What the Anti-Feminists Get Right

“Ain’t nothin’ a man ever did that a woman didn’t make him do or let him do.”

–          Bob Dylan

During the rise of the automobile at the start of the twentieth century, concern was voiced by authorities on high that women might take it upon themselves to travel in a car. Note that I said travel, not drive. This was seen as a key issue of safety. A car was a fast-travelling vehicle that required mechanical aptitude to pilot and attention to be paid to the road. With a woman in the car, a man would quickly – and assuredly – become distracted, and crash the car.

Sadly, despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s, not much has changed. We’re still very much in the grip of this peculiar Victorian view of sexuality. And it’s still extremely internalised in our culture, to the point we don’t even realise it’s purely a construct. Men and women alike, every day, fall into this belief system. Men are pigs, or dogs, and they cannot be calm around the female body. To quote Joss Whedon: “they eat of the beef and enjoy to look at the bosoms”. Of course, a lot of men like this model and indulge in it, and are permitted to. Thus male sexuality is culturally accepted, but only of a particular flavour: base, bestial, primal, untamed, uncivilized and uncouth, often uncontrolled and literally uncontrollable, to the point where it is used to justify rape.

Yet like every other difference between the sexes, there’s no evidence of male sexuality being any different to female sexuality. And we know full well how cultural this distortion is, because three centuries previously the view was the opposite: women were considered the wild, primal, demonic creatures who would wallow in sexuality constantly if not restrained by reasoned, ascetic men, who could rise above base instinct.

And we know this is poisonous. To our culture, to shared dialogues, to women – and especially to men. In the end it tends to present men’s sexuality as just as dichotomous as the madonna/whore split for women. Sexual men are lads and bad boys, and asexual men are stout, upright citizens. The division enables all the worst aspects of gender issues, because once a man operates as a sexual being, anything is permitted. He can be as sexist as he likes and as stupid as he likes, free from responsibility because he is under the mystical spell of the female form. The Church of the Holy Breasts absolves you of all sins, up to and including rape.

And indeed, the blame that has been absolved is then placed firmly on females, who have failed to maintain a hold on the leash.

But the (if you’ll permit it) consolation prize for being both the victim and scapegoat of rape culture is the ceding to women of man’s sexual and emotional control. Up to a point, of course – as long as they generally knowing their place – the social relationship can exist where women, according to cliché, hold the leash of their dog-like men. They are the rational, level-headed ones who make the decisions for their uncouth men. And more to the point, since they possess the qualities that turn men mad, they can turn the dogs loose at any moment. That is an enormous amount of power to be explicitly ceded – and as such, it’s an idea that has impeded feminism for centuries. Even Bob Dylan, who was quite the supporter of women’s rights at the time he gave the quote, distanced himself from the movement because in his eyes, everything men do is because of women.

What the anti-feminists of the Mens Rights Associations and Men Going Their Own Way and all their various incarnations get right is that this idea is demeaning and punishing to men, and that men suffer many consequences in a culture with this kind of worship, which defines their manliness and their worth as a human being by their ability to attract and “acquire” or “conquer” women (or – for the good boys – to protect and cherish them).

Of course, what the anti-feminists get wrong is literally everything else: based on a shallow understanding of feminism or bad experiences with an unrepresentative sample, they have decided that feminism wants to remove all of women’s suffering under the patriarchy while keeping all the benefits of ceded power, and to remove all of the benefits of men while keeping all the suffering that ceding power brings.

But as we said in last month’s column, feminism is not the cause of these problems, it is the solution to them – for men as well as for women. But doing so does involve sacrifices of positions and paradigms, which both men and women can and do benefit from. And some of these are deeply culturally and socially ingrained, and in some cases are part of people’s identity and mindset.

These paradigms have many forms. It’s most common face is the one we call benevolent sexism – where preference is shown to the other sex, simply because of their sex. This is not about meting out scales of social justice, but the idea that women need – even deserve – to be protected and kept safe by men. That they are to be adored for their beauty and their muse-like qualities. That they must remain a mystery to preserve that adoration. And inevitably, that some control should – must –  be ceded to them because they are things that are higher than men. We are tough so we can take it, they are gentle so they cannot; but we yield to that gentility. That’s why the maiden is needed to placate the furious dragon.

