Feminism may have triumphed, but Mark Simpson finds the denigration of men has as much to do with money as ideology

(Independent on Sunday, 2002)

When I was a little nipper, which was quite a while ago – as you can estimate by the fact that at that time nursery rhymes had not yet been replaced by rap music – there was one particular piece of doggerel which was very popular with my sister. ‘What are little girls made of?’ she would recite demurely. ‘Sugar and spice, and everything nice!’ Then her voice would drop into a sneer: ‘What are little boys made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dog tails!!

My sister, as you can probably guess, grew up to be a feminist. But not before she had given me several pastings – Sugar and Spice was three years older than me and, until my ‘poisonous’ testosterone came to the rescue, much bigger. I mention this story not to avenge myself on my sister or claim victim status – we get on famously now, I’m sure I deserved what I got, and besides, apparently I used to actually eat slugs and snails. I mention it because it does cast some doubt on the idea that the female of the species is, as one of the media women quoted in this book gushes: ‘More sensitive. More emotional. More caring. More dependable than males.’

Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture by Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young doesn’t mention that nursery rhyme about slugs and snails, but it does make a convincing argument that since the Nineties, much of mainstream popular culture has effectively taken up this childish paradigm as the only explanation of good and evil in the world. Men, say the authors, have become society’s official scapegoats and held responsible for all wickedness, including that done by women they have deluded or intimidated. Women are society’s official victims and held responsible for all good, including that done by men they have influenced or converted.

To prove their point the authors subject innumerable TV shows such as ‘Oprah’, ‘Home Improvements’ and ‘The Golden Girls’, and films such as ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’, ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’, ‘Cape Fear’ and ‘The Color Purple’ to rather lengthy, painstaking and frankly frequently somewhat tedious analysis to demonstrate that misandry is actually much more visible these days than misogyny – that in fact it has become the dominant discourse in popular culture. Males and male values and qualities are regularly disparaged, ridiculed or shamed in direct proportion to the way that females and female values and qualities are validated, endorsed and held up for approval.

Hence the importance they attach to the word ‘misandry’, which they describe as ‘culturally propagated hatred for men’. Like misogyny it is often expressed as negative stereotypes of the opposite sex. But unlike misogyny, misandry is not monitored because it is considered morally and legally acceptable: ‘The face of man, as it were, has been so distorted by public expressions of misandry that it has become unrecognisable even to men themselves.’

But is it really worth monitoring? Monitoring moreover in a lengthy, very earnest, very American academic tome freighted with large, indigestible chunks of political philosophy? Is it worth the risk of ‘misandry’ becoming a word that is bandied about ad nauseam by a legion of male Joan Smiths and Germaine Greers?

Oddly, alarmingly, the answer to this question might just be a qualified ‘yes’. They may overstate and restate their case, but that’s what books are for – and as the authors point out, misandry is an ideology whose assimilation has been so successful that most don’t even recognise it as an ideology. This is why sexism is regarded as a one-way street and any men who complain otherwise are mocked for being stupid or wet or both. Worse, it’s become the law, at least in regard to political correctness: our cultural guardians are completely blind to misandry, which literally doesn’t exist: there is only righteous ‘anger’ or a necessary and healthy ‘corrective’ to the crimes of men and patriarchy over the millennia etc. etc.

Hence even a pointedly, dramatically misandric film such as ‘The Company of Men’ is attacked as being misogynistic. A film which features two men, one utterly evil, the other hopelessly inadequate; and a main female character who is a virtuous victim. Even the evil guy isn’t misogynistic so much as misanthropic – he destroys the woman only as a way of destroying his ‘buddy’.

What makes ‘Spreading Misandry’ a useful book is not that it attempts to set up a whole new school of whingeing victimology but rather it puts a small spoke in the works of the large and noisy machinery of moral indignation, by turns spiteful and sanctimonious, that feminism has succeeded in constructing in academe and the media over the last twenty years. Moreover, it does this not to assert that men are the new oppressed and women the new oppressors, but to try and do away with the very dualism in Western culture on which crude – i.e. successful feminism – has been based.

But then, even all those years ago, I didn’t quite understand what was so awful about being made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails nor for that matter just what was so great about being made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Being bad can be very powerful – and not a little sexy. Hence of course the massive popularity since the Nineties of rap music with boys keen to piss off their feminist mums by apparently becoming all the things that men, according to the new official discourse, are: violent, abusive, dangerous and criminal.

Lad culture has also exploited this, with men’s magazines revelling in portraying men as the ‘filthy beasts’ and ‘souped-up monkeys’ that much of feminism has routinely described them as being. Although they don’t analyse rap and other youth movements, Nathanson and Young do observe: ‘Better a negative identity perhaps, than no identity at all. If women say that they are evil, some boys and men think, then so be it.’

Of course, many if not most of the writers and producers of so much of the ‘misandric’ material analysed in ‘Spreading Misandry’ are men. The authors are not claiming that the media is dominated by women now, or that misogyny has been abolished, just that much of the media is paying lip-service to the new feminist-inspired orthodoxies. They don’t state it themselves, but most of the material they analyse is aimed at women or has at least one (materially) rapacious eye on women (missing, for example, is any analysis of action movies, which are aimed squarely at teen boys, and which still usually feature heroic males, albeit frequently flawed ones). The ‘misandry’ of the female-oriented works they do analyse is at least as much economic and cynical as it is ideological.

Though not discussed here, so is the phenomenon of so-called Lad-Lit. Real Lad-Lit is FHM or Maxim. Since most books that aren’t about car engines or Hitler are bought by women (though it may be verging on the ‘misandric’ to say it), Lad-Lit is by definition a bit of dissimulation written largely for women who want to get inside a ‘lad’s’ head. Hence novels by Nick Hornby have the same nauseously ingratiating premise (echoed in Tony Parson’s ‘Man And…’ books), often literally and baldly stated: ‘Women are better than men’. Which means: ‘O.K. I’m crap – but it’s only because I’m a man, and I can’t help that. And, moreover, doesn’t that self-knowledge/abasement make me a teensy bit more lovable and readable and buy-able?’

As is often the case, ‘Spreading Misandry’ critiques an ideology that has already reached its high-tide mark. A new generation of ‘spice’ girls seem to be tiring of being ‘better than men’ – after all, so many are choosing to dress like street hookers these days. But then, the gendered Manichean universe, and the essentially traditional, shrewish view of men as bestial creatures that need to be tamed – or, more latterly, spurned – by women that it is based on is rather claustrophobic and airless. Especially that chintzy part of it marked out as ‘Heaven’.

Mr Spielberg’s Nineties schmaltz-fest ‘The Color Purple’, for example, in which every male character is an abuser and/or loser and every female character is an unblemished angel, may or may not be a misandric movie, as Nathanson and Young maintain. But there’s no doubt in my mind that it looks like a working definition of Hell.