On the Importance of Fighting Violence Against Women: Melissa Blais’s "I hate feminists!"

Review by Camilla Patini

1417739430277On December 6, 1989, a 25-year-old man burst into an engineering school, the École Polytechnique de Montréal, in Canada. Declaring ‘You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!’, he shot fourteen women and wounded ten others. The killer, Marc Lépine, then turned the gun on himself. A later investigation found that he claimed to be ‘fighting feminism’. His suicide note revealed he was deeply upset about women—feminists in particular—working in roles traditionally occupied by men. The letter, which the police refused to release to the public, read: ‘Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons […] but for political reasons […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos’.

This massacre is the focus of “I Hate Feminists!”, written by Melissa Blais, a doctoral student at the University of Quebec and the country’s leading scholar on the issue. Originally published in French in 2009 and translated into English last year, it draws on a wide range of articles and editorials published in Montreal and Toronto newspapers as well as the film Polytechnique (2009). In the book, Blais highlights feminist responses to the massacre, showing that what should have led to an outcry against violence towards women functioned instead as a catalyst for anti-feminist backlash. She also takes a careful look at the social context in which the violence occurred, insightfully exploring changing attitudes towards women and the more aggressive side of the men’s movement.

“I Hate Feminists!” was published to great success and received overwhelmingly positive reviews for shedding light on an event which had until then received little critical attention. There is no doubt that Blais’s analysis is both interesting and compelling. However, it is also often repetitive and makes for dry reading at times. The translation lacks fluidity and Blais’s voice can become submerged beneath endless lists of facts and quotes.

But this is a small quibble—there is still much in the book to commend. Highly relevant, it comes at a time when instances of gendered violence have gained more prominence in the media and there is greater recognition of the issues with which women in particular are faced. Many commentators and journalists are now openly critiquing these types of massacres through a feminist lens, highlighting implicit assumptions about male ownership and entitlement. Indeed, when a year ago, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger went on a killing rampage in Santa Barbara, leaving six people dead and seven injured, journalists—many of them intellectually respectable—argued that it was a feminist issue. (In a YouTube video, Rodger had claimed that he wanted to prove himself the ultimate ‘alpha male’ and take revenge on all the ‘sluts’ who had sexually rejected him. He also resented other men for getting the women he ‘deserved’.) British journalist Laurie Penny labelled the massacre ‘misogynist extremism’ and linked it to a wider context of sexism and gender inequality. She powerfully drew out the massacre’s implicit lessons about male ownership, demonstrating how Rodger felt entitled to young women’s bodies, attention, love and respect.

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Plaque at École Polytechnique commemorating victims of the massacre

When violence of this nature occurs (and most violence is perpetrated by men), appeals to the mental instability of the killer are often used to dismiss or justify the crime (as if one’s psychological state were an excuse or defence for mass murder!). This defence is all too familiar—the media today is still quick to describe men who kill their families and then themselves as being ‘under stress’. Similarly, as Blais illustrates in the book, at the time of the École Polytechnique massacre, the press chose to ignore the overtly political message of the attack, instead depicting Lépine as suffering from what some quasi-psychologists called a ‘crisis of masculinity’.

Commenting on the attack, Blais has stated: ‘When I became a feminist, around the year 2000, I was puzzled to see that some were still reluctant to talk in political terms about the attack. It seemed as though the most efficient way to dismiss the feminist explanation was to reduce everything to the psychology of a single madman’. Indeed, a psychiatrist at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Quebec was quoted in the newspaper La Presse as saying that Lépine was ‘as innocent as his victims and himself a victim of an increasingly merciless society’. In reality, stress does not cause people to commit murder or to kill in such violent ways: people who suffer from mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Regardless—as Blais demonstrates—Lépine was virtually absolved of his crime through the use of such spurious reasoning.

It would seem that despite growing recognition of domestic violence as an issue disproportionately affecting women, and despite wider recognition of the sexism women face on a daily basis, many continue to deny this reality, and women are regularly told to ‘shut up’ about issues that matter to them. Blais’s analysis shows that not only did the press try to hide Lepine’s intentions but that it actively suppressed and dismissed feminist voices. In the worst cases, articles failed to even mention that the victims were female, and feminist interpretations were co-opted by the men’s movement to serve their own agenda. Some men claimed that the system was reversed and that oppression was something suffered by men, not women(!). Others expressed sympathy with the killer, stating in letters to the editor that they identified with Lepine’s anger. It was, as Blais shows, a difficult time to be a feminist: many who expressed contrarian views were threatened with violence (by men) and faced significant public backlash.

Blais’s analysis is bleak but finishes on a relatively positive note. She takes pains to show that despite the masculinist backlash it was still possible to agree on the importance of fighting violence against women. She also examines the commemorations of the massacre which took place between 1999 and 2005, and observes that although feminists could not exert much influence on the discourse in the years immediately following the attack, they did in the decades following. Blais contends that—although it may not appear to be the case—a greater number of people are now able to view the massacre as being motivated by misogyny and, contrary to popular belief, appeals to the mental instability of the perpetrator have become less common. Yet ultimately, Blais is right to conclude that there is still much work to be done. Women’s equality has, unfortunately, yet to be achieved.

“I hate feminists!”: December 6, 1989 and its Aftermath
Melissa Blais
Spinifex Press, 2014

Camilla Patini is a writer and student at the Australian National University. She has been published in various places such as Lip Magazine and Woroni. She has been an ACT Writers Centre Blogger in Residence and a Papercuts and Buzzcuts editor. She has also live-read for Scissors Paper Pen and rip publishing. Find out more @camillapatini.