Science Fiction, Fantasy & Utopia
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William Tenn. "The Masculinist Revolt." Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August, 1965; reprinted in Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, Volume I, edited by James A. Mann and Mary C. Tabasko, pp. 213-237. (The NESFA Press, Framingham, MA: 2001, 1st Edition; ISBN 1-886778-19-1). Written 1961; published 1965.


William Tenn (the author)
Tenn comments on this story in an afterword in Immodest Proposals. He notes (1968) that "I have lost one agent and several friends over this story. ... My intention was neither castration-nightmare nor ringing manifesto; it was satiric, very gently but encompassingly satiric. I may have failed." In 2001, he added: "Apparently I picked the wrong sex, but I was right about the nuttiness either of the two could develop as it wriggled in the throes of gender-political militancy. I further thought that I clearly portrayed in my male leads, Old Pep, Old Shep, and Hellfire Henry, three different kinds of utter failures as men, but I have been assured -- by the equivalents of Germaine Greers and CatherineMacKinnons in my own circle -- that these characters are to most women the most typically typical of men. So what do I know."

Tenn states that this story, and others of its type, were inspired by E. B. White's "The Supremacy of Uruguay" -- which showed that there could be successful pseudo-histories which didn't have detailed particular characters, and he adds that Olaf Stapledon's novels demonstrate "how a really great science-fiction writer managed the form."

Laura Quilter.
I enjoyed this satire. I thought it really worked well as a satire of politician-driven movements. The descriptions of electoral platforming were great. The Hitler-like story of Dorselblad's evolution was pretty funny, and I appreciated the sly list of gender-relations classics -- "Nietzsche, Hitler, the Marquis de Sade, Mohammed, James Thurber." Kitchen-Loving Clarissima certainly is a fine example of reactionary & conservative movements' use of tokens. Clarissima reminded me of Clarence Thomas and Phyllis Schlafly, and of Margaret Atwood's anti-feminist activist wife in The Handmaid's Tale.

Tenn suggests he may have failed, presumably because some of his friends took him seriously -- thought that the story showed a castration-complex, or that it should be a manifesto for a men's movement.

I don't think Tenn failed. I think he succeeded in doing exactly what he set out to do: satirizing political movements, politicians, feminism, and the so-called sex wars.

Tenn just didn't understand that satire can and should be taken seriously, both for its ideas and as a way to read the satirist. I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as a "castration-nightmare" -- for one thing that's way too Freudian for my taste -- but the story definitely shows some of Tenn's attitudes.

Take for example one element out of "The Masculinist Revolt," an element which I found reminiscent of a lot of 60s-style misogynistic humor -- the multiple jabs at women who use men as a source of income, for instance, were sexist & offensive. These showed up several times -- in the Chief Justice's decision about women's rights; the history of Dorselblad; and the frequent mention of divorce laws. The pervasiveness of this particular sexist stereotype made me think Tenn had just gone through a divorce & was upset about paying alimony. [I'll note for the record: of course individual cases can & frequently do get screwed up, but people who are unhappy about the system of alimony and consider it to be "special rights" should consider the fact that women's living standards fall drastically after divorce, and men's rise. This isn't of course necessarily the fault of either member of the particular couple. It reflects the extremely significant wage gap -- women earn between 65-75% of men's earnings for comparable work -- and the fact that to this day, women are more likely to take time off from their own paid work and careers to work for free in the home. The consequences for decisions that couples make together should not be borne only by one member of the couple.]

Satire & Political Correctness

The general discussions of feminism throughout the 20th century are sly & parodic. The parodic nature of the writing mocks the movement by making it seem trivial & unimportant. The pervasive sexism that necessitated the movement isn't important, and instead, reacting to the sexism is seen as reacting to something trivial. Okay, you say, but that's the genre. At this point, anything I say critical of this work will be taken as a sign of political correctness, or a feminist's lack of a sense of humor.

So I'm going to do something a little different. I'm going to discuss satire and political correctness, and satire and political movements. And I'll put it all out at the beginning: I like satire, as a genre. I believe satire is an effective political tool. I think you can satirize anything. I think most ideas should be satirized -- it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. The satirist takes things to an extreme that's humorous, or almost humorous, or just absurd. The humor and absurdity disarm the reader, lets the ideas filter in.

