I was going to call this something stronger. Something about my own feminism. But then I realized that today, like many other readers of this piece in The Atlantic, I had been conned. Willingly conned, but conned nonetheless.
Perhaps it seems a little strong to call Schwyzer a Rohypnol Feminist, but from what I have learned this afternoon about his behavior, I think that would be the nicest term for him.
A girlfriend pointed out on a second Facebook post I made today about Ellen Page that she wished that Hugo Schwyzer would shut his mouth. I was incredibly confused. I will readily admit that, as much of a feminist as I am, I am not on the forums or boards of every group on the internet and I am not entirely up-to-date as to what is going on at all times. But…I just graduated a month ago and I’ve been busy job hunting and trying to keep in the film archiving career game. At any rate, I chatted with her a bit and it seems that Señor Schwyzer is not all that he is cracked up to be. In her words he’s an “all around creeper.” Being the research nerd and archivist that I have been trained to be, I went 1,2,3,4 levels deep on this subject and found this to be absolutely the case. Somewhere between Ted Bundy and that dude who took women’s studies classes and went to gay bars just to get laid is this guy. No joke.
First thing’s first, let’s start with his actual article. I liked it. I thought it was pretty good. I’ve been very uncomfortable with the idea of the manic pixie dream girl thing and I enjoyed his resolute command to writers to create better and stronger lead female characters. But here is the primary difficulty with the article: even though he linked to Laurie Penny’s brilliant piece in the New Statesman about the MPDG image and he attempted an exploration based upon some of her points, what he ACTUALLY DID was hijack her work. Basically, move over Penny, hello Schwyzer. Instead of writing a piece in praise of Penny and parsing out the ways in which she had really lain out the basic bits and pieces (as well as subjective experiences) of the manic pixie dream girl image and theorizing how that was salient to the world of women and the feminist movement as it exists in its current state, Schwyzer flipped it. What did he do? He did a “Hey! Lookit me! I know about MPDGs too! I’ve totally experienced it! I know what’s up! Listen to my experience! Read about my subjective exploration of this area and the suffering that I have gone through as a result!”
OH REALLY? Hrm. Gosh. Not sure I’m buying this article anymore, Hugo. Think I may still be on Laurie’s side. Sorry about your sucky childhood, but…not really. It kinda seems like a stretch in comparison to Laurie’s rhetoric in and around her growth away from being this patriarchally-created sexual object that has successfully made its way to every cinema and television screen near you.
And that was where the real nastiness started. I could just leave it there and recognize Schwyzer’s authorial egotism and authorial narcissism, things that most writers have at least a small modicum of but, as my girlfriend said, Hugo is not a good guy. And it’s not simply because he wants you to think that he is because he cares about women’s place in the moving image world.
A small preface. As someone who has dated an addict and has many recovering addicts in my friend-family, I am 100% in favor of forgiveness and I support the concept that people change. I know that I have made hundreds and hundreds of mistakes in my life and I am dead certain that I will make hundreds more. Additionally, people grown and changed, developing into better and better people throughout their lives and learn from mistakes. I get it. But they have to learn from them and, most importantly, they must own up to them in the most honest manner possible. This is not an easy task. The first person that you have to be honest with is yourself. Most people can’t do it. It’s easy enough to apology to a friend or colleague, even internet acquaintances that you have aggravated. The intention and the honest value is what is of consequence.
Hugo Schwyzer was an alcoholic and a drug-addict. He slept with the college students he taught. Most notably, he tried to kill his ex-girlfriend and himself. He details his addictions, his apologies and all of these awful actions in a blog post that is still available (as of the moment) here. However, they were also, at one point, available in a far more unexpurgated and complete form on his own blog according to Angus Johnston of StudentActivism.net. In fact, due to the timeliness of Johnston’s post, he was able to capture the original data from Schwyzer’s site and document it before Hugo decided to go into his public archive and change the data himself. Is this dangerous? You betcha! As a woman this horrifies me, as a feminist this nauseates me and as an archivist, this terrifies me.
I like to consider myself a competent researcher which is why I am a bit frustrated that I didn’t question today’s article (I don’t trust The Atlantic since they published that article about film restoration that had more holes in it than swiss cheese and some absolutely ludicrous adverts in celebration of Scientology) or its writer, Mr. Schwyzer. But I didn’t. As I have written previously, this is what we get in the viral age: read the headline, agree with the subject, skim the first few lines, get a case of OCD after agreeing with said first lines, repost/retweet article after not having finished. We are all guilty of this but it is not an impossible habit to break.
