Rear Window

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.

Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Did you really just mansplain feminism to Anne Summers?

    If you want to stop colluding with misogyny, or its big brother, patriarchy, I suggest starting with an audit of your own privilege.

    1. I was questioning one of Summers’ arguments in a specific context. I think that’s acceptable.
      And perhaps it could be considered that this piece is in some sense an ‘audit’ of my own position. That’s it’s underpinnings.

    1. It’s misandry. But we’re not comparing apples with apples. Misogyny is structural.
      The ‘mens rights’ argument is that women can be sexist or violent too. It’s not really the point. The structures of misogyny produce both men’s and women’s behaviour.

  2. Where to start? Having read Anne Summers’ (2003) The End of Equality, where any gains from 70s feminism are shown to have been eroded, she sets about arguing a case for restoring lost equality. Sure, political equality in the boardroom is one chapter, but there are many other issues of inequality addressed in that book too. So it is difficult to credit the comment attributed to Summers here.

    Rape, a crime of violence against women, part of an important chapter in The End of Equality called “A Sex War”, draws on the notion of a male media gaze which categorises rape, among other things, through a binary of innocent victims (‘violation of the virtuous’) or those who ‘asked for it’.

    The Leigh Leigh case is discussed: a “14 year old schoolgirl who was widely seen at the time to have invited her rape and murder because she was drunk”. This crime was the subject of the film and stage play called Blackrock, which most people know. The film is an interesting treatment of the male gaze, because a high angle shot from the subjective point of view of the main male character that witnesses the rape but not the murder, and does not act, is a key to understanding individual and social injustice.

    The main male character keeps the image and information to himself. The rest of the film is a forensic investigation of this gaze, both by the main character and the police and society closing in on the murder (and not necessarily the rape). The repetition of the male gaze under investigation tears both the main character and the local community apart.

    In true, almost tragic, dramatic fashion, the male main character comes to recognise the failure of justice for the dead girl, particularly over the question of rape; an injustice which remains lost at the film’s end for the community and greater society at large.

    As you say Stephen: much work to be done on disrupting the male gaze.

    1. Dennis,
      Ta for the heads up on Summers’ book. I’m not familiar with the corpus of her work, however the discussion on LNL was bizarre because it quickly became bogged down in a woman vs woman argument (facilitated by a man,and poorly) without dialogue. Summers might have made a number of defences against Hirsi Ali’s claims but seemed unable to, and the result was a very stuck argument on feminism that was completely non-radical.

    2. Flipping my scenario here and having a young boy raped and then murdered in a similar small community situation would see all patriarchal hell break loose – due more to the rape than the murder. This is why feminists fought to have the inhumanity of rape classified as an act of violence against women within the field of law, rather than it being viewed through the sexualised male gaze.

      1. One thing I didn’t really have space to look at was the way homophobia is built in to misogyny. It’s complicated and pervasive I think and not as simple as just hating gays, but constructs the way children are viewed, the way heterosexual relationships are constructed and so on.
        There’s a great photo floating around taken from Euro 2012 where Cristiano Ronaldo is embracing a team mate and gazing passionately into his eyes. Despite, or because of, the obvious homoeroticism in the celebrations around goal scoring in football, hardly any footballers have come out and FIFA is very reluctant to attack homophobia the way that it is attacking racism. It’s Ok to be black. It’s not Ok to be gay.

  3. The white progressive female gaze is repeated daily in every classroom in the land – AFL football clubs have state funded ‘women’s issues’ officers compulsorily placed in each club qualified to conduct re education campaigns at the slightest hint of an ‘inappropriate attitude’ to women. Positive discrimination in workplaces has discriminated against men for over thirty years. Howard attempted to address the massive fatherhunger by legislating for equal parenting – this has just been overturned by redefining the meaning of violence to include thought crimes. Whatever misogyny might be engrained in ‘the gaze’ of men is quickly becoming emulated by the darker feminist gaze. Misandry is now equally entombed in the ‘gaze’ of women.

