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Spreading Misandry: Preface

The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture

by Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young
Review © 2001 by Bert H. Hoff

 

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Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young, Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture (Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001). Order on-line




Spreading Misandry book cover
Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture
by Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young
Order on-line
 


Copyright Notice: Spreading Misandry by Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young © 2001 by McGill-Queen's University Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Canadian copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright notice, is carried and provided that the McGill-Queen's University Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the authors and McGill-Queen's University Press.

Preface

We began this book, the first volume in a trilogy called Beyond the Fall of Man, by noting that many pop cultural artifacts and productions from the 1990s said very negative things about men. This led to our initial hypothesis: that misandry, the sexist counterpart of misogyny, had become pervasive in the popular culture of our society – that is, of Canada and the United States – during that decade. But how pervasive? And why? These questions presented us with several problems: (1) defining popular culture; (2) overcoming conventional wisdom; (3) describing the artifacts and productions of popular culture in a disciplined way; (4) interpreting them as potential carriers of misandry; (5) demonstrating that misandry in popular culture has become a significant phenomenon and is thus worth being taken seriously by scholars; and (6) examining our evidence in relation to the many studies on misogyny in popular culture.

In some ways, our work presupposes the existence of a more or less unified popular culture. This is unlike traditional folk cultures in at least one important way: it is not created by and for a non-literate segment of the population. It is carried to everyone, moreover, through the mass media made possible by an industrial society. Contemporary popular culture is the property of all people, regardless of traditional barriers such as class or religion (except for the Amish, the Hasidim, and other groups that deliberately isolate themselves from the larger society). The poorest residents of rural communities are thus united in at least one respect with the richest residents of gated communities: they all listen to popular singers, watch popular movies and television shows, read popular books or magazines, and so on. There are “taste communities,” it is true. Consider the case of music. Some people prefer country and western, others heavy metal, and still others the sentimental ballads of divas. But all are exposed every day to the full range of popular styles, and most find some gratification in at least one of them. Preference is by no means dictated by race and other traditional boundary markers. Whites are as likely as blacks, for instance, to enjoy hip hop. Even so, many enjoy classical (elite) music as well. Applicants to the Juilliard School are hardly restricted to members of an upper class. Although many people do prefer either elite or popular music, in short, these categories cannot be considered mutually exclusive. The same can be said of other media. Just because some people enjoy the “art films” of Ingmar Bergman, for instance, does not necessarily mean that they dislike romance or adventure movies. But the point here is merely that popular movies are accessible to everyone. All people are addressed. All potential ticket-buyers are expected to understand the cinematic conventions, be familiar with the imagery, and so forth. To put this another way, popular culture is not merely the opposite of elite culture: the two are related in ways that are much too ambiguous and too fluid for so stark an opposition.

Both conventional wisdom (as revealed in the anecdotal evidence of everyday life and, not coincidentally, in the stereotypes purveyed by countless talk shows, sitcoms, movies, or whatever) and academic fashions (as revealed in the burgeoning literature of women’s studies) have been preoccupied with the problem of misogyny. Until very recently, no scholar recognized even the possibility of misandry, let alone of widespread misandry. Consequently, no systematic study of misandry in popular culture has been produced. This first volume in our trilogy was written for precisely that reason. Our aim here is primarily to collect evidence and thus demonstrate the existence of widespread misandry in contemporary popular culture, a phenomenon that appears not merely now and then or here and there but on a massive scale and in consistent patterns.

Our method of description is not scientific, to be sure, but it is far from haphazard. We did not seize the odd motif or metaphorical allusion. We looked for patterns, ones that recur over and over both within and across genres. To see any patterns at all, of course, requires a systematic effort. That meant relying on the systematic use of what art historians call “formal analysis,” observing what is actually presented in visual or verbal terms, to provide a close and disciplined “reading” of every “text.” Formal analysis was used very effectively by one of the present authors, Paul Nathanson, in Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz As a Secular Myth of America. That analysis began with the careful observation of consistent patterns in the use of formal properties. In the case of a movie, of course, those were cinematic properties such as colour, music, mise-en-scene, time, space, and so on. At this stage, description, there is no need to speculate about accuracy; the patterns are either there or not there, and anyone can check merely by looking and allowing the evidence to speak for itself. What all this means, however, is another matter.

