It’s been a long time since I needed so much resolve to make it all the way through a book. Life’s too short, and I’m too old, to waste time on something that is clearly devoid of value. Despite low expectations I did genuinely approach Peter Lloyd’s “Stand By Your Manhood” with an open mind, a genuine curiosity and an expectation that I would learn something. It is difficult, even for the greatest writers and thinkers, to convey their beliefs with any precision within the confines of 140-character tweets. So, while I didn’t expect to be converted to the MRA cause, I did expect to at least understand it a little better, to get a grip on its logic, its intentions, its purpose. Perhaps (I thought) a full-length book would correct a few misunderstandings, allay a few concerns, help me at least begin to see MRAs as intelligent, sensitive humans who perhaps just have a different worldview to me. This would be VALUABLE (I thought) because only when you can understand your opponent can you begin to engage with them in a productive way.
I was wrong. I didn’t really have any misunderstandings, my concerns were strengthened and, if Lloyd is their most eloquent spokesperson, MRAs certainly aren’t either intelligent or sensitive. It says something when even Milo Yiannopoulos can only muster up “a fun read” as a review when attempting to plug the book on Twitter.
As I clawed my way through his execrable nonsense and bile, my opinion was constantly switching from “This would be funny if it wasn’t so sad,” to “This would be sad if it wasn’t so funny.” It’s just so hard to tell whether to laugh or cry at times.
Take (more or less at random), this segment:
“…famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said something similar: ‘Beware that, when fighting “monsters”, you yourself do not become a monster. For when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ Somebody might want to tell Lose the Lads’ Mags this. Because whenever I see them in action, I remember these words, see the weakness in their extremism and cringe.”
The self-importance and misguided certainty that “Lose the Lads Mags” is an extremist movement of monsters is extraordinary, and desperately sad. But at the same time, it’s hard not to laugh at someone who would so guilelessly and clumsily invoke Nietzsche to defend his perspective. You remember the words of Nietzsche and CRINGE, Peter? Really? The lack of self-reflection in quoting that line without even attempting to apply it to himself or the MRA-movement is very revealing, and is a failing that occurs over and over again in the book. The only self-awareness Lloyd has in this particular paragraph is the realisation that he wouldn’t be able to quote Nietzsche to his readership without carefully explaining that he is a “famous philosopher” first.
The writing style is similarly awful and clumsy throughout, though. Lloyd is clearly desperately angry and bitter, and is never far from spitting out unfocussed invective or RESORTING TO CAPITAL LETTERS TO SHOW HOW CROSS HE IS (“CIRCUMCISION DOESN’T WORK AS A SAFE-SEX METHOD, YOU MORONS” he yells at one point). And yet, his tabloid background and desire to write in an arch, light style clashes horribly with this rage. You can almost hear him wrestling with himself as he writes, trying to hide his fury under layers of sub-Charlie Brooker ironic detachment, and matey all-lads-together banter.
This habit leads him down some bizarre paths. In the middle of a rant about how women trap men into marriage (“This is about punishment and female self-entitlement”) he suddenly decides to lighten the mood with a bit of wistfulness (“In one way, the appeal of marriage is like old VHS tapes. We look at them via our childhood with a warm, nostalgic glow”). Clumsy and stupid, but one can see the point he is trying to make at least. But then we get a lengthy, four paragraph long meander through the history of video-rental…adjusting the tracking on a VHS tape, the death of Blockbuster, the advent of DVD, video-on-demand over the internet, it’s all here. It goes on and on and on like a pub bore who has forgotten the point of the story he’s telling, until lumbering its way to a dreadful pun in a failed attempt to draw the chapter back to the subject of marriage and divorce (“People don’t want…disproportionate financial penalties for putting their tape in somebody else’s machine.”). The weird thing is that he even knows he’s doing it, stopping mid—paragraph to admit that he may “be battering a metaphor to death.” And yet he still can’t stop himself. I can only assume his editor had given up after reading the title page.
I didn’t need to remember any Nietzsche quotes to cringe mightily at some of his attempts to put colour, human interest and immediacy into his writing. Every conversation he reports contains a clumsy little description of whoever he has managed to corner. A man he calls has an “ocean-hopping Irish-American accent.” Another phone-call on the same page is answered with “an East Coast purr.” It’s supposed to be engaging, but it just comes over as creepy and weird.
