Friday, November 12, 2021

The Man-Shaming Project - Janice Fiamengo

Over the past decade, we have been inundated with videos and public service campaigns calling out men for unacceptable behavior and informing them of what they must do and not do: do not accept an invitation for sex from a drunk woman; do not express any approval for a woman’s looks by whistling or complimenting her as she walks by; do not hug a co-worker, touch her on the shoulder, stand too close, or look at her too frequently; and when you’re sitting on the subway, do not get comfortable: be sure to keep your knees pressed close together. Click here to watch the original video "The Fiamengo File Episode 11."

It seems that no matter how men express their heterosexual maleness, there’s a feminist-influenced campaign to tell them it’s wrong.

Let me mention just a few. 

Starting in 2013, there was a popular anti-rape poster campaign, widely celebrated in the mainstream media, called “Don’t Be That Guy,” designed by a coalition of women’s groups in conjunction with the RCMP, Canada’s federal police force. The posters showed various scenarios in which sexual assault can occur, with an unwavering focus on men’s guilt and responsibility. “Just because you help her home … doesn’t mean you get to help yourself” crudely runs one of the messages, underneath an image of a drunken girl being assisted to a vehicle by a guy. One of the images shows a woman passed out, with a man standing over her reaching for his pants zipper.

According to the website of one of the project partners, the campaign pinpoints men’s supposed “sense of entitlement” in regards to sex and access to women’s bodies. In other words, ordinary men are so morally deficient and callow that they don’t realize that an unconscious woman is not a sexual partner. Such men, who allegedly use women as objects, who don’t care if the women are unwilling or incapacitated, need to be lectured, hectored, given a public dressing down—after which, presumably, they will start treating women with respect and love. It’s a strange way to go about encouraging male tenderness, to insist on their stupidity and thuggery.

The fact that the RCMP, which is supposed to impartially investigate charges of sexual assault, is involved in a campaign convinced of male depravity is just one very worrisome aspect of this poster series.

Moving into the realm of public theatre, we have also seen a variety of anti-catcalling videos purporting to demonstrate what a misogynistic environment sidewalks are for women. 

A number of these videos turned out to be staged by actors rather than the candid windows onto reality they pretended to be—a fact that has not lessened their popularity among those who believe in their deeper truth. In one Peruvian video that went viral, street-harassers are tricked into cat-calling their own mothers, who are done up in make-up and wig disguises. When their sons make sexual remarks, the angry mommas reveal their true identities and berate their sons for their lack of respect. It’s all fake: but many viewers loved the message: if you wouldn’t do it to your mother, why should you do it to any other woman? It’s a question with a very obvious answer: men tend to feel and express sexual interest for women who are not their mothers. But this is a fact seemingly lost on many of those applauding the video’s “Don’t you dare!” message.

In another video, a man who may well be an actor, with what sounds like a Bronx accent, and seemingly of Italian heritage, is mocked during an interview for his Neanderthal views on cat-calling, which he thinks is a way to compliment women. At one point, viewers are invited to bellow with holier-than-thou laughter at his admission that the sounds he makes to express his admiration are similar to the sounds he makes to call his dog. Commentators on the video jubilate over this proof positive of his alleged dehumanization of women.

Another viral video showed a woman walking through the streets of New York City and being cat-called 108 times—over a period of 10 hours, edited down to a purportedly representative 2-minute clip. 

The video was revealing to me not for the horror of the male behavior on display, but for the mildness of much of it—and this was the worst the videographer could find after 10 hours of filming. The video sparked acrimonious debate, not because the harassment did not seem particularly heinous or even mildly unpleasant—including quite a few “God bless you’s!” “Hello Beautiful’s!” and “how ya doing’s.” Rather, there was acrimony because many of the so-called harassers in the video were Latino or black men, prompting social justice critics, especially in Slate magazine, to accuse the white videographer of editing out the white catcallers, and forcing his apologetic confirmation that yes, there were catcallers of “all backgrounds.”

There are a lot of problems with the politically correct script here. Whether cat-calling might have significant cultural components, whether a 2-minute edited clip accurately conveys the average female experience on New York streets, and whether harassment by white men is really more worthy of condemnation than that by Latino and black men: these remain significant uncomfortable questions. It’s the general idea that appeals: men with power are oppressing women, and they need to be made to stop. One article in the Christian Science Monitor titled “NYC Candid Catcall Video: How Can We Make Our Sons Stop” details in toe-cringing detail how a mother who watched the video plans to start lecturing her son, not yet 2 years old, about objectifying women, so that when he attends pre-school he will not go there with the thought in his head “that girls are there to be looked at.” One can only imagine the confusion, shame, and anger such lectures are likely to produce in the poor little guy.

