On "toxic femininity," Twitter takedowns - and the way forward
I recently drove to Vermont to attend an off the record workshop for heterodox women at a new writers’ centre. It was the inaugural retreat for Lean Out guest Meghan Daum’s project The Unspeakeasy — a new community for free-thinking women.
One of the subjects that we discussed there was women’s role in cancel culture.
This was interesting to me because, as I made the long journey from Toronto, I had listened to Daum’s interview with British feminist, and Lean Out guest, Louise Perry.
I had been struck by a comment that Perry made about cancel culture being “girls’ school culture.” And I have been thinking about it ever since.
Perry was riffing on the feminization of public life, which, as she points out, has had plenty of benefits, such as decreased tolerance for domestic violence, as more women assume positions of influence in the police, politics, the media, etc.
But the flood of women into the public sphere also has its downsides, including what Perry calls “toxic femininity,” something we are now seeing play out in public life:
Look at social media if you want to see feminine aggression at play. On Twitter, everyone fights like a girl. Because, by necessity, it forecloses the possibility of physical violence … So, you’ve got to use your feminine tools, like reputational damage, and turning people against outcasts from the in-group. All this good stuff that cancel culture has brought to the fore. This is just girls’ school culture. Cancel culture is girls’ school culture.
This idea is gaining traction in heterodox circles.
Daum, on her fantastic podcast with Sarah Haider, A Special Place in Hell, has also been asking: Is cancel culture run by women?
And we should ask this here, now, too: Are women, in fact, leading cancel culture?
It’s worth considering.
This had never occurred to me before. But it makes sense.
Twitter pile-ons and takedowns — for many of the women I’ve since talked to about this — tend to feel eerily familiar. They are reminiscent of the female power games we’ve all experienced in person.
And when I think back to the online mobbings that I’ve witnessed in recent years, I have to admit that many of the main actors were women.
Even the shots lobbed by the men in the mix tend to lean heavily on mean girls tactics.
It all amounts to a style of argument that is, frankly, hard to take seriously.
Indeed, cancel culture is a fundamentally unserious form of debate. It jumps to conclusions, launches personal attacks, calls names, fails to consider facts. It is emotional, impulsive, irrational, immature.
Another way of thinking through this question of women and cancel culture is to look at political polarization, as Louise Perry suggests on The Unspeakable episode.
As Perry points out, there’s evidence that women are driving not just cancel culture, but the woke phenomenon as a whole:
I think woke politics in general is led by women, and that’s evident in the data. I was actually just looking at some survey data that’s just come out in the UK — but I’m sure this applies elsewhere in the West as well — that shows that young men are turning increasingly rightwards in their politics and young women are getting ever-more woke. And there’s a really big gendered gap in politics, which didn’t use to exist.
As it turns out, this does apply elsewhere.
Columbia sociologist Musa al-Gharbi gave a fascinating talk last week at the Center for Global Humanities, exploring the struggle between knowledge economy elites and those who feel excluded from society and unrepresented in the political process.
The talk is dense, data-heavy, and absolutely mind-blowing. I could easily spend a whole post discussing its eye-openers; I encourage everyone to watch it in full.
But for the purposes of exploring the role of women in our toxic political culture, I’ll zero in on the section that addresses gender and polarization (timestamped below).
The gist is that there’s a growing partisan divide between American men and women:
There is a dramatic gap in partisan preferences between men and women. It started roughly in 1980 and it has been growing dramatically since then. Not only do women lean decisively and increasingly Democrat, but they also represent a larger total share of the U.S. population and they vote at higher rates than men as well. And the political polarization along gender lines has been fairy asymmetrical in recent years … Women have shifted much more towards the Democrats than men have shifted towards the Republicans. If you look at Millennial men, they have become two percentage points more likely to vote Republican. Over the same period, women have become 16 percentage points more likely to vote Democrat.
If women are driving political polarization — and, it seems, the destructive online culture that fuels it — perhaps it’s time for some self-reflection.
If we can agree that women are part of the problem, it is only reasonable that we should be part of the solution — and take an active role in pushing back on our toxic political culture, and the social media power games driving it.
This should happen out in the open, in public.
But, I am increasingly convinced, the courage to take such a stand must be cultivated in private. And in person.
Meghan Daum’s retreat modelled one way forward.
Sitting around a table with a group of smart, strong, thoughtful, generous women — talking through political and cultural issues, at length, allowing room for dissent, disagreement, and nuance — accomplished more in a few days than years on Twitter ever could.
I was proud to be part of it.
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