Man Feelings: A Northern Gentlemen Discovers His Feminine Side

I never thought about feminism when I was younger. I had a lot of vivid, contradictory ideas about capitalism, imperialism and war but I would probably have dismissed feminism as irrelevant identity politics. As I grow older, though, I become more and more feminist. Part of how I got there was by reading more widely and coming across, again and again, the oppression of women in other countries – for the most part religious.

There were more subtle changes. I met women who had tried to starve themselves, under the influence of billboards and magazines telling them how to look. And the irony is that men are just as likely to become feminists as women, because we hang around with men and we hear the things men say when women aren’t around. Certain assumptions and attitudes kept recurring in the company of men, and the more I saw of this male groupthink the less I liked it. That women are dispensable repositories of male sexual offloading, or manipulative creatures that have to be defeated through trickery, that it’s acceptable to get a woman drunk in order to have sex with her, that the responsibility for rape lies with the victim – these are all, in my experience, widespread male attitudes. Feminists are often accused of ‘demonising’ all men as potential rapists and that’s a trap some probably fall into, but you can’t be a feminist without recognising the scale of misogyny that is out there.

On the face of it men do well from the patriarchy deal. My gender dominates the House of Commons, the stock exchange and the creative industries. We tend to earn more and are promoted more easily. We can sleep around without the risk of being called a ‘slut’. When marriages fall apart, women are more likely to be left bringing up children alone. All that men have to do is pay maintenance, and if they don’t want to, the CSA is notoriously incompetent at collecting it – as millions of lone parents on the poverty line could tell you. Women couldn’t even vote until my grandmother’s generation. They are likely to be disproportionally hit by economic downturn. Women even still do most of the housework.

So what exactly is in feminism – for men? Reading this dialogue by Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins has helped me to clarify my feelings about all this. Guys don’t have it all our own way – as Robbins points out, we are more at risk of suicide. His idea is that in a Unilad world we find it hard to express whatever vulnerabilities we might have:

Loneliness can be hard to define. You can be surrounded by people and be alone. The NHS have some good research on men my age, one of the biggest problems is not being able to discuss their feelings, and an inability to seek help.

A more convincing point, which Robbins also touches on, is the infantilising cliche that women are only into relationships and men are only into sex – ‘It’s like being told you’re a dribbling animal, so weak-willed that you’re guided by your penis.’ It’s the same stupid Islamic impulse to cover women in sackcloth lest the sight of bare flesh lead to riots.

Despite the arbitrary social advantages it’s given me, I agree that patriarchy diminishes men too. I don’t want to live in a miserable society where half the population is enslaved. It depresses me that the expectations of women in the UK are kept down to the level of: get a boyfriend – or that shitty neologism ‘partner’ – get a house, have a baby, have more babies. For many people that’s the dream, and good luck to them. But we should also tell our daughters and sisters that there’s a world out there.

I have my differences with Laurie Penny’s structural conception of misogyny. The cultural approach leads feminists to focus on petty symbolic issues at the expense of severe avoidable harm. I don’t see the point of campaigns against children’s dolls and schoolboy FHM-style magazines, not in a country that has become Europe’s soft touch for female genital mutilation.

But the new wave of feminism has done a great deal to help men empathise with the visceral risks and hostility women face. Men are bigger and stronger than women. Although we’re just as likely to face street crime, we don’t necessarily fear it. It’s different for girls. Take street harassment. This is not harmless shouted compliments, as was claimed by its apologists. Journalists spoke to women who had been followed around, groped and assaulted. Research claimed that almost half of women under 34 had to deal with this kind of thing. An east London music photographer told the Independent that: ‘It’s changed the way I live in London, the way I dress, the areas I visit. I turn down things if it’s late. I don’t have the money to take taxis all the time.’ It’s a fear women learn to live with. The crime writer Julia Crouch said at Harrogate that when she’s alone and walking at night, she carries her keys in one hand, ready to thrust the sharp end into an attacker’s eyeball. Crouch said she had taught her teenage daughter the same thing.

