You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I know, but I have to confess I struggled when this one arrived at the Feminist Times office. Teaching Men To Be Feminist is the latest book from Anne Dickson, celebrated author of assertiveness manual A Woman in Your Own Right. The cover is clearly designed to be provocative – the title is superimposed over the bare breasts of a faceless slim, white woman, who is pictured from the waist up to the neck – but I was baffled about the feminist implications.
Reading the blurb – “I have come to regard sexism as the most widespread and effective process of brainwashing in the history of mankind” – I first wondered whether maybe the image really was as downright patronising as it appears. Is the author really suggesting men are so brainwashed by sexism that the mere presence of a naked woman will entice them to buy her book and, in the process, learn something about the feminist movement? Surely, I thought, I must be missing something here. “Is it meant to be ironic or something?” my partner asked when I showed him; “must be,” I said, “but it would put me off buying it for anyone in the first place.”
Having read the book, I’m not sure I’m much clearer; the content itself feels just as confused and self-contradictory. The blurb explains that “Teaching Men to be Feminist is for any man who feels excluded by feminism; who finds himself believing there’s some truth in the frequently heard rationalisation that a female rape victim was ‘asking for it’ even though he may not acknowledge this out loud. This book is for men who love their partners and daughters and don’t want to see them hurt or unfairly disadvantaged but can’t find a way to speak out. It is for anyone who believes feminism is just an outdated ‘woman’s thing’ and above all it is a rallying cry for men and women who still believe in a feminism that can lead to genuine and lasting equality.” So far, so confusing.
One thing is clear: this book is for heterosexual men but, beyond that, I’m not quite sure who its audience is. Is it for men with an interest in learning more about feminism, as the title suggests? Or is it for men who think feminism is outdated and that rape victims are ‘asking for it’? From the ‘back-to-basics’ approach, I suspect it’s intended more for the latter; Dickson uses the first eight chapters (56 pages) to prove that we live under a patriarchal system, that sexism exists, and that it has a negative impact on women’s self-esteem. Clearly I am not the intended audience and much of Dickson’s explanation would, I’m sure, be useful to a man or woman who was new to feminism, but after 56 pages of “dominant and muted cultures” and “the female psyche” I found myself wanting to scream: “Yes, we get it!”
At only 99 pages in total, and with an RRP of £8, Teaching Men to be Feminist feels like a lot of money for not very much. It’s quick, easy reading and, as an informative pamphlet, it does contain some useful introductions to feminist concepts like patriarchy, objectification, and the radical idea that rape is a terrible crime and never the victim’s fault. Much emphasis is placed on the psychological effects of sexism on women (Dickson seems to invite the reader to relate this to their mother, their wife, their daughter) and in particular the idea that being treated like sexual objects – and this is where the cover comes in, I suppose – leads to poor body image and internalised sexism. While I don’t object to the idea of men putting themselves in their wives’/daughters’/mothers’ shoes to raise their awareness of the insidious impact of sexism, there were a number of times when I felt I was being led towards a position of pity for womankind.
Dickson here seems to slip into her assertiveness-training mode; there are parts of the book that felt like a self-help guide for women on the ways in which we don’t help ourselves. While much of what she says rings true for some of the women I know, she relies heavily on generalisations (“women feel”, “the majority of women”, “most women think”) based not on research or statistics, hardly any of which are mentioned, but on her anecdotal evidence from the “thousands of women I’ve worked with”. Regardless of how representive her contacts are, some of what Dickson says about women is just downright wrong. In her chapter on ambivalence, which follows her chapter on rape, Dickson writes: “It’s unlikely that women themselves will ever form a protest march against the incidence of rape.” What, like Reclaim The Night? Slutwalk? V Day?
She continues: “If those who had been raped courageously ‘came out’ and formed such a march, it would be surprising to see the sheer numbers. It might show once and for all that all women – not just the young tarty ones who ‘ask for it’ – are at risk of being raped.” In her quest to teach men about feminism, it might have been nice if Dickson had researched and flagged up the feminist activists already working hard to do exactly what she describes women as being “unlikely” to ever do. The book’s greatest weakness, in terms of content, is that it sticks firmly to the domain of the theoretical, ignoring the resurgent feminist movement, and closing with speculation about a utopic world in which equality has been achieved and men are as publically opposed to sexism as they are to racism. What the book teaches men is why they should support feminism, but the concrete action points are more thin on the ground.
Initially I felt that the book’s biggest downfall was the fact I’ve spent more time musing on, discussing and debating the front cover than the content. That is a real weakness but, in actual fact, the cover tells you as much as you need to know. I posted a photo of it on Facebook to garner reactions from an interesting cross-section of friends and relatives, both male and female; the overwhelming response was “patronising” and “off-putting” – my dad asked if the follow-up would be called Teaching Women the Offside Rule. The content felt much the same, which is disappointing for a book that claims such admirable intentions. For men who are genuinely interested in learning to be feminist, the only lesson you need is this: listen to women’s experiences, support women, and stand up to sexist men. I’ve just saved you £8; you’re welcome.
Teaching Men To Be Feminist by Anne Dickson is published on 28 November by Quartet Books.
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