How a Little Book About Hating Men Sparked a Firestorm in France

Sarah Moroz
·11 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Pauline Harmange has been a full-time writer for only a year. The 26-year-old French activist was approached, in 2019, by a small publisher to expand upon a blog post she’d written about feminist burnout: the deep exhaustion that stems from fighting for gender equality yet seeing no concrete results. She distilled her fury about this stasis into an essay of fewer than 100 pages, heralding misandry: Moi Les Hommes, Je Les Déteste (loosely translated as “Personally, I Hate Men”).

The rousing manifesto, published last summer, addresses the complete lack of equilibrium between women and men, from the interpersonal to the societal. The book debuted with almost no visibility, its print run spanning only 400 copies—until it became a lightning rod for censorship.

In a much-publicized incident, a [now-former] government employee from France’s ministry for gender equality—of all places—threatened to fine the publisher into bankruptcy and get the book banned for “inciting hate” based solely on the title. After receiving a flurry of media attention, the suit was dropped and the resulting public outcry drew the book squarely into the spotlight in France—so much so that the micro publisher, Monstrograph, couldn’t keep up with demand, and the more sizable French publisher Seuil reprinted the book in late September (which has since sold many thousands of copies). The book was published last week in the U.S. as I Hate Men by HarperCollins, with translation rights sold in well over a dozen other languages as well.

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Harmange’s book is written in a direct and matter-of-fact style. She channels her frustration and exasperation into even-keeled observations that never feel incendiary. Having scrutinized rampant gender imbalances, she concludes she will disdain those who maintain the hideous status quo in their own favor: men. She defines misandry thusly: “an impatience towards men and a rejection of their presence in women’s spaces. And when I say ‘the male sex’ I mean all the cis men who have been socialized as such, and who enjoy their male privilege without ever calling it into question.”

She clarifies that misandry is not the flip side of misogyny: “Misandry has a target, but it doesn’t have a list of victims.” Misandry is a withering attitude but poses no embodied threat, and thus is incomparable to the violence imposed upon women by men, be it physical harm, systemic exclusion from power structures, or even the constant condescension of mansplaining. Misandry, Harmange dryly notes, is “an intolerable brutality that adds up to the shocking outrage of precisely zero deaths and zero casualties.”

Harmange spoke with The Daily Beast to discuss evolving feminist attitudes on respective sides of the Atlantic, the brittle resistance to modernizing the French language, and the way misandry revels in next-level sisterhood.

I Hate Men was initially intended for a niche audience… could you describe how the book exploded? What exactly was the incident with that clown [former employee of France’s ministry for gender equality]?

The book was published in France with a minuscule distribution—it wasn't even in most bookshops. My editors received an email from this guy from the French ministry [in which he threatened to ban the book]. The publishers were really afraid—it would have been a huge disaster, financially, for them to go to trial. They reached out to friends, and a journalist [Marie Barbier] took interest in this idea of intimidation by a government official. After the article on [the French digital platform] Mediapart was published, the book really blew up! I didn't sense that I would be speaking to so many people, and I was surprised that so many women took an interest in this topic. Not because I thought I was saying something revolutionary, but I didn’t think French women were ready to have this conversation.

You indeed mention in your book that, according to feminism "à la française," gender issues are framed as happening "elsewhere." Can you elaborate on the French take on feminism?

It’s only been a few years that French feminists—French white feminists—have been willing to talk about different subsets of intersectionality… things that I think American and English-speaking feminists are more comfortable with. In France, we’re brought up to think that "everyone is the same" [the concept of laïcité]. It’s really difficult to realize that it’s not because we say that everyone is equal that they are, in fact, equal in real life. We’re in a place now where feminists are interested in broadening their views of feminism and it’s really nice to witness and be part of that. There is a generational gap, though, between older Second Wave feminists and feminists today, like [French Black Lives Matter activist] Assa Traoré and [French journalist, author, and activist] Rokhaya Diallo—all these women who are willing to speak about the cultural problems that are specific to France.

In the original French text, you use several expressions in English—“boys will be boys,” “men are trash,” “mansplain”… Could you discuss the way language has an effect on how we can address these loaded topics? Would you say there’s a lack of fitting vocabulary for this conversation in French?

There are things the French language has not yet arrived at… we are trying to come up with new ways to describe the reality we are living in. There is so much backlash when we try to forge new words. The word ‘mansplaining’ has been widely accepted in French and is even seen as clever and witty. But if we want to say autrice, [a feminized word] instead of auteur—everyone thinks we’re trying to destroy the French language. There is so much chauvinism about our language; it’s quite frightening.

Maybe it’s because I am a child of the internet, but a lot of women I speak to have grown up reading English-language material, so we don't think about other ways of saying the same thing. Still, language needs to evolve with the people who are speaking it. Other languages have come up with words describing the non-binary experience. French has a very peculiar sexism, but it’s inevitable that as we change, the language will have to change.

