tue 28/05/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Author Sam Mills on the phenomenon of the 'chauvo-feminist' | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Author Sam Mills on the phenomenon of the 'chauvo-feminist'

theartsdesk Q&A: Author Sam Mills on the phenomenon of the 'chauvo-feminist'

The novelist and non-fiction writer discusses #MeToo and her latest long-form essay

"Enough!" Protest against sexual assault in Montréal, Canada (July 2020) Mélodie Descoubes

Sam Mills’s writing includes the wondrously weird novel The Quiddity of Will Self, the semi-memoir Fragments of My Father, and Chauvo-Feminism (The Indigo Press), which was released in February 2021.

Chauvo-Feminism is a non-fiction long-form essay in which Mills delves into the phenomenon of men who create a feminist public persona which does not translate into their private lives. Her own experiences are interspersed with the story of the #MeToo movement and other women’s publicly-shared stories in a way that amplifies the multitude of untold stories that unfold every day. Avoiding the neat resolution that follows from putting a celebrity name at the helm of the story, Mills discusses the consequences of her relationship with a chauvo-feminist with detailed honesty. I spoke to Mills about the paradox of power, being furiously passionate, and the Court of Twitter.

CP Hunter: You’ve said before that your writing is at odds with your real-life persona: "In real life, I am shy; in my writing, I am authoritative. In real life, I am afraid to offend; when I write I couldn’t give a fuck. In real life, I am cautious; in my writing, I am bold. In real life I am forced to be sensible... in my writing my eccentricities can find expression/zing." Did you need your "writer-self" so that you could achieve distance from your experiences and analyse them clearly? Do you think if you weren’t a writer you would have tackled this subject differently, if at all?

Sam Mills: Exploring my experience with a chauvo-feminist was useful because I contextualised that experience within a wider pattern of abusive behaviour. I ought to define chauvo-feminism here: I suffered abuse from a man who cultivated a feminist persona. He convinced me (for a time) and my social circle that he was female-friendly, whilst sleeping with numerous women in private and behaving in a sadistic manner towards some of them. And I noticed that many of the men felled by #MeToo had adopted a similar pattern of behaviour, from Harvey Weinstein, who went on a women’s march at Sundance not far from the hotel where he raped Rose McGowan, and who helped endow a faculty chair at Rutgers University in the name of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, to the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a key figure in bringing Harvey Weinstein to justice, and the author of a bill that specifically punished the crime of strangulation after chairing a committee that investigated domestic violence. In May 2018, the New Yorker ran an expose on Schneiderman, where four women accused him of slapping, choking, mocking and racially abusing them.

I felt that it was important to allow myself to be vulnerable and not to villainise R, as I call him in the book. I wanted to explore what happened between us in all its subtleties and complexities. I had no wish to caricature him as a monster, given that he was charming, popular and well-liked by many – as many abusers are. If we simplify such people into monsters, we fail to recognise them in real life.

If I wasn’t a writer, I suspect I would have been a lot more fucked up by what happened. So, yes – my "writer-self" gave me a clearer perspective on what I had been through, and by interviewing other women who’d suffered the same, I felt less alone and saw how common my experience was.

Book cover In your previous essays, you speak about the frustration you’ve felt at the sexism in publishing and writing: "Frequently, I was congratulated on having written a ‘masculine’ book, and it was clear that my ability to transcend my gender was seen as something to be lauded." Do you think the idea of "masculine" writing is still one that holds currency?

No, I think that things have changed a lot – as I mention in Chauvo-Feminism, back in the late nineties and early noughties, following the success of Bridget Jones, anything written by a woman had a garish cover slapped on it and was derided as "chick lit", as though female fiction was just one homogenous glut of superficial blathering about dating and heels – even the books themselves explored a wide variety of themes and ranged from commercial to literary. (Meanwhile, anything by an American male writer was seen as grand and lofty and a male everyman narrator represented the human condition). I noticed a shift about eight years ago when Emma Jane Unsworth published Animals and Zoe Pilger Eat My Heart Out – they were taken seriously, as they deserved to be, and marketed with more flair and zero pink. And now, following the Sally Rooney revolution, there is a feast of books by female authors out there being read, praised and enjoyed; if anything, as Rob Doyle said in a recent Guardian review, with the sexual regime change in literary tastes now an established fact, and the limping male novelist scarcely worth satirizing… It is a huge change from 15 years ago, when I remember going to one of my first literary parties and being introduced to a male editor who didn’t bother to conceal his disinterest in me; afterwards one of his male authors informed me – in a tone of gentle reassurance – “Don’t worry, he’s just not interested in female writers.”

