Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Remember the 1990s? It was a decade where lads’ mags decorated magazine shelves in supermarkets and where Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus with its gender stereotypes sold in millions. I remember reading an extract of the latter as part of an exam at school, with no feminist criticism in sight — and that was well into this millennium.
With the fourth wave of feminism came the realization that there is still a massive gap between ideals and reality and that women have not, in fact, achieved equality with men despite being told so — sexism, and therefore feminism, are very much not dead. Then in 2017 #MeToo revolutionalized feminism with, as Sam Mills describes it, “a tidal wave of confessions, a cleansing of repressions ignored for decades.” As much as I’d like to believe that it has all been change for the better, the movement has also dragged out murkier phenomena. Mills’s essay Chauvo-Feminism delves into one of them.
A chauvo-feminist is a man who publicly supports feminism, often to advance his career, but who in his private life undermines, belittles or assaults women. Here’s a specimen: the sixty-fifth New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was known as a champion of women’s rights who filed a civil rights suit against Harvey Weinstein and appeared at events supporting reproductive freedom, among just some of his merits. However, a darker side of him was exposed by the New Yorker when four women revealed how he had slapped, choked and abused them. Mills runs through multiple stories like this, some concerning well-known figures, others anonymous accounts, and through that proves to any doubters that we are dealing with a very real issue here.
One of those accounts is her own. Throughout the essay, Mills reflects on her relationship with R, a British academic. They laugh together, they get into deep conversations and they sleep together; but at the same time R subjects Mills to psychological abuse, to the point that it affects her career opportunities. Yet Mills doesn’t cut off R, and her self-reflection on this is easily the most powerful part of the book. She explains what it is like to believe in someone even if from the outside you want to shout “run!”, and through this highlights how gaslighting works in practice, as well as the kind of power structures and psychological tendencies that enable abuse of this kind. Many things are described as brave, but this is certainly brave in the full meaning of the word.
Apart from establishing the concept of chauvo-feminism, Mills does a spectacular job combing through the arguments that different voices have presented against #MeToo. These include Douglas Murray writing in The Spectator that women’s rights had gained some sort of fulfillment in the 20th century, but that #MeToo was a train that “went crashing off down the tracks and into the distance”, as well as Meghan Daum arguing that women should address their own issues with toxic femininity. Mills’s counterarguments are balanced and subtle, something that is too often lost in the cacophony of Twitter.
Not coincidentally, Mills calls for more constructive discussions to be had in order to make real progress; too often, one wrongly worded tweet can lead to misplaced outrage. She highlights important work by men in the wake of #MeToo; the Australian journalist Benjamin Law started the #HowIWillChange hashtag for men to share how they’ll promote greater equality through everyday actions, while the YouTube channel Man Enough provides a platform for men to discuss modern masculinity and the implications of #MeToo. Comedian Dave Chappelle has even come up with the idea of councils, similar to those set up in the aftermath of oppressive regimes, to address issues of gender inequality.
Chauvo-Feminism brings out phenomena that are too easily overlooked or not recognized at all, but it also shows, with concrete examples, that there is hope for a less sexist future. I have only one issue with Mills’s essay: will the people who really need to read it — the chauvo-feminists themselves — do so?
Anna is a journalist and bookworm.
Sam Mills, Chauvo-Feminism (Indigo Press, 2021). 978-1911648185, 176 pp., paperback original..
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