Many sentences need to be read several times before you concede defeat and accept that they are utterly meaningless, illogical or self-defeating, however many different ways you look at them:
“Commercials are formulaic because they follow a formula.”
“Supporters of these moral-compass clampdowns do nothing – at all, ever – to close gay sex clubs. And nor should they.”
“Yes, OK, the film industry is mostly managed by men on an administrative level, but not really.”
“Even if we do live in a patriarchy, it’s a gynocentric one.”
I think I laughed hardest at his description of his good pal Martin Daubney as “an articulate and considered force, not to mention an ideal ambassador for the genre. Anything but the Neanderthal his haters might expect, he’s actually a cool, calm, everyman figure.” God help us all if he is an everyman figure.
It’s certainly easy to laugh, and there ARE plenty of laughs at in this book, although never where Lloyd intends them to be. But he does genuinely have high ambitions of making a difference and conveying what he thinks is a serious message. His book is nothing short of a “formal invitation” to join the hilariously named “suffragents”:
“a new breed of sane, sorted men whose political interests are jointly at the fore with women’s. Not to undo or compete with feminism, but to sit alongside it and create symmetry.”
He sees his book as
“…the grassroots beginning of a potential revolution. Perhaps even the ultimate game-changer.”
Heady stuff. Undaunted by the challenge, Lloyd sets out to discuss a series of important issues: war, sex, men’s health, marriage and relationships.
And, naturally, his cock.
The very first chapter is devoted specifically to penises. He is utterly obsessed and convinced that men are embarrassed of, and constantly humiliated by their cocks:
“Men are rated, denigrated and humiliated by their penises in every facet of life.”
IN EVERY FACET OF LIFE, mind you! The chapter sets the tone and pattern for the whole book. There are things about life that men don’t like…and it’s all women’s fault. Every single problem. For instance, small penises aren’t a problem, the real problem is large vaginas:
“if she thinks you’re too small, chances are it’s because she’s too big. After all, men can put a master key in a door, but if the lock’s too big then it won’t open. And that’s not our fault.”
Of course, for all of Lloyd’s worry that men are constantly humiliated for having small genitals and that it is very unfair to rate men’s masculinity on this basis IN EVERY FACET OF LIFE, he also makes sure to go out of his way to let us know that his willy is perfectly adequate, thank you very much. Having related a couple of anecdotes about women apparently criticising a man’s size, “Both times, my heart sank. Not for me or my body – I’m happy!” Jolly good, Peter, that’s an enormous relief. Not that it would matter of course, wink wink.
So, all very humorous, but there is a more sinister darkness to Lloyd’s narrative and it is never far from the surface, even in his attempts at levity.
“The next time you’re about to sleep with somebody who looks at your dick and asks ‘Who’s that going to please?’ the only answer should be: ‘Me.’”
Me. Him. It’s going to please Him and only Him. Hmm. Outright misogyny does keep queasily bubbling up in violent language and analogies, some more overt than others. Despite his claim that he doesn’t want to “undo or compete with feminism,” his rage with women and feminists in particular is always there.
Anybody who disagrees with his view is a “hard-liner,” “far-left” or “extremist.” They “use equality legislation to scare retailers into submission” (imagine the nerve of being radical enough to use legislation! Loony lefties, amirite?). They display “self-righteous fury.” Oh, and bless him, they “shush” him and give him a “death-stare” when he tries to impose himself on a woman who doesn’t want to talk to him at a party.
And how women manipulate us poor men with sex, with their “timeless, intoxicating allure men are programmed to respond to.” They are the “gatekeepers of sex, the bouncers on the bedroom door…they’re actually the ones in control because they determine when men get it.” They will “use their erotic capital – heels, make-up, push-up bras – to get what they want from men.” Lloyd’s brilliance and insight even allows him to see the patterns in women’s pack behaviour, and describe them as sensitively as if they were a herd of gazelles on a nature programme: “Visit any northern city on a Saturday night and see for yourself. There’ll be scores of them walking around with no coats on, even if it’s freezing, because no time must be wasted with clothes that conceal. That would hide their magic and give rivals an advantage.” They’ll even steal your sperm (what he refers to as his “cheeky swimmers”) right from a used condom in order to trick you into fatherhood.
