Narcissism and Misogyny

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A couple of years ago I encountered a totally bullshit argument for the preservation and even expansion of practices that maintained the patriarchal status quo and buttressed the power of men at the expense of the rights and full citizenship of women. As is standard for an argument so thoroughly by, for and to the patriarchs of the world, it not only advocated for greater rights for men, it absolutely ignored the cost of the whole thing to women--because after all, the general concerns of women are completely secondary in a major social question like whether or not uncloseted gay men should claim what they feel has traditionally been “the exclusive territory of straight men” and marry women in order to knock them up and just be regular dudes who gets to go to Mormon heaven. No, the issue of marriage between men and women isn’t a topic where a gay man needs to think about the general concerns of women in heteronormative relationships (despite the fact that he has a mom, a wife, five sisters and a daughter) while defending his right to claim the same privileges a straight dude gets; it’s a topic where what comes first are his rights as a MAN.

I think most people conversant in gender politics will agree that an argument like that isn’t just patriarchal, it’s misogynist. Which is what I called it, along with the guy who produced it. But turns out this guy didn’t like being called misogynist--with all those sisters and that young daughter, he knew it was BAD to admit to misogyny (though he still hasn’t figured out that it’s also uncool to enact misogyny). For the past year, I learned recently, he has been fretting over the topic, trying to figure out a way to clear himself of the charge. And finally, through intense intellectual struggle and self-reflection, he came up with one! Turns out he’s not a misogynist; he’s just a narcissist! That’s right! As he himself writes, “to be honest, I do all too often think of my needs before I think of [my wife’s]; but it has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman and everything to do with the fact that she's not me.”

Once again, the guy’s inability to imagine just what his arguments reveal about him is breathtaking. What do you do with a statement that can be paraphrased, “I’m often really selfish and insensitive in my relationship with my wife, but it’s not because she’s a woman; it’s because I’m really just a jerk in general”? It’s not as if misogyny and narcissism are mutually exclusive, after all; the profound selfishness and self-importance involved in narcissism might make it much easier for a man to be indifferent to the well-being of women in general, to think that it’s OK to oppress women--or at least wait to empower them--if doing so makes things easier and more convenient for HIM, the one who’s REALLY IMPORTANT.

Now, I’m not going to argue that ALL men are narcissists, because I don’t think they are. I feel I know men who exhibit remarkable compassion and generosity. But I am going to argue that for men who don’t want to do the work of thinking about someone else’s needs simply because those needs are someone else’s and not their own, there are plenty of ways in which they’re allowed to think it’s their god-given right to be narcissists if they want to.

Consider these examples: a friend (who is still quite young) told me that recently, her husband awoke very troubled by a nightmare. “I dreamed I had to put you in a nursing home. It was awful. I didn’t know who was going to take care of me,” he said, visibly shaken. Not, “I was so upset that you were ill. I was heartbroken that we were parted.” No, he said, “I didn’t know who was going to take care of me.” And when my own mother was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness, my father went off and left her alone; my sister found him at home, crying because he didn’t know how he’d care for himself if my mother died. Even now, she’ll have flare-ups of the illness that will one day kill her, and spend a few days absolutely inert in bed. On those days, my father, who is perfectly healthy, still can’t do a lick of work around the house. OK, he’ll drive himself to Wendy’s and buy a cheeseburger and a frosty for himself and the dog, but he won’t put the wrappers in the trash after he finishes eating. And if Mom says, “Can’t you please clean up after yourself?” he gets all indignant and hurt--how dare she try to make him feel bad!

But hey, it’s not that the behavior of my father or my friend’s husband are expressions of misogynist attitudes; it’s just that these guys are narcissists--in all the ways society trains them to be, because they’re men.

Consider the matter not in terms of gender but of race. What if some white person said, “All too often, I fail to consider how certain situations will affect this really important person of color with whom I have a really important relationship, but it’s not because I’m racist; it’s just because I’m a narcissist”?

