Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

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truth in feminism.

with 9 comments

I only first read this morning about this battle re: Hugo Schwyzer & feminism. It’s the kind of thing that stirs me out of blogging apathy—though it helps that all I want to do this week is drink red wine, make vegan desserts and read & write about feminism, anyway; happy February!because it strikes at the root of what bothers me about web feminism à la mode. I’ll ramble on about that in a moment. But in short, I think the anti-Schwyzer sentiment is both ridiculous and sadly typical of the feminist blogosphere.

I don’t know a ton about Hugo. I’m dimly aware of having read him on various lady-feminist blogs. For a while I regularly read The Good Men Project, a site focused on exploring what it means to be a good man now, absent cultural scripts and yada yada yada. I liked the Good Men Project. It published good sex writing (male and female). Sometimes Amanda Marcotte (whom I also like) wrote there. It was heavy with personal-experience driven writing by Schwyzer and others on sex, marriage, masculinity, relationships, fatherhood, feminism.

An instructor in history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, Schwyzer is explicitly feminist. He writes in the language of contemporary feminism (i.e. “I haven’t been always been able to see how my writing reflects my privilege as a cisgender white male…“) and blogged at Jezebel, FeministeHealthy Is The New Skinny, the Good Men Project and elsewhere about gender issues, body image, rape prevention, why men like to cum on women’s faces and the “myth of male weakness.” He recently withdrew from The Good Men Project after founder Tom Matlack published a piece arguing men and women were fundamentally different, writing that it was no longer “ethically possible to remain silent” while the Good Men Project “took an increasingly anti-feminist stance.”

Schwyzer also wrote often about his past, as an alcoholic and druggie in the 90s (born in 1967, Schwyzer hugs the line between Gen X and boomer). He wrote about failed marriages, mental breakdowns, his Christian faith and having “consensual relationships with adult female students” in his early years teaching. It was that last part which provoked the ire of Feministe commenters and other feminist bloggers. Then someone pointed out a year-old post of Hugo’s in which he wrote about attempting to kill himself and his then-girlfriend by turning on the gas in their apartment. He was an alcoholic and addict. This preceded a stay in a mental hospital. But people called Schwyzer a sexual predator who should be excluded from the discourse on feminism (sample comment: Why is a confessed attempted murderer allowed to comment about feminism?). They made it about the role of men in feminism, a role which the feminist blogosphere is still all kinds of conflicted about.

This tendency of many feminist bloggers to be so self-consciously non-offensive gets tedious, though this just makes them boring. It’s the tendency of large segments of the feminist web to cluster and ostracize dissenters from feminism’s PC master narrative that makes them damaging, to the quote/unquote feminist project, anyway. A feminism that doesn’t allow for paradoxes and contradictions in the ideals versus lived experiences of its’ proponents is not terribly useful. And any modern conception of feminism needs not just to include men in the conversation but see men as integral to feminist issues. The movement’s history of sisterhood served it’s purpose, but for Gen Y women and men accustomed to the idea of gender equity, doesn’t we’re-all-in-this-together make more sense?

How to be an adult in an age of anomie is a question central to men, women, feminists and fundamentalists in America. And it’s a big project. I don’t know how many Gen X/Y articles I’ve read about marriage ages, fertility, dating, relationships, careers, unemployment, sex, technology, health that conclude we are all screwed. We’re all going to live into our 90s and our parents and grandparents are going into retirement broke and getting fat and getting dementia and it not only looks sad but how are you going to take care of them? How is anybody going to take care of them? That’s all we hear about is old age programs bankrupting the world. And home health care is one of the fastest growing U.S. industries, but it’s largest companies don’t even want to pay their (mostly female) employees the minimum wage. And a lot of people in the entertainment industry still think violence against women is pretty swell. Birth control is still something people are legitimately against. Women writers still can’t write about sex like Henry Miller. And for some reason people persist in publishing articles about who should pay the check on first dates. Plus, you know: The rest of the world.

I mean, I say, the more men the merrier! Let’s all talk about birth control and blow jobs and the difference between domestic violence and rape fantasies. Gender issues, marriage equality and the contradictions inherent in trying to be good men and good women in a culture with completely schizophrenic ideas about femininity and masculinity. These are problems for all us.

And there should be room in feminism for all of us to talk about them. For Schwyzer to be honest about his path to where he is now without facing this kind of hysterical backlash. For all of us “imperfect feminists” to be honest about where we fail to live up to ideals (and where ideals fail to live up to their usefulness in our lives). Freddie deBoer (who, um, full disclosure: is my boyfriend) has written about how feminism is general but relationships are specific. So are individual paths to feminist beliefs. You can comfortably call yourself a feminist even if you subscribe to less than total egalitarianism in your own relationship or sex life. You can be a feminist even if you were once so fucked up that you tried to kill yourself and your partner. You can have an imperfectly feminist past and be a feminist now. The underlying assumption between people should be respect, non-violence and equity, but people can negotiate different degrees of these amongst themselves. Besides which: The outside world, again. Sometimes it influences us. Sometimes we learn from it. Sometimes we are always getting better.

see, I like baking too. I know sites like Feministe and Feministing serve an important purpose in feminism’s mission. I never considered myself a feminist until I started reading them (along with Pandagon, Shakesville, Ilika Damen, others) back when I was 22. This year over Christmas break I ended up in a late-night bar crawl conversation with a 22-year-old female cousin who is dying to have babies and stay home with them. Until she recently began reading feminist blogs (the only one I remember her mentioning is The Feminist Breeder), she told me, she thought feminists wanted to take things like that from her. Now she’s all OMG I’m a feminist, duh. I’m a feminist and I like babies and crafts and women being treated like human beings. Awesome.

