Reading the Captain Awkward blog this weekend, I noticed a piece of advice being given to a young woman in what sounded like an abusive relationship. Given the things he says about you, and does to you, one of the commenters remarked, he doesn’t seem to like you much. Why would he want to be in a relationship with someone he didn’t like or respect? The writer was suggesting he was more interested in power than love, but it highlighted a remarkable fact: how rarely men are expected to like women.
Liking them is not really part of the narrative men are presented with by the culture that surrounds us. Pursuing them, desiring them, ignoring them, putting up with them, resenting them, certainly. But liking them, finding their company congenial, consuming art by them or consulting their opinion are hardly offered as possibilities by our media. It’s telling that the question “do you like women?” is more likely to be taken as a question about sexual orientation than an enquiry about personal feelings or social preferences.
Of course, it’s not simply that men don’t ask themselves “how do I feel about women?” We don’t usually consciously take a whole group of people and wonder whether we like them or not. It’s more that men can go through life without ever asking themselves why they dislike women. Or, if they personally don’t, why everyone seems to assume they do. Why, for example, the guy next to me at the bar think he’s being matey in remarking “Women, eh?” as a female friend asks me to wait whilst she goes to make a phone call. He’s not trying to be rude or start a fight. On the contrary, he’s making a friendly gesture, offering to share a companionable moment with someone he doesn’t know, because he’s got a beer in front of him and he’s in a good mood.
He just takes it as unassailably true that I don’t actually want to be in the company of the person I’m with, and that I must find her existence a bit tedious and embarrassing. He rightly understands that the language of friendliness between men in a public place starts by acknowledging their shared dislike of women. It’s the same principle I’ve heard asserted by youth group leaders, movie adverts, sports coaches, academics and countless others, who all started their conversations with me based on the premise that no-one likes women.
Nor is this just male bonding in private, the shared nudge-nudge of men on their own. Men are quite happy to tell women that they dislike them not only as individuals, but as a class. That they belong to a group who are essentially distasteful and impossible to respect. I don’t mean simply the shouted abuse from passing cars or the snarls after rejected advances in a club. Quite polite men tell women this all the time. When a man murmurs to his girlfriend that she’s “not like all the others”, for example, and expects her to take it as a compliment. Or when a guest at a formal dinner is told that she’s such good company they don’t even think of her as a woman, that she is “an honorary gentleman” tonight.
These phrases deliver praise, but do so by grudgingly suggesting that this particular woman has somehow transcended the category she would usually fall into. Her conversation, her charisma, her flair, or whatever, rescue her from the undifferentiated mass of women and earn her the right to be seen as an individual. She is no longer just another girl. She’s a real live boy. For the compliment to work, everyone has to agree that women are contemptible, and that anyone would be grateful not to be treated like one. And as writers like Capt. Awkward have pointed out, the praise carries a warning with it. You’ve been granted respect because you’re not acting like a woman. Don’t relinquish that. Don’t fall back into a category we’ve just agreed we don’t have to respect. Don’t be like the others, or we’ll treat you like the others. And you don’t want that.
A lot of men would rightly insist that they don’t dislike women. But we seem to have a public consensus that they do. The society around us has decided that it can assume we consider women unpleasant and ridiculous, and we won’t do anything about it. Companies can advertise to us on the assumption, strangers can pass the time of day on the same principle, and writers can produce scripts making that safe bet. If it’s not true, we have to stop talking and acting as if it is.