And really, isn’t that the general defense of most misogyny and racism in this culture? Most men, after all, don’t think of themselves as oppressors of women; they just somehow understand that one of the privileges of being on top of the power hierarchy is that they don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about the people below them, the people who take care of them. In other words, men just sort of know that society doesn’t require them to spend much time worrying about how the status quo protects men’s rights and reinforces women’s social subordination and economic oppression, but this has nothing to do, the argument goes, with the fact that the guys are misogynist and is simply due to the fact that the guys aren’t women. Likewise, most white people don’t think of themselves as oppressors of people of color; they just somehow understand that the privileges of being on top of the power hierarchy is that they don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about the people below them, the people who, by and large, are more likely to do dirty work and manual labor. In other words, white people just sort of know that society doesn’t require them to spend much time worry about how the status quo protects the rights of white people and reinforces the social subordination and economic oppression of people of color, but this has nothing to do, the argument goes, with the fact that the white people are racist and is simply due to the fact that they aren’t brown or black or yellow or red.

Arguments like that are what allows misogyny and racism to remain invisible to most of the people who are guilty of them. Ethical, intelligent people in positions of privilege DO NOT let themselves off the hook with rationalizations like “I’m not a misogynist or a racist, because I’m an equal-opportunity asshole,” or “the reason I am not genuinely concerned with achieving the political empowerment of women and people of color isn’t because I’m a misogynist and/or racist, but because I’m not a woman and/or a person a color, and therefore not really confronted by the situation in a really personal way.”

And the other thing is, women and people of color do not get to cultivate narcissism as easily as men and white people; racial minorities have to learn about the dominant cultures often at the expense of studying, in any systematic or thorough way, their own. Likewise, women do not get to be indifferent to men; women do not get to ignore men’s needs and defend doing so by saying, “Oh, I’m just a narcissist.” Women are trained to put men’s needs ahead of their own in more ways than anyone can count, in everything from making out with other girls because it’s a turn-on for the guys watching rather than the girls performing, to throwing away a the wrapper of a Wendy’s cheeseburger purchased for a dog because the man who owns the dog has better things to do with his time than throw away his own trash.

The other thing the guy had to do to mitigate my charge of misogyny was to accuse me of misandry.... funny, my spell-checker recognizes misogyny, but it can’t make sense of misandry. OK, the OED’s earliest citation for “misandry” is 1909, while the earliest citation for “misogyny” is 1656. But no matter what a dictionary says, the fact is, in the current world, misandry is impossible as a political reality. Misogyny, after all, is not just the culturally sanctioned hatred of women but the general oppression that derives from that omnipresent societal hatred. There is no omnipresent societal hatred of men, so misandry is not a charge equal to misogyny, because it just doesn’t matter how much an individual woman hates or loves men in general. As a group, women can’t oppress men, just as slaves cannot oppress their masters and the employees of some major corporation cannot oppress the CEO and board. The disempowered cannot oppress the dominant power. They can harass, resist, frustrate and talk back (and they should), but that ain’t the same.

And the fact of the matter is, there’s a way in which I feel no need to dodge that charge. If by misandry someone means that I despise men who use their maleness as justification for why they should retain certain privileges women don’t have, then I am guilty of misandry. If by misandry someone means that I am SICK TO DEATH of men who would rather rationalize mistreatment of the women closest to them than actually stand up, step up, grow up and be an ethical adult, then I am guilty of misandry. If by misandry someone means that I have no compunction whatsoever about telling some asshole he’s being an asshole, then I am guilty of misandry.

Furthermore, I have my flaws, but narcissism is not one of them. Not only do I work to consider the wants and needs of others DESPITE the fact that they’re not me, I work to consider the wants and needs of others BECAUSE they’re not me. That’s the whole point of an ethos of compassion, which I think we should all subscribe to: you care about people BECAUSE they’re not you, because that’s the only way we all get to be happy and whole. I am SICK of this “I hold these really offensive attitudes, but it’s not because I’m a homophobe or a misogynist or a racist pig, it’s because I’m just lacking in compassion, imagination and spiritual maturity,” particularly when it comes in a religious context.

