What are little boys made of? Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails, according to the well-known nursery rhyme. And little girls, it follows, are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Anthony Synnott, a sociology professor at Concordia University, takes issue with such dictums of culture. “Boys are taught early on that they are not nice,” he writes. “How sad.”
And the ways men are defined have only deteriorated over the past 50 years, particularly within popular culture and in “some domains of feminism,” he says. In response, Dr. Synnott has written Re-thinking Men: Heroes, Villains and Victims (Ashgate, 2009) to set the record straight. In it, he strives to “counter the rather unbalanced, jaundiced and misandric view of men which has become so prevalent” and “to praise men – to recognize their massive and heroic contributions to social life and to civilization.”
Dr. Synnott shakes things up within the first few pages, flipping the conventional notion of sexism on its head: “The old male sexism, misogyny,” he writes, “has been replaced in part by egalitarian attitudes but also by a new sexism: misandry” (the hatred of men).
For readers who may not yet view misogyny as a thing of the past, Dr. Synnott clarifies in an interview that misogyny and misandry exist side by side. “My whole idea is to try to balance things out. If you think of women as victims, then think of men as victims; if you think of women as heroes, then think of men as heroes; if you think of men as villains and oppressive, well, let’s look at a few female villains.”
Under the subheading The Misandric Model: Female Supremacism, he summarizes how quickly society’s values changed under the influence of feminist authors like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. According to Dr. Synnott, developments like the 1965 formation of the National Organization of Women were “enlivened” by two distinct processes: “the demonization of men and the angelization of women.”
In person, Dr. Synnott, a father of two boys, is courteous and quick to stress that his book is “not meant to be critiquing feminism. It’s meant to be critiquing misandric feminism,” he specifies in a tidy British accent. “But the two get tangled up, because if you want to empower women, the tendency is going to be to disempower men, to deligitimize men, to devalorize men.”
In a section in the book entitled “The Normalization of Sexism,” Dr. Synnott argues: “Perhaps the supreme achievement of the women’s movement has been to critique the traditional gender hierarchy of Adam, and men in general. The supreme failure has been the failure to critique this new reversed gender hierarchy and this new sexism.”
Yet certain feminists, such as Betty Friedan, cautioned against reverse sexism. “‘Women’s issues’ are symptoms of problems that affect everyone,” she wrote in an article entitled “Beyond Gender” (Newsweek, 1995). “The basis of women’s empowerment is economic – that’s what is in danger now. And it can’t be saved by countering the hatred of women with a hatred of men.”
In person, Dr. Synnott does concede that “Betty Friedan changed a little bit towards the end.” In print, however, he doesn’t mince words, labeling all feminists discussed in the book (except Camille Paglia, who is often critiqued by other feminists for being anti-feminist) as misandric, “victim” feminists: “In the academic literature on gender, many feminists, both male and female, have demonized men as misogynists and hating women,” he writes.
Given the boldness of his strikes against a wide range of authors, Dr. Synnott admits to being quite surprised by some of the positive attention he has received. Re-thinking Men denounces several theorists of men, such as American poet, activist, and leader of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement Robert Bly, and Michael Kimmel, an American sociologist who is the editor of Men and Masculinities and a spokesperson of NOMAS (the National Organization For Men Against Sexism). The book also paints a negative portrait of celebrated feminist writers like the aforementioned Ms. Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique; Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple; and Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women.
Yet, Dr. Synnott’s book got a thumbs-up in the Canadian Journal of Sociology: “Overall, Synnott presents a much needed addition to the literature and scholarship on men and masculinity that offers those interested in gender studies a fresh, balanced, humanist perspective,” wrote Danielle Soulliere, a professor in sociology and criminology at the University of Windsor. The book was also recently selected as an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice magazine, published by the American Library Association.
The accolades “I wasn’t expecting, because, as you saw, I take a few hits at people. Normally I avoid doing anything like that. I mean, I’ve written a few books before, and I don’t attack people, but they were so obnoxious.”
Dr. Synnott’s blog on the Psychology Today website has inspired a much more polarized reaction. After posting a couple of updated excerpts from his book, he was taken aback by the crudeness of people’s responses. “I wasn’t expecting anything other than academic debate … but there was bad language – ‘f’ against men and against women, misandry and misogyny. It was just quite a surprise.”
