On the 25th of November, still trying to find reasons not to help clean up after Thanksgiving, Stephen Marche declared that we should all be afraid of men, or something. The article’s here: ‘The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido’. I read it and consider me well and truly mansplained! It’s a well intentioned but simplistic and patronising piece. What is Stephen Marche’s point? That men are dangerous? Or that women have it rough? These are reductionist and dangerous arguments – if intended. If not the intention, then what? Really, why was Marche compelled to opine on his reaction to other people’s reactions? Did he discuss the sexual harassment with female friends or co-workers and use their experiences to enlighten and buoy his article? Did he interrogate the cultures which continue to enforce the ‘man aggressor woman victim’ myth? Well, no, not that I can see. The article is sincere and sympathetic, but worse than useless, it actually reinforces the most dangerous assumptions in our culture; that male violence is, though a bad thing, a natural thing. So prepare to grind your teeth and gird your loins –
Here are the top three good reasons to be mad as hell and not take it anymore:
- ‘After weeks of continuously unfolding abuse scandals, men have become, quite literally, unbelievable.’
To whom? Who is it, precisely, who has lost faith in the Legend of Men? By presuming that the ‘scandals’ (even the word implies a media-based surprised, as opposed to a small, snowballing recognition of a millennia old injustice) are causing people to sit up and reevaluate speaks volumes about the bubble that Marche has been living in.
Living in a bubble, then one day looking outside and seeing that there’s people over there, is not an act of progression, it is not a cultural step in the right direction so much as it is a personal one. But the danger of writing from within castle walls, to mix my metaphor, about how other people live is that it both excuses personal shortsightedness or lack of experience and discourages those outside the castle walls from recognising the other’s situation as unique and valid. This articulate and convincing article makes it all too easy for women (in this case) to take this one man’s opinion as normal. It becomes oh so easy to convince ourselves that this information is new and surprising and we continue to deny our own experiences, because how could discrimination or harassment have existed before we were told it existed? But perhaps I’m taking this out of context, or not allowing his argument to germinate . . .
- ‘Men arrive at this moment of reckoning woefully unprepared. Most are shocked by the reality of women’s lived experience. Almost all are uninterested or unwilling to grapple with the problem at the heart of all this: the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido.’
‘The nature’, as in, the natural, the normal, the perfectly realistic and completely taken for granted difference between men and women of modern Western society. If it’s in men’s nature to be dangerous, what does he suppose women’s nature to be? Passive, victimised, weak, prudish, virginal until we abruptly aren’t?
I don’t doubt Marche’s sympathy and genuine wish to see our society improve to a safer and emancipated one, but paving the road of progress with stereotypes and ignorance only reinforces those stereotypes, it allows them to put down roots and spread. It’s exactly this ‘it’s men’s nature to be dangerous’ trope which inflates the ‘boys will be boys’ behaviour; and it’s exactly these two viruses in society which simultaneously encourage toxic behaviour and allow it.
- ‘Fear of the male libido has been the subject of myth and of fairy tale from the beginning of literature: What else were the stories of Little Red Riding Hood or Bluebeard’s Castle about? A vampire is an ancient and powerful man with an insatiable hunger for young flesh. Werewolves are men who regularly lose control of their bestial nature. Get the point?’
Oh boy, this is a good one. Do I get it? Well, I think I do, but what I’m ‘getting’ isn’t the woke insight Marche thinks he’s projecting. What I’m getting is that violence against women is tantamount to the anti-heroes or titular villains of myth and legend. Get it? Marche is arguing that ‘natural’ masculine behaviour is so prodigious that it has seeped beyond our reality and permeates our fiction. That so-great is the ‘dangerous’ male libido that modern Western cultures have collectively turned to fiction to cope with the power of it. And, presumably, because the modern West has done it, it’s indelibly true the world over, even in, say Innuit culture and the tale of Sermerssuaq’s clitoris, for example.
