The Anti-Feminist Backlash in an Age of Austerity

I suppose, in a way, British men are like white people were in Nineties South Africa or young Germans after the Second World War. We are expected to go through a period of atonement for the sins of our fathers. To be treated worse than we merit because of crimes previously committed in our name: in this case the crime of feeding, protecting, loving and nurturing women in accordance with our biological imperative. They don’t want that any more. They want to be linesmen. And so we have to let them tell us endlessly how they wish we were all dead.

Thus spake a gourmand and professional waffler last week, a child-of-privilege educated at Westminster and Oxford, who, despite these handicaps, manages to articulate for us the crisis of contemporary masculinity. Apparently two compatriots got caught up in some garden-variety lechery of the career-halting kind. Their trials and tribulations, although obviously upsetting for them on a personal level, at least had the merit for many of acting as a flashpoint for opposition. That is, a common-sense opposition to the political correctness surrounding the damages wrought on men by feminism and feminists. Finally, people can begin to speak out.

It is rather tempting to pursue the bizarre line of metaphorical reason here (if ‘sexist crimes’ are merely love expressed biologically, and if British men today are like post-fascist South Africans and Germans, does that make apartheid and Nazi rule the equivalents of a natural and benevolent stewardship? Did they even involve ‘real’ crimes?). But we should resist that. Coren is but a symptom, and should not detain us overlong in picking the low-hanging fruit. The triggering events are themselves already old news, the detritus of the news cycle now rendered especially vulgar and tattling by some actual struggles for justice.

The tropes at play have been with us for some time, inflecting what are essentially public relations SNAFUs with the full force of mythological sex wars. But these themes do seem to be becoming increasingly familiar. Those who grumbled about the rise of such minimal concessions as equal pay legislation in the halcyon days of economic vibrancy now have the pressures of austerity with which to buttress their case. Outrage at the redundancy of a favourite sports broadcaster spirals rather quickly into a diagnosis of women’s ‘special treatment’ in our society and the counter-sexism of a gender settlement in which men are no longer authorised to authentically, organically, just be themselves. Castrated. Emasculated. Prostrated.

As Richard Seymour points out, we should be alive to the diversions and detractions involved with the puerile zero-sum-game-cum-battle-o’-the-sexes approach to feminist politics. Tony Porter’s plea will strike some already alive to the operations of gender as rather basic in its analysis, if worthy in its intentions. The bigger problem is that it was delivered to TEDWomen (hard to imagine many fully-fledged masculinists in attendance). Nevertheless it connects two areas to which our attention should be drawn: the impact of generalised misogyny and the realities of violent and often fatal misogyny.

The accumulated rhetoric of subordination, worthlessness and sniggering contempt can hardly but have an effect. There is no substitute for analysis, and no question that the manifold pathways from attitudes and dispositions to actions and life outcomes are complex. But contemptuous speech acts are clearly not just ephemera. This is the realm of our everyday interactions: with media, with memes, with conversations overheard at transport hubs and drinking holes. These are the culture wars beloved of many, the chance to fight out questions of identity and worth via the effluence of entertainment products.

That’s the generalised misogyny. The stories that make the news, and generate the scandals, invariably operate at this level. People fired for not being young and blond. Whether licking phallic vegetables qualifies as a legitimate way to promote veganism. Or whether ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ count as normal celebrity banter. And does Sex & The City hate women and Muslims? This stuff matters on all kinds of levels. But by circulating within infotainment agendas, and by relying on superficial shock value, it can (can) also distract from fatal misogyny. Indeed, the ‘commonsense’ plausibility and popularity of Clarksonite fears seems to depend on keeping the conversation on the generalised fracas, where we can circle ambiguities and fret over motives without the issue ever really moving beyond hurt feelings and bruised egos. Stop being such a girl.

But we would do well to at least occasionally return the conversation to some rather less genteel topics, and hence to the hostile underbelly of patriarchy. We might, for example, wonder about why it is that the brigade of secret feminists has been unable to maintain their cushy revenue streams? Or ask how it is that in 2009 a third of all local authorities in the UK lacked domestic violence services? Or that more than a third lacked even a refuge? Might we inquire why, even when there is good news, it is small change in the context of over-stretched and under-resourced attempts to provide some kind of support structure? For a country so in hock to ideologies of biological reversal and feminine superiority, our pockets seem somewhat impervious to their charms. After all, when we speak with our wallets it is to say that we care more about donkey sanctuaries than domestic violence.