We argue that the “documents” discussed here can be interpreted as evidence of pervasive misandry (although we do not claim to have exhausted the interpretive possibilities of any item). This is our interpretation, but is it what the people who produce this stuff have in mind? It could be argued – it was once assumed – that “correct” interpretations are whatever the creators have in mind. In this respect, we follow the current tendency to argue that “the author is dead.” With a few exceptions, we are not interested in what the creators wanted to say; we are interested primarily in what their creations do say. But wait. Can we know what they say? Can we know, in other words, how viewers or readers interpret them?

One way of finding out how they do so – or to put it another way, how they are affected – would be simply to ask them. But that would require elaborate surveys. And the results, based not only on how questions are selected and phrased but also on the particular people whose opinions are solicited and how they feel that day, would not necessarily establish anything remotely like a “true interpretation.” For decades, experts have debated the effects on children of violence on television. There have been many studies but no conclusive proof to support any one position; otherwise, governments would have intervened long ago with legislation. Everyone agrees that violence on television has some effect on some children in some circumstances. But precisely which effect? And on precisely which children? And in precisely which circumstances? The answers are not obvious, to say the least, because too many variables are involved. These include class, region, age, religious environment, educational resources, and family situation. Among the most important variables, however, is the personal psychology of every child. Some children are indeed motivated by television to behave in antisocial ways. But most children who watch the same shows are not.

The same thing applies to pornography. Many feminists believe that (heterosexual) pornography is dirty and vulgar. But probably far fewer agree with anti-pornography activists, some of whom consider even (heterosexual) erotica an indirect cause of violence against women. And with good reason. That belief has not been substantiated with empirical evidence. It probably cannot be, moreover, because once again there are too many variables for any simple cause-and-effect relation. Not being sociologists or psychologists, in any case, we do not rely on polls or questionnaires. But there are precedents for drawing conclusions in other ways about how people are affected by popular (or elite) culture. In the 1970s, anthropologists such as Dick Hebdige observed that cultural artifacts or productions created by and for one group are often reinterpreted, adapted, appropriated, and absorbed by others. Subcultural artifacts and productions can go mainstream, which is what happened, at least among teenagers, to the styles of music and clothing favoured in the worlds of punk, say, and hip hop. Or the process can work in reverse, moving from mainstream to subculture.

An obvious example from the United States would be The Wizard of Oz. This movie was intended as pure entertainment for Americans in general and American children in particular, and it has indeed become an American “classic.” In addition, it has become a “cult” movie – which is to say, one that has been appropriated by specific segments of the population and interpreted in view of their own needs or interests. Hippies liked it, for example, because Dorothy’s “trip” in Oz reminded them of their own experiences with hallucinatory drugs. Gay people like it, on the other hand, because (among other reasons) Dorothy’s isolation from society and yearning for community reminds them of their own isolation and yearning.

The artifacts and productions under discussion here could all be described as mainstream. They are commercially successful to the extent that they “speak” to people. And some have been notably successful. Many of the movies, for instance, were box-office hits. It is easy to know which are financially successful and which are not, but precisely why is more difficult to establish with any accuracy – even when people are asked for explanations of their likes or dislikes (partly because the questions are notoriously subject to biases or expectations of one kind or another). Why do so many artifacts and productions show signs of misandry? To put it another way, why do so many people respond favourably to misandry – or at least not complain of sexism? Our hypothesis is that, like misogyny once upon a time, misandry has become so deeply embedded in our culture that few people – including men – even recognize it. Those who do, moreover, seldom recognize it as a pervasive problem. And those who do that, it must be added, seldom know what to make of misandry in the face of so much debate over misogyny. In formulating our hypothesis, however, we are doing nothing that social scientists do not do. Faced with statistical anomalies or surprises, they rely on logic or even common sense to suggest explanations.

