The most surprising thing about Michael Kimmel’s new book Angry White Men is that the title was still available. We’ve been hit by wave after wave of angry white dudes for decades, from the so-called “silent majority” of the seventies incensed by “forced busing” and braless “women’s libbers,” to your Tea Partier brother-in-law who’s always forwarding terrible jokes about Obama being born in Kenya.
Largely ignoring Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck fans to focus on more extreme examples of angry white manhood, Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an influential writer on masculinity, devotes chapters to such charming folks as white supremacists, domestic abusers, and guys who “snap” and shoot up their schools and workplaces. Kimmel does an excellent job in explaining the whys and wherefores of racist skinheads and violent men and manages to write about some pretty damaged and hateful men with a remarkable degree of empathy. But he doesn’t ever get a firm grip on the most zeitgeisty of our zeitgeist’s angry white men: the men’s rights activists. As the proprietor of a blog devoted to chronicling (and mocking) misogyny online, I’ve spent the past three years tracking this aggrieved fringe group, which claims that in our binary gender system, it is men who have gotten the short shrift.
Let’s look first at what he gets right.
Why are so many white men so angry these days? Put simply, they’ve been knocked off their pedestal. While it’s a bit premature, to say the least, to talk about “the end of men” a la Hanna Rosin, who in a well-known Atlantic article declared that “the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards,” it’s clear that things have changed dramatically since the days of Don Draper. Economically, we’re seeing the beginning of the end of what Kimmel calls “the single greatest affirmative action program in world history. It’s called 'world history.’” Women, while still paid less than men, have seen their salaries and job opportunities increase dramatically in recent decades—while men have seen their wages stagnate in real terms. With significantly more women than men graduating from college, this trend is not likely to reverse itself.
It’s the end of what Kimmel calls “the era of unquestioned and unchallenged male entitlement.” This leads to a particularly bitter form of anger that Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement.” Add in a nasty economic downturn and an uncertain recovery and you have the perfect recipe for a backlash. “White men’s anger is ‘real’—that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely," Kimmel writes. “But it is not ‘true’—that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation.” Instead of looking toward what Kimmel sees as the real source of their economic woes—government policies that favor the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us—ordinary white guys have lashed out instead at those below them in the social hierarchy: women and minorities.
This isn’t the first time white men have felt under siege. At the turn of the 20th century, elite American men faced a crisis of masculine confidence. This was perhaps, as Kimmel points out, an inevitable response to the rapid rise of industrial capitalism—a dynamic but destabilizing force that made fortunes overnight but could also take them away in swift downturns. The slums of the cities filled with darker-skinned immigrants. Newspapers printed cartoons of “new women” in bloomers riding bicycles. Elite men, meanwhile, were sending themselves off on African safaris and to Western “dude ranches” in hopes of turning themselves back into real manly men. By the early decades of the 20th century, much of this uneasiness had trickled down to ordinary white Americans and taken an increasingly nativist turn. Cue a massive resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as white Protestant men shored up their own masculinity at the expense of Catholics and darker-skinned “others.”
There’s a direct line between the anger and the uneasiness of Klansmen in the ’20s and the white supremacists of today. The proud racists that Kimmel interviewed for his book are models of “aggrieved entitlement”; mostly downwardly mobile, lower-middle class men, these discontents see themselves as hardworking providers who’ve had the rug pulled out from under them. But instead of aiming their anger at the one percent, they instead rail against imaginary Jewish conspiracies and a government they see as beholden to lazy, immoral minorities and other “degenerates.”
Men’s rights activists are harder to explain. They don’t fit as easily into Kimmel’s basic argument on the rise of male anger, heavily driven by the economic transformations and upheavals of recent decades. The men’s rights movement, for those who have yet to encounter it, has little in common with the so-called “mythopoetic” men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which gathered in drum circles in the woods to reclaim their primal masculinity, poet Robert Bly at their helm. Its real roots lie in the anti-feminist backlash of the early ’90s, with ex-feminist Warren Farrell’s The Myth of Male Power as its Bible. Deftly inverting the feminist narrative, Farrell declared that it was men, not women, who were the dispossessed, a “disposable sex” forced to fight the wars and take on the most dangerous jobs to protect and provide for women.
