I’ve been thinking on this post for a while. I tend to write my Overland things in my head while driving, which I guess explains a lot. But misogyny is a more complex and problematic topic than most, especially if you are white and male.
Some backstory: a few days a week I get paid to run a project funded by the NSW and the Federal governments. This means that the rest of the time I can sit around and read books, write for myself, doodle for Overland, and engage in whatever economically unproductive behaviour I Iike.
The core work of the project I’m paid to run is intervening with men with a history of violence and abusive behaviour. The main work of this is done in groups, or, as termed in the literature, ‘men’s behaviour change groups’. The work is done in groups because it’s important to let gender speak, to keep the elephant in the centre of the room as it were. We run programs for women too, mostly with women who have experienced violent relationships and are working their way through all the difficult issues that recovering from those relationships creates.
There are a whole range of dynamics around gender violence that we need to be attentive to when working with men who may, or may not, want to effect some change in their ways of relating. Perhaps the most endemic is that of collusion. By that I mean default strategies that the men attending the groups use to try to engage the group facilitators or the other group participants in the blaming of women. These strategies are ingrained and undermining them requires a lot of skilful confrontation and a continual attentiveness.
It’s been instructive for me, working in the area of gendered violence because for some time I think I’d been under the impression that while we live inside a social order characterised by its sexism, progress was being made, barriers were coming down and so on. All that Enlightenment stuff we buy into to prevent ourselves giving into despair.
Nowadays that seems like a completely bonkers idea to me. I think we live in a structurally misogynist society, characterised by endemic levels of violence against women and girls that has saturated nearly every way we’ve invented of constructing social relationships. It’s useful to remember that violence is a gendered thing. Just because we now have women’s refuges, a female Prime Minister and a few men’s behaviour change programs, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been any structural change in the commissioning of social violence. In fact one could argue that there are many indicators that things are getting worse (or maybe the boys who pay our wages simply aren’t so adept at covering up their catastrophic neoliberal mess anymore).
In an Overland post in early May, Jacinda Woodhead, writing about those epic TV series that HBO seem to continually churn out, described something she called, contingently, the ‘white male liberal gaze’. I was struck by her choice of the word ‘gaze’, and not just because that’s what we do when we look at a television image. A gaze is a way of regarding something and someone, of holding it, referring it to inner experience, taking ownership of the gazed object and fixing its position in the social cosmos.
In the field of infant mental health, the clinical use of gaze is a very powerful tool. Being the recipient of gaze is how we first come to locate ourselves in the world, to begin to process and create inner experience. Gaze is the way we first begin to comprehend ourselves, and to establish the existence of an other. Without being the recipient of gaze – and learning to gaze back – it’s impossible to grow any kind of inner life.
Gaze isn’t a neutral thing. It’s immensely powerful and complex, yet subtle. The structure of gaze is always dominated by the social and political context of the other who is gazing.
The white male liberal gaze could be labelled in all sorts of way depending on your take on who you are and how people get made. It could be examined as a gaze of racism, or a gaze of dispossession, but for the sake of this post, I’m interested in it as a misogynist regard. Facebook has always seemed to me to be a project of the white male liberal gaze – that is, misogyny. After all, that’s where Facebook had its genesis.
When I watched the three (Swedish) Lisbeth Salander films, I was surprised to learn that the real title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women. Lisbeth Salander is often positioned as a sort of popular feminist icon. I haven’t read Stieg Larsson’s books, but the curious thing about the films is how conflicted the depiction of Salander is. In Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth marks a trajectory that begins with her as a punk, man-hating lesbian. The implication is that she only sleeps with women because men have continually abused her. Meeting a user-friendly paternal white male, Lisbeth transforms into dominant heterosexual. By the end of the film she has completed a metamorphosis into glamorous international woman of mystery, paternally gazed upon by her lover via CCTV.
The men who repeatedly humiliate Lisbeth or sexually abuse her remind me of the evil Emperor in Star Wars. They are intrinsically cruel and satanic and often like to talk about how cruel and satanic they are. In contrast, Lisbeth’s white paternal saviour, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is virtuous, idealistic, slightly shop-worn from his emotionally bruising encounters with love and marriage, courageous and resolutely ethical. Why is he so good and Lisbeth’s abusers so bad? Perhaps because they are all situated within a white liberal male misogynist gaze – a gaze that tries to offload its guilt about its intrusive definitions of others, and proprietary and illicit desires by creating a virtuous self and a demonic other.
