How Male Entitlement Ruins the Best and Purest of Things

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It probably says something about me that until early October this year, the whole phenomenon known as alt-lit had flown under my radar, Russian stealth-fighter fashion, which is no mean feat for a literary movement which appears, from the descriptions of those outside it, to be all about self-exposure on whichever social media forum happens to be most public. I’m not sure what that something is, other than I quickly click past websites which announce the presence of a ‘new literary paradigm’ the way most people would speed up past a pile of rotting meat, and if that sounds snide, or as if I’m pouring cold water on other people’s literary dreams, then all I can say is that some dreams deserve to have cold water poured on them and I’m not sorry for that.

Because of my blissful ignorance, the first inkling I had about alt-lit came in the form of a scandal and I’m not proud to say that got my attention in a way no number of hyperliterary Tumblr posts would have. There’s an irony in the fact that real life turned out to be more interesting to me than real life lightly dressed up as fiction, which is what the ‘new literary paradigm’ of alt-lit appeared to boil down to. Given the choice between a YouTube video of disaster and a modern dance interpretation of that same event, I’m a YouTube gal every time. That probably says something about me too.

So, the scandal. You’re probably all familiar with the details now, but if not, accounts can be found here and here. I read them and generally, when one reads such accounts of abuse and misogyny, one is supposed to experience a mounting sense of outrage, but actually although I did experience a mounting sense of something, the primary emotion which built up in my consciousness wasn’t anger. It wasn’t even despair, which one is also often expected to have when privileged people who ought to know better behave in terrible ways. My mounting sense was hard to describe but came in the form of an absence of surprise. I had a mounting sense of not being surprised.

Writing, more than any form of artistic expression requires empathy, and male entitlement, based on the notion that women aren’t real people with a point of view, is its antithesis.

The phrase ‘male entitlement’ has been hanging around the internet for a few years now, mostly on websites which self-identify as having a feminist slant. It means in a sense on the part of #somebutnotall men that their sexual desire is a problem that women have a duty to solve. The thinking seems to go that since women cause the sexual desire, women are morally bound to satisfy it. Male entitlement, described that way, has been around as long as the penis, but as a concept it became boosted into public consciousness in May of this year, when Elliot Rodger killed six people in Isla Vista. Rodger’s act of mass murder caught our attention more than usual for two reasons – his father has a quoteworthy job in show business and he made a public record of the reasons for his actions, a spleen-filled video and a weepy manifesto about the unfairness of a world which wouldn’t allow him to have sex with any pretty woman who caught his eye. Suddenly, male entitlement was not the invention of some wild-eyed SJWs who needed to take a chill pill and stop veiling their secret hatred of men in hard-to-parse academic articles. Suddenly male entitlement had a face and a voice.

As if a huge and blurry object has now snapped into focus, once a thing is named, you see it everywhere. Attitudes and acts which didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow ten years ago make headlines now. There doesn’t appear to be an arena of human expression which doesn't contain a room in which this toxic elephant has recently been spotted: the NFL, the music industry, fashion photography, video gaming, the atheist movement, YouTube entertainment channels, British light entertainment, college campuses  and the US military. 2014 isn't even out, and already all of these have found themselves the subject of headlines with a common subject at the core: male entitlement.

Does this explain my mounting lack of surprise at the alt-lit story? Male entitlement may not affect all men, but it affects men in all walks of life. We live in a world where men are men and women are objects. We live in a world where aggression is promoted as a desirable quality. We live in a world where the first act of any game-based reality TV show is to divide the contestants into two teams: one for the boys and one for the girls, as if to underline the fact in heavy marker pen that gender is the supreme divider. The fact that any of us, male or female, manage to overcome that tide of programming, one which starts as soon as we pop out of the womb if not before (what’s the first question we ask when a couple posts the ultrasound on FB?), and create successful relationships with those not of our gender, is cause for surprise. That some men take too literally the tacit message that women owe them sex, because men are the ones who do all the important stuff and women ought to be eternally grateful for that and demonstrate said gratitude in the bedroom, can’t come as a surprise to anyone, me included.

But it is a cause of sadness. Call me naïve, but I believe that making a success of writing as a profession demands a greater than ordinary degree of self knowledge. Writers have to understand other people: what motivates them, what makes them happy, what makes them sad. We need to guess at hidden secrets. We must comprehend the roots of shame and the drive to overcome hardships. When we create successful characters in our fiction; then with nothing more than marks on a page we have constructed a human persona which other people can recognize and root for. Writing, more than any form of artistic expression requires empathy, and male entitlement, based on the notion that women aren’t real people with a point of view, is its antithesis. This is what makes me sad: that in the case of these events all it took to vanquish empathy, the writer’s most important tool, was a sniff of power.

