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What is misogyny? An update

'What is really remarkable about this horrible death is the outpouring of sympathetic grief across the nation in response.'

Rosemary Bechler
7 April 2021, 11.24am
Placard left after vigil in memory of Sarah Everard on March 13, 2021.
Terry Waller / Alamy. All rights reserved.

All of a sudden, I heard what we were saying and blurted out, ‘Wait, I’ve just heard how we’re talking – Only thirty million! Only thirty million human beings killed instantly?’ Silence fell upon the room. Nobody said a word. They didn’t even look at me. It was awful. I felt like a woman.

A physicist modelling nuclear ‘counterforce attacks’ with defence colleagues, as quoted in Carol Cohn’s contribution to Gendering War Talk, ed., M Cooke and A. Woolacott, Princeton University Press, 1993. p227.

I first wrote briefly about misogyny in the context of the 2018 World Cup, and attempts to anticipate and prevent the significant peaks in domestic abuse occurring immediately after an England match. Researchers into successive World Cup finals had found that domestic abuse reports went up by 26% when the England team won a game, and anything up to 38% when they lost, incidents increasing in frequency with each new tournament. I was writing about masculinity and the augmented sense of power involved in identifying with the National Us. Police explanations at the time were confined to a combination of “alcohol and tension” and the increased testosterone associated with higher levels of competitiveness. But, with the honourable exception of the powerful poster designed by the National Campaign against Domestic Violence for the 2018 tournament, the missing term in the dominant discourse on this at the time was ‘misogyny’.

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Alongside identification, another basic process of identity formation took my attention, projection. Laplanche and Pontalis in their dictionary of psychoanalytic terms, define projection as the operation whereby “qualities, feelings, [or] wishes, . . . which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself, are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing.” Could misogyny be an example of this, albeit complicated by desire, where the weakness or ‘the loser’ of the woman within oneself is projected onto the woman, who then appears as a returning threat? Added to the basic insights of gender analysts: that gender is not a character attribute, but a social relationship; and that gender structures are socially constructed, historically variable and upheld through the power relations that legitimise them – it seemed to me that advances could and should be made in understanding this dangerous phenomenon far better.

Fast forward to March this year, after a year of pandemic lockdown and gathering concern about a second pandemic of domestic abuse. The abduction and killing of 33-year old marketing executive, Sarah Everard, while she was walking home in south London on March 3, was tragically not at all unprecedented. True, the accused is a Metropolitan Police officer. But what is really remarkable about this horrible death is the outpouring of sympathetic grief across the nation in response, unleashing from women of all ages, but particularly young women, the desire to share with each other in unparalleled numbers the experiences of sexual harassment, degradation, trolling and stalking which have afflicted so many of them. The political class and the media have been forced to recognise that they have another potential George Floyd moment on their hands – a shock to the everyday system we take for granted whose ripple effects force us to interrogate some of the basic motors of our culture. They will try to contain the outpourings. Will they succeed?

They will be up against intrepid young feminist researchers like Laura Bates, whose Everyday Sexism project, begun in 2011, encouraged tens of thousands of women of all ages to speak out online, to show the world that sexism, serious or minor, is “suffered by women every day and that it is a valid problem to discuss.” I only became aware of this “huge phenomenon” last September thanks to Jenny Murray’s extraordinary Woman’s Hour interview with Bates, then launching her latest book on the internet manosphere and its links with the alt-right and white supremacists, Men Who Hate Women: From incels to pickup artists, the truth about extreme misogyny and how it affects us all. In a direct ripple effect, they will be up against the many courageous current and former pupils of UK schools and colleges, including some of the most elite independent schools, who have been flocking to Everyone’s Invited to anonymously record their testimonies about a youth culture that encourages boys to “rate and rank” the bodies of their female colleagues as an introduction to a “rape culture”.

I hope these outpourings build inexorably until we have much better answers to several questions beyond the obvious ones about online pornography and social media. Firstly, what is the link between misogyny and “competitiveness” – not just sports competitiveness, but everyday capitalist competition and the rise of ‘winner-take–all’ logics, the rising fear of being ‘a loser’ that brutalises neoliberal societies today? Secondly, why does mainstream fictional entertainment rely so disproportionately on the abuse and killing of women for its thrills? Lastly, what is the effect of all those war films, war games and war toys, not to mention wars? We will honour Sarah Everard’s memory if the women and girls who are now posing these questions for our time, and the men and boys who care for them, begin to find the answers that we all need. Jacqueline Rose’s well-timed new book, On Violence and on Violence against Women, is eagerly awaited.

This piece was originally published in the April edition of Splinters.

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