But I hope the change also gives room for women to explore a wide range of issues. I see a lot of literary fiction about relationships being published – a good thing – but less ‘big books’ by women, less avant-garde fiction by women, less downright weird fiction by women. The essay you quote from in this question is here if anyone wants to read more about my take on how female cult writers are treated.

Were you worried or concerned in any way about writing on a topic so personal, specifically your relationship with R and the emotional, more personal side of your experiences with sexism?

I tend to write without worrying about publication, otherwise I’d just sit there with a cramped pen and writers’ block. Of course, there were concerns about legal issues and I was working with a small, independent press, so I had to change details about R to disguise him. I felt it was important to share my experiences without shame or inhibition. From time to time I’ve seen people online complaining about the trend for memoir/sharing of experiences which is in vogue right now (they are usually straight white men, who, let’s face it, would probably not have a lot of success with memoir unless it was nature writing. Publishing/readers are more interested in diverse voices right now). But the personal is political. What is #MeToo but a movement of memoir, a chorus of narratives? Over the first week, there were 1.7 million tweets in 85 countries as women and men shared their experiences. It was that openness, that bravery, that created a huge cultural shift, and so I am grateful to everyone out there who tweeted their story. Memoir can be bad (sentimental, narcissistic, indulgent) or it can be brilliant – just like any other genre.

Memoir and autofiction are also nothing new. It dates back to Augustine’s Confessions, back to Wordsworth’s autobiographical The Prelude, whereby he charts the growth of a poet’s mind; in Byron’s Childe Harolde, author and protagonist soon blur into one. At certain points of trauma/crisis in society, an event will trigger a wave of memoir, such as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case in the '90s (Leigh Gilmore explores this in her fascinating book Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives), just as #MeToo has given us books such as Know Your Name by Chanel Miller, and Vanessa Springora’s Consent. As cultural mores shift, we crave new perspectives and understanding.

The biographical thread to the book is actually only a fifth of the text, however. Most of the book is a philosophical discussion of feminist ideas and the concept of chauvo-feminism. However, reviews do zone in on the personal and I did find one response to the book very challenging. Although a review in The Erotic Review was largely positive, the reviewer chose to review my behaviour, and in order to shore up his argument of "why do women give men multiple chances", he changed the details of the narrative between me and R – suddenly our fling got turned into an open relationship. After being advised by everyone you should never respond to reviews, I wrote a lengthy response here. I wouldn’t have cared if it was a work of fiction and a character’s name had been noted down incorrectly or a plot twist changed – but when you go through a trauma, all you have left is a narrative of what happened. It hurts if people warp it. I knew that this sort of thing was likely to happen, so I suppose my response was the equivalent of donning tweezers and attempting to remove the sting.

You talk very articulately about the way men who can be assigned the chauvo-feminist label often live double lives: “their surface persona was frequently that of a nice guy … while their shadowy doppelgänger would often be hitting women or assaulting them”. As you rightly say, we have all encountered at least one chauvo-feminist in our lives – my ex was one and I wrote an essay specifically calling out the way he manipulated the lines between his public self and his private actions. Do you think that this duplicity is a conscious performance – a calculated way to manipulate women? Or do you think that it’s subconscious and they don’t recognise the contradiction between these two selves?

This is such an interesting question. I suspect it’s the latter, since we are all prone to self-deception. When asked whether Harvey Weinstein genuinely believed in his claim that sex with his victims was "consensual", Hope D’Amour said she thought he did, because his attitude was that he deserved to have whatever he wanted – his ego was so big and so monstrous that for him, a "no" was always a "yes"because women couldn’t possibly reject him. There’s an interesting article about this online, which looks at the neuroscience of #MeToo, quoting a study by Keltner on the “paradox of power” – the qualities that often bring someone to power, like empathy and the ability to listen to others, diminish once a person is in power.

I believe that R took joy in being manipulative, but when I was in his company, I don’t think he realised how much his misogyny and chauvinism leaked through the cracks of his crafted persona, either; this suggests a certain lack of self-awareness. Certainly, after #MeToo, he became more jumpy, more prone to advertising his feminism online, which felt contrived, as though he was attempting to build a shield.

When you first encounter R, you put your “refus[al] to play the role of the victim” down as the trigger for his animosity towards you. Is there a lesson here about how to negotiate the chauvo-feminist?

