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The cover of French feminist Pauline Harmange’s recent book I Hate Men (Fourth Estate, 2021, translated by Natasha Lehrer) prepares the reader for a salacious world of feminist intrigue, and a no-holds barred misandrist rant for the ages. Arranged in bold block letters over a neon yellow background, the title challenges the reader visually, while a punchy description on the back cover dares you to read. “The feminist book they tried to ban in France,” it warns enticingly.
“I hate men,” Harmange admits on the third page (in case you were wondering). “Yes, the whole lot of them. By default, I have very little respect for any of them.” Yes! I’m thinking as I read this, go get ‘em. And then: “I don’t have any legitimacy when it comes to hating men. I chose to marry one, after all, and I have to admit that I’m still very fond of him.”
Wait: so this is the “feminist rant” that sent shockwaves through France?
Apparently, it did. Ralph Zurmély, an employee of the Ministry for Gender Equality, ordered “I Hate Men” to be immediately withdrawn from publication, citing its “sex-based incitement to hatred.”
Of course, the threat of censorship backfired almost immediately: the book sold 20,000 copies and translation rights for 17 languages.
To understand why the book caused such a fuss, I had to take off my leftist-American-dyke glasses for a moment and consider the current political and cultural atmosphere in France. Hating men may seem a rather mundane fact of life (regrettable to some, fine with me) in the United States, but in the French context, it remains a cardinal sin for women to repudiate men.
Just to be clear, French women do not have any more compelling reasons to hate men than American women do. France is no backward bastion of patriarchal tyranny: it is a country with 50/50 gender parity in elections, abortion rights that are enshrined in law, and an enviable social safety net that includes both socialized health care and state-funded childcare.
These are victories that the American feminist movement have never been able to achieve. But these achievements have been built on the shaky foundations of French universalism—a foundation which states that the people of France are “citizens” first, women and men (and Jewish, and queer, and Black) second.
This “paradox” of French citizenship, famously analyzed by Joan Scott, has made it impossible to adjudicate, or even discuss, inequality. The French gender system works as it does because “women” and “men” are technically, legally equal. Women and men rely on each other—indeed, need each other—for society (and government!) to function. At the same time, gender inequality is obvious: the French senate is still two-thirds male, France has never had a woman president, and women are raped and harassed daily, particularly when they try to remedy these imbalances.
Feminists in France have plenty of reasons to be angry, and Harmange speaks to this anger. She affirms that rage is a reasonable reaction to gender oppression and misandry is a useful tool for expressing it. As she points out, many men hate women too. She provides facts and figures that prove the deadly consequences of misogyny, noting that—in contrast—men are not hurt or killed because of generalized misandry. The fact of women hating men, she argues, constitutes no real threat to men beyond emotional discomfort, and as such, should be embraced.
If men started listening to a misandrist like her, Harmange argues, they might learn something. They might finally “take up less space” and understand that they “don’t get to play the lead.”
Yet this is where Harmange loses the thread of an otherwise radical argument: in her quest to protect herself from draining, predatory, and overtly dangerous men, she reduces misandry to little more than an educational tool for men.
Unfortunately, then, a book that is ostensibly about how and why women hate men becomes a book about men, a defense of misandry grounded in the notion that men might learn something from being hated.
Perhaps to demonstrate that this is possible, Harmange takes us into the weeds of her own marriage. She spends a whole chapter defending her relationship with her husband, explaining why society made her want a boyfriend in the first place, and how—through an immense effort—she managed to reform him into a somewhat egalitarian, basically respectful partner. She admits that he isn’t “perfect” and that she “shoulders the entire emotional burden of the relationship.” She claims that she can “tar him with the same brush” as other men, but then she immediately reneges, applauding his “decency” and the “immense effort he makes.” Indeed, he sounds like a decent guy: in her acknowledgements, she thanks him for being “the first of the two of us to believe in me.”
It is no doubt true that Harmange loves her husband, and that he fulfills certain male stereotypes while challenging others—but I didn’t buy a book called I Hate Men to find that out.
