Essay — From the March 2018 issue

The Other Whisper Network

How Twitter feminism is bad for women

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Men are not entirely deluded if they sense that some of the anger is aimed at all men. Barely submerged in this project is the simmering idea that men have committed the dramatic and indefensible crime of being male. This tweet comes from Kaitlin Phillips (Twitter handle: ­@­yoloethics), a spirited young writer about the publishing world: “It’s not a revolution until we get the men to stop pitching ­LMAO.” In The Outline, a new digital publication, Leah Finnegan writes, “Many men wonder what to do with their entitled mouths and brains at moments like this and the answer is: shut up and go away.” She also tweeted, “Small, practical step to limit sex harassment: have obamacare cover castration.” While this is fairly extreme, its tone is not alien to anyone who dips even briefly into Twitter or Facebook. We are alarmed at the rampant and slippery Trumpian tendency to blame “all immigrants” or “all Muslims,” and blaming all men seems to me only a little less ominous.

Traister writes about men living scared, 

the friends and colleagues self-aware enough to be uneasy, to know they’re on a list somewhere or imagine that they might be. They text and call, not quite saying why, but leaving no doubt: They once cheated with a colleague; they once made a pass they suspect was wrong; they aren’t sure if they got consent that one time. Are they condemned?

It seems that they are, because she continues: “Men have not succeeded in spite of their noxious behavior or disregard for women; in many instances, they’ve succeeded because of it.” In this context, it’s not entirely surprising when she reports her husband saying to her, “How can you even want to have sex with me at this point?”

If on some subterranean level of this conversation all men are presumed guilty, then all women are innocent, and I guess my question is, Do we really want that innocence? What is the price of it? In her prescient early-Seventies critique of the women’s movement, Joan Didion wrote, “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.” She went on to object to a feminist idea of sex that assumed women were, in her memorable phrase, “wounded birds.”

Didion’s phrase rang in my mind as I read Rebecca Solnit’s comment in the interview quoted earlier:

Every woman, every day, when she leaves her house, starts to think about safety. Can I go here? Should I go out there?. . . Do I need to find a taxi? Is the taxi driver going to rape me? You know, women are so hemmed in by fear of men, it profoundly limits our lives.

(To this, one of the deeply anonymous says, “I feel blessed to live in a society where you are free to walk through the city at night. I just don’t think those of us who are privileged white women with careers are really that afraid.”)

The idea of this ubiquitous, overwhelming fear is repeatedly conjured and dramatized by Twitter feminists. In one of her pieces, Rebecca Traister complains about a man who was fired many years ago from Harper’s Magazine following an instance of sexual misconduct and now writes for New York. She does not mention that he has worked uneventfully in two offices since then. Moira Donegan (former Twitter handle: @MegaMoira; current handle: @MoiraDonegan), the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, tweeted:

What about the women at New York who feel uncomfortable working with him? Why is their ability to feel safe at work less important than his second chance? It’s their first chance.

The man, as Traister herself says, has no women working under him. He does not work in the office. So the looming threat of his mere existence to the safety of the young New York employees seems somewhat overblown. I can’t help thinking it is @MegaMoira here who is endowing him with a power he doesn’t have, and at the same time, not giving those allegedly scared and unsafe young women at the magazine enough credit: Why should they care about a writer puttering at home?

1 Donegan published her essay on The Cut on January 10. In her account, the decision to identify herself as the creator of the list was prompted by her perception of my intention to reveal her identity.

The rage can at times feel like bloodlust. In the essay she wrote about creating the list, Donegan describes her “desire for a kinder, more respectful, and more equitable world.”1 However, after the list came out but before Lorin Stein resigned as editor of The Paris Review, she tweeted: “every profile of Lorin Stein calls him ‘skinny and bespectacled’ but here’s the thing: he’s not that skinny.” She added: “I guess ‘bespectacled, bald, and busting out [of] the bespoke shirts he’s still having made with 15 year old measurements’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.” Later, these tweets were deleted. But if we could think in less gendered terms for a moment, one could reasonably ask: Who is harassing whom?

While I was writing this essay, one of the anonymous emailed me a piece Donegan wrote in The New Inquiry about the devastating night of Trump’s victory. She had hosted an election gathering, and as the results came in, the men were drinking tequila out of a penis-shaped shot glass, and laughing and making jokes as the women cried and clutched one another. Instead of thinking about choosing new friends, she ends with a blanket indictment of men and a blow for the cause:

Here is what the last few days have reminded me: white men, even those on the left, are so safe, so insulated from the policies of a reactionary presidency, that many of them view politics as entertainment, a distraction without consequences, in which they get to indulge their vanity by fantasizing that they are on the side of good. . . . The morning after the election, I found the penis-shaped shot glass in my kitchen and threw it against the wall. I am not proud of this, but it felt good to destroy something a white man loved.

 

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