Women’s blame means less than men’s in conditions of epistemic injustice because women’s speech means less, and blame is a type of speech (McKenna 2011). ‘Epistemic injustice’ is a species of injustice that harms someone in her capacity as a knower. It functions by recruiting ‘identity prejudice,’ or cultural stereotypes and biases, to discredit the testimony of socially marginalized groups. Women, as a socially marginalized group, are vulnerable to epistemic injustice on the basis of their gender identity – that is, they are susceptible to gender-based epistemic injustice, or (what I shall call) “epistemic gender bias.” When I say that women’s blame ‘means’ less than men’s, I mean that it is less articulable, intelligible, and authoritative than men’s. Because women are affected by epistemic injustice, they can ‘do less’ with blame than men can (Austin 1962).
There are many sociological factors involved in the epistemic marginalization of women’s speech (and thus women’s blame). Rebecca Solnit addresses several intersecting causal vectors in her recent book, “The Mother of All Questions: Further Reports from the Feminist Revolutions” (2017). I use her work as the starting point for my analysis of epistemic gender bias and its effects on women’s blame. By women’s blame, I simply mean blame expressed, or expressible, by women. Women’s blame doesn’t necessarily have distinct (‘feminine’) features, though it might; ‘women’s blame’ encompasses any criticism, censure, resentment, disapprobation, and related negative responses that women express, or would express if the epistemic resources required for uptake were available. Some instances of women’s blame are unspeakable due to epistemic injustice, and some are speakable but ‘unhearable,’ or unheard, because they lack a receptive audience.
In this post, I will explain, following Solnit, how (i) mainstream pornography, (ii) canonic literary fiction, and (iii) mainstream humour, all function to silence and suppress women’s speech. I will argue that (i)-(iii) all produce, reproduce, and naturalize “the male gaze” (Laura Mulvey 1975), by depicting the world from a cisgender male, or masculine, perspective. (By ‘the male gaze’ I mean, more precisely, the masculine point of view, into which many birth-assigned males are acculturated; but the ‘male gaze’ as I understand it is associated with gender, not sex. ‘Male’ from now on should be taken to denote ‘cisgender male’ or ‘masculine.’ Not all males, or men, take the perspective of the male gaze).
2. Sexual objectification
One factor in epistemic gender bias is the sexual objectification of women, perpetrated largely by mainstream pornography, which is a man-made cultural artifact that depicts women through the ‘male gaze’ – that is, as objects of male sexual pleasure, not agents in their own right (Laura Mulvey 1995; Andrea Dworkin 1981; Catherine MacKinnon 1989). Solnit notes that, while pornography has become more diverse in recent years, mainstream pornography has only gotten more violent, suggesting that porn may have evolved into “a compensatory parallel universe where male privilege has been augmented and revenge on female power is incessantly exacted” (Solnit 2017).
There is evidence that mainstream pornography impairs recognition of sexual assault: for example, “Male and female college students who report recent porn use have been repeatedly found to be more likely than others to believe ‘rape myths,’ [such as] that only strangers commit sexual assault or that the victim ‘asked for it’ by drinking too much or wearing ‘slutty’ clothing or by going to a club alone” (Peggy Ornstein 2016, cited in Solnit 2017). It would be naive, however, to think that the male gaze only impairs women’s ability to rebuke rapists and exercise sexual autonomy; the sexual objectification of women is so pervasive that it impairs women’s ability to say anything with the same credibility as a man. That is, it impairs women’s general epistemic standing.
In 2016, the Guardian reported that “eight of its most attacked columnists were women, two were men of color, and the most attacked of all was feminist Jessica Valenti” (Solnit 2017). Valenti is a vocal critic of rape culture and toxic masculinity, and her blame, as expressed in her feminist critiques, is rejected, dismissed, and attacked by her detractors, some of whom have threatened to murder and rape her. Rape threats are a common misogynistic threat, and even if they are not sincere, these threats are part of a broader system of male aggression that does provoke “women to change their behaviour to minimize harassment and worse” (Paul Crider 2017). Men who deny that rape threats can be consequential simply lack the ability to empathize with women (ibid.). Valenti is a particularly public example of a woman whose blame is epistemically marginalized, but her experience should be seen as a symptom of a deeper problem, not an anomaly. Harassment helps to explain why, while the Guardian‘s publication rate has increased over the last 15 years, the gender gap has remained the same (Gardiner et al. 2016).
