Should Academics Fear the Manosphere?

Illustration for article titled Should Academics Fear the Manosphere?

Driving my son to preschool last week, I found myself stuck in traffic behind a beat-up Toyota Camry with taped-over taillights and a charmingly askew bumper sticker that read “NO FAT CHICKS—CAR WILL SCRAPE.” Briefly I imagined him pulling into the preschool lot in front of me, so I could tell him that the problem wasn’t fat chicks but his Reagan-era suspension. But he turned off in another direction, and as his car disappeared I actually felt a little grateful. There’s something to be said for people who wear their obnoxiousness on the bumpers of their cars.


A few articles have been making the internet rounds recently about horrifying discoveries that seemingly normal men were actually part of the “manosphere,” a series of loosely connected vitriolic websites targeting (mostly white, straight, cis) men who inexplicably feel disenfranchised. Last week’s cover story on The Cut, “From Pickup Artist to Pariah,” tells the story of how the town of Asheville, North Carolina, turned against local coffee shop owner Jared Rutledge when they discovered “Holistic Game,” a website on which Rutledge wrote things like, “Intersectional feminist? How about I intersect my DICK with your PUSSY” and, “There are few things that give me more sadistic pleasure than witnessing the ever-increasing neuroses of a woman hitting the wall.”

A similar scandal recently rocked academia as people became aware of the months-old online writings of Allen J. Frantzen, a retired professor of Medieval Studies. Frantzen’s ire seems to revolve around what he feels is an atmosphere of “compulsory feminism” in academia. He writes about a “feminist fog,” or “femfog” for short, “the sour mix of victimization and privilege that makes up modern feminism and that feminists use to intimidate and exploit men.”

I refer to men who are shrouded in this fog as FUMs, fogged up men; other terms come to mind. They may might not be feminists but as they wander through the mist of politics and polemic about women, they feel like they should be feminists. They think feminism is good for everybody and they want to be nice to women. Life in femfog is the price a man pays for women’s acceptance and approval. These are goals many straight men desire, even crave, because men want to have sex and they know that adored women are more likely to grant sexual favors. I suggest below that you might have a better sex life out of the femfog than in it.

Medievalists have been understandably furious about his writings, pointing out that he makes their entire field look bad and perpetuates the misogynistic atmosphere of academia. There’s a feeling of betrayal: Frantzen is credited with “groundbreaking efforts to open up medieval scholarship to work that examined homosexuality” in his books Desire For Origins and Before the Closet. However, the medievalist community has generally reacted tin an admirable way: Calling him out, but then working to try and promote a more positive image for their field of an intersectional, inclusive Medieval Studies.

The scandal has taken up so much space in the academic community that it might seem (as some Asheville women have doubtless experienced) that one’s home base is concealing a nest of MRAs. But academia is not full of MRAs. It is, however, full of misogynists. And it’s important to remember that many of the most insidious, damaging misogynists aren’t those blogging about their hateful views on personal websites.

The reporting on both Rutledge and Frantzen’s stories, to my eye, bears a disturbing similarity to other narratives where someone is discovered to have a secret double life. The stories feel like “outings,” similar to the Grantland article that outed an inventor as trans and may have had something to do with her suicide. In this frame, “manosphere” views must be kept secret in order to save the person from public shock and horror; this is true, but the analogy carries the dangerous implication that this social reaction can be interpreted as unfair. MRAs are already convinced that they’re an oppressed minority. I suspect that Frantzen will react defensively to his “outing,” and it will be interesting to see how he rationalizes that response as part of his repulsive “grab your balls” philosophy of standing up for your “manhood” first.

Anger at the manosphere is undeniably justified; I have written critiques of its weak intellectual underpinnings, and in the process I’ve read enough MRA writing that I’ve come to know the sensation of reading while tasting bile in the back of my throat. Frantzen’s ideas are repugnant (although, unfortunately, mild in the large and disgusting context of the manosphere). But what Frantzen was denying women, he deserves nonetheless: an honest consideration of the way he’s been shaped by belief and experience.


Frantzen’s scholarship has been insightful and influential, and leaving aside his bizarre, incoherent remarks about the Titanic, he’s probably one of few manosphere members who is an intelligent critical thinker. And as a gay man, Frantzen represents a fascinating position within the manosphere. Much more so than in academia, gay people are a marginalized demographic in the manosphere, where the only accepted poles of sexuality and gendered expression are “heterosexual masculine male” and “heterosexual feminine female.” Anything that deviates even slightly from one of those poles—being gay, or trans, or a woman with short hair, or a stay-at-home dad—is a perversion. Roosh V, the romance novelist and sentient goatee behind the site Return of Kings, unironically used the phrase “sanctioning of anal marriage” to describe gay marriage becoming legal in the U.S. Frantzen links to Roosh’s sites in his blogroll, and I wonder how he feels about grouping himself with people whose views are so hostile to him.

But Frantzen is an anomaly. The truth is, there aren’t going to be that many professors who are part of the manosphere, because as a community it lacks any semblance of ideological coherence or intellectual credibility. It’s a jumble of websites self-referentially citing each other to prove their twisted view of society is right. The manosphere prides itself on being “antifragile,” a concept that essentially amounts to an impenetrability to reasoned critique by responding, “Haha, you just brought me more attention and viewers, I win!!” It’s a simmering stew of angry men covered by a thin scum of pseudoscience and empty Stoic platitudes. Not many great thinkers are going to be found there.


I’m not that worried that professors I interact with may secretly or quietly be part of the manosphere. If they were—and I doubt they would be—their beliefs, once revealed, are as tacky as bumper stickers, and exceptionally easy to call out. I am worried, however, about the people who make academia unfriendly to women in more permanently damaging ways. I’m worried about people like the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who jokingly advocated for gender-segregated laboratories at a lunch for women scientists, or world-renowned Berkeley astronomer Geoffrey Marcy, who calls his wife a “goddess” on his website and has been accused of sexually harassing graduate students for a decade.

I’m worried about the professor who uses a meeting with female graduate student that’s supposed to be about offering critique to ask her opinion on a birthday gift for his wife. The professor who introduced me to a visiting lecturer as the person who bakes cookies for coffee hour. The professor who calls criticism made by a male academic “sharp” and the same criticism by a female academic “shrill.” The man who explains a woman’s work to her. The reviewer who suggests that a paper with two female authors could use a male perspective and the conference organizer who thinks nothing of having multiple all-male panels. The hiring committee with an undeniable bias against female professors with children and the administrator who forces the tenure-track professor to consider her pregnancy a disability. Let’s not forget these toxic people, the ones who don’t do us the courtesy of plastering offensive bumper stickers on their cars. Some of them are almost certainly among those loudly denouncing Frantzen.


Image: Circumcision of Abraham, Genesis 17:23-26., Bible of Jean de Sy, Paris ca. 1355-1357, via.


Donna Zuckerberg (@donnazuck) is editor of Eidolon, an online Classics journal. She received her PhD from Princeton in 2014 for her dissertation on ancient Greek tragedy and comedy. Read more of her work here.


I’m always baffled how MRAs view sex as something women control for nefarious purposes, like it’s a physical shiny toy we’re holding just out of their reach. We aren’t hiding something that rightfully belongs to humanity in general; we simply want to control our own bodies.