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Why Do Men Resist #MeToo?

Two FASHION staffers discuss why men tend to get defensive about certain #MeToo-related stories.

The ranks here at FASHION are not filled with men. Shocking, right? But there are one or two (there are actually, literally, two). Naturally, when a question about male/female dynamics arises it’s only fair that one of them stand in for the members of his gender and provide some insight. Our last topic of conversation was whether this year’s Oscars failed the #MeToo movement and today, we’re discussing why men tend to get defensive when the #MeToo filter is applied to certain news stories.

This is what happened. Last week, it was reported that some female crew members on Netflix’s Stranger Things had felt verbally abused on the set by the show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers. As with many of these stories tangentially connected to the #MeToo reckoning, this one came and went quickly. Still, it annoyed Features Editor Greg Hudson, which in turn made him annoy Associate Editor Pahull Bains, since she would have to address his questions in one of these She Said/He Said things. (If you’re curious about how that Duffer Discussion went, feel free to send us a note, and we can email you a draft of that enlightening but longwinded conversation.)

It was clear that Hudson, the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied male (though he is diabetic!) seemed disproportionately invested in whether the creators of Stranger Things were being treated fairly. But why? Why do so many men, including those who consider themselves allies, immediately feel defensive when these stories break? That defensiveness often disguises itself as a reasonable desire for nuance, which isn’t the Internet’s specialty. Fortunately, they tend to get past that knee-jerk reaction quickly. But why do they feel it at all?

Answering, or at least examining that question took a lot more words than they were expecting. But it seemed like an important conversation to be had.

GH: This is what I need your help with: there is no rational reason for me to feel offended by this story, and yet I immediately looked for flaws in how it was told in order to dismiss it. Why is the reputation of the Duffers even remotely important to me? Whether their behaviour was directed at their women employees because they were women (or, more specifically, because they weren’t men), or because Mr. Duffer Brother was frustrated with the grip, who just happened to be female, is immaterial. Why waste any time trying to justify asshole behaviour at all?

Is gender so strong a characteristic that I support and defend the Duffer Brothers simply because we (presumably) have the same genitals? That would be really dumb.

And yet, this movement has clearly demonstrated that gender is a strong enough bond for women. Maybe that’s because gender is the shared cause of oppression for women, whereas men aren’t held back because of their gender, so it feels like it should be incidental. And besides, it’s not like the Duffers, or any one else, are being attacked because of their gender. They are being called out for their dumb, mean behaviour (which normally goes unpunished because of their gender).

How do you make sense of male defensiveness? And here, for the sake of answering this better, let’s assume that we’re talking about your average, one-of-the-good-ones kind of dudes.

PB: For starters, yes, female solidarity does stem from us knowing that our gender lies at the root of every type of discrimination we face, whereas for men, discrimination can take on many different faces—race, class, sexuality etc. (Women have to contend with all of that too, but gender is the first, and biggest, hurdle in our way.) Despite not being a source of common oppression though, gender has always been the thing men band behind, and plenty of societal constructs, whether real or metaphysical—I’m talking gentlemen’s clubs, old boys’ clubs, the “bro code”—are all built on the prerequisite of being male. And I think men are feeling threatened by the possible erosion of all of that, because they view that stuff as innocuous.

I was in Austin last weekend for South by Southwest and attended a live taping of Pod Save America, in which Jon Lovett said something really insightful about this supposed war on men that men feel like they’re suddenly in the middle of. (His comments were in response to a Tucker Carlson segment on Fox News in which he announced that men in America are in crisis, which is why he’s devoting the entire month of March to shining a light on their struggle. Sigh.) Anyway, what Lovett basically said was that what men are experiencing right now isn’t so much a crisis of men, but a crisis of masculinity, and that’s a really important distinction. It’s not that men, as a whole, are under attack. But what is being “attacked,” which is to say, being challenged or questioned, is the construct of masculinity, which for far too long, has gone hand in hand with being an asshole. You know the kind I mean, the insensitive, bravado-spewing, superiority-claiming, dominating, sometimes abusive or violent “hot-blooded male” men. And that is what women are coming forward and saying they’re no longer willing to allow or ignore or live with. So it’s the socially accepted concept of “masculinity” as a whole that has something to fear in the #MeToo era, not men in general.