Mainstream pornography doesn’t just normalize misogynistic violence against women – it depicts women as stereotypically infantile, naive, inexperienced, subordinate, and complacent. This is evident in Hugh Hefner’s casting of a 10-year-old Brooke Shields, along with at least nine other minors, in Playboy Magazine – not to mention countless depictions of childlike models posed as “cheerleaders, students, babysitters and sorority girls,” for the sexual gratification of a heterosexual male audience (Michelle Smith 2017). The popularity of “barely legal” and “teen” pornography over the last few decades also speaks to the infantilization of women through porn (Griffith 2017). Hefner, who was touted by many as a champion of freedom of speech, was in reality a sexist jerk who belittled and harassed his female employees, plied them with drugs, refused to use condoms or be tested for STDs, and “require[d] depressing group sex at regularly scheduled times” (Robinson 2017). Though he portrayed himself as a cheerful hedonist, by all appearances, “he didn’t even care about pleasure: he cared about the taming and conquest of women” (Robinson 2017). Playboy illustrates Foucault’s argument that sexual discourse doesn’t just break taboos; it creates an “authorized vocabulary” (1976: 17) that codifies how one can discuss, think about, and perform sex. Mainstream pornography didn’t simply liberate us from conservative sexual mores of the past: it also constructed male sexual desire in Hefner’s image, as demeaning, infantilizing, and hateful to women.
The objectification of women is also evidenced in the fetishization of Asian women (who are the most ‘desirable’ group according to white men), which can be traced back to racist cultural artifacts like ‘Madame Butterfly,’ which depicts ‘the ideal’ Asian woman as “pretty and not much bigger than a doll,” “dainty,” and “little”, and the Korean, Vietnamese, and Second World wars, during which American soldiers had sex with, and raped, Asian sex workers and sex slaves, many of whom were underage (Juliana Wang 2014; Essertier 2018). Some American men ‘had sex’ (by their lights, but in many cases it was actually rape) for the first time with an Asian sex worker or sex slave, and there is evidence that first sexual experiences strongly influence future mating preferences (Quintana et al. 2015) – in this case, producing a lifelong ‘Asian fetish.’ The male sexual preference for (stereotypically childish) Asian women thus represents a culturally constructed desire for a thoroughly objectified, infantilized, and possibly enslaved, woman.
How can you respect blame from a woman if you see her as a child, if not a sex slave? The intergenerational sexual objectification of women partly explains why women’s speech products – women’s literary fiction, humour, and conversation – are less valued than men’s. Since these produces contain blame, women’s blame is epistemically marginalized.
Before exploring these vectors of epistemic injustice, I should clarify that I am not saying that all men contribute to epistemic gender bias. Solnit identifies three types of men: (i) the “raging misogynists and haters,” who actively perpetrate epistemic gender bias, (ii) the allies, who support gender equality, and (iii) the well-meaning but ignorant men who discredit women by accident (2014). The third category includes, for example, mansplainers, who condescendingly explain complex concepts to women as if they were speaking to a child. This infantilizing attitude is another aspect of the male gaze: it is an objectifying stance that treats women as epistemic recipients as opposed to epistemic producers. Even if not all men contribute to epistemic gender bias, we still live in what Miranda Fricker (2007) calls a climate of ‘hermeneutical injustice,’ in which shared interpretive resources for accurately framing (and adequately responding to) women’s epistemic marginalization is lacking. The ‘hermeneutical gaps’ in our epistemic climate, caused in large part by the pervasive ‘pornographication’ of women, discredit all women’s speech, even if allies are hard at work refuting the slut-shaming, rape-threatening, infantilizing, manterrupting, mansplaining speech of other men.
A second necessarily qualification is that women are not discredited across every domain; women in general are perceived as more credible in traditionally female domains, and less credible in traditionally male domains. For example, male experts are rated as more credible in murder trials, whereas female experts are rated as more credible in custody hearings (Larson & Brodsky 2010; Swendon, Nash, & Roos 1984; Walters 1994; Neal 2014; Mill 2018). This shows that gender bias is context-sensitive. That said, because stereotypically female roles are poorly respected (and poorly compensated), women’s perceived credibility in these roles does little to enhance their overall epistemic standing (or socioeconomic status). Women are seen as experts on ‘trivial’ subjects, and non-experts on ‘serious’ subjects. This creates a double-bind: should women gain expertise on ‘frivolous’ subjects, or face adversity in ‘serious’ discursive spaces?
3. Women’s literature
Solnit notes that Esquire‘s 2015 list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read” included only one book by a woman (Flannery O’Connor). This isn’t a rare case of literary sexism, but a symptom of a deeper problem. Amy Hungerford, an English Professor at John Hopkins, argues that we should read, cite, and promote fewer canonized authors because these authors are predominantly male. In a journal called Modernism/modernity, created specifically to diversify literary scholarship, “the top 11 (mostly male) authors cited as subjects [still] claim 41 percent of the articles. Most authors not already canonical appear only once or twice each, never achieving the critical mass of scholarship that motivates further study and writing within the context of scholarly careers, let alone further reading by the general public” (Hungerford 2016). Thus, canonized men still dominate modern literary criticism. Students at Yale recently protested a two-semester course requirement on canonic English literature, in which 100% of the assigned authors were male (Flood 2016). In a press statement, the university argued that it had a responsibility “to provide all students with a generous introduction to the abiding formal and thematic concerns of the English literary tradition,” no matter how white and male those concerns happen to be. The problem is not just that junior scholars are forced to cite and analyze predominantly white, cisgender, male writers if they want to be taken seriously, which might harm the career prospects of junior women. The problem is that immersing students in a swamp of dead-white-male perspectives is harmful to their emotional development.