But what jokey laddishness is it that calls for such resources anyway? The police recorded just under 14,000 rapes of women and 1,200 rapes of men in 2009. And that from an institution which finds it surprisingly hard to even treat rape as a crime. Under-counting is notorious, but crime surveys suggest that around half a percent of all the girls and women living in the UK are raped each year. Depending on your statistical method, that gives a total of 60-100,000 rapes a year for women alone. Buttressed by a range of justifications and ideological closures.

And that’s just the most clearly physical and violating of contemporary expressions. These are the basics, although they bear repeating. Not yet a word about pay gaps, or people trafficking, or the forms of labour and dependency, or commodification, or the impact of military adventures, or of the forms of gendered violence that escape neat little separations into male and female. Expressions of bruised masculinity are salvoes in an imagined war for sexed superiority. Us or them. Someone has to be on top. That war is a fake one, whether at the levels of identity or politics or sexuality. Or at least a mis-identified one. But the division of resources is very real, as are its effects. At that level there are choices to be made in the age of austerity, and allegiances to be formed.


19 thoughts on “The Anti-Feminist Backlash in an Age of Austerity

  1. I guess the problem with trying to level the playing field, in whatever area, is that those who previously enjoyed the benefits of disparity tend to interpret their loss of advantage as discrimination.

    In some ways, this is a problem that is largely self-limiting. As the old beneficiaries of discriminatory die off, those whining voices will gradually get thinner. I don’t pretend that it is precisely as simplistic as that, but broadly speaking I suppose that’s the trend.

    Doesn’t make it any less irritating though to hear people diminishing the real meaning of discrimination by claiming it is happening to them because they no longer enjoy an unfair advantage.


    • Very true. I think the deep problem with gender orders, especially in terms of fighting them out in the symbolic or cultural or representational terms, is that while there can be progress, there can also be backlash. It’s not like we’re dealing with a shift from a political order based on aristocracy to one based on the middle class and bureaucrats. The power base for the beneficiaries in this case (broadly, patriarchy, hegemonic masculinity, and a sizeable proportion of men) is amorphous and shifting and pretty much everywhere.


      • Fair enough, so long as the message is that we’re supposed to get RID of beneficiaries, and not replace one set of them with another (at least so far as I think). (The goal isn’t to replace European plutocrats with African plutocrats, for instance, or to create a culture in which the number of men raped is 1000 times the number of women raped!)

        But I am suspicious of the idea that there can be “amorphous distributions of power”. There should be a clear way of determining who it is that has power and who doesn’t and how power can be redistributed, otherwise the notion of “power” isn’t of great use. (Physicists can get away with talk about force-fields because they have precise ways of measuring and predicting their effects, so I can see why they might want to say that the notion of a center of force is not always in order. But if theorists take up the metaphor and say power struggles are going on everywhere on all sides and recommend perpetual revolt and anarchy as the only solution, I distrust their analogy, because I do not agree with the conclusion — and it is reasonable, I think, when one suspects the conclusion, to cast a suspicious eye upon the premises.)


      • Hi Alex,

        I don’t disagree much on any of your points. I take it that you want me to be more specific on the ways in which patriarchy is amorphous. I wouldn’t say that my view contradicts yours in the sense that I *do* think it is possible to identify concrete beneficiaries of the system. Yet it is in the nature of the benefits and of the system that I will be unlikely to command the kind of precision and consensus among my peers or interested and intelligent parties that the theoretical physicist might.

        In the most immediate sense, I might well identify men who accumulate material benefits and cultural capital by virtue of their place in a social order that provides particular education benefits and social prestige for people like them, who are judged deserving. And yet that social judgement and the discourse that surrounds it also involves (and perhaps depends on) a wider set of tropes and ideas about gender which are not so definable in terms of particular individuals benefiting in a certain way.

        I agree with you that this poses an analytical challenge, but I do not think it makes the claim incoherent and I do not think it is a special problem for gender talk. Much the same goes for any form of analysis that addresses the social.


