Quitting the toxic gender identity squabble
Words & images © Paul Ransom
NOTE: A companion article – Why I Will Never Hide In The Man Cave – is available on this blog. It outlines my reasons for refusing to align myself with the so-called men’s movement or to give credence to attitudes rooted in crude sexist nostalgia.
For decades I was a card carrying Feminist. How could I not be? Having grown up in the casually misogynist atmosphere of outer suburbia in 70s and 80s and been the frequent target of male sexist violence, my teenage embrace of ‘women’s lib’ was an almost inevitable corollary of men behaving badly. Really fucking badly. In fact, so atrociously that for many years I was ashamed of being male.
When the girls in my Year 10 class began to tell me how crudely their boyfriends treated them, and I paired this with the crass, idiotic bragging of the boys, a clear picture started to emerge. Later, when my then girlfriend was raped by a boy in her class (whilst his ‘mates’ stood by the door as he did the deed), I was not merely consumed with impotent rage, but sent hurtling into the pages of classic Feminist texts. I read books with titles like Pornography & Silence and, aided and abetted by my mother and other women I loved and admired, I determined to stand proud with the sisterhood.
In hindsight, this was partly a self-serving pose – I’m not like the rest of them, etcetera – but it also opened my naïve eyes to the extent of abuse, violence and disadvantage that my female contemporaries routinely dealt with. Indeed, as the years ticked by, and more and more women confided stories of rape, incest, beatings and other forms of dehumanising cruelty, my Feminism was fired to a high sheen. In my world, women were saintly victims, men were vile predators. (Yeah, that ol’ chestnut.)
Subsequently, to this day I am more comfortable in the presence of women and, to be honest, I find most men insufferably boorish and dull. (Sorry lads.) Yet, I have also come to realise that women are as sexist as men and that, far from being flawless pillars of virtue, they are as dishonest and self-seeking as any bad boy. Women, like men, are simply human – members of a gendered, hierarchical species; social mammals who cluster around tribal norms and seek, by any available means, to control their environment and big note themselves.
Indeed, my retreat from ‘capital F’ Feminism was initially propelled as much by the atrocious, victimising behaviour of the women in my circles as by any theoretical switch in political alignment. Once it became impossible to deny that women could be as cruel and chauvinist as their male counterparts, the monochromatic ideological tenor of my erstwhile beliefs duly diluted.
However, this wasn’t what finally drove me away. Neither was I tempted by the simplistic sloganeering of the so-called men’s movement, nor attracted to the dumb dichotomies of the alt-right or the paranoid reductionism of conspiracy. In fact, I still support the broad goals of #metoo (because it takes away the predator’s best weapons, silence and denial) and consider things like ‘she was asking for it’ and ‘quiet, the boys are talking’ to be indefensible catechisms that excuse and enable sexist entitlement.
None of which sounds exactly anti-Feminist. And yet, I feel compelled to distance myself from the vulgar spectacle of contemporary Western Feminism.
Unfortunately, Feminism’s initially humanist (and humanising) project has morphed into a pathologising ideology. Masculinity is toxic. Romeo is a rapist in waiting. Maleness is a lesser condition.
Pity the man shaped child. So dumb and gormless.
These are the hallmarks of a mindset not so different from the one women fought so hard to change. This thinking – somewhat ironically – is rooted in age-old gender assumptions, where the individual is blurred out in a sea of chromosomal profiling. Because of this, all men are complicit in systematic patriarchal oppression. Half the population is thus reduced to a singularity, and that singularity has been found wanting. Guilty.
- Ladies, I will not wear this. Just as you wouldn’t if I tried to fit it on you. Though I understand the broader historical dialectic – thesis, antithesis – and therefore am not surprised we have come to this moment of ill-tempered backlash, we need to forge a better synthesis ASAP; because we are all damaged by the ongoing viciousness of redundant gender ideology. All de-humanised. (The upshot of which is a crueller world.)
- Oh, and PS boys – same goes for you. The recent dumbing down of Feminism into undergraduate polemic does not excuse your own sexist behaviour, nor legitimise a reactionary retreat into the apparent safe space of well-worn stereotypes.