He desperately wants to “write a huge take-down piece on Solange Knowles.” He wants to “close all the windows in my house and scream very loudly into a cushion that Barbara Ellen is the c-word, but I refrain: purely because I doubt she has the depth or the warmth.” He enthusiastically agrees with a businessman who was unhappy with his divorce settlement, reporting that “He argued, rather brilliantly, that he would’ve been better off if he’d knocked her down in his car.” He says of parenthood that it is “rarely a bronco worth backing. In fact, for many men, it’s an old nag that needs shooting.” Can anybody spot the dog-whistle violent misogyny in that analogy?
The casual and constant misogyny is breath-taking, and it is then that the book is more disturbing than it is ridiculous. Lloyd is more than willing to play fast and loose with his research to find evidence of the evils of womanhood. It’s chapter after chapter after chapter of an impotently angry man, unable or unwilling to gather or understand evidence properly, throwing in a few anecdotes, a couple of quotes from friendly sources, some misunderstood or misrepresented data and then concluding that Whatever It Is, It’s All Women’s Fault.
What better to prove his points than a woman, or even better a self-proclaimed feminist, who agrees with him, or at least can be made to appear to. Camille Paglia! Christina Hoff-Somers! And THEY agree with him, so checkmate, feminism. And, of course, Karen Straughan, billed here as a VICE Magazine-featured activist, but curiously not mentioning her self-description as “writing on gender issues and pissing off feminists for two years.” Quite the voice of balance. But she’s a woman who will be quoted as agreeing with him, and that’s the important thing.
Lloyd’s failure to even attempt to show balance, and his repeated misrepresentation of data, or blatant inaccuracies, occur so often it is difficult to give any benefit of the doubt that they were accidental.
He describes, for example, how Loaded magazine was originally not focussed on objectifying scantily-clad women and that this only happened because women like Liz Hurley, Donna Air, Kelly Brook and Sara Cox “used this enormous media platform to further their careers…the big change came… thanks to Liz Hurley.” Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. By then editor James Brown’s own description, the first issue included “photos of a young actress called Liz Hurley in see-through lace underwear.” And, full disclosure, I know this to be true because I bought it myself.
He says flat-out that “Even now, the Children and Families Bill doesn’t mention the word ‘father’ once. Not once.” Strictly speaking this is true. It actually mentions the word “father” fifteen times, and it took all of fifteen seconds to discover that fact.
He states that “according to the Office for National Statistics, one in three youngsters now have no access to their father.” Of course, he’s not stupid enough to leave a reference for the source, but the only vaguely similar statistic I could find referred to “dependent children living with one non-widowed parent.” There was no reference to which parent, what access arrangements were in place or whether any lack of access was actually the choice of the father.
On the issue of families without a father, Lloyd says that since the “annual cost of family breakdown is reportedly £44 billion – yep, that’s more than the defence budget – you’d think curing fatherlessness would be a priority for a country haemorrhaging money, but it isn’t.” But he’s a little more coy about how that cost breaks down. £196 million on emergency housing following domestic violence. £1.4 billion on NHS treatment of physical injuries following domestic violence. £176 million of mental health costs related to domestic violence. £283 million on social care costs of domestic violence. £7.3 billion on police, courts, legal aid and child maintenance enforcement. None of this is mentioned by Lloyd who would rather just blithely imply that we’re throwing cash at persecuting men at the expense of money-grabbing women and move on.
He quotes a scientific study as saying that “‘disengaged and remote father– child interactions as early as the third month of life’ predict behaviour problems in children when they are older,” but not the same study’s specific conclusion that “the associations should not be read as demonstrating a causal relationship between father–infant interaction and child behavioural problems.”
He announces, attempting to sound like a brave soldier, that “here’s the bit nobody else will admit: loads of girls do want to get pregnant. They get a free house, FFS! I’d get pregnant for a free house! The Trust for the Study of Adolescence recently proved that scores of teenage girls are deliberately becoming young mothers as a career move.” Not quite, Peter, the reasons the study found for young women desiring a child were, in order:
- To escape a bad situation at home.
