[This is a first draft; it may change, feedback as always welcome. Trigger warning: DV, severe, rape, more abstractly. Updated 24/02.)
“UniLad: This online magazine's 'laddish' misogyny sends a message to young girls that their role is clearly delineated – you're worthless.”
I read with interest Rhiannon Cosslett’s article on Uni Lad, the ex-website devoted primarily to a form of showy macho misogyny. Cosslett, it goes without saying, is absolutely right about the misogynies that circulated on the site – rape denial, as well as vicious and gorily explicit jokes about violence against women were common there. The theory of ‘lad’ culture, that there exist a large number of men who think nothing of this kind of hate-filled abusive language, is certainly strong.
But where I begin to differ from many theorists of ‘lad culture’ is when they pick it out as the motor or the apex of misogyny, and the site of the most serious abuse. The reason why I differ is the same reason as there are so many articles like Cosslett’s on this problem – it’s there, and it certainly needs talking about, but the very fact that we are doing so so much, the fact of its obviousness is the very symptom of its powerlessness. I don’t intend here to insult or undermine articles like this – they’re essential, and they serve I think an important purpose. What I want to suggest, however, is the possibility that there might be a construct considerably more dangerous than ‘lad culture’ – that of the New Man.
The ‘New Man’ that I refer to here is a construct of postwar Britain, something that arose in the context of second-wave feminism and the movement of women into work and higher education, as well as the increase in social rights and economic power. Some explanations for the rise of the New Man are favourable – that men have chosen to take on housework and childcare, that they are moving away from domestic violence (‘lad’ culture?), and that they have become involved in feminism. These are of course all excellent things, but they have a converse as well.
The New Man was also a reaction against the feminisms of the 60s and 70s. As it became increasingly difficult for men to have economic, physical and intellectual dominance, the ways women were denigrated began to shift. Women were no longer seen so much as weak, irrelevant, emotional or irrational, but as the exact opposite – oppressors, bossy or manipulative people, bitches. ‘Ugliness’ expanded from a description of a woman’s physical appearance to her personality. What the New Man did was leave behind a world of confidently asserted dominance and move to one where the language of emotional intelligence was used to assert a pleading victimhood.
Whereas before, the emotional realm was dismissed as an irrational female world that ran counter to progress and sense, the New Man, in the face of the astonishing gains of postwar feminism, moved into that world and made it his own. ‘You have emotions?’ he asked – ‘so do I, and they’re bigger than yours.’. MRA's, arguably the most significant antifeminist movement of the last twenty years, use exactly this language - that women have become too powerful, and rather than oppose this with overt domination, plead powerlessness to force what we might call concession by decency.
One of the areas this is very often seen is in the language of mental health. Since the rise of care in the community and active labour-market policies, it has become necessary to treat mental health diagnoses like tokens – tokens of relief from the world. There isn’t space to explore this in depth (this will be fleshed out in the forthcoming book), but a brief outline might go as follows.
To avoid the active-labour-market policy of jobseekers’ allowance, where the benefit is stopped if commitment to 24/7 jobseeking wavers, or to avoid the endless overtime shifts, or essay deadlines at university, it is necessary to plead medical inability. Only a doctor has the power to waive the endless pressures of the 21st century post-Fordist economy. And thus diagnoses become tokens, tokens that mean insanity but in fact grant sanity, grant relief. Rather than being terrified at diagnosis, as a pre-1990 patient might reasonably be, doctors are pleaded with to give diagnoses. Let me have depression, let me have anxiety, let me have OCD, because only these words, this paper, can protect me. Diagnosis has immense value.
But these tokens of victimhood are not unalloyed good things. Their availability is very limited – not just by the government, who employ people like ATOS to prevent them – but by social factors. They’re much more likely to be given to people who are likely to be in a position to shuck them a few months later. And they’re much more likely to be given to people who have learnt the language of emotional intelligence to assert a kind of victimhood, regardless of what their circumstances might be. This is exactly where the New Man fits in.
I have begun to lose count of the women I know whose boyfriends and ex-boyfriends threaten emotional instability as a way of getting their own way. Panic attacks and depression are very real, and terrible things that affect a great number of people, men very much included, but it’s an increasingly common thing to see men use them as a way of asserting abuse; that women make them feel a certain way, make them suffer and burn. This control via victimhood is profoundly, extraordinarily powerful. It slips easily into violence, too - rather than "I hit you because you're stupid" or "I hit you because you need telling" it manifests as "Look what you made me do", "You bring out the devil in me", "Nobody else makes me do this, nobody else is such a bitch to me, you make me desperate, you make me lash out.".
Where UniLad might have been keen on abuse, he was hamstrung by his words – it’s easy for us to spot someone like that, easier for us to avoid. Where abuse becomes truly frightening, it’s not because people are physically unable to leave – it happens because they feel the one at fault. Abuse continues because men are able to avoid being pigeonholed for it, because their situation of emotional power prevents us from speaking against them, partly for fear of damaging them, and partly because of how damaged we already feel they are. A friend who worked at a RCSAC described to me how many women took months or years after the end of a relationship to disentangle enough to see how violent and coercive it was. The ability to assert victimhood may be the strongest weapon in the misogynists’ arsenal.