The Importance of Spectacle: Reflecting On The Significance of #MenAreTrash.
I read Pumla Dineo Gqola’s, “Rape: A South African Nightmare” at a time when I was coming to terms with what it meant to exist as a consistent target for the enactment and re-enactment of violence. I was coming to terms with the fact that I had been in a sexually/emotionally abusive relationship, and yet even with this knowledge, many of the men around me were not responsive to the message I was communicating through my vulnerability which was “be careful with me, I am only now mending”. Instead it functioned as an excuse for some to further shame me into silence as “slut”, as “easy”, as disposable, as negligible.
Gqola’s work came to me at a time when I was starting to realize that being vulnerable about rape would not result in the gentleness that I required in my intimate dealings with men; it did not instigate the vulnerability and acknowledgment of trauma that I knew I needed to be afforded if I was ever going to have any sort of intimate relationship with a man again, platonic or romantic.
Instead, the combination of my narrative and the subsequent violent actions of erasure, disbelief, and further emotional abuse would only serve to validate and actualize my feelings of fear and distrust of men. They served to tell me that the narrative of rape would never be transformative or revolutionary for the majority of men, because in a world where stories about rape are simply page fillers in newspapers and side notes in the 9:00PM news, this information was not new, it was not life changing, it was even normal. Therefore, even after wrestling with my anxiety and a persistent sinking feeling in my chest in order to tell my story, it made sense why things would still be business as usual for these men. And it was abundantly clear that new strategies would need to be used in order to curb rape without women having to be vulnerable in vain.
Ultimately, Gqola taught me that the centering of women’s trauma as a strategy to curb rape and abuse, is not as effective as it should be because our humanity as even non-raped women has never been recognized. Our humanity and dignity have never been factors in the way that men, as a collective, treat us, even when we have remained within patriarchal boundaries of purity. Therefore given that we have been treated as property, and our abuse has only ever been recognized as a blemish on the myth of the “purity” of the patriarchal estate, how can we expect society to take quotidian encounters of abuse and trauma and their effects on our psyches seriously? Instead what men on the internet have proven as effective strategies of ensuring engagement with the issue, just through their visceral reactions to #menaretrash include:
The spectacle of insult
The direct demanding of accountability
I believe these are effective tactics propagated by the hashtag #menaretrash and its subsequent conversations. In fact Gqola posits that because of institutions failure to keep rapists accountable (I am extending this to those who commit any sort of gendered abuse), we need to develop alternative methods of creating accountability, such as the breaking of friendship ties and familial association, effected by not all individuals. She tells us to “expose, disown and hold accountable these men who act violently to women and children”. We can understand #menaretrash to be part of Gqola’s proposed arsenal against gendered violence. But lets unpack “trash” some more. What discursive and practical value does the metaphor of “trash” hold?
Trash intends to communicate that an individual is reprehensible and that their behavior evokes feelings of disgust. As such the metaphor seeks to recognize and communicate that many men have been aggressors who have directly threatened the emotional, mental, sexual and physical wellbeing of women. However, the term also functions to communicate the idea that if not directly aggressive, most men have been passive witnesses at best and accomplices at worst in the denigration and threatening of women’s safety. In communicating men’s overwhelming redundancy in the fight against abuse, #menaretrash also acknowledges that black women have continuously put their bodies on the line to save themselves and each other. And as such it communicates a fatigue with this current state of affairs, where black women have had to protect themselves against misogynoir, whilst also working at the front lines to protect black men from racist state violence. It emphasizes an “enough moment” where women are declaring that they are tired of men’s performative redundancy in the fight against abuse.
Given that this uselessness is performative, it remains that trash is not a static state it is alterable. There is a way out, but this escape is conditioned and the standard is high. It demands that men create and maintain systems of collective accountability, as well as pathways to facilitate the unlearning of socialized toxic masculinity that endangers not only women, but also men themselves. However, as long as the odds of violence against us even slightly rival our chances of remaining safe even in our own homes; as long as we have to teach our daughters to prepare for the worst, #menaretrash remains our prerogative.
