Disciplining and Punishing Men for Manspreading

Laila Laurel’s supposedly “tongue in cheek” manspreading chair is only the latest in a concerted campaign by feminist activists to make men feel bad for supposedly taking up too much space. It is the result of decades of feminist grievance-stoking that has led us to the point that feminists think they should be congratulated for having the gall to tell men how to sit.  

How could it happen that some women—with institutional support—could come to feel it their right to lecture men on keeping their knees together?

In 1988, feminist theorist and University of Illinois philosophy professor Sandra Lee Bartky published an article about women’s social position that demonstrates the intellectual roots of this particular strand of anti-male bigotry. Bartky used the ideas of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault to explain how it was that women in the late twentieth century west were technically free, and yet still profoundly, and seemingly willingly, constrained in a variety of ways, ranging from the way they moved and sat to their tendency to smile more than men and to spend a great deal of time and energy making their bodies conform to ideals of feminine beauty. No matter who they were or what they did with their lives, they were always aware of themselves, she claimed, as bodies on display.

Foucault’s theory, developed in his book Discipline and Punish (1975), was that modern regimes had moved away from what he called the power of the sovereign—brute power, often haphazardly applied–to a far more subtle, widespread and effective micro-power that resulted in individuals willingly monitoring and disciplining themselves, becoming what he called “docile bodies.” Though Foucault was far more interested in men’s experiences than women’s, Bartky saw his theory as uniquely applicable to the modern woman, whose body became “docile,” according to Bartky, as a result of the micro-regulation of her gestures, her posture, her movements, her facial expression, and even her tone of voice. What made women regulate themselves, according to Bartky? Nothing and everything—the culture at large. Everything about men, in contrast, from the way they stood and positioned their bodies to their assertive, unconstrained behavior in public spaces, bespoke their less-regulated gendered selves.

Bartky’s is an entirely social constructivist view of womanhood, and the feminist movement in general has taken a strictly constructivist approach to social change over the years. And feminist social change has amounted to a deliberate, institutionally enforced reversal of sex roles, following Bartky’s list of grievances almost to a T. Feminism aims to make men experience greater and greater restrictions on what they can say and do while women demand and achieve ever greater freedoms (without responsibility) in dress and behavior. A few men can get a pass if they are approved by women or beyond the reach of feminist enforcement mechanisms. But a majority of men experience a steady erosion of their autonomy and freedom, to the point that they’re not even sure it’s okay to touch a co-worker on the shoulder or give her a compliment. And they’d better keep their knees together when they sit.

Feminist demands are often framed in terms of women’s safety or social justice. Laila Laurel, for her part, has claimed that how men sit is a part of the everyday sexism that encourages men to “command space” while forcing women to make room for them. But don’t be fooled. The anti-manspreading project is designed to force men to endure the shame and humiliation that Laurel believes, falsely, has been forced on women by men for centuries. It is a project of blatant collective punishment typical of totalitarian movements.

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When Feminists Met Harry and Sally

The movie When Harry Met Sally is 30 years old, and its anniversary has prompted a number of serious reassessments of the popular romantic comedy. Not surprisingly, a harsh feminist lens has been applied to it: while one article celebrates the movie for its revelation of the pleasure gap between the sexes, another criticizes the film for its “quiet cruelty.” Spoiler alert: in both cases, it’s the man who is in the wrong.

The Washington Post author focused on the famous diner scene in which a young Sally demonstrates to a stunned Harry how convincing a woman’s faked orgasm can be. It was a brilliantly funny scene that told a simple truth without judgement: some portion of women are convincing fakers, and even a sexually experienced man can’t be sure. Women laughed in recognition and some men may have scratched their heads, wondering why anyone would need to fake sexual enjoyment.

