"I want to begin with a song."
There are a great many things I would expect to open with these words, but a "men's rights" lecture had not been among them.
On Thursday, March 7, University of Ottawa English professor Janice Fiamengo kicks off her talk at U of T by playing It's Time To Be Men Again, a mind-bending anti-feminist ditty recorded by her friend David Solway.
It describes various respects in which men have ostensibly been feminized to their detriment ("You're gonna sweep, do laundry and cook / You'll be reading from a book"), each followed by a call-to-arms chorus:
Oh, this has gone on long enough
It's time we learned from the billy goat gruff
Stand our ground, defend our den
It's time we learned to be men again
"It's a deliberately over-the-top song, obviously outrageous, a little tongue-in-cheek," Fiamengo tells the crowd, "but still, I think, not entirely out of sync with a growing frustration with our man-hating society."
And here we pass through the looking glass, into an alternate world in which such sentiments are considered not only rational but necessary and urgent.
In one way, it's a rebellion against the specific advances toward equity made by women over the last many decades. Some of those for whom the status quo had been working just fine misinterpret feminism as advocating for an imbalance.
In another way, it's a collection of fathers who feel disadvantaged in custody battles and see that as just one manifestation of a larger societal bias against men.
And in a different way, it might also be a revolt against nothing in particular that just happens to have latched on to a convenient object.
In 2010, University of Texas at Austin communications professor Joshua Gunn took a psychoanalytic look at the Tea Party. "It's an organization of affect around one simple, adolescent or infantile experience: someone took my hap-penis away!" he wrote on his blog. "The problem, of course, was that there was nothing to be taken away to begin with, a classic object-cause of desiring if there ever was."
There may be legitimate grievances about, say, the Family Court system - but an ambiguous determination to reclaim one's gender does not seem far removed from an ambiguous determination to reclaim one's country.
"If someone has taken your happiness away, you need to identify a someone," Gunn explained. "Socialists. Communists. The Gays. Illegal Aliens. THEM!"
As a phrase, "men's rights" is no less absurd than "straight pride" and no less troubling than "white power." But it's unclear how many of the 160 or so people packing Trinity College's George Ignatieff Theatre to hear Fiamengo talk would draw that connection.
For that matter, it's unclear how many attendees are genuine supporters of her cause. As at a Ford Fest, the crowd is padded with a healthy contingent of the ironic, the morbidly curious and the outright opposed. Unlike at a Ford Fest, however, there is no free liquor to relieve the tension.
Thankfully, Fiamengo's speech - titled What's Wrong With Women's Studies? Academic Feminism, Censorship & Men - is more ridiculous than distressing.
She frequently returns to the need for more thorough and serious scholarship, yet a large chunk of her talk consists of picking apart specific women's studies classes, not on the basis of the material they teach but solely on their course calendar descriptions. She thinks that by contrasting the blurb for a U of T course called Gender And Violence [pdf] with that of a UBC course called The Discourse Of Gender In Modern Islam [pdf], she can demonstrate a hypocrisy that lies at the heart of "academic feminism."
"The course description [for Gender In Modern Islam] contains none of the oppositional critique that was such a central part of the course on Gender And Violence," she says. "Note that the language related to oppression that occurred throughout the previous description is entirely absent here."
By this time, however, it has already become clear that Fiamengo's issues are not limited to women's studies but extend to every other "modality of oppression" with which it intersects: race, class, sexuality, etc. She collectively refers to these as "victim studies."
The victimhood paradigm, she says, leads to "the most serious and far-reaching failing of a politicized world view such as the one of academic feminism: the false and misleading view of Western culture that it offers."
Well, yes, if you choose to ignore all the inequalities and injustices and systemic problems that exist, you're probably gonna have a rather peachy view of society: what are all those other folks so angry about?
Many people - a diverse assortment of women and men - point out Fiamengo's contradictions and omissions in the question-and-answer session that follows. But a tenured professor to whom these things have not already occurred is probably not going to be swayed by a 45-second rebuttal, however sharp the points made.
And there are few times and places in which terms like "intersectionality" and "heteronormativity" are less likely to resonate than in a room full of aggrieved "men's rights" activists who have just had their views reinforced.
Still, the resistance to the male-supremacist discourse is invigorating. In addition to challenges via the Q&A, and the protesters with placards outside, a pair of leaflets are distributed to everyone who enters the building.
One announces a new student group called Feminist Engagement with Men* and Masculinities at the University of Toronto. The other explains, patiently and calmly, why feminism is not the source of the hardships on which "men's rights" activists dwell.
One phrase is highlighted in a black text box of its own: "Let's identify the real causes of our problems and address them effectively, together."