘what would feminism do?’ in response to male-specific issues.

    One thing I’ve taken strongly from feminism is that different experiences provide different perspectives and different solutions. it is ridiculous for men to attempt to identify the nature of women’s oppression and potential solutions.

    I don’t think it should fall to women to sort out men’s problems. I don’t think it should fall to feminism to sort out men’s problems. Nor, as I argued on Cif, do I think it is sufficient to argue that if we could just sort out patriarchy, men’s problems will vanish. On the contrary, I’d argue that if we can sort out some key male-specific problems, that would in itself hugely undermine everything that remains of patriarchal society.

    I don’t think you, as a feminist, should be unduly concerned about what I or any other man has to say about women’s issues, unless we are actively doing harm. So with all due respect, I hope you’ll understand what I mean when I say it doesn’t matter too much what a feminist thinks about my opinions on men and masculinity. If it interests you, that’s great. If you are supportive I’m delighted. If not, well in all honesty that’s not my problem.

    When I, or any other man, makes a specific argument for something which you believe is harmful to women, I would expect you to take me to task and we’ll have a proper ding dong about it. In the meantime, I’d ask what you think you have to lose?

    Sorry, rambling now, I’ll shut up. Thanks again for the engagement.

    1. Nor, as I argued on Cif, do I think it is sufficient to argue that if we could just sort out patriarchy, men’s problems will vanish.
      I don’t think the problem is trying to fit everything into patriarchy (or ignoring what may not fit under that umbrella). I think the problem is trying to fit everything into “all gender inequality is rooted in hatred/disregard of women”.

      And mind you this is happening in the very face of claiming that multiple perspectives must be considered.

    2. Thank you for giving such a detailed response – it is much appreciated!
      In terms of labeling gender issues, I’m not suggesting that giving something a name is a good in itself, but that understanding the causes is not merely a theoretical debate but part of the process of countering a trend. It is surely harder to tell people not to behave in a certain way if we don’t identify the specific influences which lead to this.
      I don’t see feminism simply in terms of reading the world as “one gender oppressing the other” – there’s a much broader engagement with different power hierarchies and the ways in which they intersect, and the nature of gender stereotypes (which aren’t always obviously linked to oppression or value judgments). In this respect the men’s activism you describe feels one step behind, at least in taking such a broad-brush and (potentially essentialist) position on “men’s problems” and “women’s problems” rather than gender in relation to different power structures.
      Ultimately I think the feminist approach to engaging with gender is constructive, more so than an approach which sets certain gender issues out on a limb as though they need to be solved separately (which is, to me, like white, middle-class feminists announcing that they’re busy working on “their” issues and don’t want to encroach on another person’s turf – and hence refuse to support broader drives towards equality). I don’t think issues which affect certain men and certain boys adversely are unrelated to the same gender issues which feminism addresses – which is not the same as saying “solve our problems and yours will be solved as a bonus side-effect”, which seems to be how you’re characterising it. I do accept it isn’t easy (my male partner once wrote a feminist piece on a well-known feminist site and was completely flamed, simply for being male – not a feminist response I would endorse). However, as a feminist and particularly as a mother of boys, I have real concerns about men’s activists meeting to discuss men, masculinity and the role of fathers as if this has nothing to do with my own and other feminists’ concerns and endeavours.

      1. thanks GW.

        Just on this:

        However, as a feminist and particularly as a mother of boys, I have real concerns about men’s activists meeting to discuss men, masculinity and the role of fathers as if this has nothing to do with my own and other feminists’ concerns and endeavours.

        Nor do I, as I explained here http://bit.ly/107lg74 and (briefly) in the Cif piece.

        But I do think there is a big problem with men addressing these issues under the banner of feminism (can you imagine the reaction if we did?) The big problem I have with the Kimmel /Schwyzer type of male feminism is that they tend to assume that boys and men are responsible for their own failings, with little recognition of the political and economic causes that lead some men to behave as they do. I struggle to think of of anything male feminists have done for men beyond a kind of self-loathing and self-help, pull-your-socks-up mentality. I think that’s the inevitable result of a strictly feminist approach.

