Are Men Pigs? An Academic Responds

Are Men Pigs? An Academic Responds

Are Men Pigs? An Academic Responds
What can Ovid, Faulkner and Tony Soprano teach us about Rape Culture?

By Simon Black

I was in the elevator in the English Department when a female colleague spoke about how she loved Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the movie that featured an English Professor, Stranger than Fiction.

“Dustin Hoffman turned out to be quite a pig in real life,” I said, referring to the recent revelations of on set sexual harassment etc.

“Well,” she responded. “That’s the way men are.”

I thought that was a rather bold statement – more than microaggression. My female colleague was looking me right in the eye and firing away, boldly. It occurred to me, in that moment of suspended time that occurs when people make surprisingly offensive comments, that if I were to venture such a bold statement about the female of the species I would most certainly be out of a job before the sun set on my patriarchal behind.

What if I said “Well, that’s just the way women are,” referring to a female professor who doesn’t seem to be able to turn her computer on.

That wouldn’t go over too well.

We laughed it off. She backpedaled a bit, but it had been put out there. By the time I got to the parking lot and started my drive home, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was right. Are men pigs?

It’s an interesting academic question. A literary question. And a question that I think many men, men of letters and men not of letters, might be mulling around in their heads these days.

Most of us don’t feel like pigs. We feel like pretty good guys. And when this whole Me Too thing started, we could brush it off as a couple of bad apples. Harvey Weinstein. And a few others. Matt Lauer. Louis CK. But then, week after week, pig after pig was revealed, until, the pièce de résistance the nicest guy in the whole world – Aziz Ansari – turned out to be a pig himself.

This was a veritable pork roast in the media.

What does literature have to say? Are we pigs?


We certainly can be.

Let’s look at the stories from the beginning of recorded history – Greek mythology. Some of those stories are probably ten or fifteen thousand years old, but they were collected around the time of Christ in Ovid’s canonical work of literary genius Metamorphoses. Here we find many a tale of a powerful God or Prince sexually assaulting a hapless female. It can be rather upsetting for some females to wade through this tome of ancient and serial rape. Indeed, at my own alma mater, Columbia College, they have decided to “give Ovid a rest,” after some students complained about being triggered by the subject matter.

That was a couple years ago. Of course, the subject matter of the nightly news during this MeToo time is probably a thousand times as “triggering” to a victim of sexual assault. We’ve been given extraordinary graphic and pornographic detail of the various infamous abuses, something that Ovid, being a scholar, naturally eschewed. What he was interested in wasn’t the sexual aspect of rape – but the power imbalance. When Jupiter, the mightiest of all the Gods, comes across the nymph Callisto as she wanders alone in a grove, the power imbalance is extraordinary. “How could a girl win, and who is more powerful than Jove?” Callisto can’t fight it..

This imbalance is strikingly close to the power relation of a Harvey Weinstein and a wannabe Hollywood actress – a God encountering a defenseless nymph. It gives me some solace, then, to think that maybe not all men are pigs – but extraordinarily powerful men, like Jupiter, tend to take advantage of their power in piggish ways. And the more powerful they are – apparently the more piggish. Muammar Gadaffi had sex five times a day with different women. Supposedly Mao Zedong was even more prolific. We can imagine that many of these women didn’t exactly consent. They were ordered to bed with the dictator by his total power. Who was more powerful than Mao?

But there in Ovid, in addition to his depiction of the great power of Jupiter and the other rapists, time and time again, we discover images and descriptions of the inverse – complete powerlessness.

Greek and Roman gods, it must be remembered, are unlike the Christian God in one important way – they are beneath the fates. The Judeo Christian Monotheism was a revolution in this regard – the Christian God, of course, is not subject to the forces of chance or fate. But Jupiter was, like ordinary men, at the whim of fate. One of the greatest challenges that fate threw his way, it turns out, was the sight of beautiful women.

