Why women’s studies needs an extreme makeover

Emma Teitel on free speech, gender studies and feminism
Janice Fiamengo, a professor who advocates for men’s rights, at lecture at the University of Toronto on Thursday evening. (Photo by Josh Dehaas, Macleans)

Nothing says free speech like pulling the fire alarm. It was a quarter past seven last night when police emptied U of T’s George Ignatieff Theatre. Keynote speaker Dr. Janice Fiamengo, an English professor at the University of Ottawa, rolled her eyes and adjusted her blouse as the crowd poured out of the building and onto the sidewalk to mingle with the small throng of protesters—pretty girls with big placards and little patience. They wanted Dr. Fiamengo to take her message elsewhere. But firemen came and went, and the professor, once a radical feminist, proceeded to do what the University of Toronto Men’s Issues Awareness Society, and the Canadian Association for Equality invited her to do: denounce women’s studies.

The discipline has devolved into an “intellectually incoherent and dishonest” one, she argued, replacing a “callow set of slogans for real thought.” It’s man-hating, anti-Western, and fundamentally illiberal. “It champions a “kind of masculinity that isn’t very masculine at all,” and shuts down freedom of debate, hence the fire alarm.

This message was quite pleasing to the minority in the room—greying baby boomers of  the pro-Fiamengo, Men’s rights camp–and exceedingly distressing to the majority—by the looks of it, gender studies majors and people who would, if given the opportunity, personally execute Rob Ford.  It looked like a small contingent of CARP wandered, bemused, into a Bon Iver concert.

Appearances aside though, it was a meeting of truly lunatic minds.

Fiamengo opened the lecture with a recording of a song written by a male friend: a satirical folk number about the need for men to rise up and take back their masculinity from gender-bending feminists. “Stand our ground/defend our den/it’s time we learned to be men again.” And then there was this: “You don’t have to sit down to pee.”

From here things got progressively awkward. She referenced the male to female death ratio on the Titanic, and declared that “self sacrifice and heroism are not exclusive to men,” “but they are distinctive to men.” Students scowled behind their wayfarers. She railed against affirmative action, a family court system skewed unjustly to favour mothers over fathers, and the deep vein of anti-Western sentiment running through academic feminism that makes it okay to decry gender inequality in the West, and keep quiet about vaginal mutilation and honour killings in the East.

The women’s studies crowd looked constipated. Fiamengo’s arguments weren’t going down easy, this one—her best—in particular: women’s studies “can’t be about the pursuit of truth” because it has an “ideological base.” Its goal is to push the ideology that women are victims and men are perpetrators. Therefore, any evidence to the contrary, regardless of its veracity, is unwelcome. In other words, ideology censors truth. “If you believe you are righteous,” she said, “you don’t challenge other views.”

Click here for a photo gallery from the lecture. 

But you can try. And many did during the question period. When the professor finished her talk on an inspirational note about being relentlessly inquisitive, students and men’s rights activists filled the aisles to lambast and laud her. One man bemoaned the “feminist dictatorship,” another, the legal system that bankrupted him after a divorce. A stout black man in the corner demanded to know what men’s rights groups were doing to help him, as “a racialized person,” exploring different “gender identities.” When a woman complained that the man who spoke before her got more time at the microphone, another woman stood up and yelled in her defence, something  to the effect of “That’s because he’s a man!” A young woman with thick black hair in a yellow coat, irked by Dr. Fiamengo’s “heteronormative” answer to her question about lesbian moms, screamed “That is bullshit!” and stormed out of the lecture hall.

Free speech was alive and well at the University of Toronto last night, but in that moment I’d have welcomed its death with open arms.

It was clear that both the professor’s detractors and supporters were, overwhelmingly, nuts. And Dr. Fiamengo herself, was, standing at that podium, a buoy of relative reason in a sea of everything but. “Any movement can attract hysterical detraction and unsavoury allies,” she would tell me over the phone the next morning. “That is the risk one runs.” She’s right. Take this little Facebook diatribe from an active member of A Voice for Men, one of the men’s rights groups who support her.

There has never been a great female composer. Throughout history there has been plenty of privileged woman, who have had access to pianos, and violins, yet somehow we are expected to believe that men have somehow stopped them for being composers?  Woman have the big lovely eyes, big tits, but mean [I think he meant “men”] are far more beautiful, they are more beautiful where it counts. In their wonderful creative souls.

Unfortunately, though, the other side is no more intelligent. They just use bigger words.

Almost every pro-women’s studies person who approached the mic last night, spoke another language, a jargon you might misconstrue as scientific–only the words they used weren’t shortcuts meant to simplify or summarize complex concepts, they were used to make simple concepts sound complex: Hegemonic, racialized, problematic, intersectionality. It was pure obfuscation, 1984 with tattoos and septum piercings. Some of the students couldn’t even string together a single lucid sentence. All they had were these meaningless, monolithic words. I felt like I was on a game show, the exercise being how many times can you say patriarchal, phallocentric hegemony in 45 seconds or less. It was frankly, for a feminist, depressing.

Slogans don’t make scholarship and being self-righteous does not make you right.

Going into the talk last night I wasn’t convinced women’s studies needed overhauling. Now I’m positive that it does. Not because I believe fighting misandry is a legitimate humanitarian cause (LOL) or because Dr. Fiamengo’s speech was particularly insightful, but because her detractors—presumably, women’s studies’ finest—were so profoundly, not.

Happy women’s day, everyone.