The internet has taken harassment of women into new dimensions of cruelty. Again, this is not just inappropriate comment. The most graphic illustration of this harassment is from Helen Lewis’s piece on the US blogger Anita Sarkeesian. Anti-feminist haterz manufactured images of her being raped by cartoon characters, and circulated these online. They set up hate forums dedicated to Sarkeesian and posted her street address. There is also a game, featuring a headshot of Sarkeesian, that encourages players to ‘beat this bitch up’. Players click the screen to simulate blows, and Sarkeesian’s face becomes bloody and swollen. What’s staggering is the effort that’s been put into this. Someone’s actually cleared a day, sat down and coded this game, and considered it time well spent.

And women who defy these expectations are seen as fair game. Ask yourself if a Louis Penny or Lawrence Penny would be taking as much abuse.

While people accept white UAF anti-racists, and straight advocates for gay rights, the idea of a male feminist still seems unusual. Irvine Welsh said that the white knight is as much a male fantasy as a female one, and Robbins relates that ‘There are men who say that I only support feminism to get laid.’ Am I supporting feminism to get laid? No, I don’t think so, because I am not an activist. You don’t get laid sitting at a desk. For me it’s more the capacity for empathy, which develops as you get older, and a disgusted fury at the immature viciousness that passes for masculinity in the above cases. Real men don’t rape women. Real men don’t harass women. That should be something we can all get behind.

One final point. Leftwing feminists sometimes write as if the left is a misogyny-free zone. That is not true, as the Assange case illustrates. Watch the tweets that female journalists get when they write about him. The left doesn’t own feminism, it’s not even that good at feminism. Many of the derogatory comments I heard about women in general, that I related in para one, I heard from middle class liberals.

Update: Some Brighton hipsters have accused me of ‘mansplaining’, in a piece that misrepresents almost everything I have written above


17 Responses to “Man Feelings: A Northern Gentlemen Discovers His Feminine Side”

  1. SarahJaneDobbs Says:

    Reblogged this on Neverending Stories.

  2. Interested Reader Says:

    Very interesting read. Re: covering up female bodies and opression of women for religious reasons, I was wondering if I could drop this video here …

  3. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Brilliant piece. As for the discussion, I’m not actually sure what, if anything, Laurie Penny brings to it. Her notion of structural violence is the product of that dialectical mode of reasoning which always appealed to the more sanctimonious stripe of middle-class Marix; bemoaning false consciousness -or Chomsky’s ‘manufactured consent’- as a ready explanation for everything. A revealed truth known only to a small but smug elite whom it nourished in the face of overwhelming evidence that the working class had indeed achieved consciousness; consiousness of home ownership, British Airways shares and holidays in Florida. Regardless, every fuckin time, the hand went into the top hat and pulled out false consiousness and the ‘magician’ beamed with the satisfaction you see on the face of 5 year old who’s just revealed Santa Claus isn’t real.

    Besides, discovering ‘structure’, order or pattern and positing a teleological or purposive cause has a rather disreputable intellectual pedigree; Intelligent Design, animism or even the Protocols of the Elders of Zion spring immediately to mind.. Structure in the natural world requires no architect; it results from the forces which are a precondition of the very existence of a ‘natural world’. To state as she does…
    “The trouble is that patriarchy as a structure of violence is set up to produce precisely that reaction. It’s set up to make individual men feel guilty, ashamed and resentful at their place in a system of brutal hierarchy.”

    …requires her to explain just ‘who’ is doing the ‘setting up’. In the absence of such an explanation, she might as well be blaming the weather, the stars, wicked elves or a ‘misogyny beam’ fired from Mars.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    Good to have you back! We will never agree about Laurie Penny but as I said I think her structural conception of violence is misguided. As you point out, she never really explains who is doing this, what the mechanisms are and how it works, and there’s also a tendency to slam successful women as ‘patriarchs’ if they are not explicitly left wing or feminist.

