Pauline Harmange, I Hate Men. Natasha Lehrer tr. London: Fourth Estate, 2020; 96 pages. ISBN: 978-0008457587.
Reviewed by Tiffany Gordon, Dalhousie University.
Pauline Harmange’s I Hate Men is a satirical analysis of the deep anger and resentment that many women feel towards men. Well, not all men. Just the ones who make our lives unnecessarily difficult and who are responsible for reproducing the societal conditions that harm us. Wait, there is no one man who fits that description. Maintaining patriarchal societies requires a collective (even if unconscious) effort, and the main perpetrators of sexism are Everyday Men who don’t give much thought to women’s rights or the cause of feminism and move through the world as if all is well with The Women, despite the staggering statistics on gender-based violence. But if feminism has taught us anything, it’s that rapists and wife beaters are rarely ever monsters or psychopaths. They’re the Everyday Man: the soccer coach, high school jock, pastor, executive, bus driver. I Hate Men is directed towards the Everyday Man and everyone who is fed up with his Everyday Slights, and that’s probably why the book was considered so offensive that Ralph Zurmély, a government official, tried to have it banned in France as soon as it was published. It is one thing to detest the aberrant. It is quite another to resent the mundane.
Harmange’s 60-page read is a thought-provoking and, at times, hilarious journey through her experiences as a feminist and writer working through her misandry. She defines “misandry” as “a negative feeling towards the entirety of the male sex.” (10) Chapter by chapter, she analyzes what it means to live as a woman who must suppress her extreme dislike for a group of humans who have been intractable in their desire and/or willingness to oppress women and exercise their power over them. In response to those who object to her approach, she states:
Taking offence at misandry, claiming it’s merely a form of sexism like any other, and no less unacceptable (as if sexism were genuinely reviled), is a bad-faith way of sweeping under the carpet the mechanisms that make sexist oppression a systemic phenomenon buoyed throughout history by culture and authority. It’s to allege that a woman who hates men is as dangerous as a man who hates women – and that there’s no rational justification for what she feels, be it dislike, distrust or disdain. (6)
Harmange acknowledges that while many women would never admit that they harbor hatred towards men because of the backlash they would face, expressing the sentiment can be healthy and even liberating.
The interesting part of Harmange’s analysis is that she, herself, is married to a man who she’s “still very fond of.” (7) But, in her own words:
That doesn’t, however, stop me from wondering why men are as they are. They’re violent, selfish, lazy and cowardly. It doesn’t stop me wondering why we women are supposed graciously to accept their flaws – what am I saying, I mean their deficiencies – even though men beat, rape and murder us. (8)
Why should women accept men’s flaws without complaint? This key question forms the common thread running throughout the short piece, made evident in chapter titles such as “Shacking Up With a Man” (a brief discussion on the burdens that women usually carry in heterosexual relationships, even when they are partnered up with the best of men); “Men Who Hate Women” (a discussion on misogyny, filled with facts on intimate partner violence and sexual assault); and the chapter that made me laugh out loud more than once, “Mediocre as a White Dude,” inspired by Canadian writer Sarah Hagi’s Daily Prayer to Combat Impostor Syndrome: “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.” (34) Harmange takes strength in Hagi’s prayer and illustrates how it serves to support the right to feel disdain toward men as-a-group in order to better support oneself: “Whenever I’m beset by doubt, I think about all the mediocre men who’ve managed to make their mediocrity pass for competence, by that magical sleight of hand called arrogance.” (34) Since reading I Hate Men, I’ve written that daily prayer on one of my white boards. It serves as a constant reminder that I don’t need to be perfect to show up, I just need to do my best. And the fact that I need this prayer written on my whiteboard to help combat my daily struggle with impostor syndrome, also reminds me of why we need to honour our disappointment with and disdain for white men, whose unfounded arrogance and confident entitlement to everything they have creates virtues out of vices and induces our own sense of incompetence born from our failure-to-be so shameless and egoistic.
What can be gleaned from I Hate Men, from a philosophical perspective? The first thing that stood out to me was how accessible the book was. There was something that I could relate to in each chapter, if not on an intellectual level, on an emotional and experiential one. Of course, not every woman is heterosexual, and men don’t see the world through women’s eyes, so my ability to relate to Harmange’s points is reflective of my gender, sexual orientation and Western understandings of intimate partner relationships. Those caveats and nuances aside, what heterosexual woman hasn’t felt the burden of having to carry the emotional labour in her relationships? And what heterosexual woman hasn’t described at least some of the men she’s dated as “trash” (that need to be thrown out, ASAP)?
Compare Harmange’s light-hearted, satirical tone to some of the recent, analytic books that have been written in feminist philosophy. While there is certainly a lot of labour involved in defining concepts and pulling them apart, it also takes the reader quite a bit of brain power (sometimes expended over a period of days) to digest this kind of material. A 60-page book that can be devoured in only a couple of hours and provides insight into the angst of a feminist caught up in the throws of misandry, takes a much more direct path to reaching some of the same conclusions drawn in academic philosophy.
The difference in method reminds me of the difference between reading about the human experience through the lens of existentialists like Fanon, Camus and Sartre, versus metaphysicians who contemplate the existence of free will. While it might be true that we are completely determined from without, it is more compelling to read about what it means to be human through the narratives of the former than through the debates of the latter. What I enjoyed about the piece might be what is lacking for some: an ability to relate to the sentiment Harmange describes and the set of experiences that she relies on to prove her point.
There is another shortcoming of I Hate Men that is worth mentioning. Harmange does not sufficiently address the productive potential in hating men, and the sentiment seems to do little in her book except provide therapeutic release. This is odd, given that resentment, disdain, anger and mistrust are necessary responses to injustices and have great potential to inspire action. Further, her focus on the therapeutic value of her reflections cannot account for why this short essay on misandry by a young, unknown, first time author did not simply offend French men but led them to organize a campaign to ban it from circulation as a political priority of the French nation. It’s hard to understand how this text could provoke such controversy if it didn’t hit a very sensitive nerve in the delicate sensibility of men, one that did pose some sort of political threat to men’s power over women, or a threat to the bad faith that sustains it. Even though Harmange’s expression of her disdain for men provoked a fierce backlash and debate in France, she doesn’t address how misandry can improve the plight of women in the world. Her only suggestion is for women to turn away from men and towards themselves. As she states in the final chapter:
For so long I allowed men to take precedence. They’d take up so much of my time without giving me much in return; expect me to be constantly bettering myself in their eyes, without making any effort to better themselves in mine. I came to the realisation that however much space I afforded them in my life, I’d never be a priority for them. Other men were held in far greater esteem than I would ever be. So now I’ve decided to privilege women, in the books I read, the films I watch, the culture I imbibe, and in my close friendships, so that men just aren’t that important anymore. (43)
A satisfying resolution to the book would have been to demonstrate how hating men advances the cause of social justice for women. But to criticize Harmange for not going beyond the scope of her project might be unfair. She’s demonstrated how we can love individual men while still hating men as a group, that our disdain is justified given what we’ve been through, and that we should hold fellow women in much higher esteem. Can we ask for much more?