Because satire is such a great tool, writers can use satire to advance political agendas and ideas. This is classic: Jonathan Swift used it most famously in "A Modest Proposal," after which Tenn named his own collection. You take a set of beliefs -- that the Irish Catholics are worthless, filthy, over-breeding, starving because of their own laziness and overpopulation. You magnify those beliefs, bring them out into the open, lay them out in a way that seems absurd, or draw an absurd conclusion from them.

Satire can easily be used to mock someone else. We are all deeply invested in our own perspective. We have a natural affinity toward seeing what is ridiculous about the other. Things that would not be at all funny if they happened to us nevertheless look funny if they happen to someone else.

Satire can also be used to mock oneself. Who better knows the foibles of one's own race, gender, class, society, social group, family?

There are satires that are racist, sexist, homophobic -- satires which are intended to encourage prejudice. There are also, far more commonly, satires which are not intended to encourage prejudice, but which show the writers' prejudices, despite his intentions and despite his beliefs about himself.

So that's the genre. If you don't have some kind of sense of humor, don't play.

But understanding the genre doesn't mean we can't examine and critique the underlying biases -- the ones the writer maybe doesn't mean, but that show up in the writing, and inform the writing.

Imagine, for example, a satire about race, racism, the Civil Rights movement, and identity politics. Most white people -- hell, most people of all races, colors, ethnicities, and backgrounds -- most people in the US have prejudices & ideas about people of color; about racism; and about anti-racist movements. If you try and satirize those people, those ideas, and those movements -- whether you are part of them or not -- and every unconscious / subconscious racist belief you have will reveal itself in your writing. Try it and see. Write a satire about identity politics and the civil rights movement. Don't be intentionally racist, just try to satirize the movement without being racist. Now, set it aside for six months, and then come back to it. In the meantime, watch a few documentaries about the civil rights movement, materials by the people you satirized -- expose yourself to some material you wouldn't ordinarily read or watch. If these are materials you're already familiar with, go the other way -- check out some really out-and-out racist material. Give yourself some significant amount of time, to detach yourself from your own writing. Now pick up your satire. Can you see your own racism?

I don't think it's easy to satirize without bias. Maybe it's not possible. Maybe satire is, inherently, so political a medium that it is necessary to have an underlying bias.

But we need satire. We need people pointing out our foibles, the fallacies in our thinking, and the absurdities of our assumptions.

We can do it ourselves -- like the little exercise above. We can use satire as a self-teaching tool, to explore our own hidden biases.

And of course we can use it to make a political point.

And finally we can use it just to poke gentle fun at a particular topic.

But whatever the writer's intent, the reader can always use a satire as a window into the writer's mind. More so than with many other forms of writing, in which the authorial voice may be any kind of character, in satire the authorial voice -- read through the satire -- is pretty much the voice of the actual author.

So that puts William Tenn's "The Masculinist Revolt" right in its slot as an object lesson. A perfectly fine example of satirical writing. But also an example of how our own hidden (or not very hidden) biases can crop up.

--lq, 2003-08-17, ver. 1.0.

Detailed Synopsis / Quotes

I: The Coming of the Codpiece.

Historians of the period between 1990 and 2015 disagree violently on the causes of the Masculinist Revolt. Some see it as a sexual earthquake of nationwide proportions that was long overdue. Others contend that an elderly bachelor founded the Movement only to save himself from bankruptcy and saw it turn into a terrifying monster that swallowed him alive.

[It seems that unisex clothing had damaged the market for men's clothing.]

Pollyglow [the men's wear manufacturer] began to spend long hours brooding at home instead of sitting nervously in his idle office. Chiefly he brooded on the pushing-around men had taken from women all through the twentieth century. Men had once been proud creatures; they had asserted themselves; they had enjoyed a high rank in human society. What had happened?

Most of their troubles could be traced to a development that occurred shortly before World War I, he decided. "Man-tailoring," the first identifiable villain.

[As unisex clothing developed:] Meanwhile, women kept gaining prestige and political power. The F.E.P.C. started policing discriminatory employment practices in any way based upon sex. A Supreme Court decision (Mrs. Staub's Employment Agency for Lady Athletes v. The New York State Boxing Commission) enunciated the law in Justice Emmeline Craggly's historic words: "Sex is a private, internal matter and ends at the individual's skin. From the skin outwards, in family chores, job opportunities, or even clothing, the sexes must be considered legally interchangeable in all respects save one. That one is the traditional duty of the male to support his family to the limit of his physical powers--the fixed cornerstone of all civilized existence."

[The tailor wants to change things, so he peruses historical clothing.] Which were intrinsically and flatteringly virile -- so virile that no woman would dare force her way into them?