Drilling down, my point here is that the lurid theatrics of middle class Feminism in the social media age is little more than a rehash of righteous/extremist drama and, therefore, has become counter-productive. In my view, so-called Facebook Feminism is putting the broader, emancipatory goals of the women’s movement in jeopardy.
Of course, post-War Western Feminism is not the first (nor will it be the last) well-intentioned philosophy to collapse into zealotry. Just as Christianity once championed the public burning of heretics and Islam has given license to the madness of suicide vests, First World Feminism has boiled itself down to a dehumanising chant. In its ideological blindness it has borrowed the tactics of totalitarianism – nominating an out-group, demonising and pathologising that cohort, exaggerating a sense of crisis and then simplifying a complex psycho-social dynamic into a bunch of blunt dichotomies. Thus, in place of a cogently argued case for the end of harmful gender norms and the cruelties they result in, what we now have is the spectacle of outrage. An other-blaming circus of noise and polarisation. As though the serious business of gender politics were a reality TV show. In other words, a lurid, cynically engineered confection of dispute designed to light up the switchboard.
But careful – let’s not simply mirror the extremism we’re calling out. Obviously not all Feminists are narrow ideologues. Neither do they all participate in the rolling newsfeed of reductionist rancour that has come to dominate and distort the current discourse. Furthermore, I would argue that the bedrock humanist principles of Feminism are hard to reasonably contest. In addition, there are countless millions of women worldwide who continue to endure the often deadly brunt of inhumane cultural practises. Meanwhile, in the relatively liberal West we still live with (and routinely overlook) the fact that far more women are killed by their partners or other family members than by deranged jihadis or dangerous strangers.
Clearly, there are ongoing issues of violence and injustice in the ‘gender space’ but the censorious, puritanical tone of contemporary bourgeois Feminism is no longer fit for the purpose of working towards positive solutions. Indeed, the historically privileged Western middle classes – who gave us the phoney revolution of the 60s and are now operating the identity megaphone – are Twitter feeding themselves (and, by extension, their much poorer sisters in Africa, Asia and elsewhere) into a trench warfare situation, with attritional stalemate and high casualty rates as the predictable result.
NB: I accept this is a form of messenger shooting. Feminism, like Socialism, Christianity and countless other nobly intended schools of thought, has fallen foul of its champions. Whilst it is still possible to sift out the gems of a cogent philosophy from the actions of its individual adherents, it behoves us to recognise that the reduction of complex ideas and pristine principle to ideological simplicity is both, a) nigh inevitable, and b) frequently the spark for group based abuse and cruelty. Thus, Feminism’s current messengers are, in my view, not only a legitimate focus of critique but the intemperate spoilers of their own party.
When we tease apart its ideological edifice, we find that Feminism in the digital age is mired in the same basic denials and essentialisations as traditional mainstream religion and post-Enlightenment off-shoots like Communism and Fascism. It too is wilfully blind to evolution, conveniently choosing to ignore a slew of hard wired genetic factors that influence everything from brain function to the dynamics of sexual reproduction. And, like most middle class philosophical fetishes, it is fuelled by a barely acknowledged self-loathing. As one ‘older’ Feminist told me recently, “My issue with Feminism today is that it doesn’t want me to be a woman. It wants me to be a kind of man.” Her point (and mine) is that even in its supposed opposition, the post-Millennium women’s movement is helping to cement gendered behaviour norms. Worse still, it is simply continuing the tradition of denying the fundamental facts of our humanity, registering us instead as abstract actors in history’s long running saga of failed utopian fantasy.
Surely, if we are going to have gender politics we need to start at the beginning and ask: why are we a gendered species and what advantage does gender confer?
