Photo: Antje Schley Photography
It may come as a surprise to you, but according to Dr Helen Smith’s new book, Men on Strike: Why Men are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood and the American Dream – And Why it Matters, men are being oppressed by women who portray them as “buffoons, deadbeats and potential perverts” in a backlash against masculinity.
This tome is not an elaborate satire. Smith is a men’s rights advocate who believes that men are “opting out” of marriage and fatherhood, and it’s all feminism’s fault. There are few incentives for them to get married (why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free… and without the cow nagging you to take the rubbish out) and, since their reproductive rights are being increasingly curtailed (ahem) with paternity fraud cases (which Smith seems to think are as prevalent as babies themselves), they feel less inclined to have children.
It’s a social epidemic that will soon have far-reaching consequences, says Smith, especially for those ladies (which is all of us, in her not-very-scientific findings) who want to get married, bear sprog and then spend the rest of their lives henpecking their husbands down to the bone.
Unsurprisingly, her message has struck a chord with the men she’s talking about. “Living in a feminist utopia is very painful and expensive for most men who enter into the marriage racket” said one fan of her book.
It’s a “racket” Smith says, because men are now expected to “help with the housework, work a job, help with the kids”, but they’re still “not good enough.” Men used to feel that they were “the king of the castle,” she says, but are now nothing more than slaves to their harridan wives. In this brave new world where bitches be crazy, legal bias against men (men statistically do worse in custody and divorce proceedings than women) is another reason they’re opting out. Women are money-grubbing lazy shrews who trap men into marriage by getting knocked up, then cheat on them, divorce them and walk away with their winnings, rubbing their manicured hands as they go. Which is why men are represented in mainstream media as bumbling ignoramuses (Everybody Loves Raymond is her oft-cited example). All of this is a product, says Smith, of our post-feminist society – one that favours female privilege over male justice.
The men Smith has interviewed say they’re choosing not to marry because women they meet are “argumentative,” “too tough and cynical” and “sketchy.” They’re afraid to open doors for women, lest they be scary ‘feminazis’ waiting for a chance to rip them a new one. They see their friends going through divorces and think, “that’s not going to be me”, but here’s the thing: having bad experiences with women is not the same as systematic disenfranchisement. Going through a tough break-up is not representative of a “war on men.”
And yet in this bleak new reality, today’s men are either part of the “Army of Davids”, rising up against the proverbial Goliath of “post-feminist culture”, or “Uncle Tims”, in a staggeringly insensitive attempt to equate the plight of these men to African-American outcasts in the civil rights movement. But ironically (or perhaps not), like most men’s rights advocates Smith equates feminism with misandry - hatred of men. Feminism is certainly a broad church, and while there may be some misandrists in the congregation, feminism is really about freeing us all from the limitations of how we see gender and assisting the marginalised and alienated. It’s not about privileging women over men.
Men’s rights activists do get a few things right, but not for the reasons they think. Unfair legal bias for example, is a problem of the patriarchy – a system that says women are naturally better caregivers, and so gives them custodial priority. It’s a system that feminists would very much like to dismantle. Talking about a “crisis of masculinity” is a way of saying that we think about gender differently now – and that’s a good thing, but pitting men’s rights against women’s is not the answer. Smith is right when she says that men are often portrayed as dimwits on TV and in film – the father who can’t fasten a nappy, the idiot boyfriend who forgot the anniversary – and rightly cries sexism. But, without any apparent irony, she repeatedly labels all women as the enemy, as gold-digging harpies who want nothing more than to see men fall on their faces. In doing so, her arguments look as silly as those tired tropes on telly.
So does Smith seriously believe this stuff, or is her book just a cynical way to milk a ready-made, disenfranchised audience for profit? Maybe there are men opting out, who don’t want to be part of a world where women have voices, desires, needs, and occasionally, demands. But to call this a crisis, a war, or a strike may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Jezebel’s Lindy West puts it. Keep banging on about how much women hate you and how hard-done by you are, and there’s a fair chance we will start to dislike you.
Until then, I invite Dr Helen to join us in our feminist utopia – the water is warm and there’s no need to shave your legs.