Men’s rights activists have latched onto this rhetoric of male victimhood, but unlike Farrell, they have designated feminists as the enemy. The causes they take up—from false rape accusations to male abuse victims—often seem like little more than excuses to bash women in general, but especially feminists. Men’s rights activists don’t organize marches; they don’t build shelters or raise funds for abused men; they don’t organize prostate cancer-awareness events or campaign against prison rape. What they actually do, when they’re not simply carping in comments online, is target and harass women—from feminist writers and professors to activists—in an attempt to silence them. Paul Elam, the founder of the website A Voice for Men and probably the most influential men’s rights activist out there, once wrote to a critic: “Your only real hope is to keep your mouth shut ... We are coming for you, and we are coming for all the liars out there that have been ruining people’s lives with impunity.”
Indeed, A Voice for Men has set up its own “offenders registry” where it lists feminist “bigots” alongside female murderers and child abusers; the so-called bigots include several well-known feminist bloggers, college students who had the misfortune of being photographed by men’s rights activists at a feminist protest, and Katherine Heigl—yes, that Katherine Heigl—who won her “bigot” ranking for joking about being obsessed with cutting off men’s balls in a public-service announcement urging pet owners to spay and neuter their animals. Men’s rights activists have gone after feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who has endured a year and a half of abuse, including rape and death threats, after launching a video series critiquing sexism in video games. They have assailed Rebecca Watson, an atheist blogger who found herself the target of online misogyny after she complained in a video about being hit on in an elevator at 4 a.m. “Tech evangelist" Adria Richards aroused the ire of misogynists in the tech world after she tweeted about a sexist joke she overheard at a conference.
In his chapters on other movements of angry white men, Kimmel does a deft job of placing these groups within a larger historical narrative. He shows how the racist anger of white male supremacists has arisen in a climate of white male wage stagnation. He connects the father’s rights movement to transformations in our notions of fatherhood that have come about as more women have entered the workforce (and as feminists have challenged traditional gender roles).
But Kimmel’s explanation for the men’s rights movement—a bit of economic disenfranchisement here, a bit of unfair divorce law there, mixed with the disinhibiting effects of the Internet—is cobbled together and unconvincing. Ironically, he’s got a pretty good explanation of the men’s rights movement hiding in his insightful and disturbing chapter on domestic abusers. As Kimmel notes, abusers lash out when they are challenged, when they feel most insecure about their masculine authority. For them, Kimmel writes, “[v]iolence is restorative, retaliatory .... When [their] sense of entitlement is aggrieved, they don’t just get mad, they get even.” At its root, the men’s rights movement is driven by the same logic of abuse.
The rhetoric of men’s rights activists is steeped in the notion of “restorative, retaliatory” violence. Elam once wrote to one opponent that “the thought of fucking your shit up gives me an erection.” (You may recall Jaclyn Friedman’s report on her encounter with Elam at the Prospect.) In another post, he fantasized about replacing Domestic Violence Awareness Month with “Bash a Violent Bitch Month”:
I’d like to make it the objective for the remainder of this month, and all the Octobers that follow, for men who are being attacked and physically abused by women – to beat the living shit out of them. I don’t mean subdue them, or deliver an open handed pop on the face to get them to settle down. I mean literally to grab them by the hair and smack their face against the wall till the smugness of beating on someone because you know they won’t fight back drains from their nose with a few million red corpuscles.
And then make them clean up the mess.
Though nearly as virulent in their hatred as the white supremacists, the men’s rights activists don’t seem to feel the same sense of economic dispossession. Many are young, in college or in their twenties, and (at least in my own encounters with them) they seem to be heavily concentrated in male-dominated science, technology, engineering, or math fields. They are, in other words, some of the men least affected by the so-called “end of men” that you can find.
What they are reacting to, I think, is more of a cultural dethroning of male entitlement. Over the last several decades, largely as a result of feminist activism, we’ve seen a dramatic change in attitudes toward and laws about date rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. We’ve also, not coincidentally, seen significant drops in all of these things. But what these changes have meant is a curtailment of certain kinds of male behavior that used to be considered normal. Men have to think twice before making crude sexual jokes in front of female coworkers; they can’t take advantage of women incapacitated by drink and pretend they don’t know it was rape. And all this makes some men furious.
Men’s rights activists like to pretend that their small movement is on the verge of transforming the world. But it’s clear their cries of rage are the last gasps of men furious that the world has changed underneath them. As Kimmel notes, “our choice is simple: we can either be dragged kicking and screaming into [a] future of greater equality and therefore greater freedom for all, or we can go with the tide.”
They’ve chosen the way of the tantrum.