Pervasive misandry is surely a “statistical” surprise (though not a statistical anomaly in the technical sense). Nevertheless, we have examined not one or two but many genres and not one or two examples within each but many. The patterns we identify can be found everywhere in the popular culture of our time – that is, the 1990s. This phenomenon cannot be explained adequately, or explained away, as accidental. It surely indicates something. It is true that interpretations will almost inevitably differ to some extent from one period to another, from one community to another, and even from one individual to another. This is obvious to anyone who has examined the history of literary criticism, say, or biblical exegesis. And it is true that no one can “prove” the legitimacy of an interpretation. This is not chemistry or even experimental psychology. Even so, we need not succumb to relativism. Some inter-pretations offer more fruitful possibilities than other interpretations.

These problems should sound very familiar. Precisely the same ones arose thirty years ago in connection with discussions of women as portrayed in popular culture. Feminists discerned patterns that they believed were significant, ones that anyone could see once they had been pointed out. But most people – including women – had either not noticed or not taken seriously portrayals of women as submissive at best and threatening at worst. After enough evidence had accumulated, it was hard not to see these patterns and equally hard to see other patterns.

As for the extent to which feminist interpretations of popular culture have been helpful, well, that is another matter. In some ways, they have been helpful. We are all much more aware now of how problematic representations of gender can be and of the specific ways in which women have been represented unfairly. In other ways, feminist interpretations have not been so helpful. For one thing, their exclusive preoccupation with portrayals of women has meant either ignoring or trivializing portrayals of men. Moreover, many of the most influential feminists have insisted that portrayals of women are due ultimately and primarily to a deeply rooted misogynistic conspiracy – even though it was once far from obvious that white, middle-class women were an “oppressed class.”

At any rate, we have discerned another pattern. This misandric one can coexist uneasily and ironically (sometimes in the same medium or genre and sometimes in the same artifact or production) with the misogynistic one described by feminists and now considered virtually self-evident. But there are some important differences between misandry and misogyny in popular culture. Misogyny has been studied and taken seriously for decades. Misandry, on the other hand, has been either ignored or trivialized for decades. Also, political pressure has eliminated (or at least hidden) a great deal of misogyny. Not only has no political pressure been used to eliminate (or hide) misandry but some of the political pressure used against misogyny has directly or indirectly exacerbated misandry. As a result, we suggest, the worldview of our society has become increasingly both gynocentric (focused on the needs and problems of women) and misandric (focused on the evils and inadequacies of men).

How did we reach this point? We have concluded that one form of feminism – one that has had a great deal of influence, whether directly or indirectly, on both popular culture and elite culture – is profoundly misandric. It would be hard to argue that the artifacts and productions discussed in this book have nothing at all to do with its relentless hostility towards men as a class of enemy aliens. How could it be otherwise in a worldview based precisely on “gender”? It is impossible to discuss women per se without also discussing men, after all, or men per se without also discussing women. The precise relation between ideological feminism and misandry, however, will be discussed more fully in the second and third volumes of this trilogy.

We argue that ideological feminists have played an important role in creating the gynocentric worldview and disseminating it. But the process of embedding that worldview in popular culture is very complex. For one thing, many negative stereotypes of men (as of women) had long been part of our culture. But feminists have made it acceptable, in one way or another and for one reason or another, to exploit them. This, and the fact that feminists of all kinds have made it unacceptable (though still not quite impossible) to exploit negative stereotypes of women, has led to not only a cultural preoccupation with misogynistic stereotypes but also a cultural indifference to misandric ones.

Not all feminists will appreciate this “intrusion” onto what has for decades been their turf. Having examined deconstructionist theory (see appendix 5), we are well aware that the first response of some will probably be to explain away our unflattering portrait of what we call “ideological feminism.” We know that feminism is “diverse,” that there are different and even conflicting schools of feminism. Not all of them promote the kind of gynocentrism (and accompanying misandry) we describe. But at the end of the day, gynocentric ideas (and their misandric results) have become so pervasive – trickling down to popular culture – that they cannot be explained away as the results of a few academic loonies. The variety of “feminisms” is a second-order phenomenon. The first-order phenomenon is gynocentrism, because that is surely the one thing that all schools of feminism have in common: primary concern for the needs and problems of women.

We hope that this volume suggests new topics of research and encourages other scholars to take a second look at the ways in which gender is portrayed in popular culture – the gender not only of women but of men as well.

 

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