Departments that prioritize the literary canon are churning out graduates who have been inculcated into a historical-white-male worldview, which is essentially misogynistic (and racist). It’s not just mainstream pornography that teaches men how to objectify women; it’s the classic literary canon. The male gaze was constructed by the literary canon long before Hugh Hefner and his fellow pornographers recruited those masculinist schemas, images, and ideals into the pornographic medium. The mix of pornography and literary fiction in Playboy‘s pages, which may prima facie seem paradoxical, is actually a perfect fit, insofar as both mediums strive to promote and naturalize the male gaze. On pornography, Sandra Bartky writes, “it powerfully reinforces male dominance and female subordination because, by linking these phenomena to our deepest sexual desires – desires defined by an ideologically tainted psychology as instinctual – it makes them appear natural” (2012: 48). What better way to naturalize misogyny than by pairing mainstream (male) literature with mainstream (male) pornography, intertwining the two in the male psyche? The convergence of male sexual appetites and male intellectual curiosity, which Plato would describe as fundamentally antagonistic, are merged harmoniously in the motivational psychology of the average Playboy reader. While anti-pornography feminists like MacKinnon and Dworkin see pornography as the original cause of rape culture (viz., Papadaki 2017), pornographers didn’t invent the male gaze – they simply up-cycled the misogynistic scripts of the male literary canon into a more modern and simplified visual format.
Solnit provides several examples of emotionally harmful canonic literature, from Ernest Hemingway to Normal Mailer to William Burroughs (2015). Other masculine literary heroes, like Jack Kerouac, are less toxic, but still harmful if read in large quantities and through a passively masculine (as opposed to critical) lens. Anyone who fails to empathize with the Latina farmworker from Kerouac’s ‘On the Road,’ who is abandoned by Kerouac’s protagonist (a “free-spirited maverick”) to raise their child on her own (no child support!), is reading the story through the lens of the male gaze – the gaze through which Kerouac, in fact, tells it. Sharing in the mirth of Charles Bukowski’s protagonist from ‘Factotum,’ (‘Chakowski,’ based on himself), while he rapes a house-bound woman on his mail route, reveals more than a smidgen of toxic masculinity. Empathizing with Lolita’s rapist HH, the protagonist of Nabokov’s iconic novel, is hardly any better. (Note that Nabokov didn’t intend, or anticipate, this popular, revisionary reading of his work). Submersing oneself in the male canon, with no counter-narratives to offset the male ego, can make these acts of objectification, erasure, and rape seem natural, if not romantic.
‘Lolita,’ in fact, has been advertised by publishers as a novel about a “teenage seductress” as opposed to its true subject matter: the sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl by her step-father (Noelle Talmon 2018). The cover of my own issue from high school (pictured above) was labeled with a blurb from Vanity Fair describing the novel (about a pedophile who literally ruins his step-daughter’s life) as “the only convincing love story of our century.” The author of the blurb, Gregor von Rezzori, parsed ‘Lolita’ as hovering between “a delightfully frivolous story on the verge of pornography,” and “a literary masterpiece, the only convincing love story of our century” (Shapiro 2009). While Rezzori admitted that his reading didn’t necessarily coincide with Nabokov’s authorial intentions, he defended it as “one of the novel’s many dimensions” (ibid.). Nabokov’s wife Vera, meanwhile, lamented that nobody seemed to “notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…”; and Azar Nifisi, an Iranian author, empathizes with Lolita as “a double victim—not only her life but also her life story is taken from her” (in Solnit 2015). Nabokov himself requested a cover with “no girls,” perhaps only a “white jacket,” but subsequent publishers increasingly eroticized the eponymous rape victim, responding to a market that already traded in the hyper-sexualization of young girls (Siobhans Lyons 2015).
The worry about the sexualization of young girls and the infantilization of women isn’t so much that these cultural scripts make men into rapists (although Peggy Orenstein notes that there is a correlation between frequent porn use and rape proclivity ), but that these scripts prevent men – indeed, everyone – from empathizing with, and respecting, women. Solnit remarks that “there’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not” (2015). Indeed, research has shown that reading literary fiction improves various empathic measures, such as role-taking ability, motivation for prosocial behaviour and altruism, and theory of mind (Koopman & Hakemulder 2015). Theorists posit a cluster of psychological explanations for these effects, including role-playing, or mental modeling of the protagonist’s narrative world, and perspective-taking, or mentally simulating the narrator’s thoughts and emotions (Koopman & Hakemulder 2015).
