The Good Men Project
by Shannan Palma
The Good Men Project (GMP) began as a woman-positive, online magazine and forum for considering modern masculinities outside the misogynist rhetoric of men’s rights advocacy groups, which claim that critiques of sexism are part of a feminist conspiracy to oppress men. At first the organization seemed dedicated to this task—Men Stopping Violence (MSV) even awarded it a True Ally Award in 2011. Then the conversations on the website started to turn.
Founder Tom Matlack got into a social media scuffle with his feminist critics over what he saw as gender-based attacks. Then, in December 2012, feminist blogs exploded with incredulity and horror at a series of rape-apology articles published and defended on GMP. Though initially an inclusive, feminist-friendly point of entry into conversations about modern manhood, the GMP evolved into the very organization it originally positioned itself against.
As a Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) scholar, I have given a lot of thought to how to navigate dealing with allies and being an ally in feminist spaces. Privilege—that set of unearned advantages that accompanies power in the "-ism" of the day (sexism, racism, heterosexism, or ablism)—is generally invisible to those who have it. In a feminist classroom, the question is always, at least in part, what’s the structural power dynamic between who is speaking and who is silent?
When I have male students in a WGSS course, are they speaking more loudly or more frequently than the women? Are my white students interrupting my students of color when the discussions get too heated? If either, is this a dynamic exchange of ideas or are some of my students closing up and shutting down? Are all voices experiencing a safe space to make themselves heard? Is my own whiteness or other privilege contributing to making the space unsafe or unwelcoming? If students disagree with each other, is the student with more structural privilege in that moment using hyperbolic language and claiming to be under attack? If so, is the argument actually getting out of hand or is this just frustrated entitlement?
At first it seemed as if GMP got this. Articles such as Yashar Ali’s “Why Women Aren’t Crazy,” on gaslighting—when men tell women their feelings are crazy, irrational, or unwarranted in order to silence them—took aim at male privilege and called on men to stop using sexist tactics. That is why it was such a shock when Matlack began gaslighting feminist women who criticized him. He began with “Being a Dude Is a Good Thing,” an essay that suggested men (most of them) were being silenced by the women in their lives: “Here’s my theory, and it’s nothing but a theory. Men and women are different. Quite different in fact. But women would really like men to be more like them.” He wrote of a married friend’s relationship with his spouse as a case in point: “He’s a very competent human being. But with her he’s decided the only way to survive is to submit. The female view is the right view. The male view just gets you into trouble.”
The Twitter discussion that took place a day later took an ugly turn. Matlack responded to pushback from prominent feminists Kate Harding, Amanda Marcotte, and Jennifer Pozer using classic gaslighting posturing and claimed to be under attack for having dared to speak his mind. By the end of 2011, gender scholar Hugo Schwyzer, the editor and staff writer who had accepted the MSV award on the magazine’s behalf only a couple months prior, resigned from the GMP in protest over its “increasingly anti-feminist stance.” Reading through the articles of the time, one can see the polarization occurring as Matlack comes to believe that the men’s rights activists (MRAs) aren’t as crazy as he once thought. Feminists really are out to get men, he seems to believe. His evidence? Women disagreed with him.
Is frustrated entitlement enough of an explanation when allies begin to turn? Once a man believes feminists really are out to get him, perhaps the next step in this skewed logic is to question whether men are being represented unfairly in issues of sexual assault.
In November 2012, the magazine became the center of controversy once more by publishing a series of articles that ranged from rape apology (“Nice Guys Commit Rape Too”) to an anonymous serial rapist’s defiant announcement: “I’d Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying.” This time the magazine stood behind its presentation of rape as complicated and confusing for the rapist—a trap anyone could fall into. Rapists weren’t all bad guys; they were frequently just confused by the conflicting messages society sends men and women about sexuality. The anonymous serial rapist was another matter; he was an example of the dangers of addiction. Both types of men, however, were presented as victims of society.
As we meditate on men and feminism in this issue, I would like to end my cautionary tale of entitlement activism on a hopeful note. One of the key researchers cited in responses to the GMP’s portrayal of nice-guy rapists as “misunderstood” was David Lisak, Emory’s 2013 Women’s History Month keynote speaker, whose research on undetected serial rapists holds up the fun-house mirror to GMP’s arguments and exposes how they distort the realities of sexual predation. Though GMP fell into the trap of MRA rhetoric, what I found particularly heartening was the number of men, feminist or not, who wrote publicly to disavow them.
UPDATE: On April 9, 2013, Tom Matlack resigned from The Good Men Project. What that means for the direction of the magazine is anyone's guess.
Shannan Palma, program coordinator at the Center for Women, earned her PhD in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Emory and won the biennial Kore Award for Best Dissertation on Women and Mythology for her work on fairy tales as myth. A strategic communications and programming professional with more than eight years' experience in higher education, Palma is in charge of the center's communications and publicity, among other responsibilities.