So that’s what these types of intro/activist feminist blogs do: They introduce young women and men to the idea that feminism doesn’t suck. That there are still lots of gender issues to consider and problems to solve. That feminism is relevant.

But as a feminist writer, Schwyzer has always been more essayist than activist. Both of his recent controversial posts were confession—not celebration—of past wrongs. This is what good memoirists and essayists do: They tell the truth about themselves, even when it makes them look bad. It’s in admitting to inconsistencies in their own ideals v. behavior that they have the best chance of finding something universal. Think “Mad Men.” Think Didion. It’s the space between the zeitgeist and convention that’s the most interesting.

For the feminist blogosphere to so consistently stifle voices from that space … I mean, it impedes on feminist discourse, sure. But it also tells writers that it’s not okay to be both honest and feminist. That part of being a publicly-feminist writer means a certain amount of activism, a certain amount of party-line PR. It’s a lot like how conservatism encourages its journalists and bloggers and TV reporters to be partisans first. It’s bad for the truth.


Written by Elizabeth

February 16, 2012 at 10:32 am

9 Responses

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  1. I think as a man who is writing on feminist issues, it is necessary for Hugo to reveal certain things about himself from the past in order to support his ideas of where he is today…I don’t think he is a self-provclaimed anything as some may refer to him. These are confessions as you say of a past that has led him into his conversion and his activism. Working on these issues and admitting to them were probably the most difficult thing he had to do and probably not the proudest thing he ever had to admit…How many men do we know have the courage to do that and be sincerely apologetic and penitent about it.


    February 16, 2012 at 11:16 am

  2. Yup. I haven’t read much on the situation since Hugo left the Good Men Project, but if he’s saying, “These are the things I’ve done in the past, and they were crap” then I think shunning him is hypocritical and counteractive. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Chris Brown is back in the news for performing at the Grammys. If he had sincerely apologized, and made some effort to change would a certain segment of people still be saying “He’s an abuser, he shouldn’t be rewarded!”? In order to move forward, it’s essential that we can forgive those who admit to doing wrong, without forgetting the wrong and using it as a lesson for others. From what I understand, though, Chris Brown is not one of those people.

    Erin Elizabeth

    February 16, 2012 at 1:17 pm

  3. […] discussion, and has led to a new round of blogposts. Four for which I am personally grateful are here and here and here and here. I am also sincerely appreciative of posts which have been less […]

  4. Oh please, Hugo’s behaviors, from sexual predation of students he supposed to be chaperoning, to engaging in a decade long deception of a man whose child Hugo fathered, to screwing students on his desk at PCC are the marks of a misandrist. Throw in there his behaviors in blaming all that shit on men instead of ever taking responsbility for it, and you have a sociopath.

    And you’re too stupid a cunt to acknowledge that.


    February 18, 2012 at 1:44 am

  5. […] that) – one from Feminism and Religion, a space and project that I respect, and another from Elizabeth Nolan Brown. These responses describe the backlash against Schwyzer, as “cruel and vulgar,” […]

  6. brave and interesting article: thank you Elizabeth. i think you touch on the broader issue of truth in writing in general here. And Anon you shot your credibility in the foot with that woeful last comment: play the ball not the player in the future.


    February 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm

  7. Thanks, Amelia.

    (and yes, I found it funny getting called a “stupid cunt” for not being feminist enough).


    March 1, 2012 at 9:48 am

  8. I suppose the way I look at the Hugo Schwyzer debacle is that I agree with you that there ought to be room in feminist communities for honesty, for imperfect people, and for self-awareness, reflection, and contemplation (it seems pretty essential in fact). However I also feel, when it comes to the man himself, that it is perfectly valid to say, ‘I have a platform which reaches and affects a very large number of people. Here is a white cis man writing about his experiences of privilege and power. He already has a considerable audience and clout. Is the the best use of this platform to let him use it? Are there other voices that would be more fitting with my aims?’

    So while I think that we cannot expect people to be perfect before we listen to them (a pretty important principle), and that the very hateful comments directed at him were unacceptable, there’s a very important difference between ‘shunning’ and ‘not actively helping’.

    I also think it’s important to remember that just as the people talking are imperfect in one way or another, the people listening are too. I don’t read things written by Hugo Schwyzer because he, by virtue of his previous actions, makes me deeply uncomfortable. Regardless of the content of his writing, I find it very unpleasant to read it and so I don’t. That doesn’t make me a sub-par feminist either.


    March 7, 2012 at 1:55 am

  9. […] I wrote a defense of Hugo back in 2012, when everyone was losing their shit over revelations of his previous murder-suicide attempt and sleeping with students. Admittedly, I was a little naive about Hugo then–I didn’t understand that some complaints about him went beyond both those transgressions; I discounted the role that narcissism and manipulation may play in his work. […]

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