This is consistent with Solnit’s theory that reading literary fiction increases empathy by enticing the reader to imaginatively take the perspective of the protagonist. But, in spite of empathy’s positive connotations in the popular imagination, empathy isn’t always a good thing, and this, too, is empirically demonstrated. For example, research shows that empathizing with in-group members in a competitive environment increases “intergroup empathy bias: the tendency not only to empathize less with out-group relative to in-group members, but also feel pleasure in response to their pain (and pain in response to their pleasure)” (Cikara et al. 2014). In an environment in which pornography, classic literary fiction, and other cultural artifacts depict women as infantile, unknowable, ‘mysterious’ (Friedan 1963), and ‘other’ (Beauvoir 1949), one would expect intergroup empathy bias to be part of the cultural fabric, and to operate in such a way as to marginalize women. This is because, while women are part of the group, they are ‘othered’ by cultural stereotypes, giving rise to within-culture out-group bias against them – that is, masculinist empathy bias. Even though men and women share common interests, the male gaze depicts women as devious, threatening, and – as male “dating gurus” see it – intent on withholding sexual resources from men, which is allegedly part of a ‘battle of the sexes’ (Berit Brogaard 2015: 9). This competitive framework forces one group into a position of subordination, and precludes any fair social contract. Masculinist empathy bias may be part of the explanation for why violence against women is a staple of mainstream pornography: it is both the cause, and the effect, of excessive empathy with the male gaze.
Solnit correctly observes that empathy is not enhanced in a robust way when we only encounter narratives that present “versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination” (2015). By fetishizing the male canon, we imaginatively project ourselves into a historical male perspective – a perspective that feminist sociologists have identified as misogynistic. It’s one thing to read about misogyny in a history book or a newspaper, and quite another to experience it through the simulated perspective of the perpetrator in a piece of literary fiction. Research confirms that reading literary fiction enhances empathy more than reading expository non-fiction or popular fiction (Kidd & Castano 2013). While theorists have had difficulty explaining the empathy gap between literary fiction and popular fiction, one possible explanation is that masculinist empathy bias makes it easier for us to empathize with the male gaze as presented in male-dominant literary fiction, and harder to empathy with the protagonists of popular fiction, a genre dominated by women.
In sum, reading literary fiction might be a healthy exercise if you read the works of many different authors, but if you read mainly books by men (or any privileged social group for that matter), or you read books by many authors, but disproportionally respect those written by men, this can impair your capacity for ‘robust empathy,’ i.e., the capacity to empathize with a diversity of perspectives. Intergroup empathy bias implies that empathizing too much with one perspective can make it harder to empathize with many.
Sonit’s work illuminates how the dominance of the male gaze silences women’s voices. By extension, the male gaze also silence’s women’s blame, insofar as women’s blame is expressed in women’s voices. The silencing of women’s blame can take several forms. For one, the loss or epistemic marginalization of women’s literary fiction in which blame plays a role entails an erasure of women’s blame; women’s blaming speech is literally lost, ignored, or misunderstood. Second, the loss or epistemic marginalization of women’s literary fiction makes women’s blame less intelligible in every context – not just literary fiction – because it creates hermeneutical gaps that discredit women as blamers, or as people who know things about moral norms, blame, and blame-relevant concepts. Third, the loss and epistemic marginalization of women’s blame is the flip-side of a cultural apparatus that exalts, promotes, and normalizes empathy with men. Men’s blame is therefore more likely to be taken seriously. This might allow men to ‘manblame,’ or blame with more perceived credibility than women. Stiegg Larsson (2005) sold millions of copies of a story about a rape survivor who seeks to punish her rapist, and though this is a refreshing departure from the classic male gaze, the fact that he outsold many women writing on the same subject, and that he arguably still replicated several masculinist ideals – such as the idea that “in order for a woman to be considered beautiful, she must be unhealthy” (Serdar 2014: 14; Robles 2015) – suggests that his critique of rape culture is not completely epistemically virtuous. ‘Lolita’ was not only written by a man, but re-interpreted by critics as a grand romance. Overall, women’s blame has been subjected to the same epistemic marginalizations as women’s writing in general.
An important caveat is in order here. The male gaze is currently losing traction because of a collective effort to diversity the literary canon, and all academic canons. Still, more men’s books are reviewed than women’s. Although women publish and read more than men, they are less cited and less respected as ‘serious authors.’ Research shows that “women are less likely to be published in top tier literary outlets, or to have their work reviewed, especially by men”; additionally, “women are less likely to receive reviews when writing about topics that aren’t deemed ‘feminine'” (Jane C. Hu 2017). Author Jennifer Weiner characterizes the credibility gap as “a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that, when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention” (2010). In the New York Times Book Review in 2016, two thirds of reviewed authors were men, and reviews tended to reflect gender stereotypes, revealing “topic bias” (Hu 2017). This means that women are taken less serious when writing about ‘serious subjects,’ and taken more seriously when writing about ‘frivolous subjects,’ resurrecting the classic double-bind: should I write frivolously about serious subjects, or write seriously about frivolous subjects?