Moving from videos to public service announcements, we saw over one winter an anti-manspreading campaign, which sought to discourage men from taking up too much space on the subway by sitting with their knees apart. “Dude … Stop the spread” posters were put up by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority around New York City and were picked up by other cities.

No similar campaigns targeted women who pile their packages around them, block exit-ways with their baby carriages, or have gained so much weight that they need two seats to accommodate their thighs. Only the male sitting habit was the focus. And though a few commentators responded with appropriate ridicule, the fact that such campaigns can be thought up and implemented in the first place tells us a great deal about the mindset of our culture, its enthusiasm for targeting one particular segment of North American citizens.

These campaigns are evidence of a deep cultural sickness. They seem to aim at nothing less, ultimately, than the end of masculinity altogether, or certainly at the end of unselfconscious male comfort in their own skins. Can women really find it so intolerable to sit next to a man with legs akimbo, or to hear an appreciative comment on the street, or to take responsibility for their sexual behavior?

Is this the world these women really want to live in, where an appreciative glance, a wolf-whistle, a gesture of unconstrained masculine at-easeness all disappear from the world? While the women themselves—the Slutwalkers, the ‘we can dress however we like’ campaigners—insist on their right to skin-tight boob-popping ass hugging provocation.

The movement to outlaw masculinity has very little to do with female safety, and a great deal to do with decades of feminist grievance-stoking and self-pity, culminating in a multi-pronged institutional assault. In 1988, feminist theorist Sandra lee Bartky wrote an article about women's social position using the ideas of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault to explain how it was that women in the late twentieth century west were technically free, and yet still profoundly (and seemingly willingly) constrained in a variety of ways--ranging from the way they moved and sat and interacted with others, to their tendency to smile more than men and to spend a great deal of time and energy making their bodies conform to ideals of feminine beauty. No matter who they were or what they did with their lives, they were always aware of themselves, Bartky alleged, as bodies on display.

Foucault’s theory, developed in his book Discipline and Punish (1975), was that modern regimes moved away from what he called the power of the sovereign—brute power, often haphazardly applied—to a far more subtle, widespread and effective “micro-power” that resulted in individuals willingly monitoring and disciplining themselves, becoming what he called "docile bodies." Though Foucault wasn’t particularly interested in women’s experiences, Bartky saw his theory as highly applicable to the modern woman, whose body became “docile” as a result of the micro-regulation of her gestures, her postures, her movements, her facial expression, her tone of voice. What made women regulate themselves? Nothing and everything—the culture: that’s how modern power operates. Everything about men, in contrast, from the way they stood and positioned their bodies to their assertive, unconstrained behavior in public spaces, bespoke their less regulated gendered selves.

Bartky’s is an entirely social constructionist view of womanhood—she never considers that there might be biological dimensions to differences in female behavior and psychology—and the feminist movement has taken a strictly constructionist approach to social change over the years. And what that change has amounted to is a deliberate, institutionally enforced reversal of sex roles, following Bartky’s list of grievances almost to a T, such that men experience greater and greater restrictions on what they can say and do while women demand and achieve ever greater freedoms—without consequences—in dress and behavior.

Some men, of course, continue to get a pass on traditionally masculine behavior if they are approved by women or beyond the reach of their enforcement mechanisms. But a majority of men experience a steady erosion of their autonomy and freedom, such that they’re not even sure it’s okay to touch a co-worker on the shoulder or give her a compliment. And they’d better keep their knees together.

Why do men go along with it? I’m sure there are many reasons: because they love women and want to please them; because the demands come as appeals to “equality” and “justice,” which many men care about; perhaps they don’t know how to begin to oppose such a multi-faceted societal program of stigmatization. If you speak out against any of it, your resistance becomes proof that you’re a “rape apologist scum.” I myself am dumbfounded by the increasing inhumanity of feminist claims and by the seemingly widespread public acquiescence to them.

Can it really be the case that the majority of women want to live in a culture in which men are cowed and marginalized, emasculated and perpetually on the defensive? Is that a good culture for women? Is it a culture that will thrive, that will procreate, that will raise well-adjusted children, that will work and build and invent and discover and heal and adapt and prosper? I don’t think so. It’s a culture that leads women to fantasize about their victimhood, and men to disengage from a world that constantly tells them they’re no good. Let’s get real. Most women aren’t victims, and most men are good.

Originally published Oct. 22, 2015
Updated Nov. 12, 2021 

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