But still, it’s freaking men out. And for men like you, who consider themselves allies, there seems to be this instinctive need—going back to the Duffer Brothers thing—to be like ‘as someone who sees both sides of the equation, and empathises with both, I feel the need to tell you that this isn’t a #MeToo thing, or a gender thing, because they’re just assholes.’ I understand the need to try to find flaws in it, or ways to disqualify it from the larger #MeToo conversation by trying to separate the gender issue from the general behaviour issue, but the point is: you can’t. One feeds into the other.

Gh: That’s a good point. But it still doesn’t entirely explain why I feel the need to make that distinction in the first place. I don’t dismiss the allegations out of hand, but it’s as though I have to test the allegations against my own sense of justice and logic before I can fully qualify them as, indeed, gender-based. I like the explanation that I’m just trying to see both sides, but that might be letting myself off too easy.

You mentioned that we feel threatened. I think it’s right, but I think the wording isn’t. The thing about male privilege is that, for the most part, we don’t feel it. It’s like wearing a thick coat in the winter. You’re warm, but you still feel cold when the wind blows. And it’s not like knowing other people are colder makes much difference. When we talk about how men feel threatened, it implies that men know what they have and they see it being taken away. I don’t think we are that self aware.

Since we’re quoting podcasts, Mike Pesca of Slate’s The Gist, made a good point about privilege a few months back. We think of it as an advantage that some people (straight white folk, mostly; straight white men, particularly) have that others don’t. Pesca made the point that privilege isn’t something extra that certain groups have. Privilege represents how things should be. For everyone.

Cops don’t typically stop me for no reason. That’s not a bonus I get for being white. That’s how cops should treat everyone. When I apply for a job, I know that my name won’t make whoever is hiring ignore my resume. And that’s how hiring is supposed to work. Basically, it’s the absence of unjust roadblocks. Some men reject the idea of privilege because they don’t feel like they’ve received special treatment. And really, they haven’t received special treatment. They just haven’t received special mistreatment. (Okay, some do receive special treatment, but I’d argue that that’s a class thing.)

PB: I would strongly disagree here. I think the reason men are having such a strong reaction to everything that’s going on right now is precisely because they know just how good they’ve had it for so long. They’ve always been the loudest, strongest, most dominant voices in any room and for the first time they’re being told to listen, to introspect, to recalibrate. Of course there’s going to be an internal struggle against the potential dissolution of the evolutionarily indoctrinated conviction of male superiority.

GH: That’s a handy narrative. It’s easier to dismiss anything a man might say if we decide that we’re all consciously trying to keep what we have like social justice misers. I can imagine Wall Street bros and alpha males being more sinister than ignorant, but not, like, my friends and family. I’m not at all saying privilege doesn’t exist, I’m saying that it’s like a mental illness. It colours your life in all sorts of ways, without you knowing. I have depression. For a long time I wouldn’t really admit that I had it though, since it never prevented me from getting out of bed. I just assumed that the way I saw the world was accurate–was in fact the way everyone should see the world, if they were honest with themselves. I didn’t even realize how broken my thinking was because the thing that I rely on to recognize stuff, was broken, too. Men don’t realize when men are the only ones talking, or when they’re interrupting or being dominating. They are acting the way they’ve been socialized to act. Moreover, they don’t understand the little ways women are knocked about and objectified, because they only know their own experiences.

So if we can for a moment assume that some men at least don’t recognize how good they have it–that their unexamined life is their life–then a lot of the talk around changing society, or about how tired we all should be of hearing from old white men, can feel unfair. Actually, even men who do realize their privilege might feel that the way this movement offhandedly dismisses them is a bit unfair. They didn’t ask to be born a white male. They aren’t intentionally taking opportunities away from other people, they’re just living their lives, semi-ignorant of how much harder things could be. And yet, white men get disparaged, and considered villains. Maybe we feel defensive, both because we didn’t do anything to have our privilege, and thus didn’t intentionally do anything to be considered bad, but also because we aren’t really welcome to talk about it. It doesn’t feel fair. #boohoo #maletears

PB: You and I both know that not all men are considered villains right? [Greg nods, electronically.] Just checking. But there does seem to be this fear among men of the #MeToo movement spinning out of control and I think that that male fear of injustice is deeply intertwined with their belief that women are too emotional or too sensitive or too vindictive to be counted on to be fair.

GH: That’s interesting! I definitely think that’s a huge part of it! Wow. I know for me personally, it’s not that I think women are vindictive or emotional. For me, my fear is more directed at the media. I think writers and commenters are so prone to outrage and so allergic to nuance, and so guided by clicks, that fairness will be lost.