They were a challenge to Jupiter because he was married – to a particularly wily and rather remorseless Goddess, his sister Juno. Juno had a habit of punishing Jupiter for his infidelity. If she didn’t punish him, she at least made their home life miserable—which was something Jupiter desperately wanted to avoid. And yet he succumbed, time and time again, because, as I mentioned earlier – he was powerless.

The most powerful being in the universe was powerless against the force of his own desire.

“He felt the fire take in the very marrow of his bones.”

It’s a trope of Ovid’s to refer to the fire, the conflagration, the inferno in the loins of the lusty male.

This flame of desire is something that is felt by not only powerful men and Gods. It is felt by all men. Thus, it presents a problem to my theory that literature proves only powerful men are rapists. All men, consumed by the fire, will want to ravish the beauteous object of the desire. It’s just that only some can. Thus, men are divided into two odious categories by literature – rapists and would-be rapists.

Maybe I’m not so great after all. I just belong to the second category. I don’t have Jupiter’s power to ravish and plunder. But if I did, perhaps I would enjoy it. Because I do have the very same flame burning inside. Desire.

Is there not a third category – rapists, would-be rapists and, what, white knights? Chivalrous types that answer to a higher calling – honor and respect? Feminist men, who treat women as equals, as fellow humans. Are there men who stand in solidarity with females, not because they are especially weak? Maybe they are strong and powerful too, and could take advantage of their power, but they choose not to? Are there any good men?

Of course, literature is riddled with these Lancelots. Lancelot, for instance! Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Adame Bede in Adame Bede. Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Uurbevilles. And of course, Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle.

It’s all text, we must remember. Academics these days don’t necessarily make any hierarchical distinction between the text of Ovid and the text of Sleepless in Seattle. They are all equally textual and interesting. They engage in a discourse. Discourse, according to academics, is what constructs the male (and the female and the trans and etc.) genders. What is it then, in our cultural discourse, that has lead so many men in power to construct their identity not as Tom Hanks or Lancelot?  But as Pere Ubu–a hedonistic, consuming, barbaric, obese oaf? A Harvey Weinstein?


In literature, a lot of it written by men, the pig men are usually the upper-class rakes and the good men are the more down to earth, perhaps religious, ordinary folk like Adam Bede. And every so often we find the powerful man who chooses to be good even though he could just as easily pull a Harvey on the female character. Where?

Tony Soprano. In therapy. In one of the last seasons Tony is falling for a young woman, Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana, but he resists the temptation. His therapist Dr. Melfi congratulates him on his growth – she’s proud that he is learning that it isn’t always best to act on your impulses. His therapist gives him this advice – “Why not take that feeling you have for her and be like a mentor, not a lover.”

Maybe, with good therapy, men can improve. I guess that’s what they told Harvey W. when he showed up at the expensive sex clinic in Arizona.

But what is the academic assessment of that hope of improvement? The seminal feminist thinker Simone De Beauvoir in the Second Sex wrote that biology has disempowered the female, because of the rigors of reproduction, child bearing, menstruation and less muscle mass. Culture’s job, she suggested, was to fix that imbalance. In the culture of academia, here in the United States, we have witnessed a profound cultural shift – thanks perhaps to David Mamet. It was Mamet’s play Oleanna about a professor having sex with his students in 1992 that might have begun the discussion of whether it was really appropriate for these powerful males – professors – to have sex with their students. Of course, the deluge of sexual harassment suits that universities faced as a result of professor student dalliance had a lot to do with the change. Universities in our country now universally prohibit professors from having relationships with students. In Europe, having sex with a professor is apparently still one route to getting an A in the course. But not here. We have improved. As a professor, a male must take a Tony Soprano-like enlightened attitude toward any female he develops feelings for. He must overcome the flame of his own desire, and minister to his better instincts – the desire to teach, to mentor and to help young people.

However, if the male professors have made great strides to improve, the male students on our campuses, apparently not so much.

There has been in the last few years increasing focus on something that is called rape culture on college campuses. It’s similar to the Hollywood Me Too movement and the Ovidian serial rape story in that the villains of this rape culture are hypermasculine groups known as fraternities that have an extraordinary power on the campus. They are the arbiters of the social life of the student.