    1. Patrick, I think there’s an underlying argument you are missing here. It’s not a misogyny vs. misandry debate. Misogyny is the prior condition that structures gender politics. My argument – or one of them – is that not much has changed in the commission of violence by men, but that there has been a considered attempt to push the blame back toward women.
      I used to teach young children, in a profession that is 95% female. My experience was not that children were held in a gaze of ‘misandry’ but actually in a gaze of misogyny. Early childhood ed is a very conservative profession and its not unusual for children to be characterised as ‘bad’ boys and ‘good’ girls. This is a practice of misogyny not ‘misandry’.
      I’m not sure how you can claim that women are positively discriminated against in the workforce. Women are still paid 25% less than men, and the austerity measures being imposed across Europe will impact much more heavily on men than women.
      The ‘equal parenting’ laws have been a disaster. It has nothing to do with the power of women. Having despised women and children forever, patriarchal practice now has the problem of how to commodify them via the judiciary in custody cases.
      I’d like to suggest that you rethink your definition of the ‘female gaze’ mate. It doesn’t work politically and it may well just take you further and further into a cul de sac.
      Investigating misogyny is not about blaming men. It’s about men taking responsibility. That’s a completely different thing and a lot more useful and practical and enlightening.

      1. The trouble is that this sort of utter drivel does get NSW and Federal grants to run ‘projects’ between running mens behaviour groups and lolling about doodling for O – this weasely male lesbianism is simply a construction within which to hate men and maleness – misandry – to justify it with the title of Misogyny is the height of hypocrisy – it is unworthy of serious thought

        1. Yes, mean are discriminated against, climate change is a leftist conspiracy – down with *science* and *statistics*. Long live religion and the market.

          1. Patrick,
            the problem with your comment is that the kind of rhetoric you are employing is impossible to dialogue with. When you use phrases like ‘weaselly male lesbianism’ it not only forecloses any conversation but it also makes you sound very paranoid. From my perspective, you sound like a man trapped in vicious circle of misogynist politics, trying to find your way out and failing. You need to find another way. It’s not working for you.

  4. Whoops…thought confusion: from typing while watching Euro 2012. that should read ” the austerity measures being imposed across Europe will impact much more heavily on women than men.”

  5. An interesting and thoughtful argument as always, Stephen.
    Misogyny and its expression in violence against women, is unfortunately rampant. A report into community attitudes to violence in Victoria a number of years back, found that despite efforts to increase awareness about violence against women, a surprising number of males and females adhered to myths and negative stereotypes. These included excusing domestic violence if it resulted from temporary anger or when regret was shown, that women often make false claims about violence in custody battles, and that rape is a result of men unable to control sexual desire thereby removing responsibility from them.
    And Patrick, you only need go look at the stats as they relate to intimate partner violence, sexual violence and femicide, to know misandry is right wing misogynist rubbish.
    But unfortunately, while there are feminists concerned with grassroot feminist issues, many feminists are way too concerned with issues that affect white, middle-class professional women. Never more was it brought home to me that a number of us had lost our way, than when a feminist organisation I once worked for, celebrated International Women’s Day with a day out at the pics to see a screening of ‘The Iron Lady’.

    1. Hi Trish
      One of the issues we have to struggle with in the organisation I have responsibiity for, is the perception that the programs we run for abusive men are ‘anger management’ programs. This is particularly common among the services that refer to us, even the judiciary and probation and parole. This locates abuse and violence as primarily a problem of emotional volatility rather than in the construction of gender and power and control.
      In the media when one reads about some sportsman being charged with a domestic violence offence or offence of public violence he is frequently sent off for ‘anger management.’ Not only is this likely to be completely ineffective but it completely avoids examining the causes and context of violence.

    1. Well it wouldn’t hurt. There are plenty of women writers but they tend to either not get published, or not get reviewed, and don’t get the attention that men do, or if they do it tends to be particular kinds of attention. Publishers tend to be very extremely conservative but continue to proclaim the mantra of merit-based publishing. Weird. And creepy. And a secret that doesn’t get talked about enough. I’ve been invited to the Melbourne Writers Fest in September. I look forward to seeking out the many seminars titled, ‘Stupidity and Neoliberalism in Publishing Choices.’

  6. Stephen, can you explain: “Early childhood ed is a very conservative profession and its not unusual for children to be characterised as ‘bad’ boys and ‘good’ girls. This is a practice of misogyny not ‘misandry’.”

    I think your analysis of early childhood and moral-categorisation of children seems valid, but how is this related to particular gendered attitudes?