Yes – when I first met R, we flirted online for a few weeks before we went back to his flat and he declared we would be having a one night stand, after showing me a photo of his latest conquest; he did this in the manner of those photos you see of men who have shot wildlife and stand posing next to a beautiful slain lioness. He wanted to play the rake and for me to be the naive fool. But I refused to accept the role, and that niggle seemed to trigger the start of his abuse, his gaslighting, and a gradual determination to wreak havoc on my career. I don’t know if I have much advice to give on how to negotiate the chauvo-feminist except to avoid them at all costs if you can and to recognise gaslighting when it occurs (I have devoted a chapter to this theme). With R, I found that whether I fought him or attempted to keep the peace and appease him, it made little difference. However, the shift in cultural climate that began with #MeToo did help me a lot. He knew that his behaviour towards women was unsustainable, that the clock was ticking…

Realising you weren’t R’s only victim plays a huge part in assuaging your own self-doubt (“What a relief it was to think: It’s not just me”). But you also note that the Court of Twitter is an inappropriate place for these battles to play out. What is an appropriate forum? (Is there one?)

Twitter is an unfair place for such battles to play out – but then, life isn’t fair for women who suffer abuse. I make the point in the book these battles tend to occur online in ‘The Court of Twitter’ because of a broken justice system. While many more women are coming forward to report sexual violence – 62,000 in the past year in the UK, compared with 16,000 a decade ago – rape prosecutions and convictions are falling, in part due to a fragile and underfunded system struggling to cope with the increase. I had the privilege of being able to explore my experiences in a book, which has been validating and cathartic. It was the right form for me, because my experiences with R were complex and his abuse was emotional, subtle and insidious; I don’t think I could have summed it up in a series of tweets, nor was I comfortable with that route. But given the current state of affairs, I do understand why some women might resort to Twitter or an essay to express a painful and overwhelming experience of abuse.

What was it like to write on a subject that is so current and still evolving? You mention Kai Cole and her relationship with Joss Whedon, for example: since the book has been published, Charisma Carpenter has also given her perspective on him, as have Ray Fisher and others. These stories are very much still ongoing. How did that affect the writing?

It made the book feel more urgent – it validated the need to write about the subject, because the stories keep coming, adding voice upon voice to the echo chamber. Furthermore, as #MeToo was building, the backlash was growing stronger and one thing I wanted to do in the book was dismantle some of the myths around #MeToo. For example – the idea that #MeToo has rendered women weak and fragile, painting them as victims, or the idea that women stayed silent for decades. Wrong – Weinstein’s victims tried hard to fight back for decades but nobody would listen. It was the cultural shift that finally enabled them to be heard. When I began writing the book, Weinstein’s trial had not yet occurred and I had to tread carefully, making sure I put "allegedly" next to each accusation about him; I was doing final edits when it was announced that he had been convicted. I think we all felt such a rush of emotion that day: relief, triumph, gladness, sadness. Given how few abuse and rape cases do make it to court or conviction, we all felt that it was a sign that finally these issues were being taken more seriously – and yet, whilst it had led to many more women are coming forward to report harassment, abuse and rape convictions remain very low.

Presumably your writing process for this book was quite different than for writing fiction and memoir.

When I write fiction, the colours of my imagination usually emerge into something quite bizarre, such as The Quiddity of Will Self. When I write non-fiction, my writing is more classical; perhaps that results from a sense of responsibility towards the subject matter I’m exploring, whether caring in The Fragments of my Father or abuse in Chauvo-Feminism.

I had to do a lot of research for Chauvo-Feminism and even though I began the book with empathy towards women, I still found that day by day, certain prejudices that I had picked up from the media, that I was barely conscious of, were chipped away. By the end, I was furious – and furiously passionate about defending the victims of #MeToo. At the same time, the harsh polemic of the book softened in the process of writing as I explored the subtleties and complexities of topics such as dating and the way gender is shaped by society. As I argue in the book, misogyny should never be an excuse for misandry. I interviewed both men and women for their perspectives on #MeToo; I wanted it to be a read that appealed to both sexes. It was written with anger, but also love and compassion.

What’s next for you? Are you working on anything at the moment?

I’ve just finished a novel called The Watermark which I’ve been working on since 2010. It’s an epic novel, a kind of weird love story about free will versus fate which begins with a playful epitaph by Baudrillard: “Dying is pointless. You have to know how to disappear”. Christiana Spens is also working with me as there is a graphic novel section in the middle and she has drawn some wonderful wolf illustrations for the "Russian" section. But I don’t know if anyone will publish it as it’s 147,000 words! I guess we’ll have to see. I’m also working on a new non-fiction project, too.


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