At any rate, back to Hugo. Johnston makes a point in his blog post that appears to me to return to his having usurped the MPDG discourse in order to make it his own and focus on his own message: he has an undeserved and altogether revolting sense of paternalism which he readily admits to on his own blog! While I may agree with some of what he says in that post, the context that he puts it into is terrifically condescending. THIS is how he is a rohypnol feminist. He’s that guy who seems so great until you realize he has been emotionally damaging you to the point of needing a good bout of therapy. Emotional abuse and manipulation comes in a great many forms. Schwyzer uses his skills to convince his audience that his activities are genuinely in the scope of feminist activity and yet, upon being asked about his impetus and actions, they all seem to reflect something false. He seems to be using feminism as the drug to corral a following, however controversial the process may be.
In her piece on Schwyzer in xojane.co.uk, Olivia Singer states,
What it comes down to is that I have come to realize, over the past few weeks, that yes men can advocate the equality of women and of course they can call themselves feminists, in the same way I can call out racial discrimination and protest against it, but they cannot teach me what I experience or the way I ought to process that. And I think that’s why it makes my stomach turn. I have grown up accustomed to internalizing male experience, to listening to a patriarchal voice, and I want something a little different with my feminism.
There seems to be a number of different dilemmas that are present here.
How do we deal with a person with a past? His discussion of the almost murder of his ex, no matter how drugged out he was, is disturbing. Indeed, his brutal honesty about his mental illnesses and conditions extend that sense of unease further. It seems that if these events had happened and were part of his general story and they had not gone through what I see as evidence tampering and exploitation from all sides, Hugo would not be this “provocative figure.” On the other hand, would he have the career he does?
As a general rule, I enjoy being a feminist and being part of feminist culture. But I cannot stomach the Andrea Dworkin-types nor the rabid-anti-men types. The first is irrational and the second is misandry. But radicalism in any form drives humans to ridiculous and horrific behavior. I can’t stomach the idea of extremism because it brings out the worst in all of us. I think that many of these women’s publications have been concentrating on the wrong things when they have been poking their sticks at Schwyzer. There is no excuse for domestic violence, rape, abuse or the like. But the continued exploitation of his past behavior is very poor. Even I am participating in this ritual by its discussion. But it cannot go unmentioned in the discussion of today’s article.
I posted that article without knowing anything about him; without knowing that he has a tendency to insert himself into these women’s issues and manipulate them in such a way that he ends up looking great and like Sensitive Ponytail Boy while he’s more on the problematic side.
What is dangerous in someone like Hugo Schwyzer is his belief and insistence that his involvement in the feminist movement gives him the right to behave in a manner that extends and exudes patriarchal structures. This is not immediately obvious in his work, but the continued insertion of his own sexuality and subjective experience imbalances the work and removes its legitimacy. Whether or not he is aware of this posturing (which sometimes comes in the form of a strange kind of anti-male discourse), that is what I find as a woman and feminist.
As I was researching this piece, what I found most sinister about the man was that I had to go to three to four different sources, including the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (Thank you Brewster Kahle! You are a rockstar and then some!!) in order to find out what he had originally written about an event that he repeatedly insists that he admits to and has dealt with through his sobriety. Yet all of the data I have found makes me believe differently. When someone goes in and changes evidence on a document, analogue or digital, this sets off a big alarm. The truth seems to be that he wanted to look better. The 2011 version of these blogs added something to the story: a phone call that had never happened on the other two blogs. According to Angus Johnston (who, once again, got much of the actual wording from the Google cache before it disappeared into the digital ether, Schwyzer’s paternal issues towards a “fragile girl” were no longer present, his fetishization of the ex-girfriend’s body was gone (as was his desire to “put her out of her misery”), and he had inserted a bit about placing a call to a neighbor before drifting off to (what he thought would be) death.
Since we have very little actual physical data to prove one way or the other, there is no way we will ever really know what happened. That’s the truth. Schwyzer is quite proficient at keeping those involved in his tales quite anonymous. However, as a trained archivist, in assessing this situation and the other evidence in and around the subject, I cannot find this man to be trustworthy nor reputable in his work for a cause that he says he gives 100% to. He says that he is honest and that the honesty is part of his sobriety. Ok, Hugo, that part is true. Honesty is part of sobriety. But until you stop taking other people’s work and reappropriating it for your own purposes and until you figure out what your relationship to your own digital archive is, I can’t trust you and I cannot accept you as someone who really wants to be an ally. You seem like you are here for your own purposes and you know what? It’s your career. If you want to do that, fine. But don’t call yourself a feminist. In order to do that, you have to want to be part of the community.