In the romantic-comedic world of the movie, we are to understand that Sally probably never does fake it with Harry; and that their marriage will be happy enough that it won’t matter either way. But the WaPo writer, Lisa Bonos, has to make something sinister out of the scene. In her argument, Harry is the typical macho man, someone who doesn’t care about women’s pleasure (though the whole point of his story to Sally was his ability to give women pleasure). Furthermore, according to Bonos, the fact that some women fake orgasm supposedly reveals that women’s sexual pleasure is “not prioritized” in heterosexual relationships. Wait a minute! How did it become the man’s fault that his partner lies to him about her sexual experience? How does his desire for her to orgasm prove his “macho arrogance,” as Bonos claims of Harry? Bonos, of course, doesn’t say.

While the Wapo author applauded the move for telling an uncomfortable truth about how men presumably fail to please their women, the Atlantic author, Megan Garber, took the opposite tack: not only was the movie untrue, but it was untrue in a way that was belittling towards women because it validated male-on-female criticism. This author focused on Harry’s announcement to Sally one night when they were talking on the phone about the film Casablanca that Sally is a “high maintenance” woman, someone who has to have her salad dressing on the side and her pie a la mode a certain way—someone who, in other words, is never easy. Sally protests, but Harry insists, and in creating a reductive category for his friend, he does what men, according to the author, too often do by putting women into categories from which they cannot escape.

It’s true that Harry liked to categorize things and people. But isn’t that a comic part of his character, something the film finds amusing and unserious? And yes, Sally is “high maintenance,” a characteristically if not exclusively female trait, but her various quirks don’t prevent Harry—and various other men in the movie—from caring for her and treating her with tenderness and respect. What’s the big deal? It’s a big deal because for this author, as for most feminist authors, any movie that suggests a man can have an opinion about a female flaw, even if the flaw is a minor one, is a film that impinges on women’s necessary freedom to believe themselves perfect. Knowing that Harry found Sally “high maintenance” apparently inspired this author—and others like her, she assumes—occasionally to question her own behavior, wondering if she was being “high maintenance, “ something she apparently believes women should never have to do. When it comes to having preferences or making criticisms about the opposite sex, only women, apparently, should be allowed to do it.

What neither of the writers will admit is how out of sync with the character and tone of the movie their feminist analyses are. When Harry Met Sally was NOT a feminist movie: it was a standard romantic comedy based on a traditional understanding of men and women’s different attitudes towards love and sex. It did not politicize these differences, or care whether they were produced through social conditioning or biological imperative. It imagined that both men and women were happier when they came to see the world through the other’s eyes—something neither feminist author can even imagine.

The Six Year Anniversary of Don’t Be That Girl

It was six years ago that a small group of activists in Edmonton, Alberta demonstrated to the rest of the country how tired they were of anti-male propaganda. Their witty poster campaign, entitled “Don’t Be That Girl,” and the predictable backlash it provoked, illustrated the thick skin and long-game steadfastness required in men’s rights work.

In July of 2013, a coalition of feminist groups had teamed up with Canada’s national police force to create a series of posters lecturing men about their supposed sexual attitudes.

The campaign, dubbed “edgy” and “brash” by an approving Global News article, challenged men to “own their role” in ending rape. In particular, according to the website of one of the project partners, the campaign pinpointed men’s “sense of entitlement in regards to sex and access to women’s bodies.” It didn’t matter that most men have never felt any such entitlement. “Just because you helped her home … doesn’t mean you can help yourself,” ran one of the poster’s messages, with an image of a drunken girl being assisted to a vehicle by her date. Another poster showed a young woman passed out on a sofa while a man stands over her, just about to remove his jeans. Nowhere on the posters or in the accompanying explanatory literature was it mentioned that sexual assault is committed by a very small minority of men.

The posters suggested that many men are so brutish and morally enfeebled as not to realize or care that sex with a woman who has passed out is not sex but sexual assault. 

In response, Men’s Rights Edmonton launched its own “public education” campaign: against false allegations of sexual assault. Entitled “Don’t Be That Girl,” it copied the feminist posters exactly, using some of the same images and lettering, but with a different message: “Just because you regret a one night stand … doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.” The men’s rights posters had a simple, tit-for-tat message: men can be victims too, and they’re tired of the barrage of misandrist messages. In a gender equal world, women’s criminality deserves to be called out just as much as men’s.