How does activism link to being a misandrist?

For me, being an activist [brought me to this point]. The nonprofit organization I work for helps people who have been sexually abused. We train those who will be dealing with victims of abuse, help them listen to victims and understand rape culture and how the system in France deals with victims. When I got my own training, I realized there is nothing for those victims in French society. Men feel they are allowed to do whatever they want to, and will face basically no consequences, be it judicially or even socially. Society is not holding those men responsible. They would have to educate themselves, but obviously they do not want to do that, because they have a lot to lose. Everyone is complicit in this—and that made me so angry.

So, to answer your question: When you have this anger in you, and you’re self-aware of the roots of it, you are much more equipped to fight, because you can identify the reasons for this rage. It has made me a better activist.

There are so few cultural resources that talk about misandry. Had you read Valerie Solanas, for example, or were there any misandrist predecessors who shaped your thinking?

I read Valerie Solanas after I finished writing my book. I knew about her, and her work and life, but I didn't want to be too influenced by it. But the work is very absurd: I don't think Valerie Solanas meant every word she wrote literally. There’s also a French writer, Chloé Delaume; she is a self-described misandrist. She wrote a book called Les Sorcières de la République [“Witches of the Republic”]. I haven't read it, but I’ve discussed it with friends—it’s about a utopian society where women replace men within power structures.

For me, a huge part of misandry is staying away from men, and not talking about them. [French feminist activist and author] Alice Coffin discusses this in her book. She does not want to devote time or attention to men in general, or within the cultural domain: She does not read their books or see their movies, because she wants to devote her imagination to women. That’s how I feel too.

You state “men could learn to do [emotional work] too, but it’s a bit like learning a foreign language: it’s that much harder once you’re an adult, and if there’s already someone there prepared to make the effort to speak the other person’s language, why bother?” Do you ultimately think that re-education of gender norms is possible? Or has the historical and ongoing lack of gender equality become too entrenched to undo?

I am a very optimistic person, so I really hope things will change. It will take a lot of time, that I’m sure of. But I think that we are in a critical moment where we seem to be willing to talk about important issues, and to deal with what makes us uncomfortable. What I hope is that women and feminists will not be completely exhausted before change begins. That’s when anti-feminists and masculinists come and attack, and then we have to begin the cycle again.

I think, right now, a lot of men are willing to learn—the same way a lot of white people are more willing to learn. But there are also opposite forces that are very, very loud and violent. I think we need to be careful not to let ourselves be discouraged by that. My feeling is that a younger generation will be much more open-minded than even we are. They’re going to do great things, and we just have to keep on fighting for them to take over.

You discuss the dynamic of being in a heterosexual couple, but mention being bisexual in a footnote. That seems like an interesting complication, in terms of rethinking heteronormative relationships. Why did you chose not to address changing expectations of partnership through the more expansive queer spectrum?

I’m glad you asked this question. When I wrote this book, I was not out to my family. It was… very difficult for me. I felt like I had to say that I was not heterosexual, because of course it affected my vision of what a relationship is. But also I really did not feel comfortable speaking about it more, because I was basically still in the closet. When everything blew up, I came out to the whole world—and it was not what I wanted to do. It was very weird, because I’ve been this relationship with a man for such a long time. It’s only recently that I began to identify with, and feel like I was a part of, the queer community. While, yes, I’m in a relationship with a man… you can question that. It’s only after completing the book that I came across the term “compulsory heterosexuality,” which described what I experienced as an adolescent. It’s still a work in progress for me.

You state that “hating men as a social group, and sometimes as individuals too, brings me so much joy.” Can you expand on this—on the sense of release and ecstasy that misandry brings, as opposed to the clichéd assumptions of bitterness and alienation?

It’s part of being engaged in a fight against injustice. People don't want to think of activists as joyful and happy for fighting against the power structures in place. All these women around me are misandrists, or very angry feminists—and they are also so free. They are luminous people, and it’s a joy to be around them. It brings me joy, because now I have freed myself from a lot of expectations. This is going to sound New Age-y [laughs], but I see real people, be it through the organization I work for, or with my friends, or people I interact with on the internet. Yes, we are angry—we can't help but be angry, because the world is burning! But also, we have a strong bond. In France, when there are protests in the street, there is music also, and there is dancing and singing. When we do events through my organization, we also try to celebrate what we are, and celebrate the small battles that we’ve won. So there is a lot of joy in being an activist as well as being angry—you gain a new family, which is something very powerful, and you feel that you are useful for something. I really think feminism and misandry go hand-in-hand: this feeling of fighting for what’s right, alongside people you feel comfortable being yourself around.

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Courtesy

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