Pornography is also becoming much more diverse. “Porn for women” surged in popularity by 1400% between 2015 and 2016 (Pearson 2018). This trend, however, doesn’t erase decades of misogynistic pornography, which has permeated mainstream culture, from television to magazines to advertisements. ‘Teen’ was still the second-most popular category on pornhub.com in 2016 (PH 2017). The most popular category was ‘lesbian,’ and explanations include that more women are watching porn and that men are more interested in porn for women. But neuroscientist Ogi Ogas offers a darker explanation: “To the extent that lesbian erotica is popular, it can be explained by the fact that men are most aroused by visual cues that emphasize youth and downplay drama and emotional complexity. Lesbian porn, therefore, works for straight men by ‘doubling up’ those visual stimuli… The only thing better than one nubile, personality-free woman is two of them” (Khazan 2018; viz., Ogas 2012). Ogas adds, “very few men visit websites containing erotica featuring actual lesbians that is targeted at actual lesbians” (ibid.), implying that the lesbian pornography that men watch still has elements of the male gaze.
It is worth mentioning that philosophy, my discipline, shares with literary fiction the dubious distinction of having a gender gap. Schwitzgebel and Jennings have found that “gender disparity remains large in mainstream Anglophone philosophy,” and “by most measures, women’s involvement and visibility in mainstream Anglophone philosophy has increased only slowly [since the 1970s]; and by some measures there has been virtually no gain since the 1990s” (2016). This means that academic philosophy is not immune from epistemic gender bias. Women’s blame (including criticism, censure, disapprobation) in philosophy, then, is subject to epistemic marginalization. Feminist blame – produced mostly by women – might be especially susceptible to epistemic marginalization, as it may be harder to publish feminist content in generalist journals, and ‘disciplinary’ journals are ranked fairly low on ranking lists (Jender 2007; Haslanger 2008).
Another aspect of women’s speech that is subject to epistemic marginalization is women’s humour, and women’s humour, like women’s literary fiction, contains blame. Thus, if women’s humour is silenced, then women’s blame, as conveyed in women’s humour, is silenced.
4. Women’s humour
Solnit notes that it is only recently that people have started to see rape jokes as not very funny, and this coincides with growing recognition of ‘rapist jokes’ (about rapists) as an intelligible type of humour. In 2013, comedian Sam Morril ‘joked’ that, “my ex-girlfriend never made me wear a condom. That’s huge. She was on the pill.” [Pause]. “Ambien.” (in Solnit 2015). This is just one example of a dominant theme in Western humour: making fun of rape survivors. (Surely we’ve all heard the rape joke about prison inmates being careful not to ‘drop the soap,’ which trivializes the human rights violations perpetrated in, and by, the U.S. ‘justice system’). Lately, many feminist comedians have turned the tables by making fun of rapists. Amy Pohler and Tina Fey made fun of Bill Cosby at the Golden Globes in 2015, and Amy Schumer wrote a parody of ‘Friday Night Lights’ that featured a football coach trying, unsuccessfully, to teach his football players that they’re not allowed to rape women (Solnit 2015). The fact that rape humour has been a staple of Western comedy for centuries, while rapist humour is a recent invention (stoked by the #MeToo movement), reveals that western humour is steeped in epistemic gender bias.
Not only have women been unable to make fun of rapists – or, more specifically, their jokes about rapists were not recognized as humour – women have generally been considered ‘unfunny.’ This is exemplified in Netflix’s comedy lineup. From Netflix’s inception in 1997 until 2014, 57% of comedy specials featured men, 36% featured men and women, and only 7% featured women exclusively. In 2014, 82% of Netflix comedy specials were male-only, while a paltry 14% were female-only (Muller 2016). The top male comedians on Netflix this year were paid much more than the top female comedians (Lynch 2018). These numbers reflect broader trends in the cultural perception of humour. Women appreciate humour in men more than vice versa (Barelds & Dikkstra 2010). Teaching evaluations show that male professors are rated as funnier than female professors across every discipline (Khazan 2017). These are all examples of epistemic gender bias in Western humour, which depicts men as funnier than women.