To be fair, the alt-lit offenders aren’t the first men to abuse literary success.  From Norman ‘woman should be kept in cages’ Mailer to David Foster Wallace, who made up for a lonely adolescence with ‘audience pussy’, some male writers have grabbed the chance to translate prominence into promiscuity, and who knows how high or low some of them set the bar of consent? As I said above, until recently, male entitlement was the out-of-focus elephant in the room. Any woman who felt herself abused by a famous man of letters and decided to speak out, would have found herself pointing at a pachyderm that no one else could see.

Things have changed and for the better. Women can point and the rest of us can see. As those of us who read the bottom half of the internet know, some men don’t like the pointing. The elephant isn’t that big, they say. These are isolated cases of elephants. Or, when cornered: This isn’t about elephants at all. It’s about standards in journalism. In the case of the alt-lit male entitlement elephant, one fact encourages me. No one has tried to minimize the beast, or pretend it is a giraffe, or claim that 'there women go again, making up elephants that don’t exist.' One of those named copped to his offense immediately. Another came forward unprompted. Perhaps being a writer does require a deeper degree of empathy after all.

Do I have a mounting sense of hope? A hope that the literary world will be the first to escape the dismal chasm of male entitlement and create an environment which rewards people according to their talents, avoids the traps of overhype and flattens power imbalances? I do have hope, but the gradient of my hope is shallow. The publishing industry still operates too frequently on the basis of who you know, not how you write. We still kiss the hem of the successful in the belief that success is, like Ebola, a transmissible condition. We bestow success on men more readily than women, because that’s our mindset – men succeed, women support. We confuse confidence with trustworthiness and the results are bad for everyone.

In 2009, Gideon Lewis-Kraus visited the Frankfurt Book Fair and wrote about the experience for Harpers . Publishing was, at that time, experiencing one of its regular apocalypses. Confronted by  tables piled with unpunctuated Slovenian poetry and manga guides to statistical regression, Lewis-Kraus remarks: ‘It is tempting to think that the problem with publishing is just too many awful books, but then again 99 percent of anything is mediocre, and people don’t tend to complain that there are too many mediocre widgets. Books are something we have higher expectations for.’

Male entitlement ruins the best and the purest things. As writers, let’s aim higher.

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Comments

neverbeen's picture
neverbeen is reading If You Could See Me Now by Peter Straub November 10, 2014 - 4:07pm

Well, Litreactor, it's been fun, but I refuse to be associated with anything, or anyone, that man hates. Sayonara.

 

 

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading Adjustment Day November 10, 2014 - 4:39pm

"Writing, more than any form of artistic expression requires empathy, and male entitlement, based on the notion that women aren’t real people with a point of view, is its antithesis. "

Unlike assuming half the population could suffer from a singular form of entitlement inherent to their gender... yeah that shows a ton of empathy, understanding of the male psyche and of the human condition.

June Faramore's picture
June Faramore from Baltimore, Hon is reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Destruction of the European Jews, Haunted, Damned, In Cold Blood, Infinite Jest November 10, 2014 - 11:24pm

And the defensive begin. Thanks for the article. Been a while since a new "genre" has caught my interest like this.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast November 11, 2014 - 2:00am

As Dr Phil would say, I hate the behaviour, not the person @neverbeen

@Nick - did you read the part where I specifically say that not all men behave this way?

@June - you're welcome :)

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff November 11, 2014 - 3:18am

You can't understand male entitlement unless you experience it as a recipient. Because that's what you become. A recipient for their ego, which by the way becomes more fragile every drop spilt.

I see male friends struggling with this concept, and yet we've spent years reasoning about gender issues together. Male entitlement feels so normal because we have received it as a default. 

I'm sure a lot of reasonable men would benefit from a serious dicussion about these issues. That's why we need more women writers, so we can make it understandable.

So let's write, girls. Let's write tons.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast November 11, 2014 - 3:37am

^^ what Flaminia said.

Skygrotto's picture
Skygrotto from Southwestern Ontario is reading Europe: A History by Norman Davies November 11, 2014 - 6:22am

This hits home, I have a 2yr old daughter & already worry what males may do, & my wife was touched at a clothes store yesterday, people let it slide, the toucher was older. This article is so good, & I hope to promote what males ca_ do to improve our ge_der with a story I'm worki_g right _ow.

