By David Futrelle
So I’ve been rereading Warren Farrell lately and, as always, it’s been a bit of a surreal experience. The man singlehandedly responsible for many if not most of the bad ideas held by Men’s Rights Activists today is not what you’d call an especially lucid writer. His organization is free-associational, his writing style evasive and cluttered with incoherent metaphors, and it seems like every time I go to check the source of one of his confidently asserted facts it turns out there’s nothing real supporting it.
A while back I wrote about my attempts to find the source of one of his statistics only to discover that it came from a thoroughly unscientific survey a high school teacher friend of his had taken of her students.
A few days ago, checking the source for a claim in his book The Myth of Male Power that men pay for dinners for women ten times more often than women pay for men — and that “the more expensive the restaurant, the more often the man pays” — I discovered from his footnote that his “evidence” for this unequivocally stated “fact” was “based on my own informal discussions with waiters in restaurants around the country in cities where I speak.” In other words, dinnertime chatter reported as scientific fact.
But the weirdest factual failure I’ve yet found in Farrell’s writing comes in a strange section of that same book in which Farrell tries to contrast the supposedly pampered life of the allegedly ungrateful man-hater Jodie Foster against the sufferings of Muhammad Ali, famously prosecuted for refusing to serve in Vietnam.
Farrell starts off with an out-of-context quote from Jodie Foster, which he uses in an attempt to suggest that she is a whiny misandrist insufficiently appreciative of those who served in Vietnam.
Here’s the quote, as Farrell renders it:
Ninety-five percent of women’s experiences are about being a victim. Or about being an underdog, or having to survive . . . women didn’t go to Vietnam and blow things up. They are not Rambo.
Looking online for the quote, I found it (in this truncated form) included in various lists highlighting quotes from allegedly “misandrist” and/or “radical” feminists; on one site Foster was identified as “actress [and] homosexual.” But when I tracked down the New York Times Magazine profile of Foster that the quote originally came from, I discovered that she was actually talking about film roles — explaining that she didn’t feel comfortable playing action heroes because it didn’t feel true to her experience as a woman or the experience of women in history.
“I love life-threatening situation movies,” she told the Times.
And in terms of women in history, 95 percent of women’s experiences are about being a victim. Or about being an underdog, or having to survive. So, if I played Wonder Woman all the time I would be betraying where I come from. Women didn’t go to Vietnam and blow things up. They’re not Rambo.
Farrell follows his truncated version of this quote with a paragraph that is so utterly and obviously wrong in its central details that it’s astounding it’s still in the latest edition of his book, republished 21 years after the original. Here it is:
Muhammad Ali’s refusal to participate in what he felt was the criminal nature of the Vietnam War forced him into prison during the height of his career and deprived him of four years that could never be recovered. At the same time Jodie Foster was safe at home, becoming wealthy and famous and cashing in on her sex appeal.
Ok, first off: While it’s appalling that Ali was prosecuted and convicted for his principled refusal to serve in a war he felt was unjust, he didn’t spend four years in prison. He appealed his conviction and remained free on bail until it was overturned by the Supreme Court. It did sideline him from boxing for several years, but not because he was behind bars.
Second of all, Jodie Foster was born in November of 1962. When Ali was convicted, she was four years old; when the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, she was eight. She definitely did not spend those years “cashing in on her sex appeal,” though she did appear in some sit-coms. (And while she grew up into an attractive woman her career has never really been about sex appeal.)
True, she didn’t face the danger of being drafted while Ali was dealing with his conviction, but generally speaking we don’t draft four-year-old boys either. The Vietnam war was still going strong when I was four, and as far as I can remember I never got a draft notice.
Farrell continues on:
What would Jodie Foster have said if a sexist law kept her in prison when she was 24, 25, 26, and 27?
Obviously Farrell’s point is that it’s unfair that young men have been jailed for draft evasion while women have been exempt from the draft. And that’s a good point. I don’t support the draft, but if there is one it should apply to all genders.
But Jodie Foster isn’t a good example of someone who benefited from a draft that applied only to men because, well, she didn’t. She was a kid during the war. The draft was abolished long before she would have been eligible for it, and, oh yeah, the US was at peace when she was in her mid-twenties. No men her age were being drafted, or jailed for refusing to serve, because there was no draft and no war to serve in, unless you count Grenada.
But Farrell continues throwing shade at Foster for no good reason, sniffing that “the Jodie Fosters … think of themselves as morally superior to men who freed them from the dirty work of war.” Never mind that this is not what she actually said or implied in the New York Times Magazine piece he selectively quotes.
He continues on, getting more and more melodramatic:
To many men, it doesn’t feel good to hear the Jodie Fosters ignore men’s victimization, then blame the victim, then claim herself to be the victim—especially a Jodie Foster who grew up in an era in which women had the fantasy of “a room of my own” while their brothers had the reality of “a body bag of my own.”
Again, she was a kid during the war; her literal brother had no “body bag of his own,” as he spent the Vietnam war years … as a child actor, like her.
It saddened men who watched women their age get a head start on their careers while they fought in a war that tore apart their souls, to return from that war to hear a woman call herself the only victim of sexism because she was being asked to make coffee at a job that no law required her to take.
Huh, and did any of these men have similar feelings about those “men their age [who got] a head start on their careers while they fought in a war that tore apart their souls?” Because Warren Farrell, born in 1943, was one of those non-serving, head-starty men. Unlike Foster, he was old enough to serve — but spent the late sixties and early seventies “getting a head start” on an academic career by going to grad school.
Which is fine, but if you were the right age to serve and you didn’t, you probably shouldn’t devote several pages of your book to yelling at Jodie Foster because she wasn’t fighting in Vietnam or sitting in prison for opposing it at the age of four — or for not serving in some hypothetical war that didn’t exist when she was old enough.