Speaking about his book and its premise, Dr. Synnott says his students “point out that this is not what they’ve been taught before. It’s a 180-degree switch for them to think of some of these ideas. They’re much more used to the idea of victim feminism and ‘men as oppressive of women.’”
Nevertheless, certain passages, apparently, can still ruffle feathers – such as those criticizing feminists’ failure to recognize how patriarchy has, “especially in the democracies, contributed substantially to women’s empowerment and liberation.” Of that passage, Dr. Synnott recounts: “One woman said, ‘So we should be grateful to be liberated by men?’And I said, no no. We’re just trying to set the historical records straight. It was men who had the power, and it was men who took the decisions, and you know, it wasn’t Gloria Steinem.”
Dr. Synnott also writes that, “Men in patriarchy have not clung to power … but have democratically shared power, transferred power, even at some cost to themselves.” But does he think any transfer would have occurred had women like Gloria Steinem not spoken up? “No. Probably not,” he answers. “Not so quickly. But that wasn’t really the point. … I’m trying to think about this in terms of history rather than in terms of ideology.”
Yet, many of Dr. Synnott’s own goals seem profoundly ideological. One of his book’s stated objectives is “to valorize, or re-valorize, men just as the women’s movement has valorized women.” His “Heroes” chapter, which opens with, “Let us now praise men and masculinity,” mostly examines traditional masculine virtues, such as altruism and bravery. (Dr. Synnott had earlier careers in the Royal Navy and with the Jesuits.)
Here, he enumerates many of the politicians, adventurers and war veterans who made lists such as Time magazine’s 100 most influential People of the Century, in addition to “the real historical figures inscribed in our faiths: Moses and Abraham, Christ, the Buddha, and Mohammed.”
Asked why he chose to focus on traditional male heroism, which has already been greatly documented, versus emerging models of masculinity, such as the “stay-at-home Dad,” Dr. Synnott replies: “I wanted to show the shifting ideals, from knight to gentleman to self-made man. … But also, I wanted to show that the knight is still out there fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and people take this sort of thing for granted. And we shouldn’t.”
Mimicking Marilyn French, author of The War Against Women, Dr. Synnott names one of his chapters “Victims: The Wars Against Men” and affirms that “men pay a high price for being men.” It’s laudatory that Dr. Synnott exposes the oppression of men. Any systemic oppression – be it of men or women – should be contested. Yet his highly comparative and occasionally sarcastic approach seems at times to undermine women’s causes. On the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, he categorically states: “Women are harassed, men die.” And, in an earlier chapter, he challenges the idea of female objectification by the media with: “Beauty competitions do not kill women. Wars kill men.”
Some might find that such comparisons trivialize and oversimplify women’s issues. Not to mention the fact that wars kill women, too. Addressing the latter point, Dr. Synnott writes: “Certainly women have been, and still are, massively victimized by war, but usually as civilians rather than combatants.” Recalling the six-year Vietnam War, he underlines that “eight U.S. service women were killed, and over 58, 000 men,” and draws the conclusion that this “does indicate that women have a privileged status in war – whether they want it or not.”
Whatever the case, since premature male death (however unjust it may be) in no way excuses the exploitation or harassment of women, one might argue that these issues would best be discussed in separate chapters. Or at least separate sentences.
In the interview, Dr. Synnott stresses that he’s not suggesting women shouldn’t speak out about harassment. “I’m just really irritated that people will focus on one thing and not the other.”
In an effort to balance things out, he topples “sugar and spice” stereotypes by documenting various cases of female hostility to show that violence is not a uniquely male trait. Conversely, he aptly reminds readers that violence affects all people, not just women, pointing out that violent deaths are most frequent among men (albeit generally at the hands of other men). Some may find that he downplays male violence against women, though. “The person who is most likely to kill a woman,” he writes “is not, as Steinem says so famously, ‘a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home.’ It is the person who looks at her in the mirror: herself. But these feminists prefer to blame men!”
As the interview comes to a close, Dr. Synnott is asked about the consequences of misandry. Ironically, his answer on “how the internalization of a negative self-concept” can become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” is reminiscent of a passage by Gloria Steinem. In her preface to Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, she writes: “The more I talked to men as well as women, the more it seemed that inner feelings of incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt, and self-hatred were the same … people seemed to stop punishing others or themselves only when they gained some faith in their own unique, intrinsic worth.” It’s a fitting epilogue – for both sexes.