Matt Haig is a famous and celebrated author. This week he was also the centre of a Twitter storm when he began tweeting about feminism and masculinity. He tweeted that he wanted to write a book about masculinity. Not everyone was pleased about this. He tweeted,
“Maybe I am missing something. There may be too many books about and by men, but not many looking at the perils of masculinity. Am I wrong?”
“Unless you want to DO AWAY WITH MEN, then we need to look at what masculinity is and why its current interpretation causes problems…”
Things escalated quickly. Some people applauded him. Some people were very critical of what he was saying. Since then, both the Guardian and the Independent have covered the story; the Independent was especially supportive of Haig’s proposed book.
I am married to a man. I have a dad. I have a son. I have a brother. My feminism includes being passionate about men being reasonable human beings. So in theory I am pleased that someone with the profile of Matt Haig is thinking of writing critically about masculinity. As a man who has struggled with mental health issues and has written a book being extremely vulnerable about this, he may be the right person to write such a book.
In practice though, it’s much more complicated.
Feminists have been writing about toxic masculinity for decades. Rarely is anyone interested in reading what they have written. Matt Haig didn’t ask for ideas of books to read about masculinities. He didn’t ask for places he could find feminist wisdom on masculinities. He just stated that he might write a book about it.
Recently I attended a talk by another man who decided to write about masculinities. Professor Phillip Zimardo is an esteemed US academic who is famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment. He has written many intelligent and articulate things about empathy, evil and psychology. At 82 he decided to write a book about masculinities. And it is awful. I storified my tweets from the event HERE.
The context into which Matt Haig tweets is not a vacuum where his words sit outside of what already exists. As a man with little previous involvement in feminism, he ponders on twitter about writing a book on feminism. Pondering on Twitter is, by nature, a very dangerous thing. Matt Haig’s attitude wasn’t one of, “Hey followers, tell me, how could I learn about feminism? What should I read about masculinities?” It was more, “I’m going to write a book about masculinity.”
Women are used to men being the vessels of All The Important Things. The phenomenon of mansplaining experienced by most women leaves us very wary of men wanting to talk about a subject we are an expert in, whether that be engineering, ancient Greek or feminism. Alongside this women are subjected to “cultural femicide” which is “the marked, obvious and ubiquitous belittlement, marginalisation and under-representation of women in culture and particularly the literary scene, despite women being the vast and overwhelming majority of supporters of all arts both within and without the industry*”. When women’s contributions are erased and ignored, it is less than surprising that Matt Haig’s tweets were not received with blanket admiration.
Matt Haig’s shock at the negative responses perhaps says something about his experience of the world. Maybe he wanted to be applauded for his choice to write about masculinity? Do you know what happens when feminist women write about masculinity? Nothing. People rarely read it and nobody applauds them.
When Matt Haig tweets about feminism and masculinities he gets two news articles written about him. Isn’t that interesting?
He also tweeted:
“The sad thing about the Twitter age is that people can be crucified for a rushed thought. As if public shaming is always honest goodness.”
A few months ago I was on the BBC Big Question. I was debating, “Does absence of refusal to sex amount to consent?” Another of the panel was the Men’s Rights Activist Mike Buchanan. After the show Buchanan began writing blogs about me.
Mike’s first blog provided a self-uploaded YouTube video of the show and stated that I lied on the show when I quoted a 2013 Ministry of Justice report saying that “85,000 women are raped on average each a year”.
Clicking through to the video finds Mike thanking commenters for saying things like, “Natalie wins stupid bint of the week award”, “she is a goofy-toothed not very good looking little madam” and “I am quite confident that she is at least slightly mental.”
Mike then wrote a second blog detailing one man’s YouTube comment that he does “not and will not ever consent to sex with Natalie Collins.”
The same day I received this email from Mike:
“Natalie, good evening. I hope this finds you well. It was a pleasure debating with you on The Big Questions on Sunday, and I look forward to doing so again, as often as possible. Please consider me permanently available to debate with you. Congratulations on your award…”
Within the email he provided a link to a third blog he had written awarding me the “Gormless Feminist of the Month” award, “on account of Natalie’s shameless ‘girly’ appeals to Nicky Campbell – to which he responded as you’d expect a chivalrous man to respond, by giving her more time than she deserved, and failing to berate her for interrupting the other contributors.”
No longer was the conversation about what consent. Rather he and his supporters spent the week making everything about my appearance and my vagina.
Yes, Matt Haig experienced a Twitter backlash. Yet everybody who has been critical has focussed on the issues he raised; feminism and masculinity. Nobody has sexualised him or commented on his appearance. Even when men are being criticised, they experience criticism from a place of privilege. Where it is their views and not their body that is the focus.
All week I have been watching the newest season of Orange is the New Black, the brilliant Netflix show about a women’s prison. In episode 10 we get to know Officer Charlie Coates, a recently appointed prison guard. In a previous episode him and one of the inmates Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett have become friends and he kissed her. After giving him the cold shoulder Officer Coates approaches Tiffany to apologise in case he had behaved badly. Within his apology he explains that he would never push her to do anything she didn’t want to do, explaining that he is a feminist. Tiffany doesn’t respond. The impression she gives is that she doesn’t really know what a feminist is.
In episode 10, Officer Coates Charlie rapes Tiffany. The scene is deeply traumatic.
Men who identify as feminist can still be rapists and women who don’t know what feminism is can still be raped.
Wanting to write a book about feminism/masculinities does not a feminist make.
It’s great that Matt Haig wants to write about masculinity and use his platform to offer a better perspective than Mike Buchanan ever has. But as his Twitter feed has shown over the last few days, he doesn’t know a whole lot about feminism. Maybe he could start by listening to women. Even if those women are going to say stuff he doesn’t want to hear.
We women are the ones being raped and having our articulate answers reduced to whether we are worth having sex with. We women are the ones who have been raising sons to be reasonable human beings and challenging our husbands to be reasonable human beings. We are the experts. Listen to us.
*Quote from Bidisha
Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women.She speaks and writes on understanding and ending gender injustice nationally and internationally. You can connect with her further on twitter @natweetalie or via www.nataliecollins.info.