    We live in a country where just about every organisation has gender equality written into an internal policy statement, but there are still rapes, harassment, domestic violence and misogynist attitudes. We are fighting the public more than the ‘establishment’ on this, and you demolish with your customary wit and verve the middle class elitist ‘false consciousness’ cop-out. In ‘What’s Left’ Nick Cohen said that the whole thing is basically an excuse deployed by Marxists to explain why the working class didn’t do as Marx said.

    Having said all this, there has historically been a structural kind of patriarchy in all societies, our gender dominated this country until very recently and women are still under represented and disadvantaged to an extent. So the structural thing is not completely wrong, I just don’t think the whole problem is structural

  5. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Well, OK…but I think this hinges on the specific sense of ‘structure’. Structure has, amongst others, a sense implying ‘order’ or ‘regularity’ which requires no ‘architect’ or author. It also has a sense implying purposeful construction. I’m not sure about the latter. The furthest I’ll go is to accept that men, throughout history have been only too happy to accept a status quo in which their position within wider society has been privileged as a result of biological, genetic and evolutionary contingencies. However, this is no great obstacle. Humanity is surely characterised by its ability to overcome biological impulses; supposing otherwise is to deny human agency. We tend to do so through the application of reason along utilitarian or consequentialist lines. This, I’d suggest is taking place; at least in certain parts of the world. What would tend to militate against further progress is the introduction of non-rational concepts into the mix; for instance I’ll-conceived notions like consciously imposed ‘structural violence’.

    I’m not sure the entire tone of he Independent piece helps. Even the title, ‘How we should talk to men about sexism’, implies Penny holds a position of authority and orthodoxy and can legitimately adjudicate upon what constitutes an acceptable stance for others, especially men. This is not helpful at all; especially given her track record.

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    I think you are right – if there is a structural problem, it derives from the evolutionary advantages that men have, and that part of civilisation is about correcting these advantages. I’m not sure of your point about didacticism. As I say in the piece part of understanding feminism is to listen to women’s experiences and there’s going to be an element of instruction there. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to accept everything Laurie Penny says

  7. Paul Murdoch Says:

    I said her thinking had taken a dialectic turn, not didactic. Once you adopt such a cast of mind, your ability to reason is constrained within parameters in which preordained the outcome: ‘false consiousness’, the eventual dictatorship of the proletariat, salvation by faith alone, an overarching belief in theistic determinism or, indeed, the reduction of all gender disparities to ‘structural violence’.

    And you’re right, men have to take on board women’s lived experience and learn to empathise, especially since, you say, the necessary changes are already enshrined in our laws and institutions to little practical effect in the lives of many women. I’ve simply got issues with what purports to be Laurie Penny’s lived experience since she is so very prone to ’embellishment and embroidery’.

    I must admit, for most of my life, I might have called myself a feminist largely out of theoretical considerations. What made the difference for me was having daughters. However, the last time I admitted that, I was told that mine was a narrow and ‘self-serving’ brand of feminism; basically, I’d only taken on an awareness of the patriarchy once I literally became a ‘patriarch’. I can see the irony in his, however I’m fairly sure it’s the same for many other men.

    Anyway, the rain’s stopped and I’ve got some footings to dig. The nice woman who’s lent me her iPad is sick of making me tea and wants her conservatory finished by next week etc. She likes your site by the way…working her way through from a year or so back. She’s a big fan of Edward St Aubyn and liked your review of At Last. I told her I thought it was the weakest of the three and she told me that’s why I spend so much of my time digging ditches.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Hey, I’m not in love with theoretical models of the world as a whole. What makes the difference to most men will be having daughters (I didn’t even consider it as I don’t have children, but see the sense in it now) and it’s a shame that you were knocked back like this. Glad your friend likes my site. You should still start a blog…

      Agree with you about At Last btw, I liked it but Some Hope is the best to read.

  8. Paul Murdoch Says:

    No. I wasn’t suggesting you were in thrall to all-encompassing ideologies; but I think possibly Laurie penny has taken that turn…which is what it is, but it might ensure her writing will become self-consistent, even if its relationship to objective reality remains arbitrary. I’ve much experience in this regard, having wasted hundreds of hours in interminable discussions with Marxists for whom the theory takes precedence over reality, common sense and common humanity. The thing is that it explains and excuses everything regardless of the actuality of the situation. Once you accept the logic of such a system, confirmation bias- and you fiind confirmation everywhere you point your gaze- tends to keeps you locked in and your ‘faith’ is unshakeable.