I’m reminded of when I guy I know really wanted to avoid the charge of homophobe, despite the fact that he worried that society’s tolerance of homosexuality would bring about the fall of civilization, a specious and ridiculous argument if there ever was one: just how many gay-friendly societies has the history of the world even produced? Seems like rampant heterosexuality (aka patriarchy) has been much more destructive--the Nazis didn’t tolerate homosexuality, and look how well that turned out; same goes for the Spanish Inquisition. Frankly thinking about this is starting to make me a bit heterophobic, when I consider how a really dogmatic adherence to conservative gender roles heralds some kind of social upheaval.... Anyway, the point is, the guy eventually just sucked it up and admitted he was a homophobe, albeit one who didn’t want to oppress individual gay people, because they might be reasonably nice. It was their collective rather than individual immorality that troubled him, but even still, he wanted to be kind to people, even when he disapproved of them. And while his stance on homosexuality didn’t really thrill me, really, what could I say about the other stuff? He was trying to be as grown up and decent as his religious beliefs would let him.

I think Mr. Narcissism could benefit a lot from that example.

14 Comments

I think one of the powerful implications of your argument here is that narcissism depends on and produces misogyny. We (men) don't have to think about the labour of caring because women do that work and when we refuse to think about it and take up some of that labour, we reproduce the conditions that oblige women to do the caring. We (white people) don't have to think about the privilege that our race confers upon us because we have others to do the manual work we no longer have to do. It's interesting that often more overtly racist attitudes are taken by white working class people -- such as the vigilantes patrolling the US-Mexico border -- probably in part because they see themselves competing for those jobs in manufacturing or meat packing and such.

I think you could extend the argument that the ability to be self-absorbed is misogynous. You discuss the immediate binary relations between dominants and subordinates but the consequences of domination go further. The ways we distribute the ability to give or withhold recognition, along with the distributions of wealth and power, produce not only the dominant-subordinate relation but also an entire strata of humanity that is excluded from even these master-slave dialectics. Mike Davis, in "Planet of Slums", looks at the ways that the most abjectly impoverished people in the world live -- people whose earnings are in the bottom quintile, living in what the UN defines as absolute poverty, earning less that US$1.00 per day. This is about 1.3 billion people in the world. Davis wonders under what plausible scenario we can imagine incorporating these people as consumers into market economies or as citizens in democracies. This is an "excess" population in terms of the way power and privilege are produced and distributed. Not being concerned for others because they are not "us" is both misogyny (most of the world's poor are women, which may contribute to problems like female infanticide) and a particularly vile form of misanthropy: not "misandry," but a willingness to treat other people as surplus, as "overpopulation." And we go to great lengths not to see them or acknowledge them, just as we take real pains not to see the sources of our privilege that lie closer to home.

What a thoughtful and important post. Thank you.

Holly, I think this is probably the most interesting AND the most thought-provoking blog post (of any blog) I've ever read. It's pretty common knowledge (that doesn't seem like the right term, but whatever - basically) that white men are at the top in western societies, but I guess I never really thought of it in quite these terms - that being at the top (or just higher than someone else, which, as you point out, applies to a lot of people other than white men) actually allows them to not need to care about those with less power. Really, really interesting.

"I'm over-educated, passionate and articulate, like any good bluestocking.... plus stockings of any color really flatter my slender, shapely calves and ankles."

"Furthermore, I have my flaws, but narcissism is not one of them."

lol

Trust some asshole who takes his blog name from the moral and literary abyss that is Ayn Rand and whose email address is WhoIsJohnGalt@hotmail.com (got that, spammers? let me list it again in case you didn't: WhoIsJohnGalt@hotmail.com ) to miss the difference between an honest accounting of one's assets and the excessive self-love that inhibits compassion or generosity.

But I'm sure you know as much as any narcissist can about excessive self-love, since that's what Ayn Rand's ideas are based on--provided, of course, you can find any quality in yourself worth loving in the first place.

