From men's liberation to men’s rights: angry white men in the US

In a stance riddled with contradictions, Men’s Rights activists in the US lay the blame for their own oppression at the door of feminism, Michael Kimmel argues

Roy Den Hollander doesn’t exactly look like a revolutionary. He’s a reasonably good looking guy -- nattily dressed, sort of preppy-corporate, Ivy-League educated, former New York corporate lawyer. He should be comfortable in his late middle-age, approaching retirement at the top end of the Top 1%.  And yet Den Hollander is not only an angry white man, he is, as he told me, “incensed,” furious at the ways that men like him, upper class white men, are the victims of a massive amount of discrimination – as white men. In this self-styled revolutionary, the legions of oppressed men, have found their champion. 

Men’s oppression is not an accident, Den Hollander says. It’s the result of a concerted campaign against men by furious feminists, a sort of crazed feminist version of “girls Gone Wild” – more like “Feminazis Gone Furious.”  And they’re winning. Roy Den Hollander is one of the few who is standing up to them, or at least trying to. He suffers, he says, from PMS – “persecuted male syndrome.” As he told a reporter, “the Feminazis have infiltrated institutions and there’s been a transfer of rights from guys to girls.”

Men’s Rights activists see men as the victims of reverse discrimination in every political, economic, and social arena; feminism has been so successful that men are now the second sex; and men have to stand up for their rights. In doing so, they believe, they strike a blow against the wimpification of American manhood: they get their manhood back by fighting for the rights of men.  Who says the personal isn’t also political?

So how did we get here?

The origins of MRA

It might come as a bit of a surprise to know that the initial seeds of the contemporary men’s rights movement were planted in the same soil from which feminism sprouted. The critique of what became known as the female sex role, the traditional ideology of femininity, resonated for some men, whom by the early 1970s, took the feminist call for women’s liberation as an opportunity to do some liberating of their own. “Men’s liberation” was born in a parallel critique of the male sex role. If women were imprisoned in the home, all housework and domestic drudgery, men were exiled from the home, turned into soulless robotic workers, in harness to a masculine mystique, so that their only capacity for nurturing was through their wallets.

But feminists moved from a critique of those sex roles – abstract ideological constructions – to a critique of the actual behaviors of actual men, corporeal beings who acted in the name of those antiquated roles. And once women began to make it personal, to critique men’s behaviors – by making rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, part of the gender dynamics that were under scrutiny -- the men’s libbers departed. Instead, the Men’s Liberationists stuck with the analysis of roles, which, they argued, were equally oppressive to men; they shifted their focus to those institutional arenas in which men were, they argued, the victims of a new form of discrimination – gender discrimination against men. 

The question was why men were so unhappy. What caused the male malaise? The way different groups of men resolved this question provided the origins of the various men’s “movements” currently on offer.

One trajectory became known as the mythopoetic men’s movement, often attributed to the work of Robert Bly and Michael Meade, and writers like Sam Keen (all of whom had best sellers in the early 1990s), who sought to enable men to search for some “deep” or “essential” masculinity. The movement’s leaders claimed that the authenticity of the male experience had been diluted and polluted both by life in mass consumer society. Mythopoets were largely gender separatists, neither feminist nor anti-feminist in their politics; rather, they said, they were “masculinists” – of men, by men, and for men.

For another group, pro-feminist men, women’s demands to enter the labour force meant that men did not need to stake their identity solely in the workplace success. Women’s efforts to balance work and family life enabled men to reconnect to their children and their partners. It turned out to these “pro-feminist” men, that the feminist vision of full equality and gender justice might not be such a bad thing for men – indeed, it might be the very political theory we’d been searching for.

