Photo illustration by guitara
Becca Rothfeld,  October 14, 2014

The Fratty Wolf in Your Leftist Grandmother’s Clothing

Photo illustration by guitara
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I want to re-introduce you to someone you probably already know. You might recognize him at a party, or, more likely, at your Marxist reading group, where he’s always expounding on how identity politics detract from the real issues. Some iteration of him appeared in The Awl last month and The New Inquiry last year, where he was dubbed the “alt-bro” and the “man-child” respectively. Last spring, his more mainstream cousin made an appearance in Vice, and, lately, he’s developed an active Twitter presence as the “Guy in Your MFA.”

From these accounts, a coherent picture of the alt-bro-man-child begins to emerge: he’s as conspicuously intellectual as he is self-congratulatory, as dismissive of others’ experiences as he is self-absorbed. He disdains the parts of the academy that stray away from his own experiences—he has “witnessed too many of his intellectual peers succumb to caring about lesser things such as gender and postcolonialism,” writes The Awl’s Gavin Tomson—and he regards his female conquests as little more than vehicles for his own validation. If they’re smart enough to understand and admire how smart he is—to catch his obscure references and fawn over his academic achievements—well, all the better. The alt-bro-man-child “breaks up with you even though you are not in a relationship,” citing “his fear of settling down. You don’t want marriage, at least not with him, but he never thought to ask you,” The New Inquiry’s Moira Weigel and Mal Ahren inveigh. The upshot? The alt-bro-man-child is just a fratty wolf in your leftist grandmother’s clothing.

And he’s not just a figment of the blogosphere’s nightmarish imagination. In recent weeks, he’s made another appearance, this time not in the The New Inquiry or The Awl but in horrible, vicious earnest. Two alt-bro fixtures of the alt-lit community, Tao Lin and Stephen-Tully Dierks, have been accused of sexual assault. Though this is not to say that all alt-bros are rapists, and though physical abuse is magnitudes worse than mere smugness and entitlement, the two behaviors are not unrelated: it is clear that the alt-bro-man-child’s practiced dismissal of female agency can have devastating material consequences.

What is especially shocking about these unsavory and potentially criminal revelations is that the alt-lit community, like the alt-bro-man-child, prides itself on its especial forward thinking, its unique critical awareness. But to Tao Lin, the alt-bro-man-child par excellence, forward-thinking critical awareness is just another hip conceit. For all his reading and all his theorizing, he is seemingly unable to conceive of women as anything more than fodder to be written into a male narrative. (He went so far as to quote private emails with the girl he’s alleged to have raped in his novel, Richard Yates).

In a recent piece for The Toast, entitled “How to Tell If You’re in an MFA Workshop Story,” a nod to precisely the self-indulgent likes of Dierks and Lin, Sarah Marshall pens a passage that could have come directly from the subtext, if not the text, of their writing: “A good woman will place her cool hand upon your feverish brow and not like the bands you don’t like. A good woman will know she is a metaphor, and accept it.”

So how are we to respond to a man—to a culture—that sees intelligent women as foils for tortured, self-important male protagonists? How should women respond to the subtler and more insidious brand of alt-bro disrespect, like intellectual condescension? For one thing, by refusing to be metaphors—and by taking the female experience, at face value, into explicit account. For all their criticisms of the alt-bro-man-child’s male-centrism, The Awl and The New Inquiry have neglected to explore a complementary female perspective. What, exactly, are heterosexual women confronted with seemingly ubiquitous alt-bro-man-children to do? Should the burden fall on them to condemn the alt-bro-man-child’s patronizing posturing? All too often, intellectual women are caught between a rock and a hard place—between alt-bro-man-children’s condescension, and the unappealing prospect of repeatedly, exhaustingly, taking a stand.

It’s irresponsible to caricature the alt-bro-man-child without at least making an effort to navigate the rocky social terrain that goes with him, because he is a reality that many of us cannot realistically escape—not by dumping one iteration of him, not by vengefully using the books he lent you as coasters, as one New York columnist spitefully suggested, and certainly not by satirizing him without also taking the alt-bro-man-child phenomenon seriously—though there’s some measure of snark-catharsis to be found there.

The sad truth is that if you’re female and mostly heterosexual and you harbor serious academic interests, you’re going to have to contend with centuries of chauvinism and its bitter fruits. (Hegel once compared men to animals…and women to plants.) We live in a world where every heterosexual relationship—especially those that are intellectually inflected, and especially those that occur within the context of an academic tradition that has actively excluded women for centuries—hinges on an intrinsically uneven power dynamic. And it’s a power dynamic that we are going to have to grapple with, not just cursorily parody.

The Awl, The New Inquiry, and New York omit a crucial piece of the puzzle: the alt-bro-man-child is often genuinely smart. That’s what makes the whole thing so complicated and so interesting. Poking fun at him because he’s predictable—he likes Truffaut, he smokes too much—is a cheap shot that detracts from the real question. What matters—or a more serious part of what matters, anyway—is that he loves the books you love, and he’s so awful. This is the tension at the heart of the alt-bro-man-child problem: can we forgive someone callous and sexist if he’s also smart and interesting? Can we countenance our own attraction to someone who is also in some sense, as Sheila Heti so aptly puts it in How Should a Person Be?, “just another man who wants to teach [us] something”?

No: by no means can we forgive the alt-bro-man-child. He of all people should not be how he is. He’s read enough about power to understand its insidious workings—its pressures, its imperatives, the norms it shoves down our unwilling throats, insisting all the while that we like it. We should continue to criticize him mercilessly. (Perhaps we should do so more seriously, with a little less tongue in our cheeks.) But we should also forgive ourselves for liking him—and for wanting, at least sometimes, to give up, to stop fighting and explaining and indefatigably standing up for ourselves and our right to be female and smart all at once.

In this vein, I think we should pay more attention to the nuanced female treatments of the alt-bro-man-child and the women who have to wrestle with him. There is an emerging subculture that at least gestures in the right direction, led by Marie Calloway, an alt-lit writer whose short story “Adrien Brody” made waves extending far beyond the alt-lit community, both because of its unabashedly explicit content and because of its refreshing candor. The work is about Calloway’s liaison with an older literary critic—a man who uses his status and renown to manipulate her, but with whom she also develops a real emotional and sexual connection. What follows is her attempt to come to terms with the power dynamic, to reconcile her intellectualism on the one hand and her vulnerability on the other, his erudition on the one hand and his uncritical sexism on the other.

“We talked more about Gramsci, and then our feelings,” she writes. Her prose is flat, choppy, and her voice almost clinical, but the story is deeply affective. Her reticence and her self-doubt come through, in part because the veneer of apathy throws them into even sharper relief. We feel her trying to contain herself and threatening to spill over. She writes:

“You’re the one who wants to leave in a few minutes. That’s why I hit you, because I was sad that you have all the power.”
“Yeah.”
“I hit the last guy I had sex with, too, because I was sad he didn’t want to date me. It’s like that again. Hitting you didn’t make me feel better or change anything. It’s not like I can stop you from leaving.”
I’m totally powerless in the face of men.

This is such a touching, sober, matter-of-fact assessment. Calloway, who is so well-versed in feminist literature, so smart, and in some ways so autonomous, is both blaming and forgiving herself for her dependence on a man. When Adrien walks out of the room, leaving her crying on the bed, we want her to do something—to scream, to hold him accountable, to defend herself. But we understand why she can’t, why she lies there mutely and lets him go, why she cannot summon the strength, for what must be the millionth time, to justify the simultaneous fact of her intelligence and her femininity. And we forgive her.

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.

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