The all-too-predictable response was a marshaling of outrage and over-statement. Anu Dugal, Director of Violence Prevention at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, said that the men’s rights posters reinforced the damaging belief “that women are responsible for sexual assault because of their actions or appearance.” Notice the specious logic in Dugal’s cookie-cutter rebuttal: to claim that some women lie about abuse is the same, according to her, as claiming that women are responsible for their abuse. But “Don’t Be That Girl” never said that women are to blame for rape: the subject of the men’s rights campaign was false allegations.

Another feminist organization, Calgary Communities Against Sexual Assault, charged that “Don’t Be That Girl” was “absolutely false, inaccurate and 100% incorrect.” What is one to say about such a claim, given that proven cases of false charges are widely known; one well-publicized case at the time of the posters involved an Edmonton cab driver whose accusers’ casually malicious plan to get out of paying their cab fare by claiming he had assaulted them was caught on videotape. If not for the camera in the taxi, Soner Yasa would likely have gone to prison; he would almost certainly have been out of a job, his reputation in tatters. The feminist response to such realities was a massive, socially-sanctioned shrug.

Most disturbing of all was the response of an Edmonton police officer, Acting Inspector Sean Armstrong of the Serious Crime Branch, who dismissed ant-feminist concerns by claiming that in “four and a half years” of assault investigations, he had encountered “only one false report.” How would he know? When even police officers—those whom we expect to treat all claims with a certain degree of sober skepticism—blindly toe the feminist line, we know our society is in serious trouble.

“Don’t Be That Girl” demonstrated the perfect circle of feminist orthodoxy: men who refuse their characterization as rapists are accused of promoting rape; men who object to false charges are accused of lying. “Don’t Be That Girl” indicated the wit, tenacity, and refusal of shame necessary in MRA resistance.

Two Different Movies, Same View of Men

Looking for mental escape on an airplane last week, I found instead two movies that, in different ways, dramatize male disposability. Neither is an avowedly feminist creation, but both show the imprint of our culture’s male-blaming and female-valuing assumptions.

“A Star is Born” is the third remake of an old story (originally a 1937 movie), and I haven’t re-watched earlier versions to see whether they were as overt in their emphasis on the theme of worn-out male talent being replaced by a vibrant and superior feminine creativity. In the modern version, the male star is not only an aging rocker nearing the end of his career, but also a pathetically self-destructive man who has never come to terms with his inner demons, most particularly the legacy of the abusive father who set him on his path to alcohol-fueled self-hatred and oblivion. To make matters worse, he is losing his hearing as a result of years on a deafening stage and his (typically macho) refusal to use the protective equipment recommended by his doctor.

The male role in the film—and it’s hard not to see it as symbolic of our contemporary moment—is to bring much-deserved attention to the awesome talent of the younger woman, and then to exit the scene. Though the woman loves him—mainly out of gratitude, it seems—she is legitimately powerless  to supply the self-respect and self-control he so spectacularly lacks; and his love for her quickly comes to seem, both to the film’s characters and to the compliant viewer, as a drag on her career prospects. 

His only decent option is the one he ultimately takes: to kill himself before she can come to hate him for his need and irrelevancy. Even for that, of course, he is blamed, in a scene in which his former manager reassures the grieving widow that she need take no responsibility for the despair that led him to suicide. Fortunately, he leaves her a song that she makes her own in a spectacular memorial performance. We are to understand that she will make of her fame something far more fruitful than the man ever did. In death, he is a greater artistic inspiration than he would have been in life.