    1. I think the way that education describes children is very interesting. And weird. Boys are defined by what they are not. What they are not is girls. That’s largely how boys define themselves as boys. As long as you are not like a girl, you’ll fit. The worst insult a boy can receive is to be identified as a girl. Which is a misogynist politic and explains (at least partly) why the misogynist is fascinated and terrified of women.
      The preference of schools has always been for boys to be bad and girls to be good. Schools like the rest of the social order needs bad boys to perform a range of functions; to be punished, to provide a range of fantasy transgressive images etc.
      Of course bad girls just freak everyone out. Bad boys can be punished. Everyone knows that. Nobody knows what to do with bad girls.
      Nobody knows what to do with boys who might be gay either. Gay boys even burst the boundary of what it means to be a bad boy.

      1. One week I watched Doctor Phil for no particular reason. Anyway, he handled the problems of men, women and boys with aplomb. With adolescent girls, he didn’t have a clue.
        Which supports the point made here.

      2. okay.
        Like The Simpsons and many sitcoms. Dumb dads, naughty boys, hard-working mums and intelligent girls. Malcolm in the Middle just got rid of the intelligent girl.

  7. Wonderfully thoughtful piece, thanks Stephen!

    A year out from an acrimonious break-up, implied and actual violence and a brush with a legal system that in my opinion tends to support and enable male entitlement (despite what the vocal men’s rights group may claim), I feel my belief in change has also been battered – but I was buoyed by that wonderful quote you used from Hannah Arendt.

    On completely the other end of the spectrum, I read a piece on The Punch about Grant Hackett and his mea culpa for domestic violence.

    The comments (I’m afraid invariably from men) were a great reflection of the minimising and colluding you raise: that violence perpetuated by a man over a woman was “private” and “should be worked out between them” (whatever that could possibly mean!) and even that because Hackett hasn’t admitted to assaulting his now former wife, that no domestic violence actually occurred.

    There were others which lauded Grant as a human being and said we should lay off him.

    I was amused to see this minimising strategy pop up in the thread right here – the old chestnut about misandry. Clearly it is exists, but not as an institutional and destructive social mechanism designed to control the other sex.

  8. Hi Helen
    The Hackett issue as you describe it illustrates very neatly the issues of collusion that are constructed around male violence. First the denials, then the suggestion that the couple should work it out, presumably through some kind of counselling, then finally the praise as though the violent man is actually heroic for apologising. Though I have to say that in my experience an apology for violence is often an apology that ends in ‘but’. A real apology is actually something to see, and is a huge act of ethical responsibility. And they do happen.
    As far as the Arendt quote, I’m still not sure it was by Arendt, though I associate her name with it. But either way it’s still a great quote I think. But I won’t be able to rest now, until I get back to Melbourne, back to City Basement books and look it up in the actual book.

  9. Hi Stephen,

    Just seeing this now – It is great to see the issue being discussed and perhaps that is the only way to expose misogyny is to keep showing it to everyone in its many forms. One of its avenues that really needs to be exposed is the way it is so frequently reflected within the media – which has so much influence on social attitudes of the general public. If we could at least educate all journalists about their responsibility on this matter – male and female because it really concerns me to see women also attacking their own gender and unaware of the misogyny they participate in.
    At the same time – I think it is time women stopped trying to be like men and competing with men and started really being true to themselves and their own deeper natures. They can still walk the corporate ladder if they want but done with enough self awareness to not become a man in stilletoes. If they do this caring for themselves every step of the way they might change things. This is where they will get the confidence to then deal with misogyny. We have all been damaged by it to some degree because it was reflected by our fathers, then at school and so on – but being victim to it doesn’t work, and beating men at their own game to prove we are as good doesn’t work because it makes us more male and confuses the man even more! I think it has to be education that looks at all the issues but the education system is riddled with it as well. So perhaps women have to really know what it is to be true to themselves – and I don’t know that we do have that many role models of this kind of woman out there, yet.

    1. What women could do for each other I’m not sure. When I speak to women friends and to women colleagues about misogyny their ideas and solutions are always innovative and surprising. To me not to them. I think more about men can do. I was reading this morning about the increasing practice of creepshots, where men illicitly take photos of women in public and post them on the Internet.
      It seems to me that it’s male practices that need to be addressed, and what constitutes masculinity. And respeaking masculinity speaking out when we see practices of misogyny is something we could take responsibility for.

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