        And I think there is a bigger problem with leaving these issues in the hands of the antifeminists and misogynists of the men’s rights crowd. (I had a bit of a lightbulb moment a year or so back, when I read comments by a young guy who was being seduced by the MRA scene, even though he recognised the misogyny etc, because, in his words “Who else is even talking about this stuff?”)

        What I’m trying to do, I guess, is search for a middle way (shit, I sound like Tony Blair now) and to me it makes sense to try to develop a co-ordinated male perspective that is focussed on social justice, that is not actively hostile to feminism, but equally is free to diverge from feminism on specific issues when needs be.

        One final point I’d make – the delegates at the Men and Boys Conference that started this discussion were probably about 25% women, and I think 2/10 keynote speakers were women. There were also self-identifying gay men and trans men there too. One of the other (male) speakers was wearing a Fawcett ‘this is what a Feminist looks like” shirt. There were a lot of BME delegates and speakers too.

        So the developing sector I describe is not excluding women or feminists, nor should it. It is not a reactionary movement of straight, white, men and if it were I would want nothing to do with it.

        As I see it, such a movement can welcome women and feminists, just as I believe feminism should welcome men like your partner. But just as I think it is important that men don’t set or dominate the agenda for feminism, so too is it important that a new movement for men does not allow its own agenda to be set or dominated by feminism.

        Does that makes sense?

        Thanks again for the conversation. It’s been really interesting and useful for me, if no one else!

  2. 1. “Simply hating men and positioning men within a power structure in which roles and attributes are not permitted to cross arbitrary gender boundaries strike me as two different things.” No point to make- I just love that sentence, and wanted an excuse to read it again.

    2. Wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of this piece. I read a quote recently (by a man who says he “needs feminism”, and that’s always good to hear) which completely dispelled the myth of “misandry” for me, by highlighting the fact that the problems faced by men and labelled as sexism arise directly from misogyny, and the idea that women are lesser, therefore “female characteristics” are lesser and men must prove their masculinity because it’s shameful to be a woman.

    “Men, can you even think of a single way you have ever been mocked that wasn’t related to something that a misogynist society sees as feminizing?”

    Anyway, just thought I’d share. Great writing!

  3. Hi, great post! We’d like to cross-post this on Women’s Views on News. Let me know if this is something you’d be interested in. Thanks.

  4. But seriously, international men’s day? That would be like having white people [read: white MEN] history month here in the U.S. — in other words, total bullshit.

  5. I think that both GW and Fogg correctly identify problems in the approach the other suggests. What seems less clear is to successfully address them, in either framework.

    Fogg seems to being rather carefully to avoid using “men’s movement” or “men’s rights”, and with considerable reason, given the associations of those “brands”. What that seems to leave, though, is “men’s issues, misc”. They may (or may not, depending) be each valid or important in their own right, but it seems to lack any coherence beyond “well, while we have a bunch of Y chromosomes in the room…”

    I think GW points out the key difficulty with her own strategy. Addressing any of these issues through “feminist channels” is going to lead to: being immediately challenged on one’s feminist identification, or “credentials”; being accused of being the ‘wrong sort’ of feminist (funfem, ‘choice’ feminist, accommodationist, etc); having to argue for any or all of them having a valid place of any sort in the kyriarchy/Oppression Olympics/privilege judo/intersectionality stakes; and then having to argue that any of them amount to a hill of beans, as compared with (other) feminist issues, and what’s a proportionate manner in which to address them, relative to those. Witness Caitlin’s outright dismissal, above.

    Ultimately, I think that feminism would be usefully served by addressing “men’s issues” in some manner, the better to spike the MRAs’ guns and to demonstrate some sort of an ultimate “model solution” to gender issues, as against being open to charge of being a “sectional interest group”. And that the best way to address them is, if not within explicitly within the framework of feminism, then at least with “mindfulness” of feminism. I’m not quite sure how one gets there from here, though.

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