I expected a far different take in Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed “The Mule,” but found instead a strikingly similar theme about male redemption through self-sacrifice and disappearance. The movie’s hero is a man near the end of his life who discovers, almost too late, that he under-valued his (entirely female) family and thus deservedly lost their love. In an act combining reckless indifference and financial desperation, he becomes a drug runner for a cartel after his flower business fails; at the same time, he begins to re-connect with his estranged wife, daughter, and grand-daughter. As he descends further into crime, risking his future on increasingly hefty drug runs, he embarks on an emotional and spiritual rebirth.

For what sins is he atoning? His family, especially his constantly nagging ex-wife, are bitterly vocal about their grievances: the man never made time for them and was always on the road or working at his business, failing to show up for many important family occasions. That he provided—and continues to provide—a materially good life that would likely have been impossible if he had been more physically present is never once acknowledged by anyone, not even our hero, who accepts without contradiction his family’s harsh judgements. 

In an ironic moment of confession, the Eastwood character tells the FBI agent who will ultimately arrest him that he made a terrible mistake by not putting his family first in his life. That he loved his work and seems to have received affection and affirmation through it that were entirely lacking in his family is hinted at, but never directly explored. Near the movie’s end, the man’s redemption comes when he risks his life to stay by his dying ex-wife’s bedside. Shortly after, he is arrested, pleads guilty to drug charges, and is embraced by the remainder of his family as he is taken away to prison, where they joke affectionately that at least they will know where he is. He will not be in their lives any more than he was in the past, but he won’t have his own outer-directed life either, and that seems a just recompense for his earlier failures.

Both these films view their male characters almost entirely through a female lens, judging them by their (in)ability to provide emotional and other kinds of support for their women. The men’s own emotional needs and desires are presented as either irrelevant or morally wrong. When the men are no longer necessary to the women in their lives, they redeem themselves by quietly disappearing. It’s hard not to see them as parables for our man-shaming times.

Going Galt

What if men simply stopped contributing to the system that exploits and abuses them? What if they not only withdrew their emotional and intellectual energy from that system, but withdrew themselves altogether?

This week’s discussion with Steve Brule, who has been living mainly in the Dominican Republic for the past 2 ½ years, made me think of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Not unlike Rand’s angry heroes, Steve found that Canada had become, for men like him, a large, well-regulated prison where his freedom to live according to his principles had been compromised, and where he felt constantly targeted for being born male. So he left–and he has no regrets.

Rand’s philosophy of objectivism may not be to everyone’s taste, but her metaphor of ‘going Galt’ resonates powerfully with anyone who has ever fantasized about leaving a culture and a country that takes men’s contributions for granted, repaying them with indifference, condemnation, and/or extortion. In Rand’s novel, the achievers of the world simply disappear, leaving the takers to reap the rewards of their selfishness: economic and social collapse.

For how many more years will men accept being treated as second-class citizens, public enemies, aggressors, and dangerous perverts—even while still being expected to support women, mentor them, defer to them, promote them, pay for their children, prop up a legal system that favors women, and pay taxes to a government that creates programs to advantage women and disadvantage men?

For every man who has ever intuited that in return for his hard work, stress, ingenuity, and tax money, he gets precious little in return, Atlas Shrugged provides a satisfying portrait of rebellion.

As Steve suggests, men should consider ways to protect their assets, their freedom, and their emotional well-being. Investigate the possibility of living outside the West. Starve the beast!

Let’s Resist Heterophobic Hysteria

The case of Hollywood screenwriter and recent #MeToo casualty Max Landis highlights the significant expansion of women’s public complaints about powerful men to include “emotional abuse”—i.e. anything a woman decides, even well after the fact, to have been harmful conduct by a man.

What was once a subject of gossip between women is now published as serious journalism, with the expectation that the man’s alleged misbehavior will be publicly recognized and swiftly punished. 

To some extent, this is nothing new. In her 1998 book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, Daphne Patai provided a harrowing history of what she called the “sexual harassment industry,” arguing that it was a system founded in fear and hatred of men in general and of heterosexual relations in particular. Under its aegis, perfectly legal behaviors have been stigmatized and prohibited, and countless men have lost their jobs, reputations, and even lives without ever intending to do anything wrong. 

