Not Oprah’s Book Club: This is How You Lose Her

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One of my closest friends—let’s call him Sal—worries about how the angry Reddit dudes are doing. Nonstop aggression, violation, transphobia, misogyny, and rape apologism are problematic, he explained to me on a search for the perfect afternoon snack, but they grow out of the loneliness of the marginalized: the computer geek, the socially awkward teen who finds it easier to talk online than in person, yearning for acceptance. I was skeptical. Approaching sexism empathetically would be excusing the inexcusable, right? Isn’t such hate undeserving of our consideration?

Then, on the same day Reddit moderator Violentacrez was outed, I finished certified genius Junot Díaz’s most recent collection of stories, This is How You Lose Her, and I’ve been rethinking Sal’s theory ever since. Díaz’s book follows protagonist Yunior from his early immigration from the Dominican Republic to his Harvard professorship, charting his troubled and troubling relationship with his own gender. Masculinity defined by mistreatment of women seems to be an inescapable fate: Yunior’s father and brother were, in his description, “sucios,” and while “you had hoped the gene missed you… clearly you were kidding yourself.” Yet Yunior also recognizes that masculinity is not some simple genetic inheritance but an external standard that he is pressured to emulate. He jokes about missing a memo “during boy training” about the pleasure of external ejaculation, and is haunted by the chorus of “the boys,” consistently judging his behavior from afar, noting how he falls short of a masculine ideal.

As a reader, it’s so frustrating to watch Yunior slip into sexism because we know he knows how destructive this behavior is; he’s seen the psychological turmoil wrought by his father and brother on their partners. Yet Yunior can’t seem to resist his own misogynistic impulses: compulsively lying, pressuring girlfriends for sex, and referring to every woman but his mother as a “slut.” His first words in the book insist that he’s “not a bad guy,” just one who has made mistakes, and who seems baffled by his own mistreatment of his lovers. Yunior’s search for an explanation—“You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy”—always comes up short. Structural sexism certainly deserves some blame, but how do we understand an individual’s choices within this context?

Like the boys behind the screens, if for very different reasons and from a very different point of disadvantage, Yunior is alone. From his first winter in America, locked away from neighborhood children in his apartment, to his post-break up depression, in very white Boston, Yunior is alienated from society and the intimacy he desires—but when he joins other men in objectifying a woman, Yunior fleetingly belongs to a group. When he pressures a new girlfriend to have sex, he proves his manly, aggressive libido to “the boys”; by imitating his absent father and late brother’s destructive behavior, he connects with men who have abandoned him. Similarly, the Redditors come together for friendship, creating a community of the community-less, and lash out at a common enemy (in their case not lovers or mothers but women as a group—as well as people of color, the LGBT*Q community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups) to bind themselves together. The harm done by Yunior and by misogynistic Reddit users is undeniable, but so is the isolation that leads them to misogyny.

Recognizing this causality leads me to the same conundrum I refused to face when confronted with Sal’s Reddit theory: how can I come to terms with the occasionally complex, personal motives that encourage some men to act misogynistically? Loneliness doesn’t excuse hate. However, while I feared that acknowledging sympathetic motives would undermine moral condemnation of anonymous Redditors’ speech, Díaz’s stories have inspired in me a new empathy for the lonely man. If I’m honest, I find that pretty scary. As a woman I am expected to be kind to men, to forgive their trespasses, and so I don’t trust the new empathy for them. Is it my own, to do with what I will, or is it simply the tool of my conformity to the rules of “good womanhood”? This is so much of what my gender means to me: to look in the mirror and wonder what that I see is mine.

But this empathy may have tactical value. I don’t believe it’s a woman’s responsibility to convince bigots not to hate her, but this is the first time I’ve given misogynists’ experiences and motivations enough thought to wonder if that change might be possible with sufficient understanding. If I can wield it with control, never wavering in my criticism, perhaps empathy for my enemy could make me a better activist. The Violentacrezes of the world might be lost causes, but I bet Yunior and a couple Redditor friends could be swayed.

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  1. Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Well written and argued.

    Empathy and understanding don’t imply acceptance. The most compassionate course towards someone being horrible is to try to get them to a kinder and better life path, and that can mean strong and forceful measures. You’re dead on target that it’s not your responsibility, and that misogyny is inexcusable – after all there are plenty of isolated young men who don’t turn to misogyny – but I think any time we can manage to treat other human beings (even very bad ones) with compassion, it’s better for the world.

  2. Posted October 18, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    “I feared that acknowledging sympathetic motives would undermine moral condemnation of anonymous Redditors’ speech”

    This is inherently problematic to me. You generally attempt not to acknowledge reality in order not to undermine your moral condemnation? Your moral judgments should be able to deal with reality, otherwise I am not sure why you would trust them at all.

    “how can I come to terms with the occasionally complex, personal motives that encourage some men to act misogynistically?”

    Human actions are all determined by complex personal motives. It is ridiculous to attempt to deny that people who are suffering are actually suffering just because you don’t approve of how they deal with that. It’s fine to both condemn behavior that is immoral and recognize the suffering of the person performing that behavior.

  3. Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve been seeking an answer to my following question for years now, and I hope you’ll be able to shed a little light on it for me. I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao when it was still new and found myself disgusted by the protagonist. I couldn’t tell how the narrator intended me to receive this character. I’m fairly certain the narrator was meant to be male, and most of the time the narrator seemed to treat Oscar with a kind of detached sympathy. But Oscar’s behavior, especially towards women, was embarrassing at best and criminal at worst — particularly the scene where he trashes the dorm room of his college crush.

    I was much more enthralled by the scenes describing his parents’ and grandparents’ lives in the DR under Trujillo, a setting I’d been wholly ignorant of. However, even in these scenes, the narrator “himself” seemed ill-equipped to fully inhabit the plight of the women he represents. The worst offender is the moment when “he” uses the image of roleplaying dice to illustrate the “damage” done to a raped woman.

    So my question is: though Wondrous Life does represent the misogyny of Trujillo’s reign, and to a lesser degree the inherent misogyny of DR culture, isn’t the novel itself irredeemably misogynist? To what degree is Oscar’s misogyny meant to be sympathized with?

    I just couldn’t get past the fact that the nerdy, pathetic protagonist was represented as a tragic hero amid all the real suffering his family, especially the women, endured.

    • Posted October 26, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      Hey Paul– I haven’t read the Wondrous Life, though I certainly will now. I think that the divide between misogynistic characters and a misogynistic text is a very thin one which I certainly haven’t figured out yet. I found Yunior in the most recent book to be a sympathetic character in part because he is so aware and so actively struggles with his sexism, but I’m interested to see how Diaz handles his bigoted characters in his earlier work.

  4. Posted October 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I understand only too well why and how men can become misogynistic when they feel like outsiders. My brother was one of those guys. He schooled me and steeped me so much in his worldview that I was unable to defend myself against predators, because I was supposed to feel sorry for them. Too much understanding can turn corrosive and make a woman lose sight of the fact that she has the right to protect herself, to demand better treatment, and expect a better world. And that better world starts one man at a time not being a dickhead.

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