Academia was shocked a few years ago by the expose of a gang rape at a frat in University of Virginia by Rolling Stone magazine. Is this really going on at our college campuses, we wondered? And what can we do about it?

The story turned out to be false. The publisher of Rolling Stone issued an apology, explaining that the magazine wanted to be sensitive to the trauma of the victim and therefore didn’t do their due diligence in researching the victim’s claims.

Jann Wenner, the publisher, who then seemed to be so interested in “exposing” rape culture on college campus – actually himself turned out to be a pig! Yes, in the Me Too flurry of names you might have missed it, but Mr. Wenner, with his god-like power to offer a young writer a career in journalism, often took advantage of his position – allegedly. It seems incredibly hypocritical, then, for such a pig man to have taken on this task of exposing “rape culture” on college campuses.

It’s the kind of hypocritical pretense of “protecting women” that went along with one of our country’s worst chapters – the lynch mobs of the American South. William Faulkner writes a brilliant expose of this nightmarish practice in the short story “Dry September.” In the story, Minnie is a spinster who claims a black man paid her unwanted attention. Sheriff McLendon leads a posse of men to lynch Old Will Mayes because “ protect the women.” But after the deed is done, Faulkner shows McLendon going home to his wife, whom he berates and physically assaults. He doesn’t love women. He doesn’t want to protect women. He was only using his pretense of protecting women as an excuse for his racist desire to hurt black men.

NPR, like Rolling Stone a bastion of liberal reporting, and perhaps the closest thing the ordinary commuter has to an intellectual life in this country, is partly to blame here as well. The Rolling Stone staff, it seemed, had been riled up to begin with by the 104-page report issued in 2010, co-sponsored by NPR that popularized the now ubiquitous 1 in 5 statistic about rape on college campus. This statistic was actually false. According to the organizations own logic, it should have been 1 in 100. But NPR and the writers of the report were so successful in propagating this horrific myth that eventually Barack Obama himself would cite it as evidence for a crackdown on college sex crime. And good ol’ Joe Biden showed up on some awards show to spout that 1 in 5 figure in his intro to a performance of Lady Gaga about “you don’t know how it feels” to be sexually assaulted.

How ironic it is, then, that NPR turns out to have been equally hypocritical in its deep concern for safe space for the female. During the recent Me Too pork roast, no less than six NPR editors and reporters have been put on trial by headline, as being serial harassers and abusers. Apparently that eunuch-sounding upward-inflected voice you hear on the male NPR announcers on the radio is just a put on – they’re pigs just like the rest of us.

Rolling Stone perhaps was hypocritically using its article about the gang rape of Jackie as a pretense for something else—a Yankee reporter goes down South and attacks the Southern Man – goes full Neil Young on him. Why did they have to choose University of Virginia for their expose? Could they not find a tale of student he said she said at NYU?

Ovid, too, lapses into this kind of regionalism in his rape stories. One of the most horrifying is that of Philomela, who was raped by Tereus, her brother in law, because again, he was powerless against the force of her beauty. But Ovid adds another cause – “because the inclination of the people of his region was toward lust and vice.” Tereus was a Thracian King. The Thracians were considered Barbarians by the Greeks. So the Greeks didn’t see themselves as pigs. But they did see the other guys that way. This is what academics call intersectionality. There is no pure category of male, because this gender category intersects with other identity categories, race, class, region etc. Philomela was raped because her sister had married the Other. And to prevent Philomela from speaking about the rape to her sister, Tereus cut her tongue out.

Inability to speak is another important trope of the Ovidian rape camp. Victim after victim has their voice taken away, either by transformation into animal form, or by some other horror like this tongue lashing. Ovid is surprisingly prescient here again. Getting their voice back is the primary concern of the Me Too. Women have been ashamed, afraid, unable or otherwise unwilling to speak about sexual assault. Somehow thousands of years ago early humans noticed this trait of the sexual assault survivor – she doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s re-traumatizing to talk about it. Sexuality, after all, is a private thing, like going to the bathroom, and being forced to talk about it is not fun. Victims in Ovid find indirect ways to speak of the crimes instead. In one of the most heart wrenching, IO, after being raped by Jupiter – him again—has been turned into a cow to hide his adultery from his wife. This cow makes its way back to her father. The father feeds it herbs and notices something strange about the cow. About the way the cow is looking at him. And then the cow traces in the dust with its hoof, the name IO, and the truth is revealed. Great tears fall from the big eyes of the heifer. And the father and daughter are reunited, but in grief.