- A desire for a loving family of their own.
- A desire to find a purpose in life.
- A desire to prove their own capability.
Not exactly “a career move,” is it? Not exactly undesirable or malevolent motives for a young woman are they? But of course this isn’t mentioned either.
It becomes even more bizarre when Lloyd tries to offer solutions to the problems he perceives. Having written at length about the evils caused by children not having a father present, he suggests that “men could be allowed to formally relinquish all monetary obligations, rights and responsibilities” to children that they had not explicitly pre-consented to, as if that will make the problem better, not exponentially worse.
Having obviously scoured reams of reports to attempt to debunk a pay-gap between the sexes, the best he can do is “female managers in their twenties are now earning 2.1 per cent more than men of the same age” without going on to say, again from the same report he is quoting, that the pay gap is 9.4% and that women continue to earn about £100 less per week than men.
It’s all so sad and unnecessary, and Lloyd’s bitterness seems to constantly prevent him from making points that could have been useful. There are a few sections of the book that hint at something that could actually be productive, but he manages to sabotage all of them. He encourages men to take responsibility for their own health. To exercise, to cut down on tobacco and alcohol, to check on their blood pressure and not to forget to take an inventory of their mental health too. Good stuff, men should do all these things. But then the advice continues into, “tak[ing] time to pressure your local care providers for details of what they spend across the gender lines. Get itemised bills via Freedom of Information requests and share them on social networking sites.” Why? Why not just encourage men to be healthy?
In what is probably the only genuinely engaging and affecting passage on a human level, Lloyd talks about the illness and death of a beloved uncle. It’s a tragic story, and one that could have been used to illustrate any number of worthwhile points about the health system, about men’s attitude to their own health, about the nature of male relationships within families. But instead it’s used as utterly unconvincing evidence that men are considered second-class citizens when it comes to healthcare, with an incidental side-order of “aren’t women useless, how can we trust them?”
“In the midst of a busy GP surgery packed with women and children, I can only assume he didn’t stand out as being particularly important. Over time, his doctor failed to order the right tests. Even when she did, she lost the results. She later promised to make a referral to a specialist, but forgot.”
I found two out-and-out positives in this book, two parts I actively nodded along to and agreed with wholeheartedly.
Firstly, and unsurprisingly, Lloyd dislikes the term “man-flu” on the grounds that it is dismissive and cruel and makes men feel weak and pathetic and that isn’t very nice for them. So far, so dull. But he also correctly points out that the term isn’t funny, and wasn’t even very funny ten years ago the first time you heard it. I agree entirely with that, and would happily ban the phrase, along with comedy neckties and people saying “garlic BREAD?!” to save themselves from their own lack of humour. Still, in a way, it is funny after all, in that it drives hyper-sensitive MRAs up the wall with apoplexy.
Secondly, I agreed with the following sentence: “Feeling offended isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of self-respect, which is a strength.” It’s a strange sentence in a book like this, with MRAs like Lloyd’s pal Daubney constantly out to belittle people’s sense of offence. But he is right; being offended isn’t a sign of weakness. In order for that offendedness to be valid, though, it requires a real understanding of who you are, why you’re offended, and whether the source of the damage being done to you is really external. If, on the contrary, it is based on poor research, deliberate misrepresentation, personal bitterness and destructive stereotypes, it’s not really feeling offended. It’s feeling threatened, and weak, and impotent.
The main question-mark left in my head after reading the book was this. Is Lloyd a simple hack whose personal bitterness causes him to imagine conspiratorial threats where there are none, and drives him to write about it with unforgivable inelegance? Or is he cleverer than that, and capable of deliberately constructing a manifesto he knows to be disingenuous, and written in a style that will appeal only to those stupid enough to be taken in by it? My suspicion, and hope, is that it is the former. But with the book currently at number 258,745 in the UK Amazon book chart, I don’t think I need lose sleep worrying that his desired revolution is coming.
I will, however, take his advice. I will stand by my manhood. I will assert my strength and self-respect, and say that this book is deeply offensive in style and in content, and I wish it nothing but the ridicule it so richly deserves.