The other day I was told, not for the first time, that some man must have hurt me badly to produce that chip on my shoulder. I’ve mentioned before that the Internet, combined with my androgynous first name, allows certain readers to spin absorbing little narratives for themselves about my motives, personality and attributes. (Broomsticks, lesbianism, cats, divorces…) It’s telling that the criticism I get as a man writing about gender issues is so different from the abuse I get when I’m occasionally mistaken for a woman. It’s also amusing to (in this case) write an article which suggests that the life experiences and gender of a person matters when considering the way their speech might be “sexist”, and be told that this is complete shit, not to mention sexist, and my opinions should be discounted because I’m clearly an embittered woman.
The initial impulse is obviously to respond by pointing out my gender. I don’t make a secret of being a man in my writing, and I think it’s an important discipline for men who write on gender issues to flag that fact. It helps remind us that we’re speaking within a discussion which isn’t centred on us, and speaking about issues which other people have much more experience with. It also prevents us from disappearing into a style of writing and thinking which is supposedly “neutral”, “objective” and “rational”, when these are all adjectives which have been traditionally constructed as both the ground of truth and a male province.
Men are trained to shape their style in this particular dialect, which obscures the specificity of the person speaking behind a facade of objective authority. It’s useful to remind ourselves that this dialect is gendered, and that it is connected to power. Particularly useful given that “man” is so often assumed to be the default category in our society, and that “woman” is a particular genre of magazine, literature, suits, politician, etc. We need, as men, to remember that “man” is as much an identity and a bundle of experiences as “woman”, and be aware of the ways that renders our opinions and attitudes non-neutral, non-objective and not the standard to which others should be compared.
However, that impulse to exclaim “But I’m a man!” and sit back in the knowledge of having triumphed could do with a little interrogation. In cases like this, when the criticism is based on a misapprehension of my gender, it’s a pretty solid counter-argument. If this guy thinks only an embittered woman who hates men because someone broke her heart (possibly a divorced male cat who pays a mortgage on a broomstick, if I’ve understood it correctly) could hold certain opinions, then it’s worthwhile pointing out that this is not the case. My being a man literally disproves his statement. (Add that to the running tally of “what men are good for”, someone.)
It’s particularly effective because the initial criticism is coming from someone who believes they have identified characteristics in the writer which should utterly invalidate their ideas. They think they have reached past the article’s text and found the person whose alleged inadequacies render that text irrelevant. This manoeuvre attempts to take the spotlight which a piece of writing attempts to cast on the world, and turn it round to reveal the unworthy origin of that writing. When it turns out that their assumptions are incorrect and their manoeuvre has backfired, the spotlight turns on them. The brief and vivid sketch they have just made of an angry harridan ends up telling people more about them than the character they thought they had identified. That neutrality and objectivity I mentioned above, which much discourse (particularly by conservative men on gender issues) aims for, turns out to be a sham. “But I’m a man!” is remarkably efficient in turning the tables in this situation.
Nonetheless, it may not be the best thing to say. As a friend pointed out to me a while ago, “But I’m a man!” risks playing the same game as the cat-hating broomstick hunter. It can sound too much like “Well, if your premises were correct you’d have a point, but there’s a gap in your argument”, and can come too close to “Actually I’m not a woman, so you need to respect me”. It distances the male writer from the personal abuse by demanding access to that plane of supposedly neutral and objective discussion where men address each other. (“I was born a Roman citizen…”) As a strategy for “winning” an argument it’s effective, but in the process it may buy into the sexism surrounding the discussion. I’m not suggesting that it’s better to conceal one’s identity, but I was struck by my friend’s comment on the echoes which lie behind “But I’m a man!” as a way of scoring points.