Meeting with the philosopher Olivia Gazalé, author of Le mythe de la virilité — Un piège pour les deux sexes (Robert Laffont).
Why did you go about looking into the issue of masculinity?
I set out to write about women. I wanted to understand why, even though feminism had been winning the ideological battle in most Western democracies for several decades, there was still such a long way to go in terms of violence and discrimination. When I studied the origins of male domination and how it works, I understood a key message: the problem is not only about ongoing sexualized stereotypes of women – we’ve been fighting those for two centuries – but about ongoing sexualized stereotypes of men, which are rarely fought but have been around for several thousand years.
There’s a distinction between “masculinity” and “virility”, and the second is a myth that has ensnared both sexes. What’s the problem with “virility”?
Masculinity, or rather the various forms of masculinity, are the many different ways that men inhabit their gender, depending on body type, personality and sexual preference. However, virility is a norm, an ideal, a fantasy of what a man should be, dating back to Greek and Roman times but still dominant today. The myth of virility is the natural superiority of the masculine over the feminine. A woman is naturally programmed for motherhood, she is soft and loving, yet ruled by her emotions, passive, flighty, inconsistent, fearful, weak, irrational, submissive, naive, and incapable of abstract thinking. A man on the other hand is naturally his own master, rational, strong, courageous, ambitious, powerful, domineering, a conqueror, a warrior, and victorious. Historically, this ideal led to women being domesticated and being given a lesser role in society, but has also created unbearable alienation for men.
You talk about “male angst”, and suffering in the face of stereotypes and society’s requirement for virility. How can this suffering be acknowledged in the #metoo era, when women are still facing so much injustice?
Throughout history, the duty to be virile has been a burden for men. First because it has huge constraints: to be “virile” a man must show power, and never admit to weakness or show tears. In some periods, a young virile man was one whose heartfelt desire was to die in combat, to spill his own blood and cause another’s to spill. Creating this desire for a heroic death in battle required training that often involved brutal education in military service, and included corporal punishment or initiation rituals.
Also because this myth of a warrior is deeply discriminatory. For there to be “real” men, there have to be “sub-men”, which begins with “effeminate” men. But virility isn’t only upheld by violently homophobic policies, it’s also the root of xenophobia, racism, imperialism, colonialism, class snobbery and all forms of exploitation and abuse of people, by people. It all stems from an idea of man put forward by those who want to belittle and control others. And they have been so successful that in fact we really shouldn’t say “men have always oppressed women”, but “some men have always oppressed women and some other men”… in the very name of virility.
How can we get men on board with feminism when equality requires them to give up their privileges (position of power, favorable salary gap, etc.)?
Why should feminist victories be seen as defeats for men? Shouldn’t having a qualified and educated wife or partner who can meet her own needs and contribute to the costs of raising a family or living as a couple be seen as positive developments for a man, a way of easing his burden of being the “sole breadwinner”?
Too few men understand that society as a whole suffers as much from sexist clichés against women as it does from sexist clichés against men, especially in terms of the requirement for sexual performance which can be very worrying and very stressful, the obsession for conquests (power, success, women), and the culture of violence which are central to the virility myth. By reinventing the standards for masculinity, and releasing them from gender assignments, men could in turn release themselves from the enslavement of the warrior myth. The women’s revolution will finally be over when the men’s revolution is complete, when men are free of the alienating stereotypes that nourish – often utterly unconsciously – misogyny and homophobia, which both stem from a repulsion of women dating back through the mists of time. If men are to change how they look at women, they need to change how they look at themselves. The fight against sexism will lead to emancipation for both sexes.
Interview by the SNCF au Féminin teams. Translated into English by Ruth Simpson.