Black and white image of men with banners: Out of the amorphous men’s liberation movement, emerged a third group in the late 1980s and early 1990s that embraced what they called men’s rights. They may have shared the initial critique of the oppressive male sex role, and the desire to free men from it, but for the Men’s Rights activists (MRAs) , that critique morphed into a celebration of all things masculine, and a near-infatuation with the traditional masculine role itself. Men didn’t need liberating from traditional masculinity anymore; now they needed liberating from those who would liberate them! Traditional masculinity was no longer the problem; now its restoration was championed as the solution. It wasn’t traditional notions of masculinity that made men so miserable, it was women. Feminism was a hateful ideology; feminists were castrating bitches. But here, also, contradictions seemed to prevent the movement from ever articulating any coherent policy ideas. Feminism, they argued, has turned normal healthy feminine women into a bunch of gold-digging consumerist harridans (never mind that  feminism has provided the most coherent critique of consumerist femininity in history).

Men’s Rights guys don’t know if they want to be restored patriarchs or liberated men. The Men’s Rights movement became a movement of – and for - angry white men.

To the MRAs, the real victims in American society are men, and so they built organizations around men’s anxieties and anger at feminism, groups like the National Congress for Men, Men's Rights Inc. (MR, Inc) and Men Achieving Liberation and Equality (MALE). These groups proclaimed their commitment to equality and to ending sexism— which was why they were compelled to fight against feminism. According to them, feminism actually gave women more freedom than men, while men were still responsible for initiating sexual relationships, fighting in wars, and paying alimony and child support.

Politically, this resentment and anger has fuelled a new gender gap, the preponderance of middle-class, middle-aged, straight white males who are now listing constantly to the right. Raised to feel “entitled” themselves, they resented any entitlement programme that gave anything to anyone else. Such sentiments about entitlement reveal a curious characteristic of these new legions of angry white men: although white men still have most of the power and control in the world, these particular white men feel like victims. These ideas also reflect a somewhat nostalgic longing for that past world, when men believed they could take their places among the nation’s elite, simply by working hard and applying themselves. Alas, such a world never existed; economic elites have always managed to reproduce themselves despite the ideals of a meritocracy. But that hasn’t stopped men from believing in it. It is the American Dream. And when men fail, they are humiliated, with nowhere to place their anger.

The men’s rights movement today

Three social changes catapulted the movement into a much angrier and more vociferous collection of disgruntled men. First, the seismic economic shifts that have transformed America in one short generation, from a nation of middle-class achievers with a small upper and lower class, into an utterly bifurcated nation of the super-rich and everyone else. Many of these middle class guys – outsourced, downsized, benefits slashed – are bitter and angry to begin with. This stands next to an important change among the men themselves: despite the histrionics and hyperbole, the MRAs were right about one thing: fatherhood. Or at least partly  right.  While the story is far more complicated than the Fathers' Rights movement would have it, there is some truth to their claims that the reason so many fathers feel utterly screwed by the divorce and custody proceedings is because the laws, and their enforcement, are woefully out of date and evoke a time in American family history that is long past.

The final change is easier to describe. The development of the Internet has fuelled websites and blogs that keep the conversation going and the blood boiling. The emergence of what one writer calls the “manosphere” is a loose collection of websites that sustain the rage. The Internet provides just a man cave, a politically incorrect locker room, where you can say whatever you feel like saying without having to back it up with something as inconvenient as evidence, and still hide behind a screen of anonymity so that no one knows that you’re the jerk you secretly think you just might be. That’s a recipe for rage.

So what are they saying? A recent column on the Men’s News Daily site, an activist clearinghouse, captures both the rage and the rationale of these defenders of Men’s Rights. Here’s just a little sample.

"The misandric Zeitgeist, the system of feminist governance that most are sill loathe to acknowledge is about to head toward its inevitable and ugly conclusion, and the results of that will inflict another deep wound on the psyche of the western world."

And another:

"Lets have 10 Million Man March ! Lets Stand up to those feminist Natzis [sic] like Hillary Clinton !! Lets have it brothers I’m ready !!!! Lets go to Washington DC and stay there for a month let them know we mean it . We are not going back to our jobs till you don’t change those nasty laws in this country. Lets see what they are going to do ?? Arrest us all ??? I don’t think so….there’s no room in the jails for all of us . let’s have a showdown. lets see what women are going to do with no cops, no electricians, no soldiers to go to stupid wars ,with no mechanics to fix their cars, no cooks, no farmers etc, etc lets see !!!! I'm ready! It’s going to be lots of fun . We bring tents and barbys.