With every man that is brought down, we check whether the downfall was just or not, because we’re afraid that that injustice will spread to us. I don’t mean that we’ll be accused of sexual harassment, or verbal abuse. But that, because those men are bad–and their gender plays a part in that– we will also be dismissed as inherently bad.

PB: Okay, I just had a thought. Historically, men have never felt the need for allies. But right now, because there is so much confusion regarding what’s acceptable, what’s okay, what’s bad, what’s going to get you in trouble, guys are feeling the need to reach out to each other and stick up for each other in ways they never had to before. Maybe that’s where all this newfound defensiveness on each other’s behalf is coming from.

GH: Also a good point. Certainly a part of it comes from feeling like our voices are a little unwelcome, and so the defensiveness is almost an internalized form of discussing and questioning everything that’s happening. Just to make make myself clear, when I say that White Men are are constantly disparaged, I’m not talking about when men are accused in public of misconduct. Nor do I mean that society has suddenly turned men into pariahs. Our privilege is still strong. I mean in the culture (and by that I mean, the culture of the coastal media elite urban professional blah blah blah, not like Fox News culture) has no reservation against saying things like, “we don’t need another white man to…” As I said, I’m not comparing it with the racism, sexism, transphobia or any other discrimination that has kept groups silent for too long. It is not the same. At all.

Men don’t do themselves any favours when they dismiss the experiences of others and engage in what-about-ism. We still don’t have those invisible roadblocks. But take the Tucker Carlson project you mentioned. The truth is–and I always feel dirty acknowledging this, because it feels like I’m supporting fedora-wearing, neck-bearded trolls–men as a group are facing some unique challenges that should be addressed. We commit suicide far more often than women. We die on the job way more. We use far more drugs and drink more alcohol. We die sooner, and we get sent to prison more, too.

Instead of realizing that these problems have the same root cause as women’s problems (hello patriarchy), puffy, permanently aggrieved babies like Tucker Carlson want to engage in some asinine Oppression Olympics that just makes men look pathetic and clueless. You don’t cure prostate cancer by proving ovarian cancer isn’t really as big of a deal as people claim. Just work to fucking cure cancer.

PB: Totally. There shouldn’t be a battle. Just to be clear though: there’s no element of comeuppance at play in the struggle for gender and racial equality. No one wants white men to atone, retroactively, for being the dominant actor in most situations for as long as we can remember.

GH: Agreed. But there are a lot of comments like, “Oh great, another show about white people.” Or, “Of course they got another white man to host the…” So, what I’m saying is, while that attitude is justified and the resulting diversity is good for everyone, on an individual level, it’s not unreasonable to see how a man would feel like his thoughts or work or whatever isn’t wanted.

PB: Ah I see what you’re saying! Like Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel making all those jokes about awards show hosting gigs still going to straight white males even in the #MeToo era. Which sort of sets the stage for fears like “Will I, in the future, be joked and guilted right out of opportunities and discussions because I’m a straight white dude, and SWDs had it way too good for way too long and now I have to pay for it?” which leads to thoughts of “Will I, one day, be shut out of things merely because of my race or my gender?” Well congratulations dudes, you now know what it’s like to be a woman or a racial/ethnic minority or anyone from the LGBTQ community! (Let’s be real though: it’s never actually gonna happen to you guys.)

GH: Truthfully, I feel very ambivalent about this, because I agree that men have little to complain about. And it’s not like my feelings are actually hurt. But we’re at this place where men feel dismissed and they can’t talk about it without sounding like Jordan Peterson acolytes. We don’t need to make every issue about us. But if we’re unpacking why even male allies get defensive, we should acknowledge that humility doesn’t come naturally for anyone. Imagine as an immigrant someone telling you your views on Canada aren’t welcome, because it’s not YOUR country. Or actually, it would be more like if a British person who lived in India all their life (see, I’m totally pandering to you) wasn’t allowed to express their political thoughts because their motherland was a colonial horror show.

PB: That’s an interesting analogy. I’d never actually thought about it from that perspective. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, to be honest, in the grand scheme of things, but I do see how that could be frustrating for young men who, like you said, might feel disinvited before they even get to the party. Hopefully, as they get older and more mature they’ll see the bigger picture, and their place in it.

GH: And with that, we’ve fixed everything. I’m not even going to be offended that you implied I was immature. You know why? Because I’m like the maturest dude in the office. (I have very little competition.)

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