Hannah Rose Ewens’s piece Young, Male and Anti-Feminist – The Gen Z Boys Who Hate Women and Ruby Lott-Lavigna’s piece Feminism Has ‘Gone Too Far’, Say 50 Percent of Gen Z Men deserve to be taken seriously, by men and women. But perhaps not in the “we must do this...and fast’’ vein that benevolent charities and activists suggest?
Why? Some Alt-Right threats perhaps aren’t as new or as damaging as they’re made out to be.
Remember Calvin & Hobbes and Calvin's silly Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS (G.R.O.S.S) club?
That’s a comic strip from the 1980s; some 35-40 years ago! Probably unwittingly, it satirized old-boys-club misogynist chats, routine in pre (and post) Cold War bars, diners, gyms, and locker-rooms. These jibes lampooned women and undermined any attempt at equality. Were they too different from banter in War or Depression-era bars and diners? Not quite. Was it grooming of younger men in those circles? Of a sort, yes.
Some men were being typical. Silly, rather than sinister. Insecure, not insidious. Childish, but not quite conspiratorial.
Others (the sinister, insidious, conspiratorial kind who talk a lot) were mindlessly hitting back at the direction in which some women wanted to take feminism. More on that in a minute.
Naturally, the rest didn’t bother talking; they were too busy doing - abusing and attacking women, at every chance.
Calvin represented all three, depending on when you caught these men in their ‘development’ cycle!
Was Calvin representative of six-year-old boys? No.
Through his delightfully raw and fun strips, Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, habitually ridiculed Calvin’s misogyny (embodied in G.R.O.S.S. and Tracer Bullet) and his machismo (Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man).
Watterson articulated his critique of Calvin through women characters: Calvin’s classmate Susie Derkins, Mom, babysitter Rosalyn and schoolteacher Mrs Wormwood.
The girl Calvin hates (loves?) is about the only character with a full name. Go figure.
Watterson, more than hinted at how influential girls and women are, in the lives of boys who become men.
Calvin gleefully ‘others’ everyone while his stuffed-tiger partner-in-crime Hobbes plays foil, softening some of Calvin’s edges, hardening others. Calvin ‘others’ not just girls and women who, he feels, rob him of all the ‘fun’ he wants to overdose on.
Calvin rebels against machismo too, embodied in class bully Moe. He rebels against his Dad who, while not visibly macho himself, champions old-world masculine values: deferred gratification, self-control, discipline, restraint, work ethic, respect, self-respect, gratitude, duty. It’s just that, given the challenges Calvin sets his Mom and Dad at breakfast, lunch and dinner and every second in between, they’re as good (or bad) parents as most other parents are. If the term ‘incel’ had been around then, Calvin would have either stupidly signed up or at the very least recruited signatories.
But Calvin’s a comic strip. It’s nice to laugh, learn from the odd thought or two, then move swiftly on to real life. What thoughts?
Scholars tracking Alt-Right and related subcultures lament the “lack of a blueprint” for boys and men. But who offered blueprints to Boomer-Gen X kids? Tracer Bullet?!? Those kids got their blueprints from the usual: parents, wider families, schools, churches, sports clubs, multi-level messaging from TV, film, advertising, porn. We might call them homes and neighborhoods.
Well-meaning charities trying to teach boys and men values of restraint, respect, self-respect, gratitude, are standing in for those who played this instructive, inspirational role, for decades - homes, neighborhoods. For it’s in homes that children see values ‘lived’, character ‘practised’, how men and women treat each other.
Kids shouldn’t have to hunt for ‘restrained, respectful, grateful’ role models. They should see them nearby: in the house, on the street, in the playground, at church - mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins. If Gen Z kids are surrounded by role models they’ll come up with their own rejoinder to misogyny when they see it. Are they surrounded? Boomers, Gen X ought to know and own up if they don’t.
Alt-Right misogyny isn’t new but the context is.
The first difference is medium. What Boomer-Gen X boys saw and heard in the real world, Millennial-Gen Z boys see and hear in the virtual world too.
The other difference is scale. The virtual world is more real to Gen Z than it was to their parents. Objectification of girls and women is no longer a trend; it’s an ongoing explosion. Ferociously audio-visual messaging (advertising, TV shows, films, music-videos, gaming, pornography, social media) now amplifies it, making it several times more decisive in driving real-world behavior.
Alt-Right chat rooms may sound subversive, scary but they’re nowhere near as damaging to boys as the mundane, mainstream sexualized sounds and images that objectify and demean women.