 

*Laptop has issues typi_g a certai_ letter at this time.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 11, 2014 - 7:10am

Cath I normally love your articles, but you've missed the point so badly I'm shocked.  The issue is a sex crime.  Women commit them.  Besides phrases like 'male entitlement' seeming to encourage rude behavior instead of dialog, this adds to a stereotype that only men rape. It is already hard for anyone to come forward or admit this happened, and even harder for someone to come forward when a woman did something like this. Sure, this guy is scum.  But the important word is scum, not guy.

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day November 11, 2014 - 8:41am

Male entitlement may not affect all men, but it affects men in all walks of life.

The thinking seems to go that since women cause the sexual desire, women are morally bound to satisfy it. Male entitlement, described that way,

May not affect all men? I can assure you the majority of men in this country don't walk around thinking women are morally bound to satisfy the male ego/sex drive. Obviously there are a lot of creeps out there (of both genders), but that sentence really does stereotype all men as having the potential to objectify women to the point of criminality. I think a more thought-out and tempered sentence would be more appropriate - I didn't find this article to be 'male-bashing', but I do think there are multiple problems with the sentence I've called out that chips away at the fairness of the point trying to be made. 

On a lighter note, if men have ruined alt-lit (which I'm still not quite sure what that is), then women ruined love/romance with chic-lit! I used to believe in matters of the heart, but then I read "The Devil Wears Prada" and similar fare pre and post and now I have to do all my thinking with my brain, my heart has been dumbed down to mush by female authors who insist all they really want is [insert nonsense here]. Plus Nicholas Sparks - I'm not letting that dude off the hook either!!

In summation, I think as a society we're really not going to move much forward until we can all agree that some people are just the absolute worst! If we're not suppose to judge, prejudice or stereotype people of all genders, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc, then that has to also hold true of white-males - sorry, that's just one of the parts to being a truly equal planet of civilizations. And my preference is not to be lumped in with serial killers and misogynistic authors from the 70s - I think my actions as a person has earned me better than that!

Good article - gets you thinking!

Joe Hanley's picture
Joe Hanley from New York November 11, 2014 - 9:36am

Excellent article Cath. I had no idea about the alt-lit scene and the shennanigans going on. I may not thank you for that knowledge.

There is a difference between acknowledging that male entitlement (or male privilege) does exist and then saying that all men are willing participants and want to give that entitlement protected status. But when the issue is raise, some, mostly men, take the two concepts as being synonymous. Believe me, I have no interest in handholding anyone who can't suss out that crucial difference, but I think I understand part of the reason why the confusion persists. The perfectly acceptable descriptors 'privilege' & 'entitlement' have been saddled with all sorts of extra emotional baggage over the past few years. They have been buzzwordified (yay, neologism!) beyond recognition by partisan sentiment. The phrase "check your privilege" has been parodied ad nauseum. If you haven't come across the meme with the knitcap-wearing-dredlock-sporting young woman uttering it, well, you haven't spent much time on the Internet. And entitled is a great verb but a not so great adjective to be on the receiving end of.

Again, I have no interest in handholding or protecting feelings of delicate male sensibilities, my own included. 'Boo hoo, they're calling me privileged.' Yeah, cause that's way worse than being actually, uh, disadvantaged.

Male privilege exists and I as a man have certainly benefited from it. My playing field has had fewer obstacles, I got a one minute headstart in the 25 meter dash, I've been sailing with the wind, my sled has teflon runners, whether I have maximized this hidden opportunity or not, it exists. And it is wrong. Why is it so hard for some people to say that? I don't take it as a personal slight since I am not the one personally responsible for it coming about.

The nice thing about acknowledging the elephant in the room is that you then get a choice to either be crushed on the credenza or send it out to play with all the other formerly room-bound pachyderms. "Oh look over there! Racist elephant looks lonely! Why don't you two play tag!"

 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal November 11, 2014 - 8:00pm

i think dwayne hit the nail on the head.

another sad point is that we can't have an open discussion about what is and isn't rape without a HUGE shit-throwing, overly emotional fight occurring. 

for example, if she's way too drunk to consent, but HE is also way too drunk to consent, and they do it, did he rape her? [fight begins].

another example, if we're making out, i make a move to undress her and she says no, and i stop trying to undress her, she continues to make out with me, half an hour later i try to undress her and she goes for it... now am i a rapist? if so, what is the time limit between her saying no and me having to wait before i'm in the clear when she is no longer saying no? [fight begins].

maybe 1% of people who care at all can talk about this reasonably.

 

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast November 12, 2014 - 3:01am

@Joe Hanley - Yes, I get that some words become triggers and sure as an entitled white person I resent the assumption by non-entitled people that my life has been easier than theirs and everything I've achieved has been by dint of my privileged whiteness. That's not a comfortable position to be in, but a little discomfort never hurt anyone ;). I've learned to swallow my resentment and do a little acknowledging and hey presto the world has become a more comfortable place for me again. It sounds like you have done the same. Good for you.