It’s a romantic sentiment. It appeals to the poets in us, and the warriors. It runs through medieval fiction and the fantasy it inspires. It appeals to the fathers among us, who like to joke about keeping a shotgun handy to protect our daughters. And many of us say: what is the harm in that? Why should we take all of this away? And indeed, inevitably, why is sexism such a big deal when we’re ceding women all this power anyway?

The problem is that the ceding comes from a place of arbitrary difference. Putting women on a pedestal isn’t just a cage for them, it is also one for the men that put them there, and in either case it sends the same message: that we are different. That women are strange and unknowable and just not like men. It’s called othering, and ultimately, it always leads to oppression, because once you turn someone into an alien, it is so much easier to hurt them. As the old saw goes, feminism is the revolutionary idea that women are people – people just like us.

And this is why we don’t like men saying that gaming is a men’s activity, something you go off to do when you want to be manly (when the wife lets you). Or that gaming is a harsh, rough world, and women should “man up” if they want to join. All that does is reinforce the old categories and clichés. It says women are delicate flowers and more importantly it says that men are boors and brutes. And that’s not respectful to men. And you can’t respect women if you don’t respect yourself.

The MESSAGE is not about being a white knight. A white knight suggests a maiden in a tower, waiting to be rescued, which is just another way to separate the genders. We’re not fighting to save women, for two reasons. First because they’re perfectly able to save themselves, and second because this isn’t, ultimately, about women, but men.

The primary defining principle of the MESSAGE is we are for men. This is about men being better men for the benefit of all men. White knights believe that men are brutes and women are maidens, which is bad for men as well as women. If you’ve got the MESSAGE, you believe that not being a douchebag to women is important for purely selfish reasons. It is to make us better and gaming better. We take a stand not because we have to save anybody, but because as men, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of self respect, purely for our own good.

 Because, like L’oreal says, we’re worth it.

Men, And What We Can Do About Them

It’s International Men’s Day, so let’s talk about men. Men are important, and it is very important that the first letter of the MESSAGE stands for men. For a lot of reasons.

First of all, I felt it was important to indicate that it was a voice coming from men. As far as I have seen, most of the voices raising the issue of sexism in gaming have so far come almost entirely from women. I felt it was important to be distinct from that, so as to not duplicate anything and to be clear that we were a voice coming from the majority force, so we might be, for those who take such things to heart, harder to dismiss. I also believed it was important to point out that men could recognise this problem, and find it just as offensive as women do and want it stopped. To be very clear that feminism and equality know no gender boundaries. That sexist behaviour by men was not in any way a woman’s issue, but indeed fundamentally a men’s issue. Our behaviour, our problem, our house to put in order not because of the risk to others but ultimately because of the damage it does to ourselves.

Not to be selfish but I really do believe that is true: that sexism towards women, though it appears to privilege men, ends up repressing and damaging us just as much in the long run.  And right now, as men, we can ill-afford such damage.

That’s right, I’m going to say it: men are in trouble. We’re not as nearly as oppressed, silenced or objectified as women, but around the western world men are losing out in a variety of arenas, and that’s something everyone needs to take seriously. If you want evidence of this, you only have to look at the rise in sexism and parochial movements against women of recent times. However faulty or harmful their ideology, it did not evolve entirely in a vacuum. The hate and divisiveness those movements encapsulate are a reaction, if an extreme one, to fear, to suffering, to some kind of systemic attack or deeper sickness.

By now you’re wondering if I’ve gone mad and joined one of said movements. Stay with me, please.

Without wanting to minimise the social, societal and health problems of women (which, outside of the developed world are always more severe than those of men), Western men are increasingly in danger in new and different ways in our modern era. A quick look at statistics shows some horrifying truths, like that the biggest killer of Western men aged under 35 is suicide, and it is in the top three among men of all ages. And a recent study showed that men and women alike don’t recognise the signs of depression in men – it is too often seen as business as usual. Meanwhile it’s hard to get anyone talking about or funding men’s health: outside of recent success with Movember, men are reticent to want to support health funding for themselves. 