TO ALL MAN FROM USA AND CANADA ! UNITE BROTHERS ! LETS END THE MALEBASHING CULTURE!"

Most of what constitutes Men’s Rights activism is this sort of recitation, supported by a few anecdotes, and the occasional series of empirical inversions that usually leave the rational mind reeling. To hear them tell it, white men in America are steamrollered into submission, utterly helpless and powerless. They’re failed patriarchs, deposed kings, and, they’re not only the “biggest losers” but also the sorest. 

There is a deep contradiction at the heart of Men’s Rights movement: women, especially feminist women, must be seen as to blame for every problem men seem to be having. If she wants a career, she’s abandoning her traditionally feminine role and is probably overly sexually adventurous as well. If she doesn’t, she’s some gold-digger layabout who is too passive in bed. It’s what I called earlier the “Goldilocks Dilemma” – like the porridge in the bears’ house, contemporary American women are either “too hot” or “too cold” but never “just right.” They’re too sexually demanding, career-driven (i.e. “masculinized”) or they are manipulative money-hungry schemers, who will rob a guy blind and take him to the cleaners. 

What do the MRAs want?

The “Good Men Project” - a website that purports to be for such self-described “good men” but shows remarkable sympathy for anti-feminist diatribes (alongside some pro-equality content) - recently conducted a survey of its readers to find out the Top 10 issues that incite MRA passion. The top issue was Fathers’ Rights (with 20% of the total votes) followed by “feminism” - that has “harmed men”, anti-male double standards, removing the notion that all men are potential rapists/paedophiles, reproductive rights (no male pill or right to choose), better treatment of men regarding false accusations, making government programmes gender neutral, helping boys to achieve better at school, combatting negative portrayals in the media, freedom from traditional gender role expectations (as providers and protectors).

However, perhaps most revealing is what - or, rather, whom- is missing from the Men’s Rights Top 10.  Not a word about the especially dismal plight of African American men, or Latino men, or working class men - the types of racial and ethnic and class discrimination they experience, as men, the stereotypes of their masculinity they are forced to endure, all of which deprives them of the “rights” claims by other men. 

Nor a word about gay men, and the ways in which they suffer discrimination in employment, housing, or in their ability to marry the person they love, or the terrible violence that gay, bisexual and transgender men suffer every single day at the hands of other men (just who do we think commits virtually every single act of gay bashing?)  

Where are the legions of Men’s Rights guys when it comes to “other” men? Men’s Rights is almost entirely a movement of angry straight white men. Gay men, Black men, Asian men, Latino men and other racial and ethnic minority men feel no such sense of entitlement to power that these middle class white men feel has been unceremoniously and illegitimately snatched from them.  That’s not to say that in their personal relationships they don’t feel entitled to unfettered obedience from their children, subservience from women, and a drive to find their place in the hierarchical pecking order. Many do. They just don’t make a federal case out of their sense of entitlement. They don’t take it to court or demand legislation. It’s personal, not political. 

There is a major difference between being disadvantaged and being discriminated against. The former suggests that there are areas of public policy that still rely on outdated stereotypes, paternalistic policies designed to “protect” helpless, fragile, vulnerable women from the predations of men and the privations of individual freedom. The latter, being the victim of discrimination, relies on policies implemented to single certain groups out for unequal treatment. For example, men are dramatically over-represented in all those hazardous occupations - but every single time women have sought entry into those occupations, men have vigorously opposed their entry. Once again, that contradiction: on the one hand, MRAs believe men shouldn’t be “forced” to do all the dangerous jobs; on the other hand, they also believe that women shouldn’t (and are probably ill-qualified to) invade men’s territory.  While it’s true that there remain some areas in which being a man is a disadvantage, there is no evidence that white men are the victims of discrimination. 

About the author

Michael Kimmel is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University, where he is the Director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. Among his books are, Manhood in America, Guyland, and, most recently, Angry White Men.