If a man says he sucks because he’s male, it’s surely sexist to agree with him. But if he uses his gender as an excuse for bad behaviour, is it also sexist to call him out on it?
This is the latest gender equality conundrum raised by US website Jezebel. In a controversial piece entitled "I suck: how guys use self-deprecation against you", American author Hugo Schwyzer explores a variant of the phenomenon by which men "gaslight" women (defined as the various ways in which they convince them that they are overreacting or hysterical): “Call it the 'I'm such an asshole' speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.”
Invoking the crisis of masculinity theory, Schwyzer suggests that gas lighting is basically a response to men internalising the idea that they are emotionally stunted and wont to let down women because of it, a self-fulfilling negative prophecy which gender theorists call stereotype threat: “I think I’m crap therefore I am” kind of posturing.
As is to be expected, Schwyzer’s article is proving controversial. Not just because it is being defended by indignant males on the Jezebel comment stream, nor simply because Schwyzer’s failure to include a "NB – this may only apply to some men" caveat irritates the vehemently anti-generalisation gender debaters. Rather, detractors have accused Schwyzer of criticising men in order to endear himself to Jezebel’s feminist-leaning readership, effectively practising his own form of gas lighting.
That’s a pretty complex bit of double-bluffing, a grown-up version of the "all boys lie! playground riddle. Not impossible, but where does it leave men who want to call out gender iniquities practised or perpetuated by other men? Probably in the same iron maiden many male feminists and pro-feminist sympathisers find themselves, silenced, and invalidated for expressing their pussy-whipped opinions.
For every progressive, liberal man I know and love, I encounter two amoebae – whether that’s my ex-boss who wouldn’t let me lug about the oversized office atlas because "ladies shouldn’t", or the tweeter who disliked my comments on porn on Radio 2 the other day – "oh? So you’re a journalist? I thought you were just a common whore". This kind of sexism is easy to identify, and well rebuffed. The kind Schwyzer is writing about isn’t, probably because half the men practising it wouldn’t be able to recognise it as such, nor would half the women its receiving end. As such, a rare piece that identifies subtle sexism is definitely worth contemplation – even if less generalising would have been preferable.
As an intersectional feminist, who recognises men regularly suffer gender discrimination too, I generally recoil at any "he does, she does" oversimplifications when it comes to framing behaviour. Still, there is something about Schwyzer’s article that resonates. Possibly because I have become uneasily familiar of late with the "It’s because I’m male and a bit autistic" school of excuse when it comes to expressing an inability to offer commitment, one guy I know citing it as the reason he "can’t love", another as the excuse for why he would feel really uncomfortable if I stayed over after casual sex. (I mean, a woman can take a hint, even if she is, er, a woman.) But more importantly, because I don’t see how you can ignore the gender factor here - not when it is being cited as the singular excuse for the behaviour in question. The tactic may be textbook passive aggressive narcissism, but using "because I’m a man" as an excuse for an "inevitable" response is just plain sexist.
Granted, two anecdotes do not a scientific theory make (even if you extend that to two dozen, or 200 by including many similar stories I’ve heard from others), and sure, women do it too: "I can’t trust him to do the cleaning because his male standards are lacking", or, "I wanted a baby so I tried to steal his sperm" (remember that? From the nation’s most misunderstood feminist, no less.) So when we see gender being used as an excuse for bad behaviour, whether that’s by men or women, we need to call it, conscious that criticising it may leave us open to charges of perpetuating sexism, even if the intention was anything but, and mindful that it’s all too easy to do so, as those now criticising Schwyzer clearly feel he has.
But ignoring self-reflexive sexism because it would be sexist to draw attention to it? Sounds like self-gaslighting to me. And amidst all this light flickery-pokery, it’s pretty hard to see who is rearranging the furniture.