Never mind, though, because in the end Juno relents and turns the cow into a Goddess that will be worshipped by the Egyptians — a happy ending, as in all the Ovid rape stories. This is something called Belief in a Just World. It’s a big part of patriarchy, according to sociologists. We have trouble really understanding and believing the truth about sexual crime, because we have an unconscious belief that the world is an OK place and things like this don’t happen. And if they do happen, the victim deserved it.

In Ovid the victims don’t deserve it, but in the end they are turned into constellations, or birds, or goddesses. The scales of justice are balanced out. The rape is somehow redeemed.

Rape is one of those crimes that can’t actually be undone. If you have something stolen from you, you can be compensated.

That’s where vengeance comes in. In this case it’s a dish served hot – by Philomela and her sister Procne. Indirectly, by embroidering a picture of the rape into a cloth that she sends to her sister, Philomela despite having no tongue is able to communicate the infamy. And Procne is pissed at her husband. She decides to get her revenge by killing their own innocent teen age son Itys and serving him up to her husband in a pie. Enjoying his meal, Tereus pats his stomach and notices his son is absent from the dinner table. “Fetch Itys here,” he commands Procne, who points out that Itys is already there, inside his stomach.

That’s a bit much, isn’t it? What did Itys do to deserve this punishment? Well, he was a man, I guess. So he kind of deserved it.

At least that’s the way it reads, because the three grownups are turned into birds. Philomela is turned into a swallow, because as you might know some swallows have red coloring on their throats, as though someone has cut them there. But poor Itys, he’s not involved in the happy ending. He’s not a bird. He’s just a dead piece of pie.

Many men feel like Itys-like in all this rape drama that’s going on in the media. What did we do to deserve this? We haven’t raped or even harassed any one. Guilt by association? Portlandia had a brilliant sketch where the men at Carrie’s firm each in turn agree with her that the men have been sexist over the last sixteenth years, “but not me, right?” Even the janitor mopping up inside the corporate conference room is concerned. “No, not you either,” Carrie assures him.

If not us, then who?

And you might be asking, if not all men deserve to be put in the pie and eaten by our fathers, what is the lighter punishment reserved for we lesser offenders. And is there, in fact, a spectrum of offense?

Matt Damon got himself into a whole heck of a lot of trouble by suggesting that there is. One cannot equate the rape of Philomela or the rape of Rose McGowan with the mugging for a camera that Al Franken did when pretending to squeeze that sleeping woman’s breasts? Or can one?

“A Woman Walks Around Manhattan” and is sexually harassed hundreds of times on camera. This video came out a few years back. It was an organization called Hollaback who were trying, perhaps, to criminalize the act of catcalling and harassing women on the streets of New York, something that seems to have been a cultural tradition stretching back to the time when the first construction crews arrived on that fair isle with their lunch pails and their wolf whistles ready. Only in turns out, these weren’t your grandma’s construction workers that were harassing Shoshana Roberts as she trudged through the mean streets. They were mostly men of color. And we’re back to Faulkner.

I remember when I first saw that video on Youtube, the faces of these stalkers and harassers were clearly visible as the camera hidden in Shoshanna’s backpack shamed them all. If you look at the video today the faces are all blurred out. There’s been some controversy. Hollaback might have been using a pretense of protecting women as another excuse to villainize the black male and his “frightening” libido. The whole thing was a missed opportunity for ardent feminists to equate catcalling with sexual violence, because of intersectionality. That pesky other category of race intersected with that other category of male gender and suddenly nobody knew what anybody was talking about any more.