I also want . . . or need, to breakdown his interpretation of these fabled characters. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is the story of (give me strength) LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD; it’s the story of a little girl’s plight! I assume he’s referring to the characterisation of the big bad wolf, but even then, which version, what is he picturing? Marche’s perception of sub-textual masculinity is not universal. I’m going to say that again because I think it might blow his mind a little: Marche’s perceptions are not universal. The wolf, these days, is often used to symbolise hyper sexuality, ‘The Company of Wolves’ being one example (and a marvelous one as it actively keeps the narrative focused on the character of Red and her interpretations, not her persecutions). But this is only one, contemporary reading. Even if we continue with the idea that big bad wolf = sex, there’s no reason to assume the wolf is the personification of ‘natural’ male libido. I mean (I can’t believe I even have to say this), it’s a wolf! It’s symbolic of the dangers outside Red’s comfort zone, it is not symbolic of traditional modern Western masculinity.
If we really, really want to analyse readings of the wolf, then surely a more convincing theory is that the wolf symbolises Red’s emigration from her mother’s power; hence the iconography of the wolf dressing as a maternal figure, consuming Red and then having its abdomen literally slit open by a man (the heroic lumberjack) to reveal an older and wiser Red.
Bluebeard’s Castle? Yeah, he’s right, this is a really good example of male violence being turned into digestible fiction with a clear resolution. I’d still argue that the existence of this narrative is to help listeners/readers understand types of behaviour, rather than being some kind of established example of what men are ‘naturally’ like. And because I’m mad, I’m going to throw out Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as another example of how achingly non-universal Marche’s interpretations are.
Ah vampires, the man’s monster. Verlie, rugged, pulsating with lusty machismo! Ummm.
Hang on, we are still talking about pasty, lifeless blood suckers, right? The horror genre’s most understood symbol of queerness/homophobia/and fear of the Other? The characters who are routinely depicted as effeminate, foppish, or impotent, both sexuality and socially? The beast who’s most sexified interpretation to-date is that of a moody highschooler with chastity issues and pwetty sparkles? I think you see what I’m getting at here.
My favourite, the werewolf. I’ve always loved werewolves, even the name is cool! There’s so much to like about their image and stature in folk lore; their mood swings, unruly body hair, pent up anger at the patriarchy which usually shuns them, their whole monthly cycle thing. Yeah, I’m doing this. Werewolves. Represent. Women. This is a known thing, it’s a big, known thing. There are plenty of depictions of werewolves with a female human state, from the Discworld books to ‘Ginger Snaps’. Admittedly, there are probably more depictions of a human male-to-werewolf transition, but this is partly the point of the widely accepted werewolf/female theory – at a point of extreme duress, the male character transitions (this word itself is rich with gender theory) to an unhuman and unnatural state. A transition which is monstrous because it’s forced the male character to leave the fallacy of his phallus behind and take on characteristics which are often associated with women’s ‘monstrous’ naturalness, see cycles, emotions and body hair, above. I think Marche is picturing a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde transition, or even Bruce Banner / The Hulk, and in these cases I’d almost agree with him about the expression of dangerous, hyper masculinity (although, notably, neither Hulk nor Hyde are in anyway ‘natural’, they’re expressions of the Id and have to be manifestly created . . . wow, that’s deep), but these two types of narratives rarely appear in werewolf lore, new or old.
Marche’s take on the current situation doesn’t really help anything, he’s not investigating the problems in our culture which have nourished male violence, he’s accepting the symptom as inevitable, instead of questioning the cause. Let’s say Marche has just seen me stub my toe and he can tell it has hurt. To him, the table leg I just walked into is the natural cause of my pain. It kind of seems like it should be, right? Table caused pain, therefore table will continue to cause pain, table is dangerous, all tables are really toe stubbers! But actually, well, no. Someone had to put the table right where it is, someone else had to make the table, some jerk designer thought it was nice to give the foot of the table those bits which stick out. My point is that there isn’t a natural state of danger in a table, just like my foot isn’t naturally prone to being stubbed, regardless of how short my skirt might be on a date. The thing which caused harm had to be constructed, and somewhere during that construction, it was allowed to become hazardous. Violence, bigotry, ignorance are not stronger in one group of people than another. If we move through our society seeing problematic behaviour as natural, then we’re making excuses for it before the act has even occurred. We need to stop expecting people to behave badly because it’s their ‘nature’, otherwise, we’re reinforcing the system of power which allows it. Also, we should be reading more Angela Carter.