Feminist humour is especially vilified. In 2012, after comedian Daniel Tosh was criticized for saying that it would be funny if a woman in his audience got raped, Louis C.K. commented that this is part of the “fight between comedians and feminists, which are natural enemies. Because stereotypically speaking, feminists can’t take a joke” (Solnit 2015). Hugh Hefner expressed similar views about the relationship between feminism and pornography, saying that “these chicks [feminists] are our natural enemy. It is time to do battle with them” (Altman 2008). The feminist response to the male gaze is a visceral threat to both male-dominated pornography and male-dominated comedy, which is why pornographers and comedians have gone to such lengths to bash feminists, depicting them as unfunny and unsexy. Mainstream pornography and mainstream comedy, with their naturalization of misogynistic violence through rape fantasies and rape jokes, are perfect bedfellows. They work together to solidify male entitlement.
Feminist comedian Michelle Wolf was the most recent target of epistemic gender bias. At the 2018 White House Correspondents Association Dinner, she used humour to attack Trump, his supporters, and other high-profile misogynists. She opened her set with, “like a porn star says when she’s about to have sex with a Trump, let’s get this over with.” Then she proceeded to criticize Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway for lying on Trump’s behalf and sanitizing his sexist, racist, xenophobic behaviour (“Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies”). Through insinuation, she called Roy Moore a child rapist (“I’m 32 years old, which is an odd age: 10 years too young to host this event and 20 years too old for Roy Moore”); she described Roger Ailes and Bill O’Rielly as sexual harassers (“Fox News is here. So, you know what that means, ladies: Cover your drinks”); and she ridiculed Mike Pence’s anti-choice views (“He thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it til you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You’ve got to get that baby out of there”). What topics would you expect a feminist comedian to address in her comedy? Sexism, rape, sexual harassment, and abortion are high on the list. Wolf’s comedy relentless roasts public figures who don’t support women’s rights, and this is one of the reasons many critics have denounced her as “mean-spirited, vulgar, and unfunny” (Smith 2018).
Feminist humour is Wolf’s comedic brand. In her HBO special, Wolf warns the audience, “I should just let everyone know: I am a feminist” (Cunnigham 2018), and then proceeds with the type of feminist humour that she displayed at the WHCA dinner. Wolf seems to recognize that gender bias is a factor in the comedy world, or at least, she realizes that being recognized as having a sense of humour is connected with being seen as a person. In an interview with Marlow Stern, she says, “to do stand-up, you have to have a strong point of view, and doing stand-up gave me that strong point of view… It made me a person” (Stern 2018). Because of epistemic gender bias in comedy, women have been prevented from having a strong comedic voice: they have been stereotyped as, to paraphrase the title of Wolf’s comedy special, “nice ladies.” If women are funny, they aren’t nice ladies: they are un-ladylike, mean, unattractive, unsexy, and corrupt. Women face a double bind in comedy, as elsewhere: be funny, or be a nice lady, but not both. Wolf is one of the comedians deconstructing this binary logic with unapologetic feminist humour.
Because women’s humor is susceptible to epistemic gender bias, women’s blame, as expressed in humour, is susceptible to epistemic gender bias. If rape jokes are funny but rapist jokes aren’t even recognized as a type of humour, women can’t use humour to blame rapists (or to defend themselves from rape jokes). More broadly, women can’t use humour as a vehicle for blame at all, or at least, they can’t use it as effectively as men. This is a tragedy, because humour has always been deeply political. Wolf has been compared to George Carlin, a comedian “whose goofy delight in the sounds and cadences of American speech never obscured the genuine irritation, bordering on rage, that fuelled his jokes” (Cunningham 2018). Humour by its very nature violates cultural norms (McGraw & Warren 2010). If women can’t make fun of misogynistic cultural norms, they can’t reveal those norms as, not just wrong, but absurd. While some theorists worry that humour is apolitical because it trivializes norm violations (see Benatar 2014), what current trends show is that humour is a potent political tool that can be used to resist social injustice, and hold its protagonists and apologists accountable (e.g., Weinstein, Cosby). Feminist humour is such a tool, because it punches up rather than down.
Feminist comedy, then, is an important vehicle for blame, but it is still not as respected, on average, as male humour. This produces gender bias in our shared blaming practices.
The epistemic gender biases reflected in (i) pornography, (ii) the literary canon, and (iii) the world of comedy are brought into stark relief in the recent New Yorker short story, ‘Cat Person,’ by Kristen Roupenian (2017). In the next section, I analyze how this story illuminates the intersection of epistemic gender bias, pornography, the male canon, and humour.
5. Cat Person
‘Cat Person; is the first piece of literary fiction ever to go viral. It has been widely characterized as a story about ‘bad sex,’ where ‘bad’ has multiple connotations (Bennett 2017). The story describes the protagonist Margot’s sexual encounter with a virtual stranger, Robert, who initially appears to be sympathetic (albeit enigmatic), but is exposed as a misogynist when he harasses Margot through text messages and calls her a ‘whore.’
