'It's Not a Contradiction for Men to Discriminate Against Other Men'

A scholar of gender studies on reconciling feminism with the reality of gender bias against men
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Jae C. Hong/AP

I recently argued that the way the show Orange Is the New Black deals with men, and especially male prisoners, is problematic, since the vast majority of prisoners in the U.S. are men, not women, and because the show uses stereotypical gender assumptions to elicit sympathy for women prisoners in ways don't translate into an institutional critique of prison as a whole. My post became something of a viral hate read, with many critics complaining it was a prime example of "what about the men?" rhetoric—that is, trying to bring up men as a way to prevent or derail engagement with oppression of women.

One of the main inspirations for my article was the work of Adam Jones, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia. He’s also the author of Gender Inclusive: Essays on Violence, Men, and Feminist International Relations and executive director of Gendercide Watch. Much of Jones's work broadly asks, "what about the men?" in that he works to show ways in which gendered violence and discrimination is used against men, whether in the U.S. incarceration system or in genocidal murders such as those of "battle-age" men in Kosovo. I talked to Jones about the relationship between feminism and his work on behalf of men. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)


You've identified yourself as a feminist writer. How do you square that with the fact that you often write about oppressions or violence targeted at men? Isn't one point of feminism to take attention away from men, where it is so often focused, and look at the less-noticed ways in which women are oppressed or discriminated against?

It's a fine line to walk sometimes. I define a feminist as someone who believes, one, that females have historically been discriminated against and persecuted on the basis of their gender, and two, that this should change in the direction of greater equality and protection. I'm also very much a global feminist, someone who has done a great deal of traveling in the Global South in particular, so my framing of gender issues tends to focus on societies where women—and people in general—are much less privileged than in the developed West. That's true for my engagement with men's issues as well.

I'm critical of many variants of feminism for failing to recognize that gender-selective atrocities happen to men and boys as well as women and girls, and I'm especially skeptical of the way that institutional gender programs and projects tend to focus exclusively on females, whether in the Global North or South. I think that's unfair and destructive; it offends my core liberal sensibilities. But without feminist critiques, we would barely have a notion of "gender," and for what it's worth, the large majority of those who have supported me and cited my work over the years have been women who define themselves as feminists. I've never felt the urge to abandon the "feminist" label.

Why do you think it's useful to talk about discrimination against men? Aren't men generally the ones in power?

It's long been recognized that gender can be trumped by, for example, social class. So discrimination against men traditionally tends to target poorer and more marginalized men, who are seen as threatening or hateful to the male-dominant power structure. One of my arguments has been that we can disaggregate the class and gender components [from each other] at least for analytical purposes, and recognize that a gender-specific fear and hatred—misandry—is also operative. It's not a contradiction for men to discriminate against other men, any more than women can also fear other women and police their gender roles and assist in keeping their "sisters" suppressed.

What about the much-maligned white male? We should certainly recognize that it's been too easy for that group to be targeted for contempt and defamation—indeed, that there is no other identifiable ethnic and gender group that can be targeted in this way without arousing protest and outrage. White men often respond to that unfair and inaccurate critique with hostility and rejection of their own—a trend that is unfortunately marked in the so-called men's movement. My feeling is we can't expect our own concerns and causes to receive an empathetic hearing if we don't show empathy as well for women and feminism and recognize the justice of many of their criticisms and complaints. We can likewise reasonably demand that people resist the easy temptation to heap scorn and abuse on white men as a whole, or the "men's movement," based on the actions and convictions of a relatively small and unrepresentative sector of them.

Wouldn't it make sense to see discrimination against black men in the prison system as discrimination on the basis of race, rather than on the basis of gender?

If it were purely racism, you'd see as many black women in prison as black men, presumably. There has always been a tradition in the U.S. of demonizing the black (or Latino or Chinese or Jewish) male, and depicting him as violent, rebellious, stupid/incompetent/lazy, sexually predatory, and so on. When you see how the gender variable operates in that case, you can easily apply it in other circumstances—men in general tend to be the ones depicted, not least by other men, as more violent, incompetent, predatory, and the like. It's a little like feminists dissecting the latest campaign against "welfare mothers" and pointing to the underlying misogyny as well as the class-based fear and hatred.

Part of the theory behind the idea of misogyny is the argument that society systematically portrays women and femininity as weak, or lesser, or worthless, or evil. It's not clear to me how misandry fits into that. Wouldn't it make more sense to say that certain minority masculinities are demonized, rather than saying that masculinity is hated in itself?

You find when you look through the history of gender roles and representations that certain female and male paradigms have been highlighted and idealized. Women have been placed on a pedestal for their maternal force, or their spirituality, or their physical beauty, and occasionally for their intellect or leadership skills. But few would deny that this goes hand-in-hand with the misogynist targeting of women who don't fit and don't want to fit that restrictive ideal, and with more essentialist conceptions of women as evil and in league with dark powers, as manipulative, as sexually voracious, and so on.

Much the same can be said of misandry. In many respects, it's "provoked" by men who fail to subscribe to the ideal of the strong, power-exercising, heterosexual male. But there is also a more elemental stereotype of men-in-general as particularly brutish, insensitive, dangerous, dirty, repulsive. I'm especially interested in those more base and instinctive aversions, and how they get mapped onto men in general and minority or "Third World" men in particular. For example, you see a lot of those anti-male stereotypes being roped into dominant cultures' depictions of out-group men who are targeted for genocide and other forms of mass violence. Think about how the Jewish male was depicted in Nazi propaganda—and how only Jewish men (not women) were depicted and demonized for those purposes. That went hand in hand with Nazi men's conviction of themselves as uniquely strong, pure, clean, heroic, and so on.

How do you see your work in relationship to the men's-rights movement?

I have an ambivalent relationship with men's-rights activists, but I suppose I have one with feminists as well. In both cases, I reject the kind of casual and offhandedly negative generalizations that are often made about the other gender. I dislike the sense I often get that these men and women are generalizing from their personal experiences and resentments. I ask advocates on both sides to really interrogate their assumptions and prejudices, and to bend over backward to be as generous and empathetic as possible—whether toward feminist movements that represent one of the greatest emancipatory currents of the last few centuries, or toward men who are currently trying to articulate their own gender concerns and rights-based grievances.

I do believe it's legitimate for men collectively—including men in "privileged" societies—to protest the way they are frequently demonized en bloc as violent and predatory power-mongers, and the way their interests and needs are often frozen out of the discussion of "gender issues."

I guess what I find problematic in the way men's-rights issues can be framed in terms of losing out to feminists; there seems to be an idea that as women's rights advance, men will lose out or be marginalized. Is that zero-sum logic wrong?

It depends. A discussion of women's gender rights can quite naturally lead into a discussion of the ways that men also experience discrimination and defamation, including the institutional variety. But sometimes men do receive a message that this is a zero-sum game—that vastly complex issues like violence, family rights, cultural representations, and so on tend to have a meaningful and actionable "gender" dimension only insofar as they concern women and girls. In theory and often in practice, advancing women's rights shouldn't mean freezing out men or vilifying them as a group. But frequently, at the levels of both discourse and policy, it does. That should be confronted and rejected, in my view. But it should be done in a way that acknowledges the legitimacy and necessity of many pro-female perspectives and campaigns.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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