We were promised a barn-burning polemic, and instead we get a familiar tale about how difficult it can be to be feminist and heterosexual. I am sure that many feminist women can relate to the daily sacrifices and compromises Harmange describes, and to the desire to interrupt this vicious cycle without getting divorced. It is hard not to agree with her when she exhorts women to “stop putting ourselves down, be bolder, and always, always ask ourselves, whenever we’re overcome by doubt: What would the mediocre white dude do?” At the end of the day, though, this advice amounts to little more than a red herring. Being bolder, to put it bluntly, won’t prevent you from getting raped, or being discriminated against in employment, or being told that you are not a “likable” political candidate.
Indeed, you might ask, haven’t feminists been wrestling with this since Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in 1949? At every turn, Harmange’s book alludes to—but never explicitly mentions—her feminist predecessors. The chapter about her husband, entitled “Shacking up with a man,” alludes to the phrase “sleeping with the enemy,” a concept popular among lesbian separatist feminists in the early 1970s as they fled seemingly evolved heterosexual relationships (like the one Harmange describes). A second chapter, called “The Heterosexuality Trap,” echoes the “compulsory heterosexuality” that Adrienne Rich popularized in a 1980 article of the same name. For Harmange, even though she identifies as bisexual, the way out of this “trap” is to be happily single—not to seek polyamorous relationships or relationships with people of other genders.
Harmange glosses over the feminist legacies she engages, either from lack of knowledge or a presentist bias, and sacrifices credibility in the process. For a book that claims all men are complicit in oppressing women, I Hate Men is surprisingly light on discussing patriarchy. This is all the more surprising because the word has a rich history in France, where members of Le Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) used it to theorize feminism as a battle in which “men,” as a class, must eventually cease to exist.
Yet the outrage in France also suggests that, whatever its flaws and missed opportunities, Harmange’s essay is a brave contribution. She deserves credit for chipping away at the gender complementarity so dear to French universalists. In a country where Women’s Studies programs are few and far between, and “gender theory” is a constant target for moderate and right-wing politicians alike, perhaps it’s no wonder that Harmange’s presentation of feminism lacks a historical through-line, and no editor seemed to suggest that it did.
While Harmange clearly wanted to spark outrage with her title, she also knew that it would be a short step from popular outrage to popular condemnation. The MLF was, and is, derided, caricatured, and disregarded as a failed project of hysterical—and misandrist—women, known in France for threatening civilization-as-we-know-it with their talk of sisterhood and patriarchy. Women’s movements have also taken a hit to their reputations of late, as moderates and right-wing activists have begun co-opting feminism in the service of their Islamophobia and nationalism.
Yet Harmange’s failure to engage with the legacy of radical feminism means that she has claimed a prophetic stance without earning it. It is a disappointingly individualistic vision of misandry, one stripped of political power and rhetorical force, and with no structural impact or explanation. Her prescription for the problem of patriarchy is not wide-sweeping systemic change or political organizing, but an exhortation to “lean in,” as tech CEO Sheryl Sandberg put it in 2013. Women should be bolder, more confident, and less guilt-ridden. They should be single for an extended time before committing to a heterosexual monogamous relationship. They should strengthen female friendships, creating “safe” spaces for other women to tell their stories of harassment and abuse. They should have more “book clubs, pajama parties and girls’ nights out.”
To say that you aren’t afraid of being called misandrist is one thing—to actually be one is another. Harmange isn’t, and that’s a shame. The system that upholds male privilege needs to be interrupted, not negotiated, and misandry could fuel that. What France (along with many other countries) needs is not more confident women who boldly spend time with their female friends, but courts that actually charge rapists with rape, universities that value feminism as a form of intellectual freedom, and a public safety infrastructure that protects, rather than murders and imprisons, the people it serves.
In short, France needs more feminists who really do hate “men”—and who use that hatred to imagine a world in which patriarchy, and everything it stands for, will cease to exist.
Hannah Leffingwell is a Ph.D. candidate in French Studies and History at New York University.