Oh, Andrea Dworkin

Jenny Diski

  • Misogyny: The Male Malady by David Gilmore
    Pennsylvania, 253 pp, £19.00, June 2001, ISBN 0 8122 3608 4

It’s a male thing, misogyny. No matter where you look, then or now, here, there and everywhere, up ethnographic hill, down historical dale, men disparage women. In his trawl of anthropological data, historical records, literature and letters, art and music, David Gilmore finds that men have always and everywhere expressed fear, disgust and hatred of women. From the peaceful and gentle !Kung San Bushmen to the urbane and civilised Montaigne, from folk legend to Freudian complex, from Medusa to the Blue Angel, men blame women for their discomforts and disappointments. Yet while Gilmore’s round-up suggests to him that anti-female feeling is universal among men, he believes its obverse is so rare that no term for it trips comfortably off the tongue. He half-heartedly suggests ‘misandry’ or ‘viriphobia’ as names that might be applied to the female version of misogyny, but since the only practitioner he can come up with is Andrea Dworkin, it’s hardly worth the coinage. In the 1950s and 1960s there used to be a term for it, though lately it has fallen into disuse. In those days it cropped up regularly in conversations that went roughly like this:

Man: Do you want to come to bed with me?
Woman: No.
Man: What are you, a man-hater?
Woman (making her getaway): It’s less general than that.

In those pre-feminist days, everyone knew what man-haters were: they were lesbians (or lesbians were man-haters), ugly (and therefore lesbians), or they were women who wanted equal pay or work parity (and probably lesbians), but mostly they were women who didn’t want to sleep with you. However, Gilmore is right; man-haters were identified as such by men – I can’t remember any woman calling herself one – and the designation was just another aspect of a deep institutional dislike and fear of women that does seem to have been expressed by many men in all times and all places.

Gilmore is an American anthropologist whose ethnographic work has been on the culture of machismo and shame in contemporary Spain and whose previous books have been on the cultural meanings of masculinity. Maleness is his bag. He claims, rather startlingly, that misogyny is a neglected topic, and sets out to remedy the rarity of ‘comparative and synoptic studies of continuities within cultural variation’. Though I would have thought that the prevalence of male prejudice against women has been extensively noted, Gilmore nonetheless compiles instances from standard ethnographic, historical, biographical and literary sources to demonstrate the global nature of misogyny. He produces a digest of universal male disgust. While he acknowledges that its expression can be varied, Gilmore is in search of an explanation for its ubiquity. After all, women do not have the same visceral loathing of maleness – excluding, he parenthesises, ‘the modern-day feminists like the redoubtable Dworkin’ (what a useful woman she is). What exists among ‘many more sensible women’ is a dislike of obnoxious and abusive men and ‘specifically “masculine” qualities like machismo, bravado, or the puerile braggadocio that sometimes appears in the locker room’. Women (apart from Ms Dworkin, of whom I am growing fonder by the minute) are, it seems, more reasonable, more adult and less obsessive because they are less psychologically damaged than men who, we are going to be brought round to believing, are suffering from what amounts to a ‘gendered-psychosis’. So we don’t have to worry about women, except – you’ve guessed it – Dworkin and those ‘radical feminists’ and ‘social constructionists’ who take the ‘reductionistic and sexist view’ that male endocrinology is destiny.

Instead, we can concentrate our thoughts and concerns on the real victims of the malady of misogyny: the psychogenically challenged male who needs all the understanding we can give him. Apparently men’s psyches are ‘troubled’, they are in ‘masculine turmoil’ as a result of universal experiences in ‘the male developmental cycle’. Lord, how easily the image of the oppressed is appropriated. If women think they’ve had a hard time as a result of being loathed and bullied by men, it’s nothing compared to the hardship suffered by men that has resulted in their feeling the loathing. If you are beginning to get an uncomfortable sense of milky mothers and moist mermaids looming on the horizon you are right, because men’s fear of helplessness, suffocation and submergence, in the inescapably female and deliquescent form of uterus, breast and vagina, is judged to be at the root of it all. Women drip with danger for men, who, as we know, first can’t live without us and then can’t live with us. You can love your mother for a while, but then she betrays you with your father and you have to marry other men’s sisters: enemies, outsiders, who as like as not are plotting against you with their sexuality and secretions while trying to abort your sons on whom the patriliny depends. Of course, it’s not women’s fault that it’s all their fault – Gilmore has all the rhetoric of a modern man and throws his hands up sadly at the unfortunate social and biological arrangements that make it this way – but men suffer from having been given birth to by women from whom they have to separate in order to become men; they suffer from having to desire people of the same gender as their mother (my, this is very awkward, Jocasta), and they suffer because they cannot perform the miracle of reproducing the species directly from their own bodies. Men suffer. No, they do. It’s awful.