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  3. “aa gourmand and professional waffler last week, a child-of-privilege educated at Westminster and Oxford”

    I don’t think it’s nice to say this about him, even if he says bad things about you. And if you have good reasons to support your case, why do you need to?

    Also, separate this:

    “to be treated worse than we merit because of crimes previously committed in our name”

    From the description of the crime, which I agree is the wrong description. There’s something to the description of the quandary, and it isn’t just as you say “the crisis of contemporary masculinity”. It’s this problem: what is the relation between our history and our moral standing, or, to put it in existentialist lingo, what is the relation between our projectivity and our thrown-ness?

    There are for instance wealthy people who have done terrible things and acquired their wealth unjustly, but that in itself is not enough to make the accumulation of wealth unjust, nor I think to condemn all who have accumulated it (one would have to add that all accumulation of wealthy by any means is unjust).

    Many Americans have benefited from the unjust practices of their ancestors, but that in itself does not make them unjust, or at least one could reasonably doubt that. (When someone protests that his ancestors held slaves, but she is no advocate of slavery, the protestation is not worthless, though one might extend the allegation to cover the person’s present acts and thoughts.)

    Pardon a woman’s past (I use the word “woman” to refer to all human beings, since the word “man” can apparently be used in that way) so that she might prove herself worthy of a better future.


    • For sure. The line was not intended as an ad hominem and I was not saying that Giles Coren is wrong *because* he comes from a background of privilege. That said, his privilege is not irrelevant. We have a situation in which someone who has done rather well out of the cultural and social settlement of our times feels aggrieved because he perceives that women (or certain feminist women) are seeking to overthrow his privilege.

      As you indicate, Coren might be right in defending that privilege or, in more abstract terms, in pointing to the possibility of blameless sons springing from the loins of guilty fathers. But he does not seem to have *examined* his privilege or really made any effort to understand the grounds on which people oppose sexist talk. He states that the privilege afforded him results from biological imperatives, and indicates that it is thus illegitimate to ask him to renounce or modify it, and uses spurious examples to paint contemporary British men as the *true* victims.

      It seems to me that an aside about his background is a legitimate element in the analysis of this position, although it would be quite wrong if my account depended on it, which it doesn’t.


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  5. A few examples of the excesses of feminism:

    – Divorced men who end up penniless and without the right to see their children
    – Men who have to put up with bitchy female managers
    – The declaration of female superiority
    – The feminist propaganda mocking men

    All this and more, made men angry. And what happens eventually when men are angry ? You get a backlash !

    It was only a matter of time. And the recession is not going to make things any better.

    The less rosy the economic prospect, the stronger the masculinist backlash will be.

    Some feminists are trying to oppose this backlash, but you had better get out of the way ladies ! You can’t stop a tank on its course.

    The stupid fact is that ultra feminists and their propaganda made men angry before full equality between men and women has even been achieved.

    There still are some countries where women earn less than men for the same job, qualifications and experience, like France. There are still some countries where you are less likely to get a job because you are a woman (like Japan) or countries where you are expected to stay at home to take care of the child (like Switzerland).

    So, ultra-feminists have jeopardized the progress on equality before equality is even achieved. This is stupid.

    This backlash is a natural reaction to restore balance because men felt insulted. Now, any extremism is bad, whether feminist or masculinist. The real truth is that men and women are meant to help and respect each other and there should be equality of salary and chances.

    And I am against crazy ideas like making abortion illegal, that’s quite nuts.


    • I, for one, welcome our radical feminist overlords.

      Or is that ‘overladies’? Seriously, what to make of such paper-thin idiocy? “Bitchy female managers”? You just couldn’t make Kurt up. He has, however, provided an excellent example of fragile masculinity, in which the role of women is to stay subservient and not, whatever they do, to make Kurt and his friends angry. That only leads to the destruction of the natural balance!


    • “The stupid fact is that ultra feminists and their propaganda made men angry before full equality between men and women has even been achieved.”

      Because men aren’t responsible for their anger? Or does our anger inevitably result in a particular behaviour?

      If the worst oppression we have to endure s insult and anger at some meagre loss of privilege I think it is a loss that will do us a great deal of good.


  6. PLEASE ! HEAR ME OUT! Feminism is not for the idiots that say “No, I’m better than you (to a man) because I’m a woman, a feminist!” but for the ones that know that claming their rights could get majorly violent sanctions.


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