From an evolutionary perspective, the gendering of a species like ours not only broadens the collective skill base by allowing selected specialisations to emerge but creates a sexual/competitive tension that, in plain speaking Darwinian terms, encourages the continual refinement of genetic stock and promotes winning strategies beneficial to group and individual survival. This may seem a tad academic; but remember that in higher order mammalian species natural selection is augmented (if not supplanted) by sexual selection, and thus we see how gendered physical and psycho-emotional differences arise partly in response to criteria that we select as desirable. This more deliberative genetic process is especially pronounced in humans. In this light, gender functions as a deep driver of humanity’s adaptive brilliance.
The other noteworthy point here is that in our species – as in others – it is the female who plays the head selector role, with the males competing to prove worthy of sex selection. Though we may argue about the precise nature and relevance of standard gender roles, it remains true that Homo Sapiens have spent more than a quarter million years slowly choosing and refining them.
- As an aside, I wonder how the hashtag warriors would react if someone were to say ‘women, you’re all implicated’ because your Stone Age sisters chose to reward certain forms of male behaviour with mating opportunities, thereby effectively sex selecting the patriarchy? I imagine they would reject such an idea as being simplistic, dismissive and even offensive. Gross over-simplification, they would cry, and I would agree. For just as we should not ignore animal fact, we should not employ it as an excuse.
Indeed, the blame reflex (and the in-group/out-group binary that supports it) goes to the heart of my current disquiet with Feminism. I am no longer able to align myself with a movement that has lapsed into the basic intellectual follies of confusing correlation with cause and with insisting upon a mono-causation model that seeks to regard everything through an either/or lens. Therefore, just as I would hesitate to suggest that evolutionary factors explain everything, neither would I posit narrative conflations like The Patriarchy as single source answers. The abject failure of contemporary middle class Feminism to deal with the multi-variate inputs of the gender equation has rendered it cringeworthy. Along with its dehumanising vision of both men and women, its frequently counter-productive outcomes, and its bullying mantras of ideological control, this oversight has helped to turn Feminism from liberation struggle to elite bourgeois plaything. Post-millennium Feminism is now the ‘soccer mom’ of social justice – turning up in her shiny, expensive helicopter to collect her overfed offspring, wash our mouths out with soap, and assert her rightful position as the final arbiter on everything.
Maoists and Marxists of yore would surely have noted the ‘bourgeois decadence’ of the First World’s social media sisterhood; and indeed the stink of entitlement is never far below the surface of today’s hot meme. The most long-lived, most comfortable, most privileged cohort of women in human history are trending towards hubristic excess – just like their menfolk. Looking at it from another vantage, we might say that the problem with Western Feminism is the malaise of the West generally. Pompous, in denial, lazy, bored, obese, narcissistic, transfixed by spectacle, fundamentally unsustainable, and yet wracked with guilt and self-loathing.
To be fair though, Feminism finds itself at this difficult mid-point in its political evolution not simply because of its reduction to chain store disposability – nor even because it lacks a genuinely enervating raison d’etre – but because it is caught between its own success and its unrealised ambitions. In addition, the dam wall breached by social media has inundated the discourse with white noise. It is harder for nuanced, deeper thinking voices to make themselves heard in a vomit of outrage. The resulting distortion, (towards polemic and away from constructive dialogue), has come at a bad time for those genuinely wanting an end to gender based cruelty.
What we require is a more balanced and reasonable discussion, one that looks beyond the bubble of Western bourgeois comfort and acknowledges both progress and roadblocks; yet instead, we have a succession of clickbait dramas. Pitchfork mobs make news. The quiet work of incremental change doesn’t have anywhere near as many friends.
This is a shame because the core work of Feminism, like all humanising movements, is critical to the way we organise and conduct ourselves in society. At its best, it asks us what kind of world we want to live in. Do we want sex segregated silos, where ring-fenced men and women eye one another off with suspicion? Do we want the genetic happenstance of genitals (or ethnicity, autism, etc) to cement people into pre-determined roles and/or confer plenty or penury? Indeed, is it right to judge someone before they are even born? And to what extent does nature underwrite nurture?
Having jettisoned the subtlety, science and subversive spirit to tease these conundrums apart, Feminism is now a ho-hum orthodoxy. Worse, a mere brand. A victim of its own marketing. Scarcely more than an F word.