Gilmore’s evidence for the commonalities of misogyny is based initially on anthropological research, and there is a difficulty here. His pick and mix approach takes some classic not to say hoary old ethnographies at their face value – a bit of a problem, since almost every generation of anthropologists has condemned previous researchers for faulty studies, imperialistic or colonialist arrogance, or plain doctoring of the material. The idea of the participant observer has little credibility in academic circles, and the standing of much ethnographic research is these days roughly on a par with reality TV. Some of the studies Gilmore quotes were done in the 1950s, when fieldwork attitudes were very different, and he quotes the not highly reliable J.G. Frazer and Margaret Mead alongside other, less discredited anthropologists. There are several references to the Yanomamo, a Venezuelan tribe who have become, thanks to Napoleon Chagnon’s decades of research, a byword for violence and misogyny. These men, Gilmore says, ‘are notorious wife-beaters, infamous for their brutality’. But Chagnon’s work has come under scrutiny recently and doubts have been raised about the validity of his findings in Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado. A report on the argument in the New York Times suggests that anthropology has become the academic equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show. In any case, objectivity and ideological agendas aside, anthropologists are notoriously the butt of hoaxes and practical jokes or are kindly given what they seem to want by those in the simpler societies being studied who are not quite as simple as they seem.

All Gilmore’s anthropological borrowings from studies made in Amazonia, the New Guinea Highlands, Africa and India attest to male terror of female physicality. Men huddle together, cowering in fear of women’s secretions, which are unclean, polluting and contagious, and likely to cause disease, decay, even death if not strictly controlled. Gilmore’s florid attempt to describe the phenomenon betrays a certain relish at having to say the unsayable:

Misogynistic fear centres on the flesh that makes woman man’s opposite and renders her unknowable to him. Misogynists tremble before the bodily labyrinth: veins, intestines, sexual organs. With her lunar cycles and genital effluvia, woman destroys the idealist’s illusions of a pristine universe. But physical repugnance is only part of the picture. For many misogynists revulsion grows into an indictment not of feminine flesh but of her spirit, her intellect, her character and will.

It is, of course, a love/hate thing. Along with the abuse and fear of women, men, in these ethnographies, are forever cross-dressing, standing in streams cutting the underside of their penises in mock menstruation, and howling in agony while their women are in labour. And it’s because they can’t help wanting women so much that men hate them. Men, not being animals, have constantly to restrain themselves, especially since the human female gave up oestrus. Men want women, but they’ve got better things to do than think about sex all the time. ‘This inner struggle is probably sharper, more physiologically driven, in the male than in the female because of the peremptory power of the testosterone-driven male libido. The result is not only unremitting tension, frustration, and the inevitable aggression against the object of desire, but also moral self-doubt and, in the case of puritans, self-hatred.’ (And women? Well, ‘women suffer in their own way from sexual conflicts, but the result is not anti-male hysteria.’) In Melanesia and parts of Brazil, women are not permitted ever to be physically higher than men, for fear of deadly dripping, but, as Gilmore points out, the sexual fantasy of women astride men is nearly universal. The ambivalence between sexual fantasy and social phobia is key: desire equals danger, an imagined loss of control of the libido threatens the social order, an irresistible physical need undermines an independent spirit. These fears operated just as effectively for the ancient Greeks, the early Christians, the medieval intelligentsia or the Elizabethans as they do for contemporary tribal societies. Gilmore gives us the well-aired rants against women from Hesiod and Homer, St Paul, Bernard of Cluny, Shakespeare and Swift to prove that his case goes beyond the merely anthropological. We hear, once again, Lear railing against ‘the sulphurous pit’, Milton moaning about ‘this fair defect of Nature’, Swift sniffing about ‘all her stink’ and Yeats complaining that ‘Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement’ – though I’m not clear why this last should be interpreted as a distaste exclusively for women. Gilmore makes his point by leaving no misogynistic cliché unturned. Splitting spirit and flesh, will and desire, intellect and imagination is a game as old as Methuselah, and the division of humanity into two genders is as handy a way of representing it as any. But these views of misogyny all presuppose that women, who do not seem to have this same ambivalent reaction to men, either do not suffer from compelling sexual desire or have no interest in sustaining the civil rather than the sensual life. Women, at least in Gilmore’s book, are curiously passive creatures who take whatever is dished out to them – or did until the unsensible likes of Andrea Dworkin came along.