Although ‘Cat Person’ is one of the most read ‘New Yorker’ stories of all time, it has not been treated with the seriousness accorded to most literary fiction. As Constance Grady observes, “The trivializing of women’s stories also plays into one of the persistent oddities surrounding ‘Cat Person’; namely, the frequency with which readers have called it an ‘article’ or an ‘essay’ or generally treated it as a piece of nonfiction rather than as a short story” (2017). While ‘Cat Person’ has few of the hallmarks of autobiographical writing (e.g., it was written in the third person, and in an elevated style), the fact that it features the narrative perspective of a female protagonist marks it as a ‘confessional tell-all’ to many readers. “Women’s subjectivity,” after all, “is not for serious literary fiction…; it’s for unserious, uninteresting, unpaid-for online writing” (Grady 2017). Responses to ‘Cat Person’ therefore illustrate ‘topic bias’ and the trivialization of women’s literary voices.
In spite of epistemic gender bias, how did ‘Cat Person’ attract so much attention? One reason is that it gave a voice to an experience shared, in silence, by so many women: the experience of ‘bad sex’ – not just in the sense of unpleasant or disappointing or awkward sex, but more specifically, objectifying, infantilizing, and alienating sex – the kind of sex represented in Hugh Hefner’s depressingly mechanical orgies, in mainstream pornography, and in the masculinist perspective of classic literary heroes. When Margot has sex with Robert – or, more accurately, when Robert fucks her – Robert is described as “mov[ing] her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head.” Robert is, in effect, assuming Hefner’s role as pornographer, posing Margot in postures that one would find in mainstream pornography, and treating her as a ‘doll,’ reminiscent of the girls depicted in ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Lolita.’ Robert isn’t the least bit worried about Margot’s being 14 years younger than him (20 versus 34), that she is presumably a virgin, or that she is very intoxicated (having been illegally served alcohol by him); in fact, her youth and presumed inexperience seem to turn him on. (He’s irritated when she denies being a virgin, and later slut-shames her for being sexually active). Robert never thinks to ask Margot what she wants from him; instead, “he slapped her thigh and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, you like that,’ with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order.'” Feminists like Rae Langon have noted that “pornography carries authority as instruction as well as entertainment, and [Langton] cites evidence to suggest that a high percent of boys and young men regard men’s satisfaction as a right and women’s rights as an irrelevancy” (in Solnit 2015). Pornography, it seems, instructed Robert to direct Margot in a glib pornographic film that completely erased her agency, in an encounter that fell precipitously short of the ideal of affirmative consent. (How can you consent if you’re never asked a question?) The only time Margot experiences any pleasure is when she imagines herself through Robert’s eyes: “Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” While this might feel empowering to Margot, it is actually an empathic simulation of Robert’s point of view as he objectifies Margot through the lens of the male gaze. Margot, too, has been instructed by mainstream pornography: she has been directed to empathize with the male gaze to the extent that she loses sight of her own agency.
This sexual encounter involves epistemic gender bias, then, because it erases Margot’s agency. This loss of agency is reflected in Margot’s inability to say ‘no’ to Robert. She cannot say ‘no’ because (1) she can’t fully recognize that what Robert is doing is wrong, (2) she is ‘too nice’ to hurt his ‘feelings,’ (3) she worries that Robert might be a rapist, in which case, he wouldn’t listen anyways, and (4) if Robert is a rapist, it might be easier to go along with getting fucked by him than to resist him and get raped while struggling.
Margot wonders multiple times throughout the story whether Robert might be a rapist (“And, as though fear weren’t quite ready to release its hold on her, she had the brief wild idea that maybe this [his house] was not a room at all but a trap meant to lure her into the false belief that Robert was a normal person, a person like her, when in fact all the other rooms in the house were empty, or full of horrors: corpses or kidnap victims or chains”). She continually dismisses this worry as absurd; but is Robert a rapist? We don’t know. Although Robert doesn’t rape Margot, what would he have done if she had resisted? At first, Margot thinks that Robert is a sensitive person, and this seems confirmed when he starts “talking about his feelings for her” after fucking her, admitting that during her reading week, “an entire secret drama had played out in his head, one in which she’d left campus committed to him, to Robert, but at home had been drawn back to the high-school guy, who, in Robert’s mind, was some kind of brutish, handsome jock, not worthy of her but nonetheless seductive by virtue of his position at the top of the hierarchy back home in Saline.” This might (superficially) suggest that Robert is a sensitive person who cares about Margot, but this illusion is dashed when Robert texts Margot after seeing her at a bar with a friend, disclosing his toxic masculinity: “Is that guy you were with tonight your boyfriend… Or is he just some guy you are fucking… Sorry… When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys?… Are you fucking that guy right now… Are you… Are you… Are you… Answer me… Whore.” Robert doesn’t have “feelings” for Margot – he has toxic masculinity. He doesn’t care about Margot’s feelings, or autonomy, or sexual pleasure – he only cares about being ’emasculated’ by another man.
