November 15, 2019

Christopher Hitchens used to have a cast-iron rule when it came to hardline Christians and the condemnation of some very particular sins of the flesh. As he put it:

“Whenever I heard some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.”

I am beginning to wonder whether a similar trend is not emerging with another group, specifically that variety of men whom the internet — with its unerring ability to get to the cruel point — has come to describe as the “creepy male feminist“.

It is a distinctly 2010s phenomenon: the sort of chap who likes to present himself as a great spokesperson for, and defender of women and overdoes it so much that you just know that something else is going on.

He will invariably go beyond the usual courtesies and head some way past the point of merely regarding women as his equal. Instead, the creepy male feminist pulls a number of simultaneous moves. These include (though are not limited to):

1. Presenting the plight of women in our society as distinctly worse than it is.

2. Suggesting that everybody knows this but that some people (especially men) are deliberately covering for that fact.

3. Making the suggestion — sometimes insinuated, often explicit — that nothing and nobody is more willing to stand between women as a whole and such rampaging patriarchs than the male in question. Anyone still unfamiliar with the type might recognise it under another entry in the lexicon of modern ignominy: “White knight” (n).

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And a trend can now be observed, which is that with unnerving regularity the type of man who presents himself as the foremost protector of the entire female sex is precisely the person who shortly thereafter is exposed as having tried to help himself in distinctly un-gentlemanly ways.

There are specific psychological factors that influence this type, of course. Most men would not seek to prostrate themselves in such an abject way as the creepy male feminist tends to do. They might recognise that there are problems with some members of their sex, but they would not pretend that this meant that men as a whole are a problem that needs solving.

They would not pretend that the world would be better off if only men were not in it. Such over-acting, among other traits, betrays the fact that we are dealing with a man who wishes to make up for something, to cover-up for something, and we now know that this includes his own disappointing behaviour.

Of course there is a certain form of animalistic cunning, if not intelligence, at play here, and certain other driving factors. The creepy male feminist may well have had trouble in the past in attracting mates. It may be that the outrageous and excessive displays of prostration are intended to make up for a lack of advantages in the looks or charm departments. But it is hard to generalise, because at this stage all we know is that the type is so commonplace that it can encompass an extraordinary range of men.

Some of the examples of this emergent trend are celebrated figures in their field; others languish in semi-obscurity. At one end of fame there is the actor Robert De Niro, who in recent years has made a specialism of tough talking about the current President of the United States, motivated by the President’s historic comments about women.

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But Mr De Niro has repeatedly gone overboard in a way that should have alerted anyone to the fact that there was something up. In public appearances, he kept stressing how much he would like to assault the President. In October 2016, just before the US election, De Niro appeared on video saying that he would like to punch Donald Trump in the face.

The desire of certain tough-guy actors to be tough-guys in the non-pretend world may be the motivation for such over-reach. But he went further. At the Tony Awards, in 2018, De Niro decided to do the naughtiest thing that a celebrity can possibly do and dropped the F-bomb live on television. More than half a century after Kenneth Tynan swore on the BBC, and almost half a century after that tearaway Peregrine Worsthorne did the same, Robert De Niro showed that the age of rebellion has not died and swore about Donald Trump live on CNN.

So absurdly over-the-top did the actor’s explosions become that a number of us now realise that we had in fact made a Hitch-style mental note about De Niro. Can we remotely feign surprise now, when we read that De Niro’s former assistant is suing him for gender discrimination and harassment?

None of this, I must stress, means that Mr De Niro is guilty of the crimes of which his former assistant – Chase Robinson – complains. I merely read descriptions such as this with an eyebrow carefully raised:

“De Niro would unleash tirades against Ms Robinson – often while he was intoxicated – in which he denigrated, berated, bullied, and hurled expletives at her. De Niro made vulgar, inappropriate, and gendered comments to Ms Robinson. He would joke with Ms Robinson about his Viagra prescription.”

And yet readers should not think that this curse only strikes down famous creepy male feminists. It afflicts the famous and obscure alike, dispersing a form of justice that drops from the heavens.

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Take the case of Jon Tennant. Mr Tennant is a very little-known researcher, involved in the perhaps unwisely named “OpenCon”. He is also a pioneer of creepy male feminism. Relatively early in the current wave Mr Tennant could be found in fine mid-season form on social media doing what creepy male feminists do, and desperately shouting about trying to correct the behaviour of other men — the better to show that he was not one of them.

He started with the usual unasked for and highly debatable assertions, so in October 2016, he could be found on Twitter announcing “There’s no excuse for all-male panels anymore. If you can’t find enough women speakers, you’re not looking hard enough!” Elsewhere he would be urging his fellow males to “help with” such things as “speak[ing] up against banter (yucky word and action)”.

All of this is classic creepy male feminist behaviour: white-knighting where nobody has asked you to, protesting rather too vociferously and pretending that you would just love to write yourself out of your own field. And so, as sure as a fall follows pride, we recently see the aforementioned “OpenCon” having to release a statement  about the – ahem – behaviour of Mr Tennant, with the somewhat cryptic:

“The OpenCon Code of Conduct Committee has decided to remove Jon Tennant from the OpenCon community and disallow his participation in future OpenCon events—in-person or online.”

It may be said that there are not yet enough entrants to diagnose this trend, but I would say that from Louis CK to Sam Kriss and Morgan Spurlock, it is worth keeping an eye on. Normal, regular men, do not need to try to scream their virtue on social media or anywhere else. Normal, regular women happen to notice that there is something slightly off about the sort of man who does.

So perhaps I can invite people to join me in keeping a small notebook on these cases. Next time a man talks about the importance of cancelling men, just sit back and set your watch.