Men, however, suffer not just from distress at the strength of their own passions but from an endemic dread of regressing into infantile vulnerability. The danger of the sexual woman is that she is the same creature whose body bore and nurtured the male child, who having dragged himself away from her apron strings must now re-encounter her. His fear of being engulfed or consumed is a terror of returning to helpless dependence, a fear, when it comes right down to it, of oblivion and death. We are just a hop and a skip here from Freud’s Oedipus, and only a triple jump from Klein’s object relations theory. Either way, psychoanalytic theory indicates to Gilmore that men need to wrench themselves from the power of maternally and sexually nourishing women in order to run the world. Moreover, men are very, very cross with women because, running the world as they do, men have so arranged it that they are in fact dependent on women for their physical and domestic comfort. What could be more irritating than, fearing dependence above all, finding that in order to have time to lead the properly male life, dependent is exactly what they are? The simple solution to all this, which is that men give up the project of running the world and settle down to childcare and making supper, is not an option apparently, because maleness is a near impossible dream, and a man’s got to dream what a man’s got to dream.

Gilmore suggests that the enterprise of maleness is so difficult that it must be protected against encroaching underlying femaleness. Maleness is a developmental afterthought, he points out. We all begin in utero as female and only some foetuses develop into males. By analogy, social maleness is a cultivation that needs protecting from rampantly natural femaleness. Maleness can be seen, says Gilmore, as ‘a fragile pose, an insecure façade, something made up, frangible, that men create beyond nature’. Here men, valiant but feeble, are fending off entropy itself. Standing against extinction in the form of their own innate inner femaleness. Whatever way you look at it, men are poor but brave old things.

In search of his own unifying theory, Gilmore gives credence to many of the obvious and available psychoanalytic and sociobiological explanations for women-hatred. He is less inclined, however, to trust feminist and Marxist views on misogyny, which tend to place the blame more squarely on men’s desire for political control and domination. Too crude, too reductionist, he says. Though as a straightforward solution to the coincidental problem of the universality of misogyny and of male hegemony, I’d say they are hard to beat. To my shame, I have to admit to a growing inclination to agree with John Major’s once dismaying view that we should understand less and condemn more – as least in the face of Gilmore’s gathering of pop-psychoanalytic excuses for the sorry state of gender relations the world over.

In the end the patchwork of woman-hating instances of which most of the book consists brings Gilmore round to his conclusion, which hardly seems to merit the painful reading we have been required to do: ‘many theories are needed to explain this malady in all its diversity and richness. Misogyny is complex and has many, often unrelated causes.’ He is not hopeful of a final cure, but thinks the problem might be mitigated by desegregation in schools, the sharing of bathrooms, paternal childcare and consciousness-raising for men in the form of ‘ambivalence toleration’ or ‘conflictedness training’. He considers his proposals for the amelioration of misogyny to be ‘wishful thinking’ but since men ‘are and always will be divided in their feelings about sex and about women … only self-knowledge and tolerance can help men appreciate the degree of their conflict.’ What is going to help women put up with these sorry sharers of the planet, he doesn’t say. He continues: ‘Only self-knowledge can free men from fear of women, and self-knowledge in this case means the acceptance of the divided self within and an imperfect universe without.’ The imperfect universe being one that has women in it, I presume. Finally, ‘only through an acceptance of wholeness can men appreciate the loveliness, gentleness and beauty of women.’ Oh, Andrea Dworkin, where are you when we really need you?