    Just saw your Arnott review by the way. Notice you say…

    ” The religious/mystical roots of Nazism are often discounted…”

    Have you ever read Pursuit of the Millenium by Norman Cohn? I’d never understood the rise of the Third Reich before reading this book…changed my view of Germans entirely. The rational / efficient / pragmatic image is put through he mangle. In fact, if you count 1848 and WW1 as part of the sequence, you’ll find Germany has gone in for bouts of bloodletting and general mayhem every 50-60 years and has done so for centuries. It’s especially good on the Anabaptist revolt in Munster which I’d only ever come across an example of proto-communism rather than one in a series of periodic episodes of millenarian craziness. The book was very well known once…regarded as an indispensible guide to European spiritual history.

    Might try the Arnott book. I read the Harry Roberts book and another one years ago. You’re right, they were very good but did indeed suffer by association with the Guy Ritchie phenomenon.
    Incidentally, I agree with your characterisation viz ‘voyeur public schoolboys’ slumming it in the East End to accrue some blokish credibility. Do you think it’s just some sort of misplaced ‘chivalry’ or inverse sexism that stops you applying he same judgement re. Laurie Penny? She’s hardly a stranger to a bit of proletarian ‘tourism’ herself 😉

  9. maxdunbar Says:

    You are like a dog with a bone with the Laurie Penny thing!

    But you are right, I should read Cohn. Thanks for the recommendation

  10. Man-splainin’ and Man-plainin’ – The Problem with Male Feminists. « Bad Salad Says:

    […] a friend recently linked me to this article by a man called Max Dunbar. If you want, you can read it yourself – but you could just as easily […]

  11. Sarah AB Says:

    Thanks Max – good post.

  12. Paul Murdoch Says:

    “You are like a dog with a bone with the Laurie Penny thing!”

    Not really. I don’t actually read her any more. I’m Just stunned that anybody publishes her. If she just put out her fiction on her own blog it wouldn’t be an issue. My problem is with a media which seems to restrict its left-wing commentary to ex-public school Oxbridge fantasists who go in for a bit of poverty tourism a la Toynbee taking their cue from Orwell’s Down and Out (I know toynbee wasn’t public school but that was because she failed the11 plus after attending a private prep school…then got into Oxford on a History scholarship with one A level…which obviously had absolutely nothing to do with Prof Arnold Toynbee’s influence. The rest-decades of churning out naive politically-illiterate liberal analysis and apologetics from the patio of the Tuscan villa is, of course the stuff of legend.)

  13. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Oh shite…just read your “mans-plaining” correspondent…

    “It’s as bad as a white, privately-educated, Oxbridge person waving a placard and shouting “SOLIDARITY” at working class people.”

    Seems you’re a white knight…and you failed to point out the ‘strength and emotional stamina’ of feminists. Mind you, This is from someone whose stamina doesn’t extend to bothering to air her views on feminism on her feminist blog.

    “This said, y’all need to shut the fuck up about feminism. It is not your place to identify yourself as an authority of a struggle experienced by women, however much you respect or agree with us.”

    Erm…well I suppose given my views on middle-class journalists pontificating on what’s best for the working class, I’d look a bit hypocritical,taking issue with this…I can kinda sympathise with it but since your / men-in-general’s allotted role seems to be to point out how admirable feminists are then basically STFU, I could hardly endorse it.
    This is a worrying trend and hardly restricted to feminists. There seems to be a bit of a craze among on-line soi-distant ‘progressives’ to simply shut down discussion if they don’t like what they’re hearing. I believe CIF is going in for it in a big way. I think it has its roots in that post-structuralist trope which traps us in hermetically sealed cognitive straight-jackets determined by our historicity, gender, sexuality and cultural endowment…and woe betide us if we have the sheer fuckin brass neck to stray into some other identity’s discourse.