Margot is – like the title of Michelle Wolf’s comedy special – a ‘nice lady’: too nice to say ‘no’ to Robert’s degrading fuck fest, which she describes as “the worst life decision I have ever made!” Margot worries repeatedly about the prospect of hurting Robert’s feeling, on the false assumption that Robert is a sensitive person and a ‘nice guy.’ But Robert isn’t sensitive, unless you count fragile narcissism as a kind of sensitivity, and he isn’t a ‘nice guy,’ except in the stereotypical sense of a mediocre white dude who feels entitled to sex with women. As Erin Tatum writes, “the most stereotypical incarnation of the Nice Guy™ is a fedora-clad dudebro who spends too much time on Reddit and would probably push a six-year-old girl out of the way to get his hands on My Little Pony merchandise, [but] the more garden-variety Nice Guy™ can be more difficult to spot” (2015). That nice guy is Robert. Roupenian intentionally wrote Robert as an ambiguous character, and this makes it easier to project positive qualities onto him (at least, until he calls Margot a ‘whore’). Margot can’t say ‘no’ to Robert because, aside from fear of rape and empathizing with the male gaze, she can’t discern whether Robert is a nice guy or a Nice Guy™.
While Margot is disgusted with Robert, she also finds much to laugh at in her encounter with him. ‘Cat Person,’ in fact, reads much like a comedy of manners, a genre of comedy epitomized by Oscar Wilde, which satirizes the manners and customs of contemporary society, and represents social conventions in stock characters (e.g., the foppish rake). If ‘Cat Person’ achieves anything, it is the satirizing of toxic masculinity, as embodied in Robert. Robert is depicted unflatteringly as “awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair,” and hovering above Margot with his “fat old man’s finger inside her.” Robert is, in effect, a clown, and not just any clownish figure, but the incarnation of toxic masculinity as ridiculous and absurd – yet also inescapable and irrepressible, penetrating Margot (symbolically) with its fat, hairy, probing finger. Robert, as a clown, is a narcissist full of sexual confidence, but completely stupid when it comes to sexually pleasing a woman. He stumbles through sex like a clown stumbling across a stage, making a fool of himself, all the while full of preening confidence. ‘Cat Person,’ on scrutiny, is an excellent, albeit subtle, example of feminist comedy. If it is not recognized as comedy, this is because feminist comedy lacks cultural uptake. Roupenian seems aware of the lack of uptake for this type of humour. At one point, Margot imagines herself relating her sexual fiasco to a future boyfriend: “‘And then he [Robert] said, ‘You make my dick so hard,’ and the [imagined] boy would shriek in agony and grab her leg, saying, ‘Oh, my God, stop, please, no, I can’t take it anymore,’ and the two of them would collapse into each other’s arms and laugh and laugh—but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.” Why can’t such a boy exist? Perhaps because our culture lacks the hermeneutical resources to frame Robert as a clown, to see toxic masculinity as ridiculous, or to take Margot’s perspective, not Robert’s, as the dominant frame of reference.
‘Cat Person,’ then, nicely illustrates how epistemic gender bias operates through the male gaze to sexually objectify women, treat women as pornographic objects, discredit women’s literature and women’s literary perspectives, and render women’s humour virtually unintelligible. All of these threads come together in this short story, and perhaps this is one of the reasons ‘Cat Person’ is one of the most-read stories of the year.
What does all of this imply about blame? It is notable, and disturbing, that Margot never blames Robert for his demeaning, objectifying fucking-of-her, for asking if she’s fucking her friend, or for calling her a whore. One has to wonder: has anyone ever blamed Robert, or is Robert another Donald Trump, non-consensually grabbing women’s pussies to his heart’s content? If Robert has no idea that he’s terrible at sex, that he treats women like garbage, maybe this is because no one – not Margot, nor anyone else he’s fucked – has held him responsible. Maybe Robert lives in a world, as Solnit describes it, “in which other people only exist to help reinforce [his] magnificence.” When women can’t say ‘no,’ can’t tell men that they’re bad at sex, can’t make fun of male egos, can’t tell men that it’s wrong to harass, stalk, and slut-sham them, then women’s blame is silenced. ‘Cat Person’ is a story about how women’s blame is suppressed, and sometimes can’t even be spoken. How many other women does Robert ruthlessly fuck after Margot ghosts him? Who knows? Robert might not have “a house full of horrors,” but he has a closet full of skeletons.
Mainstream pornography, the male literary canon, and mainstream humour all contain strong overcurrents of the male gaze, although the masculine point of view is being overturned by feminists and their allies. Yet we still live in conditions of epistemic injustice in which women’s voices are marginalized, and this includes women’s blame. With enough political will, women’s speech can receive equal credit with men’s.