Page URL: http://www.nationalpost.com/commentary.asp?f=990811/51511
Wednesday, August 11, 1999Misogyny's obscure sibling
Elin Schoen Brockman
New York Times
The London debut of Swetnam the Woman-Hater may not have been the biggest event of 1618, but it had lasting impact. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this play introduced the word misogynist into the English language. The word caught on immediately, which makes sense, since there have always been men who have despised women.
But there have always been women who have despised men. Why, then, wasn't it until 1946 that an equivalent word for hostility toward males appeared? And why, once the word misandry surfaced (in Scrutiny, a defunct British journal of literary criticism), did it sink quickly into near oblivion?
"It's a word one almost never finds in literature," says Harold Bloom, the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and author most recently of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. "It's not even much of a critical term."
Yet once Bloom began thinking about it, he had no trouble coming up with examples of implicit, even explicit, misandry (not to be confused with misanthropy, which means "hatred of mankind"). "I cannot think of one instance of misogyny," Bloom said, referring to Shakespeare's works, "whereas I would argue misandry is a strong element. Shakespeare makes perfectly clear that women in general have to marry down and that men are narcissistic and not to be trusted and so forth. On the whole, he gives us a darker vision of human males than human females."
Of course, in literature as in real life, neither misogyny nor misandry has the upper hand for long. This makes all the more perplexing the fact that there's so clearly a winner in the battle of the language of sexism. Misogyny has made it into just about every dictionary of the English language. Misandry has not.
It is true the word is currently being seen, if not heard, more than ever, reflecting an escalation in the behaviour it describes. Misandrous humour is now PC. Consider these recent book titles: Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Hell, All Men Are Jerks Until Proven Otherwise, Dads Say the Dumbest Things: A Collection of Fatherly Wit and Wisdom and Men and Other Reptiles.
"When peoples' attitudes change," says Frank Abate, editor-in-chief of the U.S. Dictionaries Program for Oxford University Press, "that changes the language."
But even societal acceptance of misandrous, as opposed to misogynous, attitudes has not helped misandry catch up with misogyny in everyday parlance or in print. Misogyny needs no introduction; misandry appears accompanied by a parenthetical translation. The following sentence is from the National Organization for Men's Web site: "The deleterious effect on men has been even further exacerbated by the emergence during these past decades of a misandry (male hatred) that characterizes men in general as violent, abusive and as historical oppressors."
It seems political correctness is not a critical determinant of which words get into dictionaries. "You can't make the language do what you want it to do," Abate said in an interview. "It does what it will do. Modern lexicography regards itself as recording and reporting much more than prescribing."
Misandry has lacked the necessary word of mouth. Perhaps it's simply too much of a mouthful. But, as Bloom points out, the same could be said of misogyny, "an absolutely ghastly word."
Misogyny, however, has a buzz that has somehow eluded misandry. "A word is used in a literary context," Abate said, "or on TV, in a song, an advertising piece, it could be anything -- it gets picked up, people hear it and read it and say it -- and then it sticks. Or it doesn't stick."
Even in 1618, buzz could make a word happen. Swetnam the Woman-Hater, whose author remains unknown to this day, is a case in point. Its main character, Misogenos, was based on one Joseph Swetnam who had published a pamphlet trashing the female sex, which caused considerable debate. Dissenting pamphlets included one titled Ester Hath Hang'd Haman by Ester Sowernam, who wanted "to proue, that . . . if there be any offense in woman, men were the beginners." So what launched misogyny was not merely the word; it was the play, and, beyond the play itself, the fact that it got people talking.
But some recent wisdom from the Internet, where many people do their talking nowadays, suggests it may not take a play called The Misandrist or a movie called Misandry (a Stephen King project?) to put the M-word over the top. Consider the words of Lynette, age 8: "Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough." Or Anita, age 9: "It's better for girls to be single but not for boys. Boys need someone to clean up after them." Perhaps it's only a matter of time.
Copyright © Southam Inc.