@everyone making the point that I should have subsituted the word 'people' for 'male'. Read back to where I said that one reaction to talking about the elephant is to say 'that's not an elephant, it's a giraffe'? Saying that male entitlement doesn't really exist or that it's unfair to preface the word 'entitlement' with the word 'male' because some women behave this way too, is like saying the elephant is a giraffe. Take a long look at the problem. It does not have a long neck and a tasteful pattern of chequers on its hide. It has a trunk and grey wrinkled skin. This is something men do to women, not that people do to people and to try and pretend otherwise is just an attempt to dodge a painful elephant-shaped truth.

 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing November 12, 2014 - 1:15pm

Just to add one more observation: Not all men think that women owe them sex. Some of us think that other men owe us sex. But we're quickly beaten down, sometimes physically, for harboring that belief. Gay men are far from perfect, but at least we don't force women to be the supposed answer to our unfulfilled desire. We keep our eyes on the prize: men's fantastic butts.

--Ed

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 12, 2014 - 4:24pm

@Cath - You painted with a very broad brush.  

This is something men do to women, not that people do to people

I was a victim of a sex crime committed solely by a woman.  I've never known any man to find it easy to admit that.  I've seen a man laughed at for saying it. Part of the reason is the logic above says I'm not a person, that it can't happen. Stereotypes like this makes it more difficult for men who've been through this. Please stop using them, especially in serious detailed articles.

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff November 13, 2014 - 3:45am

I'm very sorry for what has happened to you Dwayne, but the reason someone gets laughed at for saying he's been harassed by a woman is exactly the old perception that the man should always be the aggressor. That man is the hunter and woman is prey. That man proposes and woman says yes or no. That man is the active and woman the passive. That man goes out providing and woman encourages him. Sex offense is just an extreme consequence of a strict adherence to this template, and yes, both men and women can be that strict.

This is the logic at the root of male entitlement and if a male doesn't conform to this paradigm he gets laughed at for the same reason a woman is always questioned when she takes up an active role. They both break an old structure that seemed functional long ago but now shows all its flaws.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast November 13, 2014 - 6:59am

^^what Flaminia said.

I'm also sorry that happened to you Dwayne. Now I'm going to share something of my own as illustration that your personal experience won't and can't influence what we decide to do collectively, at the level of society. My ex-husband attempted to kill me (bad news: ruptured spleen, good news: I survived). When I was recovered enough to meet with a divorce lawyer, she explained to me that even though no one could possibly expect me to stay married to the bastard (except his mother, but she's religious, so go figure), the principle of no-fault divorce still applied. In other words, he could rot in a jail cell for years, but still be entitled to half our property. That may seem crazy, but for the general population of married people, no-fault divorce makes huge sense. It streamlines the process, cuts the expense and minimizes the squabbling. So the unfairness to me has to be balanced against the vast majority of other cases. After some griping, I accepted this and got on with my life. Your experience sounds like it falls into the same category as mine. A woman treated you badly, but that's exceptional. If we want to tackle this blight as a culture, we have to focus on the bigger picture, which is that this is typically something men do to women and not the other way around.

Hope that helps.

 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal November 13, 2014 - 12:56pm

Maybe part of the problem here is that the phrase male entitlement instantly sounds like it applies to all males, (disregarding that some believe it does) much in the same way that white privelage somehow makes every white person guilty of something, in the eyes of some.

Veronika Kaufmann's picture
Veronika Kaufmann November 13, 2014 - 4:09pm

to the guy who can't take any criticism that btw wasn't directed at all men - good grief dude. what a wuss. Serious. 

 

Great article Cath. "Books are something we have higher expectations for." Indeed. 

Flaminia Ferina's picture
Flaminia Ferina from Umbria is reading stuff November 15, 2014 - 2:51am

Cath, it hurt me to hear what your ex-husband did to you, and I'm glad to see you moved on with supreme style.

Your strength is of massive inspiration. Your articles always refreshing.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated November 14, 2014 - 2:35pm

Thank you for being kind about the issue, and I'm sorry for what happened to you Cath.  But the point I'm getting at is that maybe even though you are opposed to the idea, it is in your thinking. Maybe the / a big difference is it is more accepted to admit male on female rap happens.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal November 14, 2014 - 10:30pm

^

Or maybe since it happens more often, we just round off the other stuff?

Plus there's the present day narrative we're all compelled by society to follow...