As men become increasingly aware of their experience as men, they are acknowledging the ways in which men are limited by the dominant construction of masculinity. But some men take this much further, claiming the status of victim and alleging that men's power is a myth. Warren Farrell is one such man.
Warren Farrell recently published The myth of male power (Random House, 1993). He is also the keynote speaker at the 3rd Australian and New Zealand Men's Leadership Gathering, to be held in June, and he will be promoting this book at the gathering.
The key idea of The myth of male power is that the world is both male-dominated and female-dominated. Men are treated in fact as a disposable sex. The central organising feature of American society is men's protection of women. With social shifts since World War II, women have gained rights but refused their responsibilities, and men are the powerless victims of this unfair setup.
Farrell is quite right: there are a series of areas in which men, as men, experience disadvantage relative to women. These areas include suicide, life expectancy, vehicle accidents, workplace injury and death, war and violence at the hands of other men. But Farrell turns this into a stick with which to beat women and feminism over the head.
The blame game
Farrel states that he withdraws from "that part [of feminism] that blames and plays victim." It is therefore striking that blaming and playing victim is precisely what Farrell does on behalf of men, in his account of men's powerlessness. Women exist in The myth of male power as greedy bitches who falsely accuse men of rape to get money or revenge, parasitic wives living luxuriously on the earnings of their overworked husbands, selfish avoiders of military combat, and cruel sexual rejectors. In Farrell's black-and-white universe, women are privileged and protected, while men are powerless and expendable. The account of men's situation in the book is fundamentally flawed by its inattention to power relations between men. Many of Farrell's examples of men's powerlessness are in fact examples of some men's powerlessness at the hands of other men. War provides a good example: men at the higher end of the military hierarchy make disposable those men at the lower end.
Time and again Farrell sacrifices historical accuracy and analytic insight for the demands of his reductionist model of men as disposable protectors of women. For example, he explains that black, Indian and gay men have the toughest time among American men because "they do not provide an economic security blanket for women." Farrell's single explanatory tool makes racism, colonialism and homophobia invisible. In Farrell's efforts to fit everything to his model, he re-interprets basic aspects of men's powerful position as indicators instead of their powerlessness. Women's economic dependency on men (a standard target of feminist critique) is re-described as men's obligation to women. What The myth of male power leaves out is as interesting as what it leaves in. Where are the comparisons of men's and women's earnings? Where is the acknowledgment of women's greater vulnerability to poverty? Even where Farrell recognises for example that men overwhelmingly dominate the government, he sidesteps this by saying yes, but it's voted in by a population in which 54 percent are women. Yeah, right.
What I found most offensive in The myth of male power were the chapters on rape and sexual harassment, probably because of my own involvement for three years in Men Against Sexual Assault. Men reading these chapters will gain an impression of a world in which false accusations by women are common. Farrell states that men are vulnerable because of new date rape and harassment laws, failing here to make a distinction between respectful, gentle sexual advances and intrusive and coercive ones. Women may be raped, but men are also the "victims" of "date robbery" and "date rejection". While a tone of bitter rejection exists throughout the book, it is clearest in these chapters. Farrell's solutions are equally flawed.
The one-eyed model of society in The myth of male power is underwritten by a pseudo-history. Apparently we have had "Stage I" societies for thousands of years (built on survival-focused marriages), but after World War II there was a transition to "Stage II" societies (focused on self-fulfilment as the basis of marriages or relationships, with divorce an option). Given lack of space, I will have to make do with just one example of the historical inaccuracy and absurdity of this simplistic dualistic model. Farrell states that Stage I societies universally condemned homosexuality (because it is not reproductive). This is breathtakingly blind to the well-established fact that male/male sexual relations were accepted and even institutionalised in Ancient Greece, tribal and other societies.
Balance to feminism?
People will argue, as Farrell does in his introduction, that The myth of male power provides a needed balance to feminism. We've all listened to women and feminism, and now it's time for men to speak up. I half-agree with this: it is time to hear of the private lives and experiences of men. But I disagree with Farrell's claim that feminism has dominated our culture or that most men have accepted feminist assumptions as truth. While some men are grudgingly accepting of watered-down versions of liberal feminism, most are ignorant of, if not hostile to, most of feminism. Farrell himself presents a highly distorted and hostile picture of feminism. The myth of male power is a counterattack on feminism, not a complement to it.
Farrell states early on that he will be "saddened if this book is misused to attack the legitimate issues of the women's movement." But by the end of the book, I can't think of a single feminist issue that Farrell has not attacked, slandered or misrepresented. Farrell's "legitimate issues" seem to boil down only to the right of women to enter paid work.
I found reading the 371 pages of The myth of male power a frustrating exercise. Farrell's style is glib and simplistic. His endless new-age Californian cliches, puns and word games are an obstacle to clarity and insight. Again and again I found myself thinking, "It's more complex than this!" The signal-to-noise ratio is often lousy. More disturbing is the book's use of questionable and smug generalisations, pop psychology and character assassination (as with its hatchet job on Anita Hill, the complainant in a famous sexual harassment case in the US). Farrell uses anecdotal stories in place of analysis rather than as a complement to it. His use of statistics is sometimes misleading, and sometimes absurd. (By the way, readers wanting a different perspective on the domestic violence statistics that Farrell quotes should read Russell Dobash's "The myth of sexual symmetry in marital violence", published in Social Problems in 1992.)
The context for Farrell's The myth of male power is the strand of US men's organising known as men's rights and fathers' rights. There are at least two other strands: a mythopoetic men's strand (that overlaps with the men's rights one), and an anti-sexist or pro-feminist strand (represented at the national level by the National Organisation of Men Against Sexism).
Warren Farrell has been involved in the American men's movement since the early 1970s. His first book, The liberated man (1974), was sympathetic to liberal feminism. But with the publication twelve years later of Why men are the way the way they are, Farrell largely abandoned this sympathy. The myth of male power is a consolidation of Farrell's right-wing shift.
The myth of male power is a retreat from a challenging anti-sexist politics, to a crowd-pleasing, book-selling "men are victims" politics. Yes, let's acknowledge and tackle the ways in which men are hurt and disempowered. But let's not do this, as Farrell does, at the expense of women or feminism.