[He is excited by the codpiece. That night he dreams of it:] In bed at last, and exhausted, he was still bubbling with so much enthusiasm that he forgot about sleep and hitched his aching shoulderblades up against the headboard. Visions of codpieces, millions of them, all hanging from Pollyglow Men's Jumpers, danced and swung and undulated in his head as he stared into the darkness.

[The author follows with some more gratuitous comments about women ... Then develops an ad campaign that sells a lot of jumpers by advertising the "masculinist club" -- not "masculine," because that had become associated with homosexuality. The tailor gets together with another guy and they decide to start a men's movement. The men's movement gets a bit out of control, attacking, e.g., the League of Women Voters, and lionizing men executed for killing their "sweethearts."]

II. Dorselblad

[While out of control, it frees a man named Henry Dorselblad, who had been victimized by a woman who wanted his labor; when he failed, he was sent to prison -- to the "alimony section of the jail." While in prison Dorselblad developed his thesis: He spent eighteen years brooding on his wrongs, real or imaginary, eighteen years studying the social problems from which they sprang, eighteen years reading the recognized classics in the field of relations between the sexes: Nietzsche, Hitler, the Marquis de Sade, Mohammed, James Thurber. It is to this period of close reasoning and intense theorizing that we must look if we are to understand the transformation of a shy and inarticulate nonentity into the most eloquent rabble rouser, the most astute political leader of his age.

[The Movement argues against special treatment and equal treatment, and demands an end to equal treatment. The Masculinist Movement starts to attack the 19th Amendment, and elects Masculinists to Congress and the state legislatures. "Lady masculinists" jeered and heckled female candidates. In Congress, a vote to repeal the 19th Amendment was narrowly defeated.]

III. The Counter-Revolution.

[Now the anti-Masculinist counter-revolution began. The movement is led by (of course) a man who runs for president on the Mother Knows Best platform who gives a `Cross of Swords' speech:] "You shall not press down upon the loins of mankind this codpiece of elastic," he would thunder. "You shall not crucify womankind upon a cross of swords!"

[Against him, the masculinists run "Kitchen-Loving Clarissima" who pleads to be the last woman president:] Clarissima Strunt's three sturdy sons accompanied her on every speaking engagement, baseball bats aslant on their shoulders. She also had a mysterious husband who was busy with `a man's work.' In photographs which were occasionally fed to the newspapers, he stood straight and still, a shotgun cradled in his arm, while a good hound dog flushed game out of faraway bushes. His face was never clearly recognizable, but there was something in the way he held his head that emphatically suggested an attitude of no nonsense from anybody -- especially women.

Hellfire Henry [Dorselblad] and Kitchen-Loving Clarissima worked beautifully together. After Dorselblad had pranced up and down a platform with a belligerently waving codpiece, after he had exhorted, demanded and anathematized, Clarissima Strunt would come forward. Replying to his gallant bow with a low curtsy, she would smooth out the red-and-white checked apron she always wore and talk gently of the pleasures of being a woman in a truly male world.

When she placed a mother's hand on the button at the top of her youngest son's baseball cap and fondly whispered, "Oh, no, I didn't raise my boy to be a sissy!" -- when she threw her head back and proudly asserted, "I get more pleasure out of oneo day's washing and scrubbing than out of ten year's legislating and politicking!" -- when she stretched plump arms out to the audience and begged, "Please give me your vote! I want to be the last woman President!" -- when she put it that way, which red-blooded registered voter could find it in his heart to refuse?

[The Masculinists were 3 to 2 favorites. Then in a televised debate the anti-masculinist candidate seems to have called one of the Masculinist leaders a homosexual; he was called out for a duel and then villified for trying to get out of the duel. He decided to duel and to take Andrew Jackson's strategy of letting the other guy have the first shot. That didn't work since the masculinist didn't miss. But the anti-masculinist leader survived, with a terrible wound, and the sympathy vote helped him win.]

[The Masculinism movement dies with but one reminder of its existence:

It was almost as if Masculinism had never been. If we discount the beery groups of men who, at the end of a party, nostalgically sing the old songs and call out the old heroic rallying cries to each other, we have today very few mementos of the great convulsion.

One of them is the codpiece.

The codpiece has survived as a part of modern male costume. In motion, it has a rhythmic wave that reminds many women of a sternly shaken forefinger, warning them that men, at the last, can only be pushed so far and no farther. For men, the codpiece is still a flag, now a flag of truce perhaps, but it flutters in a war that goes on and on.

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