    The strange thing is that the very people who posit these demarcations can of course transcend their own restrictions and feel quite free to parachute into any other discourse they please and criticise at will; ironically, the usual charge is overstepping our permissible themes.
    This is what I was talking about when I explained once that having daughters had raised my awareness of feminism. It’s not enough. Apparently, the only acceptable position is to have displayed impeccable feminist credentials from the start…except ‘displaying’ is something of a misnomer since it seems your real role is to say nothing. I thought it a bit ironic that her preemptive defence against a charge of misandry was to say how much she liked her dad and brother…which was a bit lame by any objective standard.

    But anyway, at least you know your place now: uncrital adulation then keep your fuckin nose out.

  14. Sarah AB Says:

    Yes – ‘Some of my best friends are men’!

  15. maxdunbar Says:

    Thing is that most journalists are from similar, or more privileged backgrounds to Laurie Penny – yet it’s her that takes all the shit.

    I don’t particularly care about a person’s background. So journalism is dominated by the Oxbridge rich. Who’d have thought it.

    But you should do a critique of Laurie Penny’s politics. If you do, I will guest post it.

    I have emailed the Brighton hipsters

  16. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Just got in after watching the opening ceremony in the pub. I totally loved it but I’ve got no idea why. Nobody else did. It must be a gestalt thing. Each individual component was pretty crap to be honest, but overall it was immense and I think it clearly demonstrated that, if nothing else, we lead the world in self-conscious irony…which is no small feat. Not sure I’m gonna sleep for a while, so I’ll kinda half take up your offer, although it’s a pretty tall order and I’ll doubtless stray off topic.
    If I tried to critique Laurie Penny’s politics I’d be conceding that she actually had a set of coherent political beliefs. I don’t believe she has such a thing. Maybe she’d even agree that she doesn’t; maybe she regards herself as exemplifying a new political paradigm where the rules are different, where labels are meaningless and the strategy is simply opposition to the existing order by any means necessary; only in her case Malcom X figures somewhat less prominently as a role model than, say, Johann Hari. I really don’t know what her politics are. I don’t read her any more. I think the final straw was about a six months ago when I saw she was a speaker at some conference on contemporary Marxism . My decision was prompted by motives which I imagine were not dissimilar to Tom Lehrer’s upon learning of Kissinger’s Nobel Peace Prize.
    The first time I came across her she was an active shill for the LibDems, afterwards she started opining on how NewLabour should remodel itself before her reincarnation as a sort of anarcho-syndicalist singing the praises of ‘non-hierarchical structures’ of something or other…I might have that wrong but if I do then rest assured it was something equally meaningless and pretentious. I think around this point she was probably dealt a much needed reality check and corrective following the Hari exposure. I’m sure it did her a big favour to be honest. I doubt she ever came close to his level of outright mendacity but the all-too-apposite quotes and the regular appearances at critical junctures of pasteboard stereotypes-the braying heartless Tory, the mercenary bankers, the troglodyte coppers or the wide-eyed homeless kid in a hoodie with a stray one-eyed puppy-were straying beyond the bounds of reasonable credibility.
    It was the ‘Marxism’ which did it for me though. I don’t think it’s widely appreciated about Kapital that in the original German there’s a stark ‘ommission’; more correctly, in just about every English translation there’s an unwarranted inclusion. Nowhere in Kapital will you find the word ‘Kapitalismus’. ‘Capitalism’ is never actually mentioned; what he actually castigates is bourgeois political economy or simply the bourgeoisie. Capitalism itself as a means of wealth production comes in for little direct criticism. In fact, the Communist Manifesto is in large part an glowing testament to Capitalism’s transformative and productive capacity.
    What Marx takes issue with in Kapital is the social, cultural and political context of Capitalism which allows wealth and power to become concentrated within one small class to the exclusion of the majority. The means of production itself carries no intrinsic moral valence; it’s the ‘economic base’; Marx sees the cultural superstructure as the problem. Now, undoubtedly, he got things wrong although his errors were understandable. Writing at a time when the continued immiseration of the working class showed no sign of abatement, his thesis made total sense. Hindsight is an exact science etc etc…and I’m certainly no Marxist.
