“Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” In one perfect sentence, Simone de Beauvoir captures the way in which women are seen as the Other, never the One. Male experience is human experience, significant and universal; female experience, on the other hand, is merely female, confined to the margins because that’s where it belongs.
Katrine Marçal returns to this idea in 2015’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?:
“The female experience is always separate from the universal. No one reads books about childbirth in order to understand human existence. We read Shakespeare […] It’s only woman who has a gender. Man is human. Only one sex exists. The other is a variable, a reflection, complementary.”
Almost 70 years after the publication of The Second Sex, half the human race are still seen as at best exotic, at worst irrelevant. A recent Guardian piece on the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report claimed that “only half the world’s women are gainfully employed.” This creates the unfortunate impression that the other half sit twiddling their thumbs as opposed to engaging in tasks – cooking, cleaning, birthing – that are essential to the continuation of human life.
Do men notice the way in which women are othered? If you spend your whole life being treated as the norm, it is hard to convince yourself that you are not. As Grayson Perry puts it in The Descent of Man:
“I grew up feeling somehow that men just are, while women have to work at it…
When talking to men about masculinity, I often feel I am trying to talk to fish about water. Men live in a man’s world; they are unable to conceive of an alternative.”
I find it admirable that Perry has put so much nuanced, careful thought into the way in which gender has convinced Default Man that his view of the world is “dispassionate, empirical, objective,” while everyone else is “at the mercy of turbulent, uncontrolled feelings.” Admirable, but also frustrating, since there is very little in his analysis that women haven’t said already.
There’s something about the recent spate of male-penned analyses of manhood – Perry’s book, Tim Samuels’ Who Stole My Spear?, Jack Urwin’s Man Up – which still smacks of male assumptions of universality. Gender is relational — whenever we write about what one group feels, we are already making assumptions about whether the other group feels it, too. Why hasn’t decades of feminist writing on philosophy, politics, economics and psychology been treated as authoritative on masculinity? Is it because those writing it were women? Male writers get to reinvent the wheel and receive applause for doing so.
As Andrea Dworkin said at a 1983 gathering of the National Organization for Changing Men:
“I know that men suffer. . . But mostly your guilt, your suffering, reduces to: gee, we really feel so bad. […] The solution of the men’s movement to make men less dangerous to each other by changing the way you touch and feel each other is not a solution. It’s a recreational break.”
She was right but over 30 years later, we are still granting well-meaning men this touchy-feely indulgence. These men get the final say on what masculinity is, even though this necessarily involves them reasserting their own definitions of femininity (by default).
This is partly why the tone of the Twitter account @manwhohasitall has proven so popular with feminists. Rather than merely point out (yet again) that men presume themselves to be the norm, it dares to treat them as though they are not. It’s a simple yet effective idea, laying bare the different ways in which women are made to feel it is petty and self-indulgent to want a world in which they are not seen as supplementary:
Skimming through tweets such as these, it becomes clear how paltry the efforts of men who boast of teaching their sons to make sandwiches, do the laundry and try not to rape anyone really are. Women remain the mirror reflecting men at twice their actual size. If there wasn’t a subclass whose labour you could generously offer to take on every now and then, you’d have to invent it.
From Frazzled to Fabulous, the @manwhohasitall guide on “how to juggle a successful career, fatherhood, ‘me-time’ and looking good” makes an excellent accompaniment to The Descent of Man. I’d recommend them both, but the parodic approach of the former is far more effective in capturing how unrelenting the othering of women really is:
Reading is an excellent way to relax. When you return to the housework and kids, you’ll be even more productive! Don’t worry if it’s nothing more challenging than men’s fiction. All my daddy friends read Dick Lit for the pure, indulgent enjoyment. Try it! You might get a pleasant surprise.
Were this a passage on chick lit, the vast majority of women would know not to criticise it lest they be considered snobbish, over-privileged and/or fixated on taking offence at the slightest light-hearted remark. It’s only in reversing the situation – when “women’s fiction” becomes just “fiction” – that the drip-drip effect of dehumanisation becomes clear.
As a woman, I know rationally that I am not “other”— I am just a person. But the sense of doing everything – walking, talking, working, eating, sleeping, breathing – while “being female” never leaves me. Even the opinions I am expressing now are “women’s opinions” – raw female thoughts that require male reinterpretation before they can be deemed rational or coherent.
And the worst thing is, I accept it. I know that if a man tells me what I have written makes sense, I will be more likely to believe myself. Or at the very least I will think I have been successful in “imitating the male.”