Within this gaze a man can be reassured of his own legitimacy: men who hate women are unrepentantly wicked and breathe heavily and have shifty eyes. But I am just like Mikael Blomkvist because I don’t hate women. Unsurprisingly this was the Australian media personality Kyle Sandilands’ defence when yet another of his public humiliations of women was revealed: I can’t be sexist, because I love women.
As a defence this is problematic in a hundred different ways, most of which can be summed up by rephrasing it more interestingly and probably correctly as, ‘I hate and am frightened of women but am dependent on them.’
Early this year I was browsing in City Basement Books in Melbourne and came across a book of essays about women and experimental writing. There was a quote in there (from Hannah Arendt, I think) that said that any woman writing in a misogynist world really needs all her wits about her in order to even be heard. Which got me thinking about what it is that men need to do in a world where women are not heard. Become less deaf is one answer; another could be to become more transparent to ourselves.
In there lies a problem though. If the white liberal male turns the gaze on himself he is looking at himself with the gaze of himself. Which sounds remarkably narcissistic.
The example of the white liberal male gaze par excellence is porn. In his introduction to the 1995 edition of Crash, JG Ballard wrote, ‘Pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.’ This is the basic dynamic of the white liberal male gaze I think. Porn is characterised by intimate interpersonal relationships based on the acquisition of power via the ruthless vector of genital-based eroticism, relationships that are deliberately situated within an arena that has many audiences, both actual and virtual.
The object of pleasure in porn is not the woman. In fact we could argue that within the gaze a woman is merely an ornament of the phallus. The object of the gaze is really the gaze itself – the act of looking, of intrusion and control. The woman is the object by which the gaze is carried – which is why she is an object: a construction of the act of sexualised power. So when the white liberal male gazes at himself gazing at himself gazing at his object of pleasure, he finds himself approaching porn.
If that’s the case, how can this gaze be disrupted and problematised? Will the circuit always be unbroken?
One strategy of disruption, for men anyway, might be to think about and identify male practices of collusion. After all, the white male liberal gaze didn’t fall from the sky, and isn’t kept in place by invisible force fields. It’s kept in place by consent. Generally, men consent to it every day and with each other. It’s what we do. None of us stand outside the gendering of the world, and in a world where violence is so blatantly gendered, but so often overlooked or disregarded, masculinity needs to ask some very interesting and discomfiting questions of itself.
A couple of years back, on International Women’s Day, I heard a bizarre discussion on the Radio National program Late Night Live. Phillip Adams hosted a sort of debate between Anne Summers and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Summers claimed that the main battlefront in contemporary feminism was getting more women into the boardrooms. Hirsi Ali responded that feminism had achieved all its goals in the West, and that feminists needed to turn their attentions to their more underprivileged sisters in majority-world countries.
It’s news to me that the number of women in boardrooms is a marker of social equality and of justice. Likewise, if feminism in the West has outlived its usefulness, if we’ve reached mission accomplished, then I’m Mrs Beeton. I had always understood feminism as not just a way of reworking socioeconomic relations, but as a rewriting of understandings of power, relationship, identity, and knowledge and how we use it.
The backlash against feminism that has been going on for some time, and was ratcheted up in Australia under Howard, is of course a promotion of misogyny. The Howard government torched women’s services and began funding those organisations that argued for the ‘rights’ of men. The justification for this was that society had become too ‘feminised’; that the ‘pendulum had swung too far’; that feminism is a kind of abusive strategy perpetrated by women for their own nefarious purposes; that women vindictively use the legal system to target men and so on.
Misogyny ain’t dead. It’s barely even scratched. And in a ‘post-feminist’ world, it can be seen as tasteless or embarrassing to talk about misogyny. It’s not hip, it’s unnecessary, rather infra dig, with no place amongst civilised men and women anymore. Men who hate women are seemingly either humorous dinosaurs or ‘sick’. The fact that they are men seems to have gotten lost in the rush to cement the white liberal gaze as the pre-eminent method of regarding the world.