Sam Mills explores the rise of the ‘chauvo-feminist’ and asks, while women have been focusing on empowerment, have some men simply changed tactics?
We’ve all met them. The men who seem decent, even enlightened, feminists in public but who really have a much darker side. You might see them attending women’s marches and retweeting feminist petitions, but in private they are belittling and undermining the women they have relationships with, punishing those who refuse their advances, and in the worst cases attacking or sexually assaulting the women in their lives. They take comfort knowing that their behaviours are able to go unchecked and ignored by the wider world because they follow all the requirements of the modern man, ultimately masking their behaviours through a front of feminist box-ticking.
These men, the ‘chauvo-feminists’, are the subject of Sam Mills’ latest book Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power, and #metoo published by Indigo Press. Written as a long-form essay, this book explores the aftermath of the #metoo campaign and discusses the ways in which men have exploited the movement’s ideals in order to mask their own chauvinistic behaviour. Through case studies, Mills explores the activities of a number of men both famous and unknown. These range from Dan Harmon, the American writer and producer who was accused of abusive behaviour in January 2018, to ‘K’, a DJ who claimed to have healing energies which necessitated his sleeping with other women. Perhaps more importantly, however, the book also explores the complexities of the ideas it lays out, and in a refreshing change to many books on this subject, Mills’ arguments move away from society’s tendency towards blame and cancel culture. Such nuance leads to a text which not only lays out the problems of the chauvo-feminist, but which also questions the environment in which such behaviour can exist.
Known for her novels, including The Quiddity of Will Self and her recent memoir The Fragments of My Father, Mill’s foray into essay writing is clearly influenced by her experience in storytelling. She structures her essay seamlessly by intertwining three separate but related threads. The first lays out the facts and events of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, exploring this and the subsequent #metoo movement. The second comprises the testimonies of women Mills interviewed during the course of her writing, who share their own experiences of chauvo-feminists. Finally, there is Mills’ own personal experience with a man of this kind who she simply names ‘R’. Although all three of these strands are powerful, it is this final topic which stands out, as Mills moves her focus away from the hills of Hollywood and media headlines into a personal reality with which we can sympathise or even relate. It is also the space in which Mills’ skills in nuance are best seen. Following a description of the quasi-relationship Mills shared with R – a British academic working at an American university – this story does not end with the neat resolution of a bad man being exposed. Rather, Mills reiterates the difficulties of dealing with a chauvo-feminist, who is not only a bully but also a ‘victim of a society that assured him it was fine for him to deal with his pain by taking it out on the women around him.’
It is Mills’ ability to tackle these grey areas which makes her book so notable. She manages to acknowledge and deal with the most extreme thinkers on this subject as well as those whose views are simply more confused. Another particularly interesting example of this comes towards the end of the book, in the form of a transcript between Mills and a male friend. Here, Mills acknowledges and assuages her friends fears that the #metoo movement may be exploited by women who wish to take revenge against the men in their lives. She dismisses her friends’ fears that the accusation of sexual misconduct ‘applies only to ugly men’ (whose advances are less welcome than their attractive counterparts), or that it means ‘an extreme crazy vengeful type can now use sexual harassment as a way of attacking someone’. The reassurances Mills provides in this section will be familiar to anyone who has had to dissuade a male friend or family member from fears that their own rights may be depleted by the rise of female power. Mills remains calm throughout this discussion, mirroring the tone seen throughout the book. However, by giving these fears a space in her text, Mills also performs a valuable act, acknowledging the entrenched nature of such fears and highlighting how deeply damaging they have become. As she notes, these beliefs are held by ‘ordinary men who were reacting to the current shifts in society in an atmosphere of fear, anger, confusion and panic’; not the women-hating misogynists we are often led to imagine.
However, despite Mills’ ability to discuss the complexities of her topic, Chauvo-Feminism is not a long book. In keeping with its extended essay nature, it runs to under 200 pages. While this certainly makes it an accessible account of the issues discussed, it does lead to some absences. Most notable of these is the discussion of race, a topic which is almost entirely absent within the text. This is despite the issues of white privilege that seem inherent in the very idea of a ‘chauvo-feminist’ given the power and influence needed to live the double life that Mills describes. Such an omission is particularly disappointing given Mills’ already established ability to tackle complex ideas, a skill which I imagine would have allowed her to consider the issue of race in the detail such a subject requires.
Nevertheless, despite this absence, Chauvo-Feminism is an important book that provides a vocabulary which is long overdue. Through the term ‘chauvo-feminist’ Mills introduces a man many of us have known, faced, and dealt with, but have been unable to discuss and understand until now. Moreover, in tackling the #metoo fallout, Mills has related her text to a movement which continues to grow in importance. As I write this review further accusations are being levelled on twitter against powerful men; the growing familiarity of these accusations demonstrates the continued demand, and continued need, for books such as this.