Jun 21, 2013, 07:06AM

Misogyny Against Men is Deadly Serious

Taking on attributes of femininity is seen as frivolous, artificial, and disgusting.

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Earlier this month, Chris Martin, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, wore black eyeliner, eye shadow and lipstick to his last day of school, along with an anarchy t-shirt. He was told that his face was in violation of the school's dress code—even though the school does not ban girls from wearing makeup. According to Chris' mother, Katelynn Martin, the principal, Claud Effiom, "expressed his own belief that boys wearing makeup is ridiculous, unnecessary, and distracting."

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ways in which men can experience sexism because of traditional stereotypes and gender roles. That seems to be in part what is happening here. As the ACLU says, “Applying a different rule to Chris because he is male constitutes sex discrimination in violation of the United States Constitution."

I'd argue, though, that the discrimination against Martin shows not only how men can be victims of sexism, but also misogyny. At first, this may appear contradictory. Misogyny is the hatred of women, not men. How can hating women result in sexism directed against men?

The answer is that misogyny doesn't just mean hatred of women. It means hatred of everything having to do with women. Or, as Julia Serano puts it in her 2009 book Whipping Girl, misogyny is the "tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity."

Since women are typically associated with femaleness and femininity, they bear the brunt of misogyny. But men who express femininity can also be targets. This appears to be what happened to Martin. The principal dismissed and derided his makeup because it was "ridiculous, unnecessary, and distracting"—standard misogynist tropes used typically to dismiss and deride women.

But those misogynist tropes are also, and almost as frequently, used to dismiss and deride men. Misogyny can structure both male and female experience. In some ways, in fact, as Martin demonstrates, misogyny can be even more restrictive for men than for women. Women in our culture can wear jeans or dresses, pants or skirts, makeup or no makeup, generally without comment or ridicule. Men's options, in this regard, are more limited. Similarly, Serano point out, female-to-male transsexuals are embraced by the women's movement, while male-to-female transsexuals are stigmatized and often deliberately excluded. As Serano argues, women who take on attributes of masculinity are lauded; men who take on attributes of femininity are seen as frivolous, artificial, and disgusting. And this is not, or not only, because they violate gender roles, but specifically because femininity is seen as frivolous, artificial and disgusting. It is not just homophobia or transphobia that makes men who wear makeup a target—it’s misogyny.

One of the standard devices of misogyny is to argue that femininity is trivial; as a result, misogyny against men can seem trivial. Who cares, after all, if men can't wear makeup or dresses? Aren't there other more important problems?

But misogyny against men is deadly serious. One of the brutalizing characteristics of discrimination is its pettiness; the way it legalistically limits what you wear, which water fountain you drink at; what festival you go to. Its systematic smallness is how it makes you small. Which isn't to say that misogyny against men is always small. On the contrary, it also has its moments of horrific, genocidal brutality. This is made painfully clear in Will Storr's heartbreaking 2011 discussion of the widespread rape of men in wartime—and of the way that that rape is systematically ignored by just about everyone.

And why is it covered up? Here is Storr's description of the plight of a man raped in Uganda.

Today, despite his hospital treatment, Jean Paul still bleeds when he walks. Like many victims, the wounds are such that he's supposed to restrict his diet to soft foods such as bananas, which are expensive, and Jean Paul can only afford maize and millet. His brother keeps asking what's wrong with him. "I don't want to tell him," says Jean Paul. "I fear he will say: 'Now, my brother is not a man.'"

It is for this reason that both perpetrator and victim enter a conspiracy of silence and why male survivors often find, once their story is discovered, that they lose the support and comfort of those around them.

The reason men are unwilling to come forward, and the reason that others treat them with contempt, is that being raped makes them feminine—and femininity is despised. Rape victims become victims, not only of rape, but of misogyny. "In the patriarchal societies found in many developing countries, gender roles are strictly defined," Storr says. But his essay makes it clear that it's not just developing countries where gender roles can be strictly defined. The humanitarian community also ignores the rape of men; Storr even discusses one incident where a donor refused to provide funds unless they were targeted specifically to women. According to Maite Vermuelen, "only 3% of [NGOs] mention men in their literature, and a quarter explicitly denies that sexual violence against men is a serious problem."

Women who are raped are also stigmatized, not least because they’re seen as hyper-feminized, sexual, trivial and weak. The contempt rape victims experience is born of misogyny, and that contempt is visited on men as well as women. Sometimes, indeed, it is visited even more virulently upon men, because femininity in them is seen as especially shameful or repulsive.

And there is always going to be some femininity in any man. If you don't wear makeup, you may walk like a girl, or talk like a girl, or like something that girls like, or like girls too much, or not like girls enough. As long as misogyny permeates our culture, femininity will be a threat to hold over men. Which means that as long as there is misogyny, men, as well as women, are not free.

—Noah Berlatsky (@hoodedu) blogs at Hooded Utilitarian.

  • "Femininity will be a threat to hold over men," is a pretty bold statement. I understand that the problems you write about are serious, but with due respect it seems like you're going overboard on the sexism/femininity subject.

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  • "...women who take on attributes of masculinity are lauded..." Noah, you've made this same argument in the past. How do you explain expressions like "bull dyke" and the treatment of athletes like the Williams sisters, musicians like K.D.Lange, and other famous females (think of many WNBA stars) who have some masculine qualities? I think there is more of an element of fearing the different, than either you or Serano allow. I'm afraid I must agree with Alison777 on this one.

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  • I think as with most things it depends on the context, and on which attributes.// Women who are masculine in certain ways can certainly be targeted for prejudice and violence. We do, though, generally find a lot to admire in women who (for example) are action heroes carrying big phallic guns, or who are successful in traditionally male occupations. And, as Serano says, the feminist movement has been a lot more comfortable with FTM transsexuals than with MTF transsexuals. The Williams sisters and kd lang get a ton of props for their self-presentation; there is a major supportive base for female athletes, certainly. Which isn't to say that they don't take shit too, because they absolutely do and they shouldn't. But we're definitely at a place in our culture where female athletes are more acceptable than guys in dresses. You're not seriously disputing that, are you? I mean...female athletes don't even qualify as "different" at this point, do they? Any hatred directed at women for that seems like it's coming right out of male supremacist desires for women to stay in their places; I can't imagine it has much to do with actually seeing it as unusual or frightening.

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  • Noah, I agree that much is about context. Furthermore, I think you have well represented this sub-section of the feminist movement. The points I disagree with are as follows: 1. Who died and made the feminist movement the fair arbiter of social mores and views? Does not their name suggest a certain bias? Accepting women who change to men more readily than men changing to women reeks of sexism and female DNA bias. Not sure how that supports the misogyny argument outside this sub-section 2. As for fear of the different, I and many social scientists believe that most racism, sexism, etc. derives from this instinctual fear. Starting at infancy, science has proven many times over that this fear and how the individual deals with the fear is a major component of creating ones identity. That's why I don't think it should be so readily dismissed. P.S. As always, enjoy your writing, just disagree with the some of the conclusions

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  • People dislike folks who are different...but what gets organized as different, and what that difference means, is really dependent on your culture or society or place in history. In our case, I'd say that femininity is fairly obsessively represented as different or wrong, in a way masculinity tends not to be.

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