Many have voiced a sense of confusion and disillusionment with the generalization that #menaretrash makes, and some have even suggested alternative hashtags ranging from #somemenaretrash to #mendobetter. Although, it is true that not all men are abusive, some actually do brilliant work to curb violence(Duke Men’s Project I see you) these critics ignore the fact that black feminists are not interested in maintaining a status quo that shelters men from the effects of their violence, including black women’s righteous anger. In fact Gqola determines the “not all men” conversation to be a form of sabotage against women who are calling attention to a pandemic of violence. #menaretrash is valuable in challenging the comfort men find in being “good guys”(men who are only good because they didn’t abuse a woman).
In fact #menaretrash throws the trope of the “good guy” into relief; it demands that we treat abuse as violence but also passivity as violence in itself. Therefore it develops a new definition of violence that effectively implicates most men. The hashtag allows women to contest the current state of affairs, where many men self-proclaim themselves as “good”, even whilst their friends, uncles, political leaders, fathers, cousins and sons pillage women and children. And as such it alerts society to the fact that passivity is abnormal and most importantly unacceptable. It develops a new standard for “good” that immediately determines a majority of men to be trash by virtue of their silence and acknowledges excuses such as “it’s not my business” to be forms of violence.
Additionally these excuses, which also function as tone policing of black women are reminiscent of strategies used by racists to deflect accountability for racism. Although it is disappointing that this is the depth of some men’s engagement with the topic, it is not shocking. We know that when it comes to rallying against oppression, the limits of many cisgender, heterosexual black men’s ability to imagine freedom are limited to an end to racism, colonialism or tribalism. Many have determined everyone else’s freedom to be negotiable and debatable. This has never been enough, and it will never be enough.
Personally, it is clear to me that #menaretrash has created space for women to be frustrated, to grieve. In this extended political moment where women such as Karabo Mokoena have been made quotidian martyrs to the protracted conflict created by misogyny and heteropatriarchy; in a moment where women continue to anticipate abuse as part of a pre-determined lived experience; in a time where institutions regionally and globally persistently refuse to take our safety seriously, this hashtag creates space for an unmitigated, borderless attack on misogyny and patriarchy, that I believe is necessary in fighting abuse. We cannot continue to negotiate our safety using gentle discourse, when our loved ones continue to die at alarming rates. And whilst I do not argue that #menaretrash should be the only strategy of creating accountability, or even the most important one, it is a widespread and important start.
But in thinking about the significance of this moment, it is important to also contextualize as part of a historical legacy of spectacle in African protest, particularly in a time when our collective resistance is dependent on mapping connections between shared experiences of oppression but also resistance. Specifically, I want to call your intention to African women’s use of spectacle to leverage engagement with misogyny and I want to propose that #menaretrash engages in the African feminist tradition of “spectacle”. Historically, African women such as Wangari Maathai and the Igbo women fighters in Nigeria’s Women’s War of 1929, have used spectacle in the form of naked protest to provoke their male oppressors and the patriarchal state into acknowledging their existences and their demands. Recently, we have seen the use of this same strategy in the naked protests following the release of the #RUreference list of rapists at Rhodes University in South Africa; we also witnessed this when Stella Nyanzi launched a naked protest against the misogyny of prolific political scientist Mahmoud Mamdani, as well as in her graphic, rhetorical attacks against the patriarchal dictatorship that is the Ugandan state that eventually resulted in her illegal arrest last month.
Lastly, we have seen the value of the spectacle in Kenya during the “My dress my choice” protests, following the stripping and abuse of “skimpily” clad women. Ultimately, spectacle is a strategy that African women have been employing to call attention to their oppression when men and the state have failed them. It functions as a public, democratized demanding of accountability, especially when institutional systems have failed women. And as long as institutional systems continue to fail us, this strategy, however hyperbolic, which I imagine includes #menaretrash, exists as not only necessary but also as a radical black feminist inheritance.
P.S Read Pumla Dineo Gqola’s, “Rape: A South African Nightmare”. It was life changing.
About The Author: Mumbi Kanyogo is a Public Policy and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies student at Duke University from Nairobi, Kenya by way of Mbabane, Swaziland. She spends time thinking about the intersections between development and human rights, and how black feminist thought can be used to liberate our minds and bodies. She loves museums, galleries, novels and food — but mostly food.