One of the main reasons is that men are trained from birth (perhaps even from a genetic level) to protect women, so it’s much easier for men to talk about, raise money for and otherwise support women’s health. Men’s health is also not something that men are comfortable supporting or talking about, and that again comes from a traditional view of men’s roles: our strength is expressed in stoicism, often to the point of total ignorance and avoidance, lest we appear weak.

Thankfully, some people are working hard to help these issues, all around the world. In Australia, we have excellent programs like “She’ll Be Right – WRONG”, which encourages men to go to the doctor, and “Soften the Fuck Up” which encourages men to be less stoic and talk about their problems. Perhaps the greatest Aussie program of all, in terms of its scope, its power and its results is the Australian Men’s Sheds Program. They realised that it didn’t matter if men were softening up if they didn’t have other men to talk to when they did, and that in the modern world, places for men were disappearing. The Sheds are a way men can socialise, support and mentor each other, without having to talk to much because they are working on projects.

Associate Professor Barry Golding, one of the chief patrons of and academic minds behind the Sheds Program summed up the function of the sheds very simply. “Men don’t talk face to face,” he said in a recent interview, “men talk shoulder to shoulder.”

Now you’re sure I’ve gone mad, as it now sounds like I’m advocating the very opposite of our mandate, that gaming be a haven for male bonding. Worse, I’ve fallen foul of gender essentialism, trying to limit how all men must be, which is just as bad as telling women they can’t play games.

The truth is, the whole point of moving beyond the traditional views of gender roles is never to cut off avenues, but to open them up. To allow for the fact that women can and do play computer games, and that some men can and do talk face to face, and that’s great. At the same time, women don’t have to play computer games to prove anything. Likewise, there are likely a lot of men who strongly identify with talking “shoulder to shoulder”, and that’s great too. There are likely many men who feel a great need for a special, reserved male place, to foster that talking and cement the bonds from it, and they should be able to find and enjoy such spaces. They may especially like such spaces to be free of misogynistic attitudes; or to be able to bond with men without needing all the typical companions of beer, violent sports and pornography. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, of course, for men or women.

There may even be many men who feel their personal experience of computer gaming hobby is such a space for them, and want to protect it as such. Which is also fine, and should happen. The problems occur when men conclude that this is the only way it should be, that their personal experience be the entire experience, and it should be reflected across the entire industry and the entire hobby, which is their entire safe, male-only space. And that women should never be allowed to be full and equal participants in the hobby because they will take that away. And when these attitudes cause men to be blind to prejudice and to become so convinced of stereotypes they become second nature, and absolute truth. When men decide women not only must not, but can not play games, because they are weaker and stupider, and because they are not man’s equal, but his decorative accompaniment. That’s the problem.

The point of the MESSAGE is that the gaming hobby has been a guy-only club house for so long, too many of us have decided that that’s the way it should always be, that the above assumptions are not just sworn truth but the only truth – and the best and only way to make sales. Or we’ve just let the assumptions go on so long they’ve seeped into our bones and we don’t even notice we’re making them. The rest of us never saw the GURLS KEEP OUT sign on the door of the hobby, and want to tear down all the things that imply its existence. Because we know girls can game, and should game, because gaming is great, and the more people who do it, the better. For them, for us, for everyone. Together and separately.

The point of the M in the title is because it’s up to us to teach men these things. And strangely enough, we might have the perfect place to do it, right here in front of us. Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder. Not just in sheds, but around the game table, or console to console, avatar to avatar. Gaming may have gone a long way to turning men into troglodytes, but it has at its heart everything it needs to bring us back, too. It is actually the time and place where a “Dude, that’s not cool” can maybe work the best.

What’s more, we may even be able to deal with some of the underlying causes of these attitudes I mentioned above. With the real, actual problems facing men. Shoulder to shoulder, die roll to die roll, mouse to mouse, we have a chance to soften the fuck up and talk about our pain, safe in the knowledge that we don’t have to look each other in the eye, that a goblin ambush will interrupt uncomfortable silences, and that is just no possible way we will be able to hug while we’re raiding.