A LITTLE OVER a year ago, I wrote my first “Popular Feminism” column, where I discussed the varying kinds of visibility the #MeToo movement generated. In that column, I critiqued the narrow focus on highly visible, mostly white celebrity endorsements of #MeToo, speculating that in a highly mediated environment, visibility can become an end in itself rather than a route to politics. But I also acknowledged that #MeToo has offered an important multi-media platform for many women to come forward and give an account of their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.
Almost exactly a year after The New York Times published their piece detailing the sexual harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein, a different, though eerily similar, set of stories started competing with the #MeToo narrative in terms of visibility on the same media platforms. These were stories of male victimhood. High-profile, mainly white men in privileged positions took on the mantle of aggrieved and angry victim, presenting themselves as the target of false accusations by women. We witnessed this in the hearings for the new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford when they were teenagers and exploded in rage in defense of his “good name.” Reactionary psychologist and guru Jordan Peterson has capitalized on white male victimhood, lamenting the fate of young males in his YouTube channel videos. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News talk show host, has a series of segments on “Men in America” (with Peterson as the inaugural guest), which is themed around what he calls a “largely ignored disaster: the lack of messaging around male empowerment.” Not coincidentally, he launched the series during Women’s History Month. And, of course, there is Donald Trump, who now complains of “unlimited presidential harassment.”
The mainstream media covered these stories dutifully, and though the coverage was often critical, it still gave the narrative of male victimhood intense visibility. On CNN, “Trump says it’s a ‘very scary time for young men in America’”; in the Washington Post, “Trump doubles down on male victimhood”; while The New York Times claimed “Kavanaugh Borrows From Trump’s Playbook on White Male Anger,” and an op-ed in the paper coined the term “White Male Victimization Anxiety.”
These two moments of #MeToo and male victimhood are not unrelated; there is a relationship between the media visibility of #MeToo and the visibility of what I’m thinking of as a different question, posed not in a spirit of solidarity but as an angry whine: what about me?
Despite the fact that misogyny has long existed as a norm in policy, culture, economics, and the political realm, in the current moment there is an overt claim that masculinity, and, more generally, patriarchy, are under threat. Popular misogyny is often expressed as a need to take something “back” from the greedy hands of women and feminists. Indeed, the current moment feels like a relentless onslaught of male resentment, with the discourse of victimhood appropriated not by those who have historically suffered but by those in positions of patriarchal power. This rerouted victimhood works to retrench patriarchal gender relations by redefining what it means to be disempowered, vulnerable, and violated.
Connected to this is the increasing visibility of the extreme right across the globe. While the core ideologies of the extreme right have been correctly identified as racist nationalism, its agendas are also often overtly misogynistic, centering on recuperation of male power: men’s rights organizations, manospheric digital culture, and global populism are filled with proclamations about how women and feminists have not only destroyed but emasculated society.
We also see the discourse of male victimhood affecting consumer culture. In January 2019, the men’s razor company Gillette aired an ad that called out toxic masculinity, exhorting men to stop harassing women, stop bullying, and be kinder. Among other scenarios, the ad features references to #MeToo. There have been many hot takes on the ad, some praising Gillette for actually characterizing the contemporary gender environment as one of toxicity, others lambasting the company for becoming political (full disclosure: I have also offered my thoughts on the ad being an example of a long history of commodity activism). But by far, the most common reaction has been one of outrage: people have responded swiftly and viciously on social media, calling for boycotts of the company and using the ad as further evidence that there is, as conservative media pundit Piers Morgan claims, a “current pathetic global assault on masculinity. Let boys be damn boys. Let men be damn men.”
In an article in spiked titled “The Crusade Against Masculinity,” Frank Furedi claims that the “MeToo-inspired advert” is pathologizing masculinity itself: “Since the rapid ascendancy of the #MeToo movement, the moral crusade against masculinity has gained widespread support among the cultural elites and mainstream media.” Yet, in Furedi’s world, the outrage and the claims of victimhood by men called out on sexual harassment and assault do not constitute a “moral crusade,” but are rather a legitimate reaction. The fact that many men who claim to be victims are in fact simply clamoring to retain their positions of extreme privilege is obfuscated by their anger and not-so-righteous indignation.
In the post-#MeToo age, we must identify gendered violence as a structural problem, caused by centuries of sexism, racism, misogyny, and manifest in rape culture and other dangerous practices. But the solution to overcoming such structural injustice is too often presented as an individual matter: it is about being confident, leaning in, overcoming obstacles by changing individual behaviors. And if you don’t do that, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Perversely, in the context of men and masculinity, this dynamic is flipped. The injury felt by many men in positions of privilege is an individual one. Some have lost their jobs, some have even been charged with crimes, and some feel unfairly targeted by the Gillette ad. Yet this set of individual grievances is often presented as a structural problem. The truth is, the dominant structure — patriarchy — is fighting back against its traditional victims, reasserting its authority. To counter this trend, we need collective action that is more daring than a Twitter post or a commercial ad.
Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor in the Media and Communications department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Some of the themes captured in this column are explored further in her book, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018).