Hi Rebecca--I'm really glad you found the post worthwhile. You could add a lot of additional examples of how people at the top of the hierarchy get to ignore others: the way homophobes get to shut themselves off from examples of healthy gay relationships so they can pretend same-sex couples are necessarily perverted; the way rich people can avoid ever entering poor neighborhoods or seeing how poverty is a cycle and a choice by an entire society perpetuates, not something individuals choose simply because they're "lazy" or "shiftless." Or the way the first world can pretend that people in the third world just don't care about things like clean water or decent shelter.

Which, of course, is part of what you're bringing up, Spike--the way western capitalism treats human beings as an excess commodity--albeit one it needs, since they work for next to nothing in order to buy basics, and thus produce cheap goods for those who can afford them.

Sometimes people just suck.


Holly, thank you for the respect for personal space shown by your posting your responses to my posts here rather than on my blog. I wouldn't have been any more bothered to read them there than here, to be honest, but still I appreciate the consideration behind the gesture. I will return the gesture by not arguing with you here--I'll likely respond on my own blog, and I won't be offended if you don't read my response there, or if you do. If you feel this comment in and of itself is a violation of the respect you've shown for my space, feel free to delete it.

I think this post makes some great points. I never intended to excuse my self-centeredness by calling it narcissism instead of misogyny. I meant it rather as a clarification; in my mind, though the two are certainly related, they are distinct. I am in fact quite bothered by my narcissistic tendencies, regardless of whether they hurt women or men, and have been long before you pointed it out. Acknowledging the tendency is just one of the things I do to actively combat it. If I say publicly that I'm often inconsiderate of my wife's concerns, my own preoccupation with what others think of me is then likely to work against that tendency, forcing me to be more conscious of how I relate to her in that regard.

The point of all this is to say that, while I was already bothered by my narcissism, and while I am always uncomfortable with the position of privilege my gender and my marital status give me, I have never connected the two before reading this post. Thank you for pointing out that narcissism may be a bad quality in anybody, but it is particularly harmful in a heterosexually married man.

Very enlightening!!! Great post! *claps*

Thanks for making me think.

Ben: I want to point out one problem with your comments here: you write

Thank you for pointing out that narcissism may be a bad quality in anybody, but it is particularly harmful in a heterosexually married man.

I would argue that you are not heterosexually married, because you announce your homosexuality. You are heteronormatively married. You are striving for a marriage that conforms to the standard expectations and norms of heterosexual marriage, but as you yourself explain repeatedly, there is an aspect to your sexuality that defies standard heterosexual sexual relations. Therefore, the best you can achieve is heteronormativity.

Which is something even a lot of us straight people try to fight, as it can reinforce both sexist and heterosexist assumptions and attitudes.

Your wife, however, can be said to be heterosexually married--just not (and this is based, again, on what you've written on the topic) very rewardingly so.

Hi Holly.
I've discovered your blog just last month and have been reading many of your entries ever since. I love reading your blog. I've always been a silent reader here, however, after reading this particular entry, it triggered me to think about something that has been on my mind lately. I would like to politely ask you for your opinion, since I have mixed feelings about it.

Say that a man dearly and sincerely loves his girlfriend/wife, but the thing is, he's overprotective of her. He doesn't exactly allow her the freedom to choose to do something in which she loves and feels strongly about. For example: she wants to play football with the guys but he doesn't let her since it's "dangerous", or she wants to learn kickboxing but he's concerned for her safety and well-being so that's why he's against that idea of hers. But you see, he thinks that he's allowed to engage in kickboxing and the more "masculine" activities.

Yet, if his girlfriend/wife still insists on doing it, then he will eventually give in to her and let her do it. And he may or may not feel like she, a woman, should still be doing things like that. Would you say that this man is in the wrong? Even though he does truly care about her and is just trying to look out for her safety and protection?

Hopefully, you can respond back. Thanks for reading this.

