With “I hate men”, a French feminist touches a nerve

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PARIS — If there hadn’t been a man, the literary debut of Pauline Harmange, “I hate men”, might have gone unnoticed.

The feminist essay, which argues for shunning men as a self-defense mechanism against widespread misogyny, was originally published in French by the nonprofit Monstrograph press. He only printed 400 copies. On the day of its release last August, however, an employee of the French Ministry of Gender Equality, Ralph Zurmély, emailed Monstrograph from his government account.

The book was obviously, he wrote, “an ode to misandry.” Zurmély, who had not read the book, compared it to “incitement to hatred based on sex”, and concluded: “I request that you immediately remove this book from your catalog, or face legal action. judicial”.

The threat backfired. As soon as it was made public, “I Hate Men” became a cause celebre in the French media – and drew attention to the misandry, aversion or mistrust of men, as as a social phenomenon. As Monstrograph could not keep up with demand, a major French publisher, le Seuil, won a bidding war to reprint the book, which has since sold 20,000 copies. Translation rights for 17 languages ​​have been sold. In the United States, HarperCollins will release “I Hate Men”, translated by Natasha Lehrer, on January 19.

The French Ministry of Gender Equality, meanwhile, has been careful to distance itself from Zurmély’s threat. A spokeswoman for the current minister, Elisabeth Moreno, said she “strongly condemns this isolated act”, and added that Zurmély was being transferred to another position, “at his request”.

For Harmange, who is only 26, the whole experience is akin to whiplash. “It launches my career, which I thought was an almost unattainable dream,” she said in a video interview in December from her home in Lille, northern France. Yet with the attention came social media harassment, with daily insults now arriving in multiple languages.

“There are times when I think to myself that I didn’t sign up for this,” she said.

“I Hate Men” began in 2019 as a blog post about feminist burnout. Harmange had earned a communications degree a year earlier and was working as a freelance writer. His personal essays, on topics ranging from self-care to environmentalism, have attracted a small but steady following, helping him make ends meet through Tipeee, a French alternative to crowdfunding service Patreon.

Monstrograph editors Martin Page and Coline Pierré saw the message and asked her if she wanted to make a book out of it. For Harmange, who volunteers with an organization supporting rape victims, misandry had become the best concept to express her frustration with structural gender-based violence. “It was an insult you would receive as a feminist,” she said. “Whatever you say, as soon as you criticize men, you are accused of being a misandre. That’s when I realized: in fact, that’s exactly it.

The short, fluid “I hate men” is part of a recent revival of anti-masculine sentiment in French feminist literature. Like Harmange, Alice Coffin, elected councilor of the city of Paris, spoke about misandry in “Lesbian Genius”, published at the end of September by Grasset (the English translation rights have not yet been sold). If the book is above all an account of her experience as a lesbian journalist and activist, coupled with a series of interviews with American LGBT journalists, a section is devoted to the “war of men” against women. Coffin argues that male-made art is “an extension of the system of domination” and writes that she avoids it.

The candor of Coffin and Harmange’s work struck a chord in France. The country has been slow to reckon with the #MeToo movement, in part because of a generational divide between older feminists and younger, more energetic activists, who point to a lack of progress.

“Feminists have spent a lot of time and energy reassuring men that no, we don’t really hate them, that they are welcome,” Harmange said. “Not much happened in exchange.”

Disillusionment with French politics contributed to the change of the younger generation. While French President Emmanuel Macron once declared gender equality to be “the great cause of my term”, his government has been criticized for implementing few feminist policies. Last year, Mr Macron appointed a man who had previously been accused of rape, Gérald Darmanin, as interior minister.

In an interview at his home in Paris, Coffin said the men had “had their chance” to push for equality. “They could have picked up on the hints a long time ago, but apparently it didn’t generate much excitement.”

In this context, Harmange and Coffin argue that putting brotherhood above the appeasement of men is a logical next step. Historian Colette Pipon, who wrote a book about the emergence of misandry on the fringes of French feminism in the 1970s, describes it as a non-violent response to sexism and misogyny, adding that it had strategic value for feminist movements.

“Often the most radical women make other people seem reasonable and empower them to change things,” she said.

Some women still believe that group calling men does more harm than good. In a column for the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, the philosopher Élisabeth Badinter criticized the “binary thought” of “belligerent neo-feminism”. Others support Harmange and Coffin, but stop short of calling themselves misandrists. Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent black journalist and activist for racial and gender equality, said in a phone interview that she didn’t want to “focus my activism on men.”

Diallo noted that it’s also harder for women of color to follow Harmange and Coffin’s lead. “When you’re a non-white feminist, it’s going to be quickly analyzed as a kind of hatred of white men,” she said. “Misandry is going to be racialized.”

The threat of near-constant harassment is real. Coffin said on the worst days in recent months, she’s been targeted by “thousands and thousands” of messages a day. She filed several police reports, including three for death threats, and at one point was placed under police protection.

Harmange also received rape and death threats. Both writers said the worst of the abuse came after prestigious media organizations lent their support to criticism of women’s work, such as when a journalist from radio station Europe 1 called Coffin’s writing “a genocidal moral project” in October.

As a result, Harmange, a digital native who credits social media in part for her political awakening as a college student, had to take breaks from Twitter and tried to limit herself to “five minutes a day” on the site.

Their appeals to sisterhood have not gone unnoticed, however. Expressions of support softened the effect of the abuse, and Coffin emphasized the “joie de vivre” of publishing her experiences as a woman and a lesbian: “Language is so important in freeing the mind.

And the fact that writers like them are adopted by the small world of French publishing – dogged by accusations of cronyism and lack of diversity – suggests that certain lines are moving. Novelist Chloé Delaume, a self-proclaimed misandrist, received the prestigious Prix Médicis in November. In a phone interview, she said that when she was new to the literary scene in the 2000s, misandry was “considered a joke”.

Harmange now has three more books slated for publication, including a novel she wrote before “I Hate Men,” titled “Limoges to Die,” due out this year or 2022, and an essay about her difficult experience of abortion, scheduled for 2022.

Above all, the success of “I Hate Men” means she can pay her bills. For the first time in years, Harmange said she didn’t have to wonder if she should move back in with her parents.

“I was never brave enough to be a role model, an ‘inspirational’ woman,” she wrote two years ago in the blog post that led to “I Hate Men.” For a generation of French feminists, she may have become one.

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