Of special concern to Patai was the manner in which bureaucrats, pundits, and disciplinary bodies have been happy to ignore due process and the presumption of innocence in order to privilege a woman’s “gut reaction” to male comments or behavior.  The result has been an ever-growing punitive apparatus designed to control men’s every word and gesture and to stigmatize even the most subtle–and normal—currents of sexual interest. 

Heterophobia recounts, in fascinating and horrifying detail, the manically over-reaching practices and paranoid male-bashing theories at the heart of modern sexual harassment legislation.

None of it would be possible, however, without male compliance. Many men’s natural reaction upon hearing a woman’s complaint about another man is to participate either passively or actively in the man’s public disgrace and punishment. Only when men refuse the rush to judgement—when they stand up for due process and the fair, reasonable treatment of other men—can we hope for a return to social sanity.  

Men: say no to heterophobic hysteria!

‘Manspreading’: A Portent of Things to Come

By Janice Fiamengo
View image on Twitter

Waiting in line at Tim Horton’s a few days ago, I noticed that the man in front of me was standing with his legs wide apart, astride the aisle. I nudged my husband, David: “He’ll be getting a fine for manspreading if he’s not careful,” I whispered.

“Maybe they’ll let him off with a warning for a first offense,” David whispered back, “especially if he agrees to take re-education training.” We looked around and noticed quite a few men standing incorrectly, taking up more than their fair share of space, declaring their manly anatomy too recklessly, and failing to manifest an appropriate shame at having been born male in the West.

Okay, tickets are not actually being issued for manspreading. Not yet. But feminists have certainly vociferated about the practice as if it were nothing short of criminal: “The fact is that most of the perpetrators taking up too much space in public with their bodies are men,” asserted feminist activist Davis Carr, who has expressed her contempt for men on Twitter. “It’s hard to accept that something you do so naturally can cause other people harm.” In response to the “harm” experienced by “survivors” like Carr, manspreading has become an advertising target in cities across North America, particularly in New York, where “Dude … Stop the Spread” posters have been put up by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Ostensibly focused on men’s habit of sitting with their knees apart, pushing into other passengers’ seating area, the anti-manspreading movement is only the most recent in a spate of public service campaigns (the “Don’t Be That Guy” anti-rape poster blitz perhaps the most outrageous) to demonize (white) men by focusing on male attitudes and behaviors as social problems requiring censure.View image on Twitter

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Rebecca  @dorothyofisrael

Severe case of #manspreading on the F train #deblasiosnewyork 53:51 PM – Jan 13, 201520 people are talking about thisTwitter Ads info and privacy

The manspreading campaign, which has apparently cost New Yorkers more than $76,000, has already received well-deserved ridicule by such anti-feminist luminaries as PJM’s own feisty Dr. Helen Smith (“And don’t give me the crap about the patriarchy. If you shame men in this way, you are a nasty sexist who deserves contempt”), the indefatigable Cathy Young (“The anti-spread campaign has little to do with etiquette. It’s part of a recent surge in a noxious form of feminism”), and Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente (“A new scourge stalks the land”). These writers, along with many witty bloggers and journalists (hats off to Katherine Timpffor best satirical survey of the feminist position) have ably pinpointed the Freudian triviality of feminist ire. But the fact that the cause has been taken up so seriously by transit authorities in New York City and Seattle tells us something about our present cultural moment.

It is inconceivable that any other identifiable group would be singled out in such a humiliating fashion for public correction. Obese people whose thighs spill past their seat boundaries? Women with large packages piled on adjoining seats or in aisles? Mothers neglectful of their children, who squirm, howl, and disturb other passengers unreproved while their mega-strollers block exit doorways? All these are relatively common transit inconveniences that most of us accept with equanimity. Reasonable people would find it churlish and unnecessarily divisive to mobilize against them.