And Shoshanna Roberts, who was paid a couple hundred bucks to be sexually harassed for a whole day, ended up filing a law suit against the creators of the viral sensation.

The culture of victimhood, according to one sociologist, has replaced the earlier cultures of dignity and honor. We are now at a stage where appealing to third parties and cry bullying and being a snowflake and wanting a safe space and etcetera have reached their peak. Every day we wake up to discover some new group’s outrage at some real or imagined slight. Yet other sociologists proclaim us to be in a culture of solidarity, where finally disempowered voices are finding support for one another and being able to speak up against male supremacy. Which is it?

Rose McGowan frightens me. I’ll admit it. She doesn’t seem interested in solidarity as much as pie making. And dare I say it, I do believe there is a spectrum.

For instance, Al Franken’s second accuser made headlines shortly after the aforementioned sleeping woman in the photo.. This second accuser, conservative radio host Melanie Morgan, who was joining the chorus had this complaint — as far as I could see from reading it in the paper — Al Franken had annoyed her.

Al Franken annoyed me, too, many times. Especially that darned SNL character who was good enough, smart enough and gosh darn it people liked him. But here at least, we can be sure of a “spectrum.” Being an annoying to person is not the same thing as raping them and cutting out their tongue. We don’t need to feed Al Franken his son in a pie. Oh wait, we already did. It’s too late.

Ovid again and again shows that the victim is perfectly capable of becoming the victimizer. Medusa was raped because of her beautiful hair. There are horrible snakes on her hair now and she will turn you to stone if you look at her. Actaeon was fed to his own hounds because he did the horrific crime of looking at Diana bathing naked in the wood – by accident, yes, but still, it was the “male gaze”. The Bacchae tore Pentheus limb from limb because he spied on them.

So should women show some restraint in collapsing the crime of rape with an awkward pass made at the office during Christmas time? That is what some feminists in France said, in a letter signed by Catherine Deneuve who faced a horrible backlash and subsequently recanted. Because after all, anybody who’s been to France knows that the French men are pigs. In fact the French version of the Me Too is called “Out Your Pig.”

Returning to our question then, of Can men improve? Ovid has something to say about this too. In perhaps his most controversial rape of all, when Poseidon, that old rapist of Medusa, is raping a beautiful maiden Caenis, he is having such a good time that he offers to grant her any wish she desires. Caenis says “Grant I may be no longer woman,” and before she can finish apparently her voice drops and her wish is granted. She has become a man. And not just any man, she becomes a real tough guy, a bastard, a slayer of thousands, a renowned soldier. A pig!

My female students when they read this tell me that this is an utter defeat for femalekind – she has deserted the team. They were mad at Caenis for giving in. They believe in us men. They believe we can be educated and cultured and changed. And for them, it’s not really a theoretical or cultural debate. It’s an actual on the ground real life issue. For instance, my friend who works in the medical center of one university told me that this weekend there were three rapes on campus, all of them at fraternities. So whether Rolling Stone was wrong with their article, whether the Me Too movement has had a few missteps and hiccups, very bad things do happen to women in America, and all over the world. If I were a woman I might, Caenis-like, wish to be turned into a man.

I want men to improve. I want a world safe for women. For instance, throughout this article I have striven to avoid a too-blithe or snarky tone. I know I have failed. I have perhaps been patronizing, which of course has the same root as patriarchy. But I have tried…

I saw the female colleague in the elevator again today, the one who had said of Dustin Hoffman, “That’s the way men are.” I thought I might have some rebuttal by now, having had time to ruminate and speculate and type all this here. But I had none.

“Yes, that’s the way men are,” I thought to myself. “But I’m not so sure women are coming out of this smelling like a rose, either. If Rose McGowan is the way forward for the female, I am sorry for them. Because…oh thank God I’m not saying any of this out loud and my female colleague cannot read my thoughts.”

As our ancient elevator started its long journey up the building, and we stood there awkwardly next to one another. I pulled my phone out and pretended to be checking my text messages.

Please follow and like us: