Book review: Not All Dead White Men, by Donna Zuckerberg
Image credit: Dreamstime
In this short and well-researched book, classicist Donna Zuckerberg explores the appropriation of the classics by misogynistic communities online, and urges her fellow scholars and progressives not to dismiss these readings as irrelevant piffle.
It’s hard to deny that Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press, £20, ISBN 9780674975552) is made just that bit more interesting given that it comes from the pen of the sole Zuckerberg sibling not to have worked in tech. Zuckerberg refuses to be drawn into direct assaults on her brother Mark’s legacy, but acknowledges that social media has allowed misogynist communities to grow larger and more toxic: social media has “elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence”, she says.
It is these almost exclusively web-based communities that Zuckerberg examines: the anti-feminist “Men’s Rights Activists”, the “Pick-Up Artists” obsessed with using women as sex objects, and the “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW) who often advocate for the stripping away of women’s rights. While their characters, concerns and unpalatability vary, these groups can all be gathered under the umbrella of the “manosphere” or the “Red Pill” community, which is in itself a part of the loose coalition of the extremist and reactionary “Alt-Right”. While many readers will already be familiar with the beliefs and behaviour of these communities, I suspect that few will be aware of the curious intersection between online misogyny and classics worship. Zuckerberg’s choice of subject is truly original, and that alone makes ‘Not All Dead White Men’ worth reading.
Classical scholars have observed as the manosphere (and the Alt-Right more broadly) has latched itself to works by authors such as Marcus Aurelius and Ovid, interpreting them through their anti-women lenses and defending the idea that “white men are the guardians of intellectual authority”. Zuckerberg is quick to acknowledge that the manosphere’s readings of these works tend to be naïve and based on serious misunderstandings, although she argues that this phenomenon must be taken seriously. Classicists cannot defuse the dangerous appropriation of these works by dismissing them as crude.
For instance, Ovid’s ‘Ars Amatoria’ – a guide to love and seduction prominent in the Pick-Up Artist community – is widely considered by classicists to be satirical; Ovid was poking fun at the idea of treating love as a skillset that can be taught. However, the work’s objectification of women has struck a chord with these wannabe Don Juans, who draw on the poet’s advice to challenge and sometimes violate women’s social and sexual boundaries. Yes, the seriousness with which Ars has been read is probably inappropriate, but it is not insignificant. “Ovid’s casual references to sexual assault seem far more sinister and less ironic when one realises that similar ideas are widespread in the seduction community,” Zuckerberg comments.
Zuckerberg explains how – similarly – the manosphere has distorted the relatively cosmopolitan, non-reactionary and almost proto-feminist philosophy of Stoicism to argue for the superiority of “rational” and “less emotional” men. (There is a certain irony not lost on Zuckerberg that many of the men pushing this narrative are themselves anxious, furious and keen to pin blame for their lack of success on others). She finishes by examining the anxiety of Men Going Their Own Way about female freedom, particularly with regard to myths around false rape allegations. To these men, the Ancient World – when women were legally the property of their male relatives – can be perceived as a safe haven in which tightly-controlled gender roles allowed civilisation to flourish: “They argue paternalistic control of the type that existed in classical antiquity is absolutely necessary to create a society that will be good for both men and women,” Zuckerberg writes.
“[Online misogynists] have appropriated the texts and history of ancient Greece and Rome to bolster their most abhorrent ideas: that all women are deceitful and degenerate; that white men are by nature more rational than (and therefore superior to) everyone else; that women’s sexual boundaries exist to be manipulated and crossed; and, finally, that society as a whole would benefit if men were given the responsibility for making all decisions for women, particularly over their sexual and reproductive choices,” she explains.
Through ‘Not All Dead White Men’, Zuckerberg offers alternative, feminist readings of some of the same texts held close to heart by the manosphere, demonstrating that these same works – even the most troubling ones – can be appreciated by those with liberal beliefs. The misogynistic views expressed by these dead white men and gleefully repeated by misogynists should not dissuade progressive women from studying, reinterpreting and enjoying the classics, she writes.
Zuckerberg has chosen an original and timely subject to write about, and she explores it with expertise, level-headedness and surprising empathy; it is too easy to dismiss these men as too evil to be worth trying to understand. Although this book may have worked just as well as a single essay (some points are repeated several times), the 180-odd pages never feel like a slog. ‘Not All Dead White Men’ is well worth a read, particularly for anyone interested in classics or internet culture.