Thursday, April 29, 2004
Some Thoughts About Misogyny
Misogyny, like in the hatred of women. This term always seemed inadequate to me, as there's considerably more contempt of women in the air than actual hatred, though the latter can be found, too, especially on the net, and there is also something close to fear of women. We need a word that encompasses all of these, or words to reflect the different types and intensities of feeling.
I believe that misogyny has always existed. I also believe that the majority of men, or the majority of people in general, are not misogynistic, but there is a sizable chorus of hateful voices, and these voices are always humming in the background. The effect this has is to make us almost oblivious to mild hatred of women: it's just how things are. This happens to me a lot. I read an article or see a cartoon or overhear a conversation, and I'm left with an odd displaced feeling which is not quite fear or disappointment but something similar, a feeling of something being wrong or missing, like looking at a group photograph where one person has been whitened out, yet nobody notices. Then later my overworked brain puts the pieces together and I realize that the point of the story was something negative about women or that the cartoon was only funny if you think that women are stupid/greedy/indolent/overemotional, or the overheard conversation expressed an anger at some woman by smearing her for being a woman.
David Gilmore, an anthropologist at New York University at Stony Brook, wrote a book titled Misogyny some years ago. In it he gives us hundreds of pages of evidence on the existence of fear and hatred of women in primitive societies, in so-called advanced societies and in all types of intermediate societies. He also almost delights in showing us the extent of misogyny in many religious writings, in literature and in the visual arts. Any reader brave enough to read him should prepare by downing a stiff drink of nectar or two.
Just about the only people not committing misogyny in Gilmore's book are women. My suspicion is that this omission is a direct result of Gilmore's mild misogyny: that women don't exist except as objects of men's hatred and/or veneration. But this omission is a serious one. Misogyny is not uncommon among women. Misogynist women give us advice in radio call-in shows and political advice as television commentators. They are hired by some religious extremists and politicians to justify largely anti-woman practices. They write articles and books telling women how to live and then blaming them for the negative consequences of these 'choices'. Some of them probably even live in your neighborhood.
True, there are many more misogynistic men than women, but the ignorance of the fact that women, too, can be infected by misogyny casts doubt on Gilmore's theories about the causes of woman-hating. These rely largely on psychological and genetic explanations stressing men's experiences and emotions about women, in particular about women as mothers or as sex objects. Since Gilmore specifically argues that women's experiences and emotions are different from those of men's, his explanations can't cover generalized misogyny.
Which is sort of disappointing, as he provides the reader with a multitude of possible theories. In fact, almost anything seems a likely cause, which doesn't bode well for women, or the reader who might reach for another strengthening sip of nectar. Still, there are a few dim rays of hope for us equalists: Studies suggest that misogyny decreases when men take a more active role in child-rearing and when the sexes work together. Maybe it's just a case of increasing the general understanding between the sexes? I don't know. Disappointingly, Gilmore ends his book by appealing to men to fight their incipient misogyny by noticing how gentle and kind creatures women really are. He obviously never met me.
Whatever the other reasons for misogyny might be, I believe that one reason for its endurance is that people bash women because they can. Women have traditionally not been able to fight back very effectively, and have thereby become a safe target for the general venting of spleen, diffuse rage and other sinister emotions. Obnoxious children torture flies, not bears or lions or tigers. It doesn't matter to these children that the flies might be wholly innocent of any wrong-doing.
So one solution to misogyny and similar maladies might be to fight back: Be a bear or lion! Roar! Or if you prefer to be a fly, at least crap on the misogynists' dinner plates.