Welcome to Ban Week, in which Splinter writers build a case for burning it all down.
The time has come to say goodbye to men, and I can hardly believe you’d need me to tell you why. They murder, a lot. They assault and abuse, a lot. They start international and domestic wars, or at least try to. They talk too much, they don’t listen, and they’re bad at their jobs. They’re not just a problem but one of the biggest problems of our era, though saying so is still uncomfortably received by most.
It’d be easier to put a cheeky spin on it, but it’s hard to be facetious about something so objectively harmful. It’s like “joking” about eliminating asbestos, or throwing out curdled milk. Oh, ha, ha, men! Aren’t they rascals? Can’t live with them, can’t live….well, you really can’t live without them because sometimes they kill you and your family if you leave! Ha, ha! Would you like some more expired milk?
I bet most of us know and love at least one male individual, maybe even several, but don’t you worry that your favorite guy will go bad? Living with a gender binary is like living in a zombie movie: Of course we want to hang on to the affable dude friend who’s not yet showing symptoms of being like the others. We love him, and he’s on our side. We need all the help we can get. But he could turn into one of them at any moment.
The risk never goes away, which is part of what’s so galling about women who stand by sons or colleagues or employers or husbands accused of sexual harassment or rape. Of course the offender treats some, maybe even many, women well, but surely those same friends and family members have numerous experiences with other men who present a Jekyll face to the world only to reveal their Hyde sides as soon as they see an opportunity to get away with it. Why pretend the probable is impossible?
“You know that every woman in the movement is married to the single male feminist existing,” radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson told Newsweek in 1970, just before delivering an even more scathing burn: “A woman saying men are the enemy with a boy friend next to her is both humiliating and tragic.” The year before, Atkinson founded The Feminists, a Second Wave group that eventually barred married women from membership outright: a compelling example of how tempting it is to ban even men-adjacent parties when paranoia of gendered contamination runs high.
Feminists spent much of the post-Second Wave years (mainly, the ‘90s and aughts) disavowing their mainstream depiction as man-haters, labeling it an unfounded slur, a plot to keep their ranks thin. But the most influential modern feminists were crystal clear about who they viewed as the enemy and why, and I’m sure I’m not the only woman today for whom their words resonate. In 1968, Valerie Solanis, who was championed by Atkinson and The Feminists, wrote, “The elimination of any male is, therefore, a righteous and good act, an act highly beneficial to women as well as an act of mercy.” The aforementioned Newsweek article from 1970 quotes one Boston publication as announcing to men: “WATCH OUT. MAYBE YOU’LL FINALLY MEET A REAL CASTRATING FEMALE.”
While we’re less inclined to actually call for the “elimination” of men these days, that old animosity may be buried more so than alleviated. In 2004’s The Will To Change, bell hooks made the chillingly elegant observation that, “Women and children all over the world want men to die so that they can live.” Less alarming but still germane was Ellen Willis’s assessment in 2000, from her book Don’t Think, Smile!: “[Women] desperately want men to ‘get it’; and they are furious. Where are these feelings to go?” That question remains unanswered.
Today, Atkinson’s point about the hypocrisy of most man-hating sentiments still hits home, since they’re often evinced by straight women who drink from Male Tears mugs while eating breakfast with their husbands. This millenia’s misandry is a slight escalation of the sort of fanged, gendered humor that’s percolated for decades, albeit with men traditionally afforded the stronger rhetoric. (“Take my wife, please!” and “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” and so on.)
Men have long been allowed to overtly despise women while still living with and fucking them; the tension wherein your intimate partner is also your primary foe is nothing new. Then as now, in one’s personal life—in “the home”—we’re supposed to call a truce. But that doesn’t mean the antagonism isn’t real, or isn’t driven deeper by sharing close quarters. There’s a quantifiable war on, with very real casualties.
The chief difficulty in discussing the deep badness of men is that it invites gender essentialism, a close cousin of sexism: the conviction that gender alone determines someone’s behavior and worth. But it’s the gender binary—the dogma that humans only come in two bodily (genital) types—that skews the conversation this way. Insistence on the apocryphal two genders is imposed tribalism run amok, myth masquerading as incontrovertible fact.
All our institutions, from our laws to our culture and our social stigmas, reinforce the false categories of “men” and “women,” compelling awful behavior and dishing out heinous punishments to those who deviate so that a cruel, crude order is preserved. It feels easier to fixate on men because maleness is so actively destructive, predicated upon harming and dominating others in a way womanhood usually isn’t. “[Maleness] is entirely a political and ethical construction,” John Stoltenberg wrote in 1988, “and masculinity has personal meaning only because certain acts, choices, and policies create it—with devastating consequences.”
Stoltenberg is most famous for being married to legendary man-excoriating feminist Andrea Dworkin, and theirs is a union that calls to mind the quip that if men are trash, women are raccoons. (I suspect Ti-Grace Atkinson would agree.) The trash/racoon formulation is not only a comment on the indelibility of heterosexuality; Stoltenberg identifies as gay, as did Dworkin. The reason men and women “need” each other is not because of procreation or domestic status quo or whatever other dated reasons were once supplied to convince people who believed they were mortal enemies to tolerate one another. It’s because the concept of men and women, as genders, exists only through the dual opposition.
What does the notion of “woman” mean when not placed against the notion of a man, and vice versa? The identities would lose their meaning without the specter of the opposing force. That was always the maddening dilemma of separatist (or more recently, “ironically” misandrist) visions: To dream of men’s exclusion is to continue to configure the world around them, to imbue them with power so complete that there’s no hope of combating or reforming it, but only fleeing its reach.
Women-only spaces have always chased peace by making a devil’s bargain: We will define ourselves by negative instead of positive, absence instead of presence. By definition, women-only spaces have already brought men in, psychically if not physically.
When projected onto a larger scale, they also seem guilty of an unforgivably naive quick-fix-ism. “Isn’t starting a new society the quickest and easiest way to rid oneself of the old one?” asked writer Gabby Bess when summing up the sentiment behind a contemporary effort towards a man-free commune. (“Building something new avoids the need for a revolution,” the commune’s spokeswoman told her.) But we know that’s not how humans work; we bring our bad habits and traumas and learned prejudices with us wherever we go.
In the aforementioned zombie movie, it’s not just all the men who’ve been bitten, it’s the women, too. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how an imaginary No Man Island would feel when one of the women cornered by Harvey Weinstein encountered the employee who arranged for her to be in the hotel room with him alone. What would No Man Island offer those beaten by their mothers, or assaulted by their girlfriends, or the women of color expected to live in sisterly harmony with the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump? Power, regularly but not necessarily bestowed in the form of wealth, has a tendency to make women act “like men.” Atkinson was even described by a fellow member of The Feminists as being “our man,” because her participation in the group became so overbearing and spotlight-seeking.
“It is the male role... that must be annihilated—not necessarily those individuals who presently claim the role,” wrote The Feminists in their manifesto, but, obviously, they struggled to find concrete ways to achieve that goal. Simply shunning men doesn’t do it. Rather than rejecting “men,” the people, we should reject maleness as an imperative, as one of only two options, as something intrinsic to penis-having or to testosterone, as a defense against or explanation for one’s worst choices. We can make maleness obsolete, less like asbestos and rotten food than VHS tapes or vestigial tails.
That vision’s already been set in motion thanks in large part to the youngest generation of genderqueer and nonbinary people who are putting into practice the theories of radicals from decades before. There’s so much work ahead, but I think we’re ready. And on the worst days, it feels like there’s no other option. What more do we have to lose? We ban men or die trying. After all, we already are.