Pauline Harmange is a French feminist activist. She is just 26 years old and lives a quiet life in the city of Lille in northern France with her husband and cat. Last year she wrote a long-form chaptered essay called I Hate Men, which was published in a tiny print run (450 copies) by a small nonprofit press, Monstograph. She was justifiably proud of her work, but she was realistic; she didn’t expect it to garner a large readership.
However, on the day that her book was released in August, France’s minister for gender equality — a man named Ralph Zurmely — ordered the publishing house to recall the book. He hadn’t read it, but based on its title and the publisher’s brief website summary, he believed it to be “an incitement to gender-based hatred” (which is a crime in France).
Naturally — for, surely, it was ever thus! Does nobody remember what happened with Lolita, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover? — this last-minute attempt to ban the book made it go immediately viral. Existing copies sold out instantly and the nonprofit couldn’t keep up with the reprints.
After a bidding war, a major publisher (Seuil) acquired the book instead, and as of November 2020 the rights had been sold to translate the book into 17 languages. An English translation hits the US next week, on 19th January.
Harmange’s head was spinning. She’d expected a gentle ripple, not this tempestuous splash. Suddenly thousands of eyes were on her work. And thousands of voices were coming at her. She received a lot of backlash, much of it horribly personal. Thankfully, she says that this has now died down, and she’s excited about the book’s wider reception.
So was Zurmely’s frenzied fear of Harmange’s words justified? The book grew from one of her 2019 blog posts, and at 78 pages, it’s still not a long read. The central theme of the book is misandry (man-hating), which Harmange defines as “a feeling many women experience, even if they don’t dare admit it, which consists in thinking that men in general aren’t people you can automatically trust”. Hence the clickbait title, which proved almost too effective.
It’s apparently a very personal read, with chapters based on her personal experiences, building ultimately on her basic treatise which is that when channelled correctly, instinctive misandry is no bad thing. Harmange argues that on a general, not personal level, women should simply have the right not to like men and to be instinctively mistrustful of them. In her country, this is a revolutionary statement.
Of course, France is traditionally known as the country of romance and seduction. When the #MeToo movement hit French shores, there was an unprecedented celebrity backlash against it — with prominent actresses such as Catherine Deneuve saying that clumsy seduction attempts should never be conflated with assault.
This type of “bof, it’s just a bit clumsy and awkward, it’s not oppressive” attitude towards men’s approaches to women is very pervasive in France (which is, let’s not forget, the country that still honors the criminal Roman Polanski with awards for his films and won’t assist his extradition). Hardly surprising that Harmange, along with many of her countrywomen, might begin to feel frustrated or angry at her institutional disadvantage. Hardly surprising that in her despair, she might write about it on her blog.
That she was subsequently approached to turn her blog into a book suggests that hers is a voice that other people are equally keen to see amplified. And that this book created such hysterical outrage in government before anyone had even bothered to read it speaks more loudly to the entrenched misogynistic culture of the country itself than to any “incitement to hatred” in the book’s words.
I haven’t read Harmange’s book yet. I can’t speak French well enough to do it justice. I’ll be reading it when it comes out in English, though. Her key argument, which she has made in every interview I’ve read, is compelling enough that I’d have wanted to read it even without its media storm: simply, she believes there’s strength in sorority, in sisterhood, a strength which can be powerful and can be used for good. Anger towards men does not have to be destructive but can be constructive. And she writes from her lived feminist experience.
“I am married to a man, who is great and really supports my writing. But in general I mistrust men I don’t know. I just don’t have confidence in them. This comes less from personal experience than from being an activist in a feminist organisation that helps the victims of rape and sexual assault for several years. I can state for a fact that the majority of aggressors are men.” — Pauline Harmange
Misandry, she states, exists only because of centuries of misogyny. And unlike misogyny, misandry is not violent. It has never killed anyone, Harmange points out, unlike misogyny, which in 2018 saw 99% of sexual violence convictions being secured against men (and 96% of domestic violence convictions).
In a country where the overarching, pervading culture encourages women to allow men to touch them with impunity and indeed to be flattered by this contact — it’s just clumsy seduction, girls, give the guys a break! — being reminded of these statistics is a sobering and necessary breath of fresh air. There is clearly a balance to be redressed.
Let’s not forget, in the end, that the man who tried to ban this book is supposed to be the minister for gender equality. It’s so ironic it’s almost funny. The man whose actual job is to create equality between men and women, to reduce the awful statistics for sexual assault and rape that the current inequality spawns, sought to censor a book which by definition (and despite its title) aimed to help him with that job.
Thankfully, he missed the mark by miles. Thankfully, rather than quashing Harmange’s message, he’s managed to make sure it reaches far more widely than she could have ever hoped it might. At the end of the day, he did her — and her feminist message — a huge favour. His attempt at censorship has launched her career.