“‘Mainstream culture has come to look more and more like pornography,’ said Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University who focuses on obscenity law and feminist theory. ‘It’s not just that with the click of a button you can see the most hardcore, extreme sex imaginable. It’s also what you see every day: It’s the way people on TV look like porn stars. It’s the way women go to work in shoes that 20 years ago would have been considered like what porn stars would wear.’......The ultimate sign of this “mainstream penetration,” as Adler called it with a chuckle, is the way people project their sexuality on social media, imitating gestures and facial expressions from porn. “If you look at somebody’s Facebook page, or selfie culture—the way people are presenting themselves for cameras is much more sexualized than it once was,” she said.” - Consent isn't enough: the troubling sex of Fifty Shades, Emma Green, The Atlantic, 10 February 2015
Of course any extremist, militant anti-women online subculture is harmful and must be dealt with. But to call it the main event, is sort of missing the point. It underplays the hyper-sexualization that Millennial-Gen Z are exposed to and actively participate in, as enabler content creators (Instagram, TikTok), consumers (subscribers), multipliers (likes, shares). Many boys ‘live’ online for so long that it’s only a matter of time before they carry these ‘lives’ into real-world spaces. Often overlooked, many girls do too; some excitedly feeding provocative content. Confrontationist girls-only chatter, sometimes mirrors what boys are seeing, hearing, saying in their exclusive circles; both excelling on common ground - ‘othering’.
Many boys become men without absorbing Alt-Right misogyny or taking mainstream objectification to heart. They end up having the usual - healthy, fulfilled, imperfect relationships with all the usual joys, sorrows, anger, fear, regret, loss, pain, gain! But if this ‘content’ is on tap 24x7, if it vicariously objectifies women, it becomes near impossible even for the best homes and neighborhoods to beat back misogyny without some moderation from advertisers, sponsors, film and TV producers, consumer-creators. Are charities and activists addressing this? It needs action rather than, well, more thought.
Now, back to sinister, insidious, conspiratorial men. Precisely what were they hitting back at? The direction that some women wanted to take feminism in: women don’t need men, dump the institution of marriage, dismantle the concept of family, women must reject or outgrow their biology, sexual identity reigns, so on and so forth.
Not personal hatred: I hate Dr. Helen Hudson and I’m going to kill her.
Hatred of an idea: I hate what these feminists are planning and they’re going to pay.
Some years ago, writer Nikita Coulombe’s painstaking piece Why feminism wants to dismantle the family critiqued otherwise well-meant calls to female ‘freedom’.
Without the benefit of advanced modelling and research it’s hard to say which is more absurd, the utopia of ultra-feminists or Calvin’s utopia, packed with his private-eyes putting brunettes in place.
Either way, some of these calls to ‘freedom’ weren’t feminism.
Coulombe packed a lot in. Feminists, radical or not, don’t (and need not) agree with all of it, but can they be more open to some of it?
Real feminism (how sad that we have to prefix at all) lives and breathes “equality” not “exclusion”.
The word feminism doesn’t have an equivalent aspirational word for men, because men invented exclusion in the first place. A pity if women merely followed.
Because it’s reclaiming space for itself, rightfully clawing back as it were, feminism by its nature can’t avoid being a little adversarial. But to be wantonly antagonistic is as misplaced as misogyny.
When Ewens, Lott-Lavigna and others report that Gen Z boys are averse to feminism, what they should be clarifying is that they’re averse to twisted forms of feminism that evolved in recent decades. A vital distinction.
No principled boy or man is averse to feminism in its truest sense. His insecurity and ego may make him reluctant to get where feminism needs him. Or may make him throw tantrums en route, but he privately knows it’s the ideal for men and women.
When Gen Z chants “feminism has gone too far” they’re referring not to feminism but to something else.
Point is, can men and women cheerleaders of radical or revolutionary feminism disown more rabid strands? Not because they’re irritating but because they’re inimical to feminism. They're also, in some ways, squandering gains won by hard-working feminists who fought for decades, to even get this far. Many of these women have a hard time as it is, coping with those who identify as but are not women.
Lott-Lavigna writes that charities are linking “anti-feminist sentiment among men in the younger millennial and Gen Z demographic with far-right ideology”. They're probably over-complicating things when they infer that “THIS explains the high levels of misogyny, abuse, casualised violence and objectification women experience every day... We need a step change in men's attitudes if we are going to reverse it."
THIS diagnosis exaggerates the power of Alt-Right chat rooms (to encourage crime against women) and minimizes the power of everyday, mainstream misogyny that hyper-sexualizes, demeans, objectifies women.
Rightly, it blames men for objectifying and demeaning women. Wrongly, it overlooks the complicity of women in their own objectification and debasement. Both need to more humbly accept that shared right begins with shared responsibility.
Misogynist messaging has been normalized in public, for so long. Does it need new-found chats in private or esoteric online forums to grow fangs? What in the latter (taunts, abuse, incitement) have women not already heard or seen in the former?
For their part, radical and revolutionary feminists aerosol their misandry right back at misogynists, making it harder to tell activism from anger.
Equality is give and take, not give or take.
A feminism that rejects equality, ceases to be feminism.
Gen Z boys aren’t rejecting feminism but its perversion or their fractured understanding of it. They need to be part of a conversation that includes Gen Z girls. Especially girls who have the clarity, courage and conviction to critique abuse of feminism, misuse of feminism and to reclaim all that’s good about one of the greatest movements on the planet. But if their starting point is mutual suspicion and hostility then it'll stay just that - a starting point.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.