Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer quit the Internet yesterday. Writing on his personal website, the Pasadena City College professor of history and gender studies said that he needed a hiatus in order to prioritize his “fragile” mental health and his relationship to his wife and his children, but his anguish was underscored by intellectual defeat. “I’m done,” he wrote. “I surrender the field to the critics who wanted me gone from feminist spaces.”
Schwyzer has been a divisive figure in the lady blogosphere since he was treated to a glowing interview on Feministe in late 2011. In response, commenters and other bloggers dug up Schwyzer's old blog posts (since deleted), in which he confessed to trying to kill himself and his ex-girlfriend with fumes from a gas stove during a period of drug and alcohol addiction fifteen years ago. Feminist bloggers took issue not just with his past (which included sleeping with many of his students), but with how they believed Schwyzer capitalized on his bad-boy redemption story. A number of anti-Schwyzer groups cropped up. But Schwyzer kept plugging along — filing earnest, male takes on topics du jour for Jezebel and, later, the Atlantic, and feeding the attendant Twitter snark — for more than a year. I believed he could not be discouraged, until this week.
In an e-mail to several dozen of his “friends and interlocutors and adversaries,” mostly women bloggers, Schwyzer elaborated:
In the end, the question was a simple one: am I doing more good for gender justice by continuing to write, or will I do more good by falling silent. The consensus seemed to be split. What wasn’t split was the cost to my marriage and my own mental health. When I give the critics the power to drive me to suicide, the onus is on me to pull away.
As is often the case when someone pointedly leaves a room, Schwyzer seemed to be standing by, waiting for people to wonder where he’d gone. I e-mailed to say that I’d be interested in speaking about what it means when a self-described feminist is driven from a feminist space, if it wouldn’t further aggravate his condition. He called me back in about five minutes.
That was fast!
I’m just sitting here going through e-mails from people who are trying to see what’s going on, mostly assuage a lot of people’s anxiety.
Your readers, you mean?
Readers, and people who are not readers but are in the community. People who write for, say, xoJane or the Gloss. Some of my old colleagues at Jezebel. When somebody who has a career, however controversial, just up and says “I’m done,” that’s something a lot of people fantasize [about] and fear.
What precipitated your exit?
I dealt with depression and alcoholism for many years; I’ve written about this many times. I’ve been fifteen years sober, but a lot of the depression came from being online. When I’ve been taken down, there’s virtually nothing in my defense, and anyone who does come to my defense gets slapped down. Google me. Here, I’ll do it ...
Don’t do it!
I stupidly did it.
People might think that you have enough power that you don’t need anyone to come to your defense.
Yes, I’ve got tenure. But there is emotional fragility. All of us who write online want validation to some degree. We’re ready to take criticism when it’s balanced by affirmation. I just felt that it was very one-sided. After I wrote about Manic Pixie Dream Girls, this guy Chris tweeted, “the number one job of male feminists is to never let Hugo Schwyzer get another freelancing gig.” It got 120 retweets and 140 favorites in an hour. I mean, that wildly overestimates the job, right? And it was just really hurtful. I was like, I don’t want to go through this anymore. I feel like a little kid trying to get attention.
I was surprised to see you leave now, because I remember you attracting much more criticism last year.
It goes back a long time, to a year and a half ago when there was an interview with me on Feministe, sort of setting me up as the white-male-feminist poster child — something I never asked for, by the way. I didn’t run for office. When people ask me, “Who is the voice of male feminism?” Jay Smooth, Michael Kimmel, Ta-Nehisi Coates — those are the names I go to. I’m not even in their league.
I had just gotten hired by Jezebel for a weekly column, and a huge discussion broke out: Do we want this guy, a professor who fucked his students, who tried to kill a woman, not to mention straight, white, and middle class, to be the voice of male feminism?
One reason you became a punching bag is that there just are not many men writing feminist columns online. Why is that?
Look at me. I mean, who would want to be me? If you look at the men who are writing about feminism, they toe the line very carefully. It’s almost like they take their cues from the women around them. Men are afraid of women’s anger. It’s very hard for men to stand up to women’s anger. I did for a long time until finally my mental health had to be a priority. I just got out of the hospital. I’m not shy about that. I’m sober, but I checked myself into a psych ward for a week, when I became a danger to myself.
What are you going to do now?
Work on getting mentally healthy. I need to get my meds right. Second, I need to get my marriage right. There’s some bad shit that went down. I had an affair, which is very off-brand for me.
Off-brand ... as in out of character?
In that I’m supposed to be reformed. The affair was with someone in the same circles that you and I move in, so I have to protect her. But there’s a lot of gossiping. It may reach you. Don’t be surprised.
Affair, history, and poster-child status aside: Do you think a man’s personal life should permanently disqualify him from writing on a topic or participating in a social movement?
Should I be leading a private rape survivor group? Absolutely not. But we’re talking about the Internet. There’s this false notion in feminism that the Internet is supposed to be a safe space. There’s this confusion of the therapeutic and the public space. Is the Internet a safe space? No. Your therapist’s office is a safe space. Your local women’s center is a safe space. I do believe I can have a voice online in leading a movement about this, but that distinction has to be drawn.
The ideas in your columns aren’t nearly as controversial — especially since you started writing at The Atlantic — as your mere existence, it seems.
Very rarely does someone come after my writing. I write what’s easy to read. I am trying to write for a mainstream audience. Just to give you an idea: Before all this, I was setting up a meeting with Joanna Coles to get some gigs at Cosmo, because I believe a mainstream audience is ready for my perspective.
How is your voice different than the feminist perspective women are already providing in these outlets?
I’m talking about and challenging men. People were angry, thinking I am the big, white man explaining women to women. I admit that at times I may have unintentionally done that. But my hope was to challenge men and explain men to women, especially women who second guess themselves in personal relationships.
Why not write about men for a male audience?
I have. I wrote for the Good Men Project. I left because it was then becoming increasingly anti-feminist. Unfortunately, if you look at what men’s magazines are today, I don’t fit with Esquire, Men’s Health. It would be my dream to get the seed capital to do a really different kind of men’s magazine, that isn’t all about stereos and hip new bands and microbrews. We’re done with that.
People talk a lot about getting men involved in feminism. As the rare guy who cared about it publicly, could anything have been done to keep you at it longer?
I think I survived a long time. Male feminist writing needs a community around it, and a willingness to accept that it is a niche. Some editorial guidelines, because it becomes a little bit about blackface. I wrote a really good piece about vibrators that were going to be used on women. It did really well but it kept coming up, this idea that “You can’t write that, because you’re a man.” Even if you’re right. I was right! I was pretty right. The male feminist writer needs to be included in the collegial atmosphere. Writers need to talk to each other.
Would you consider writing about anything besides feminism?
I think eventually, when I come back, I’m going to have to find something else to write about. I do more harm than good. It’s hard to find someone who will edit and publish me. XoJane won’t. Jane Pratt told me that I was too controversial to publish. Jane Pratt! She’ll publish anything. I just need to get my sanity together.
But you do think feminism benefits from male writers.
I think we need good, brave, male voices who can take criticism and aren’t simply parroting the party line. I took Feminism 101. I know how to use all the big words. Look, intersectionality, I used it correctly in a sentence. I mean, fuck that. We need better than that.