By now, you've probably heard of "gaslighting," the increasingly popular term for the various ways in which men convince women that they're "crazy," "over-reacting," or "hysterical." Gaslighting's goal is simple: Get you to tone down that oh-so-scary lady rage that frightens the menfolk. But there's another kind of gaslighting that's almost as common and which serves the same purpose. Call it the "I'm such an asshole" speech or call it strategic self-deprecation, the end goal is always the same: deflect women's anger.
It's not hard to see the cultural roots of this male self-criticism. We're reminded that the end of men is nigh, or that perhaps (thanks to porn and video games) the demise has already happened. The dominant pop culture trope is that it's never sucked so hard to be a guy.
It isn't clear to what degree young men themselves buy into the idea of men in decline. What is clear — as anyone who has watched a Judd Apatow movie knows — is that we've rarely seen men so quick with the self-deprecation, so willing to acknowledge doubt. There's a lot that's refreshing about that shift towards hyper-aware self-mockery. What's frustrating is that a lot of that self-criticism isn't about copping to a need to change. Rather, this disparagement of men in general and the self in particular has two enduring aims: To lower women's expectations and to defuse women's anger. It's more successful at accomplishing the former.
In the past week, the epic discussion online and in real life about Ann-Marie Slaughter's "having it all" article has shifted to the question of how men might better step up to help women achieve a better work/life balance. Men aren't pulling their weight, as new data about housework in dual career families makes clear. Though younger dudes today may have a better vocabulary for feelings than their dads did, that doesn't mean that they're any better prepared to respond to statistical reality. As Lindy West wrote last week :
Some of the most thoughtful, liberal, egalitarian men I know have trouble swallowing this issue — they get defensive, tabulate how many dishes they've washed, frame the argument as a hacky, divisive, "men suck/women rock" feminist caricature.
That "men suck/women rock caricature" gets used by men in different ways. Some guys don't believe for a second that "men suck;" they think that women aren't seeing just how equal their domestic efforts really are. That's the type to which Lindy seems to be referring. But other guys genuinely believe (or pretend to believe) that males in general (and themselves in particular) are inferior to women. And whether they stand accused of infidelity or emotional obtuseness or of not pulling their weight around the house, these guys trot out some variation on what poet Robert Bly calls the "all men are shits" speech.
These guys figure that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they'll force their partners to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety. "I'm such an asshole, I don't know why you stay with me." (Batterers use that line a lot in the remorse stage, following an episode of abuse.) It often works, particularly on a woman who wants to believe she can show the guy she loves a side of himself he has never seen. And a lot of women, torn between exasperation and compassion, give in at this point in the argument (whether it was about housework or porn or whatever) and say, "Oh Roger, you're not a bad person. I really do love and admire you." They break off the attempt to push through to the man and resolve the problem, instead moving on to comforting him. The conflict is only temporarily smoothed over, and invariably erupts again. This cycle can go on indefinitely.
The trajectory of these arguments is always the same. Dude progresses quickly from denial to defensiveness to, finally, brutal self-deprecation. He may blame his shortcomings on women's unrealistic expectations (inflated, he might claim, by feminism). He may blame the absence of strong male role models in his own life. Whether he means what he's saying is almost irrelevant, because whether it's real or feigned, the goal is always the same: To get the woman who's on his case to back off and swallow her own anger.
In one of 2011's most-shared articles, Yashar Ali wrote about the myriad ways in which men "gaslight" women by convincing the ladies that they're crazy and hypersensitive. "It's a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it," Yashar wrote; "we continue to burden women because they don't refuse our burdens as easily. It's the ultimate cowardice."
Ali uses "gaslighting" to refer to the way in which men delegitimize women's anger. But what's clear is that the "I'm a piece of shit" speech serves exactly the same purpose. While traditional gaslighting makes women's anger seem irrational, this self-deprecatory wallowing makes women's anger seem like unfair piling-on to a guy who already hates himself more than you ever could. It's designed to force women to comfort — rather to continue to quarrel with — someone who claims to lack the emotional dexterity to continue an adult conversation.
As Jessica Valenti pointed out last week, "the problem isn't that women are trying to do too much, it's that men aren't doing nearly enough." Valenti was referring to the reality that men are still slacking on housework and childcare, but she could just have easily been talking about the ways in which men try to deflect women's criticism and anger. Just as guys are perfectly capable of washing dishes and changing diapers, they are also capable of arguing fairly, as equals, without retreating to manipulative self-deprecation of themselves and their sex. If we're going to get any closer to "having it all" (or just "having a life") we need to ask men to drop both the gaslighting and the self-loathing and show up as adults.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.
Image via Malyugin/Shutterstock.