Hi Khatani--I'm really pleased that you enjoy my blog, and I'm flattered that you care enough to ask my opinion. I think you can probably guess what my response to your question will be: I definitely think this overprotective man is wrong to oversee and curtail the activities of this woman he cares about. What the hell is wrong with kickboxing? It's good exercise, promotes flexibility and strength. Doing it will keep her fit and healthy, and, if she ever spars with a partner, teach her skills that might be useful in self-defense.

You can injure yourself doing anything, including typing or yoga, as I wrote about recently. If this guy objects only to certain activities he considers "masculine" but doesn't mind more "feminine" activities that carry the same sort of risk--if, in other words, he thinks it's just fine for this woman he loves to take a very vigorous aerobics class--then his protestations that he "is just trying to look out for her safety and protection" are thoroughly insincere.

And even if he IS just trying to look out for her safety and protection, well, that's what parents do for children. That is not what adults do for each other. If this man RESPECTS his wife/girlfriend in addition to loving her, he will acknowledge that she has the right to make her own decisions about how she cares for and maintains her own body, and he will not attempt to restrict her participation in activities he himself pursues.

I hope that helps.

Another sick individual intent on playing the homophobe card

Sad really

Try listening to people with some understanding of morality

Who on earth are you addressing, cathyb? Are you suggesting that accusing a gay man of misogyny is de facto homophobic? If you are, you're an idiot, for dozens and dozens of reasons, many of which are already discussed in the "gender," "feminism" and "queerness" archives of my blog. Take a look. In particular, I suggest you read this entry on movies about men, for women.

Whatever your point, you should try to express it more clearly. I really dislike getting comments from people who lack both A) anything important to say and B) the ability to say it. At least try to have one or the other.

"Equal opportunity arsehole" love it!


I am a 50 year old male and my closest friend (a 41 year old female). About a year ago I went through what I now know to be the abandonment phase of Borderline personality disorder as she hooked up with someone she knew 20 years ago. (She had been seeing psychiatrists for a number of years who have ranged from inept to incompetent)


It was all wrong. After three days they were getting married, she had left me in the lurch financially, as we were sharing expenses, and the guy was a real jerk, with major problems of his own, including being a filthy self confessed misogynist.


It was one of the most difficult situations I have been faced with, having to come to terms with her abandoning me, which was not so hard in the end when I realized this was a major compulsion of her disorder of which she had little control over. I knew her to be a good caring and sincere person and accepted it, and at worst we had now discovered what her disorder was--something 10 years of therapy was unable to do. So it was actually a breakthrough that has helped her a great deal.


She is my friend and so I accepted her decision to hook up with this loser. I befriended him and genuinely hoped that there would be a happy ending to it all.


Without going into details, his recent behaviour starting setting off alarm bells--and after having had further confrontations with personality disorders, I was pretty sure he was a narcissist. So I typed in narcissism and misogyny into the computer and was flooded with articles, studies, profiles of the narcissistic misogynistic arsehole that is about to suck my best friend into the abyss with him.


Well, no he ain't! I felt awful but duty bound to tell my friend what I had learned. She was understandably devastated, but through her tears she said “thank you, I know this was hard for you and as much as I don't want to believe it I cannot ignore the fact that this is the man I am confronted with.”

What a girl! She considers my feelings in the midst of a personal dilemma of no small magnitude-that bastard doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as she does.


There is no platform for mediation with this jerk. His narcissism runs so deep that he cannot even control the continual flow of misogynistic vitriol, which he knows is socially unacceptable and therefore a threat to his endeavours in attracting the Primary Narcissistic supply he craves.


I intend to give him a copy of your blog to let him know that the jig is up (with the consent of my friend) because it does such a great job of exposing his utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and packages it in a form that is just perfect to shove up his "Equal opportunity arsehole"


Thank you so much


David D


Melbourne Australia

Hi David D--

thanks for sharing. I hope things work out for you and your friend.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on November 5, 2007 10:45 PM.

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