    ‘Dialectical materialism’, ‘scientific socialism’ et al have all proved semi-mystical dead-ends but his initial characterisation of bourgeois political economy holds true for me and if I had to point to instances which exemplified a cultural superstructure which served to preserve power and wealth through creating a climate of neutered dissent I’d start with the phenomenon of egalitarian protest dominated by middle-class, public-school Oxbridge commentators. That Laurie Penny bears the brunt of the flack around this these days is surely due to her determination to establish a high-profile radical image; not through mature analysis or political exposition but through all round Riot Grrl pseudo-anarchic stunt pulling. But if she’d actually understood her Marx, she’d realise that she’s very much part of the problem, or at the very least a major symptom.
    Like I say though, I don’t read her any more. Maybe she’s calmed down and grown up a bit. I don’t know. Do you suggest I take another look? Thing is…I was never a fan of the prose style and take that away and what’s left? There was certainly no coherent positive agenda. Everything I read was a reaction against an admittedly degenerate status quo but it all came down to a reformulation of boilerplate undergraduate tropes given a steroid injection and painted purple. And, as jaded and cynical as I am I like to think that if, on balance, I’d considered her an asset to the left I’d have supported her even if I did find much of what she wrote a shade callow.
    If I have one regret over my initial assessment of Penny’s and other’s experiences it would be over the riots. I’m ashamed to say I experienced a touch of schadenfreude when I read of their treatment but I was blown away by the stunned reaction of so many people who’d doubtless blithely referred to ‘Pigs’, ‘fascists’, ‘paramilitary thugs’ etc for years yet were genuinely surprised that when they had the temerity to live up to their billing. I watched much of the coverage with a mate who’d protested with me during the miners’ strike and our reaction centred around a general air of ‘call that a riot’, ‘what brutality?’, ‘kettling…they don’t know how lucky..’. I think we both became conscious we were turning into a parody of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen, but we’d both had multiple concussions, broken ribs, fingers, noses without a camera phone or outraged journalist in sight. I do regret this now. Say what you like, they were protesting genuine injustice and suffered for it…and were deserving of praise for turning up; not disdain born of inverted snobbery and class bigotry.
    That said, awe-struck condemnations of the police for hitting back were hardly novel or enlightening and it did make me wonder just what sort of lives some people must have lead if they were genuinely radicalised by it. When they heard Weber’s conception of the state and considered the ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of force’ what the hell had they thought it meant? And, if it really took something as determinate as a smack in the mouth to wake them to the reality then why the hell were they now posing as veterans of ‘the struggle’?
    And maybe that’s my problem with Laurie Penny. She’s not writing for me. But what she is writing-or was writing-seems lacking in historical context and politically illiterate…then again, she must have been a toddler when the Berlin Wall came down, wasn’t alive during the miners’ strike and her entire life has been lived post Thatcher. So what does she know? And indeed what relevance do any of my beliefs and prejudices have to her generation?
    That’s why I don’t read her. I’d end up punching walls. But to give her her due at least she’s willing to engage with men on feminism and hasn’t embraced the sort of ‘anti-politics’ evident in your Brighton friend’s blog…which, incidentally, other than the piece reviewing your article I quite liked. Although I ought to add…just in case she reads this…I’m well aware you don’t give a shit what I think of it. Penny, as far as I recall, at least sees the value in seeking commonality and solidarity. Nor, I think, would she regard her gender as entitling her to claim an endowment of millennia of global female oppression. Although if that’s a position you subscribe to, I suppose it follows that any man must likewise don the mantle of the universal patriarchal oppressor and it’s no wonder she doesn’t care what you think. Stripped of any coherent political dimension, presumably this brand of feminism can only reach its fulfilment once the patriarchy is delivered an instantaneous coup de grace through a spontaneous uprising of womankind, no doubt aroused by a particularly virulent op-ed by a Brighton female-separatist blogger…and I wish them the very best of luck with that plan

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