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?