So where does this leave a former Feminist; and what would convince me to re-activate my party membership? Firstly, I won’t be joining any men’s groups, nor turning to infantile gods for magic fixes. Neither will I be pinning undue hope on family values or ‘identity’ for guidance. Secondly, having said all this, I expect to lose a few friends and be called all sorts of names.
However, not all is lost – and herein lies next-gen Feminism’s big challenge. Can it resurrect itself and re-engage with those it is currently alienating? What’s more, how can it regain its intellectual discipline and resume its role in helping to make the world a kinder, less restrictive place for all of us? As an ex-foot soldier I am now waiting for the generals to:
- Acknowledge that female chauvinism is as prevalent and toxic as the male version.
- Address the fact that everyone is impacted by gender/sexuality based stereotyping.
- Account honestly for hardwired evolutionary inputs.
- Respond in a less Stalinist fashion to counter argument.
- Stop pathologising maleness and, by extension, deal with its own strain of self-loathing.
- Find other prisms (gender isn’t everything).
- Realise that emotional blackmail and other forms of ‘ambush marketing’ are ultimately counter-productive mechanisms that make it easier for genuinely misogynist people to discount the entire project.
Furthermore, no serious social movement can conduct itself primarily in the media – corporate or otherwise. Media necessarily distorts. It can only ever give a partial view and it will always tend towards the attention grabbing axes of drama and emotion. Whereas this feeds neatly into the way our brains prioritise and memorise data (heuristics, perceptual bias, etc) it is precisely this exaggerated impact and the easy recall of lurid and simple media tropes that make them more dangerous. In this regard, Feminism needs to re-empower its best and brightest and distance itself from the gaudy, celebrity driven, cyber-squabble it now resembles.
Yet, even after stripping out the noise of trending outrage, we are left with ongoing and profound conundrums in the gender space – almost none of which Western Feminism seems willing or able to tackle. We are still not clear about gender is (or rather, how gender is neurologically assigned). Gender is also inextricably linked with sexuality, and virtually every culture on the planet has a shame relationship with sex and the body more broadly. In turn, this points at an even deeper level of denial and self-loathing. Our bodies are shameful because they remind us that we’re animals, and animals shit and bleed and die; and that’s our central terror. In my view, any social ideology that papers over or ignores mortality and sexuality contains the germ of its own destruction. Little wonder Feminism has trodden the same path as other isms: from fine idea to reductionist, linear command & control narrative. From voice of hope to megaphone of continuous punishment.
Not so long ago I would never have contemplated such statements. I became a Feminist because I saw it was needed, that it offered a more compassionate alternative for both women and men. I stayed a Feminist because it was so pragmatic – after all, the benefits of unleashing the creative, economic and intellectual potential of half the population are obvious. Indeed, even after I saw how unrelentingly vicious women can be (particularly towards one another) I stayed true, if only not to give credence to the more violent and repulsive forms of male sexism, or indeed to legitimise any limiting, judgmental gender norms (especially the kind that had so often threatened to beat the shit out of me as a younger man).
Sadly though, here I am disavowing once strong allegiances. Not switching sides – because ‘sides’ is part of the problem – but no longer wearing the badge. However, it isn’t merely the fact that by publishing this I am almost certainly going to lose friends but that Feminism in its current form is now losing those men most likely to support its overall ambition. Okay, so my defection won’t even register as a blip on the like-o-meter, but it underlines the fact that the bourgeois, overfed Feminism of the West has sold its own revolution down the river and, as such, sacrificed its moral legitimacy. I look at it now and think ‘why on Earth would I participate in that?’
There was a time when I used march with you, ladies – proudly so – now I’ll just leave you to bicker in the sandpit with the same vicious troglodytes that once tried to punish me for not being a ‘real’ man. And you can trade barbs and stereotypes and post your lamentably stupid memes and get absolutely nowhere.
But hey, now that First World Feminism is a fully fledged sexist ideology, who needs subtlety and complexity, when a nifty sounding slogan will whistle up the dogs just as well?