‘I want to write a book about masculinity.’

Matt Haig, Twitter and popular discourses of inclusive feminism.

Matt Haig, writer of the successful novel The Humans (2013) as well as a recent autobiographical work Reasons to Stay Alive (2015), has been making the rounds in the popular press in the last few days. Admittedly I knew little about him apart from that he wrote a book about depression and is apparently quite popular on social media. Good to know.

But when I heard that there was a rumble going on on Twitter about some writer who was getting heckled because he wanted to write a book about ‘masculinity’ my internet ears pricked up. I love a good Twitter showdown.

Haig is a self-proclaimed feminist and his intention to write a book about masculinity struck a nerve with a lot of people (also feminists) for a number of reasons. According to these detractors, Haig was merely complicit in Masculine Rights Activism’s aims of making it all about the menz again, or he was mansplaining feminism, or books about masculinity have no place within feminist discourses.

Male feminists often come under scrutiny. Joss Whedon is a favourable target of feminist critique, both within and outside the academy. He recently deleted his Twitter account for reasons which may or may not be related to the heckling he received for his portrayal of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Haig, though, took the time to retweet some of his critics’ Tweets as well as respond to them, coming to the following conclusion:

Prior to this, he mentioned:

Actually, yes? What irked me about Haig’s statements was not that he would be making it all about the menz (which is an argument that doesn’t apply to me considering that I devote an entire chapter of my thesis to heterosexuals). The idea that nobody has written about masculinity, ever, in all time, throughout all of history, simply isn’t true. Masculinity, including but not limited to its pitfalls, has been a prime concern of gender theorists for decades. In fact Men’s Studies courses have been offered at universities for quite some time, although more common are all-inclusive Gender Studies. These endeavors are not just making it all about the menz, but rather seek to identify ways in which the patriarchy negatively affects men (often through its devaluation of femininity). They can be interdisciplinary, incorporating sociological approaches and making use of a variety of theories including queer theory and, yes, feminist theory.

But Haig’s planned analysis of masculinity, as he promoted it on Twitter, lives in a vacuum, divorced from its siblings. This leads to questions which crop up again and again when thinking about the popular’s incorporation of political — in this case feminist — discourses: does the inclusion of feminism in popular culture depoliticize the cause? Should celebrities be political? Am I allowed to like a thing which includes feminism but is in many ways a problematic version of it?

These issues are in many ways applicable to what I’m going to refer to this situation. Haig’s proposed investigation of masculinity, from the sounds of it, seems to be doing for masculinity/gender studies what Caitin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (2011) did for feminism: opening up the cause for wide audiences and through accessible, humorous means, whilst being somewhat disengaged with the rich history of previous interrogation.

Haig’s scope is evidenced by his frequent use quotations from that highly revered gender theorist, Emma Watson. I’m ridiculing it, but that’s just his demographic. He situates himself within the popular. Additionally, his novels have been aimed at a young adult audience, and so citing theories referring to the “congealing” of gender might be a bit scary. That said, scholars such as Michael Kimmel have remained both insightful and accessible and are much more fun to read than, say, Judith Butler.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the this is the way in which the popular press have reported on it. The Guardian’s headline read ‘Matt Haig “crucified” on Twitter for planning book about masculinity’ (the word “crucified” was a direct quote from Haig), while the Telegraph declared that ‘When men talk about feminism, it brings out the worst of Twitter.’ The Independent describes that ‘Matt Haig defends proposed book about masculinity from Twitter users insisting it sounds “anti-feminist.”’

These articles single out the most inflammatory statements aimed at Haig as being representative of the irrational, or “wrong,” response to what is presented as a man with a well-meant agenda. However, the privileging of these responses in order to create a story (“man says thing about feminism, is silenced by angry feminists”) perpetuates the age-old practice of dismissing feminist voices as belonging to a hoard of unreasonable banshees. (Interestingly, Haig later came under fire for discrediting certain Twitter users’ comments as seeming ‘a bit crazy.’) Clearly the people attacking Haig on Twitter for performing a ‘witch hunt against feminism & feminists’ know about as much about wider discussions about masculinity as Haig does. And yet, these are the voices that the press initially focus on, a significant feat in itself. If, as Haig suggests, we live in a ‘post-HeForShe’ age, why is it necessary feature these voices as the figureheads of what is characterized as deviant feminism, even feminism gone too far?

Perusing through Haig’s Twitter feed (and there is an awful lot of it), I’m immediately drawn to the vast amounts of support he receives on virtually every one of his Tweets. And yet, Haig claims to have scrapped his masculinity book because he’s ‘not the person for it.’ That said, Haig should write his book about masculinity and he probably will. We do need to talk more about masculinity. Meanwhile I’ll be grinding my teeth in the library’s gender section.

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