Framing men as the ‘villains’ gets women no closer to better romantic relationships | Moya Lothian-McLean

Framing men as the ‘villains’ gets women no closer to better romantic relationships | Moya Lothian-McLean

There is a genre in ascendancy at the moment that I’ve labelled “romantic victimhood”. Content that falls within this category – ranging from literary screeds to TikTok confessionals – only ever characterises the players in two roles: villain or victim.

The villain is always a man. It is usually a man in a relationship with a woman, although sometimes it is a man dating a man. Nevertheless: man = villain. The victim is his romantic interest. They recount his behaviour, with the benefit of hindsight, and detail upsetting incidents, usually ones where they felt slighted in some way. These are typically imparted in the register now employed to describe a harm, which combines sombre, stark delivery with therapeutic jargon. The harm is not anything as easily categorisable as outright abuse, or sexual assault. It is a hurt, perhaps one of many, that have added up to create an ultimately “bad relationship”.

A universalising narrative regarding gender – identified by the writer Rachel Connolly – runs through this type of work, characterised by “sweeping generalities […] about the way women are and how they act”. Those who find themselves in romantic partnership with men take on the passive, feminised role of victim, whether female or not. They endure, then escape.

The flip side of this, of course, are the sweeping generalities we see presented in popular media, regarding the way men are and how they act in romantic relationships. Men, we are told, are out to intentionally suppress, humiliate and belittle those they are involved with because: patriarchy. There is little interrogation of how these patterns of behaviour operate, or why they might exist in the first place.

Instead, they are presented as fixed and irredeemable elements of masculinity, which is synonymous with patriarchy. All hurt inflicted by a man is abuse on some level, these narratives imply, and all men will hurt you; ergo all men are abusive by nature.

A failure to develop the tools that would allow us to talk about distressing or unpleasant but consensual sexual encounters means they become flattened and reframed through the language of sexual assault, of victim and perpetrator. I see a similar pattern at work regarding romantic relationships involving men. Both tendencies are exacerbated through the coarse, digitised channels through which these experiences are often scrutinised.

In one such study, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, the writer Katherine Angel argues that it should be of feminist and political import that so many people are having bad consensual sex, even when those experiences do not qualify as sexual assault. The same principle applies here. It’s of feminist concern that many people dating men find their relationships so unsatisfying. But the solution is to embrace a truly feminist and multivalent idea of gender “roles” within relationships, rather than flattening parties into immutable positions of victim or villain.

“The labelling of all men as oppressors and all women as victims was a way to deflect attention away from the reality of men and our ignorance about them,” wrote bell hooks in the introduction to The Will to Change. The book is a call to “redefine modern masculinity”; I read it after a recent relationship ended. A choice stared me in the face: stagnate in my romantic victimhood or attempt to comprehend “the enemy” – men – better.

Most forms of feminism, hooks says, have shied away from trying to unpick patriarchal masculinity, which is just one type of masculinity. Beyond an emphasis on feelings of “fear and threat” attached to them, men and masculinity have been ignored as subjects of feminist thought.

The alternative, of course, is rescuing masculinity from becoming a lost cause (which hooks thinks can be done via the construction of a “feminist masculinity”). Believing men are born as patriarchs, rather than made so, involves a wholesale acceptance of the status quo. It’s not radical, nor should it be a feature of any supposedly emancipatory ideology. Passivity in the face of such a belief doesn’t get us any closer to realising a world where the majority of relationships between men and their romantic partners are built upon mutuality and respect. As hooks puts it, “men cannot change if there are no [feminist] blueprints for change. Men cannot love if they are not taught the art of loving.”

Neither can those of us who are not men experience growth if we continue to wallow in the spiritual impoverishment of the perpetually victimised. Constant romantic victimhood ignores an ugly truth: that patriarchy might ostensibly benefit men – even while poisoning them in a myriad of ways – but it is upheld by all genders, particularly within spaces like romantic partnership. To forever be an injured party restricts us from confronting that but also prevents personal development.

Only after I finally cast off cultural scripts that pigeonholed me as a person things were done to in a relationship, rather than an actor in my own right who could take responsibility for her actions, did I experience huge steps forward in understanding how I related to people around me, and how to improve those connections.

Broken relationships are sites of blame; relationships with men will be coloured and influenced by the system that organises power around gender. But it would better serve us to start demanding more from current public discussions of these entanglements, rather than returning time and time again to hyperbolic, romantic victimhood tropes. It’s not just you; sometimes it’s me too.

  • Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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