When it comes to maleness, however, the big guns always come out, and seemingly with broad public support. Our feminist-compliant authorities see men as fair game to be “lessoned.” No foible or incorrect action—whether it be catcalling, telling rude jokes, hanging a girlie calendar, proffering unwanted compliments, or even kissing a workmate on the cheek—escapes the ever-expanding net of the compliance enforcers. One of my gloomy predictions for 2015 is that the move to discipline and re-educate boys and men will proceed ever more vigorously and punitively.

Expect to see many more campaigns in which feminist activists, local police, academic administrators, politicians, government bureaucrats, journalists, and community leaders form partnerships to quell unruly male behavior. Boys and young men at public school and college will be made to attend an increasing number of anti-sexual assault classesviolence-prevention programs, “affirmative consent” seminars, and “Check Your Privilege” workshops. We will see many more poster crusades telling (white, heterosexual) men what they are and are not allowed to say, do, and think (see for example, Make Your Move, ostensibly targeting sexual violence generally but focused exclusively on the supposed violence of white heterosexual men—and now being enthusiastically embraced by the same police who had sanctioned the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign, also targeting white men exclusively).

#manspreading times 2 with KFC on R train 2:15 pm today at Union pic.twitter.com/E9v8Pp2ffi— Alicia Kershaw (@AKerroseNYC) January 13, 2015

We will see an increasing number of man-blaming organizations dedicating to re-educating men away from violence. We will undoubtedly witness more parades of wounded female accusers—some of them stepping forward 25 years after the fact!—claiming abuse by media celebrities; and news commentators will weigh in on the problem of sexual predation as if the charges were already proven. Our newspapers will fill with yet more reports about the epidemic of women harassed in the workplace (43% according to a recent report—but look at the innocuous behavior defined as “harassment”).

Every university across North America will enact “affirmative consent” policies, effectively criminalizing a vast swath of non-coercive sexual activity defined after the fact as non-consensual. Young men at these institutions will attend performances of the Vagina Monologues, where they will see female sexuality celebrated and masculine sexuality demonized. They will sit through dozens or even hundreds of classes in which women’s achievements and experiences are portrayed as worthy of sympathy and admiration while men’s are mocked or dismissed (I know—I live in the belly of the beast). In a multitude of ways, they will be made to feel secondary, superfluous, offensive in mind and body, always in danger of a social or even criminal mis-step for which constant apology and vigilant self-monitoring are required.

It’s not the end of men just yet, but it is surely the end of the unselfconscious masculinity of young men, who are increasingly under siege by a society determined to make them uncomfortable in their own skins, guilty, apprehensive of wrong-doing, convinced that they are to blame for the world’s ills. Many feminists will applaud such a result (shame on them) as necessary for positive social transformation, but the deliberate emasculation of men is certain to have repercussions (already seen in everything from social withdrawal to self-slaughter) far more serious than matters of subway etiquette.

We Need Anti-Feminist Strategies Specifically for Fathers

Janice Fiamengo

There is a whole book to be written (perhaps there are some that I haven’t found yet) on the necessity of a conscious or instinctive anti-feminism on the part of today’s fathers in relation to their daughters (sons too, of course–but that’s another subject). 

Feminism at its core is an attack on male authority and on men’s ability to love women and children; feminists have written entire books claiming with a straight face that the signature of patriarchy is the father’s legitimized rape and abuse of his daughters (see Elizabeth Ward, for example). The attack has been so undermining to many men that they have been unable to respond except with bewilderment for the past 40 years and more. 

This subject clicked for me only recently when I read Paul’s “Daddy’s Little Nightmare” and thought about my own father’s role in teaching me not to be a petulant princess–teaching me to take responsibility for myself and refusing my demands for feminine privileges. As in so many others areas of feminist onslaught, fathers need support to refuse their given role as the (either unredeemed or apologetic) oppressors of women. 

If fathers cannot withstand the feminist demand for compliance, they risk losing their daughters and contributing to yet another generation of unhappy, abusive women.