A review of “I Hate Feminists!” December 6, 1989, and Its Aftermath, by Mélissa Blais, translated from French by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott
In the current moment, violence against women is positioned as both a raw memory of the past as well as an evocative spectre of our present. The 25th anniversary of the Montreal massacre has now passed. Aboriginal families continue to press for a federal inquiry into the disappeared women from their communities. Speeches in Quebec recently commemorating the horrific violence of December 6, 1989, made direct links to women’s ongoing experience of sexual assault, domestic violence and the epidemic of violence visited upon aboriginal women. Thirty-three of the 36 female members in the National Assembly spoke across party lines in a tribute to the women murdered, echoing a call to end the violence women face across the globe. Solidarity was expressed in the use of the collective “nous”: “nous sommes Rinelle Harper, 16 ans, violée et laissée pour morte … nous sommes ces 1500 Québécoises tuées depuis 1989 par d’ex-conjoints … nous sommes ces 200 étudiantes enlevées dans une école du Nigéria…”
After 25 years of academic and popular debate about the meaning of the Montreal massacre, and cultural creations speaking to it, are there any new lines of investigation that might enlighten our understanding of these murders and their relationship to the history of gender violence? Melissa Blais’s intervention, “I Hate Feminists”: December 6, 1989, and Its Aftermath, goes over some existing ground. But it also makes an argument that needs to be heard: she asks why mainstream media accounts, first of the event and subsequently of its commemoration, were reluctant to embrace feminist interpretations of the massacre. Why, she asks, did many other explanations, such as Marc Lépine as the “sick madman,” or solutions, such as gun control, dominate, while feminists’ mobilizations against and theorizations about violence were not only less visible, but also denigrated?
That is precisely Blais’s frustration. Although I think the book may in places lack nuance, her analysis of newspaper stories from La Presse, Le Devoir and The Globe and Mail, backed up with other sources such as student newspapers, magazines and the feature film Polytéchnique, lends weight to her critical take on the changing and unchanging discourses shaping the memory of the massacre. This book began as a master’s thesis at the Université de Québec à Montréal, was first published in 2009, and has only now been translated into English. Given this trajectory, the writing, while accessible and clear, is more mechanical than journalistically graceful; however, it was not originally written as a popular book. Moreover, to Blais’s credit, academic theory does not overwhelm and mystify; rather, she invests heavily in her empirical evidence, using it to test out theories about public memory, and to show why some interpretations of violence come to dominate over others.This argument may seem at first glance to ignore significant media attention paid to the massacre in particular and violence in general. Blais concedes that, over time, commemorations of the massacre led to more widespread public consciousness of violence against women as a serious social problem. However, one might be allowed a measure of cynicism about the uneven and episodic attention violence is given. In the wake of recent charges against a celebrity, some commentators announced proudly that the media had opened up a useful public dialogue about violence, as if the issue was somehow a new revelation. The lack of historical sensibility is striking: feminists have been raising similar concerns since the 1970s, when their alternative newspapers published articles on violence as a systemic problem, why women were afraid to report rape and why they stayed in violent households. If hashtags existed then, they might have been #WhyIStayed or #BeenRapedNeverReported. The democratic potential of social media, we are told, will encourage more open discussion, but seasoned feminists might be excused for feeling as if we have been sitting in a soundproof chamber for years, our voices on mute, watching as violence persists and women are cowed by understandable fear, trepidation or the inability to speak up, leave, escape.
Blais’s method is to probe four chronological snapshots of the media responses to the massacre, first immediately after its occurrence, then at the 10th and 20th anniversaries, and, finally, the reception to Polytéchnique. By including The Globe and Mail, she hoped to compare memory construction between anglophone and francophone communities, although this is not done in any complexity or depth; her primary focus is on Quebec. Blais sees the murders as part of a broader social phenomenon, “the misogynist murder suicide,” but she also insists that all violence must be situated in its specific historical, social, political and cultural context. Like a number of feminist legal theorists, she concludes that violence against women thrives in and is shaped by conditions of gender inequality, and cannot be addressed apart from it.
Blais’s broader theoretical intent is to probe the power of collective memory: how the social context shapes social memory, the interpretive struggle over the definition of memory, and how memory is used as a form of mobilization as well as remembrance. She explores the press as “transmitters” or “vectors” of “sites of memory,” which are always ongoing projects, changing over time and potentially contested terrain. Drawing on cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s early “Marxist” writing on ideology, hegemony and the media, she argues that a radical, feminist perspective struggled to secure any media legitimacy, this legitimacy being conferred instead on existing explanations that did not fundamentally challenge the status quo. While the massacre was interpreted differently according to the outlook and experience of various actors involved, we did not have multiple memories in the press. Some interpretations trumped others, precisely because they fit more comfortably with “common sense” understandings of social reality.
The book has several strengths: the author’s attempts to map the changing historical, political and social contexts framing collective memory; her recognition that more than one discourse competed for commemorative attention; her understanding that feminist perspectives, whether articulated by women or pro-feminist men, were heterogeneous; and her complex juxtaposition of both anti-feminist and feminist discourses within one book. She also keeps her sights firmly focused on the human tragedy of this violence as an expression of both anti-women and anti-feminist anger, although this kind of analysis does not mean, as some simplistic journalism claimed, that feminists were reducing all men to perpetrators and all women to victims.
For Blais, the historical context of the 1980s framed the original event: despite successful feminist mobilizations for reproductive and other rights, stereotypical views of women and gender inequality persisted, and a nasty anti-feminist backlash was brewing across North America. She identifies key discourses that shaped the collective memory immediately after the massacre. Some commentators, especially in Montreal, initially advocated the need “to forget,” or to remain silent as the only respectful tribute to the victims and their loved ones. The problem with “forgetting” and silence is that any discussion of violence, patriarchal attitudes and gender power is then rendered a rude intrusion on human suffering. Other media commentary explored our increasingly violent society as a whole, the mass murder as a phenomenon, the failure to deal with mental health issues, and, over time, the issue of gun control came to the fore. One question was revisited repeatedly: both expert and armchair commentators weighed in on the psychology of Lépine as a “mad” killer, someone who was an anomaly, outside of society, detached from it: he was the abused boy with “an absent father,” someone who even “suffered” under the weight of his anger and alienation.
Tracing media commentary through two anniversary commemorations, Blais shows how the distance of time crystallized some themes, augmented or minimized others: ten years after the massacre, she finds some of the original discourses more closely interconnected, with one commemoration, for example, linking violence against women directly to the issue of firearms. Yet a constant, she suggests, was the less visible coverage of feminist protests, conferences and actions, and the resistance feminists encountered when they argued the massacre could only be understood in the wider context of gender inequality and systemic violence against women. The collective memory most evident in the media did not underline the massacre as both a misogynistic and anti-feminist event, nor did the majority of commentators welcome a feminist analysis that understood violence to exist on a continuum from the everyday to the extreme, and be endemic to a patriarchal society.
There was some consensus among feminists about the nature of the massacre, such as the symbolic significance of the site of the murders: an educational setting, occupationally typed as “masculine,” where women had only recently secured new acceptance. Yet feminists disagreed, she shows, on how Lépine’s psychology should be analyzed, how the event expressed violence against women and what solutions were possible. Whatever the solution proposed, feminists and their allies did see sustaining the memory of the massacre as critical, a potential force for mobilization, for recognition, for social change, so that the injustices of the past and present might not be repeated in the future.
Although I began the book skeptical about her arguments about the persisting virulence of anti-feminist responses to the massacre, Blais has shown these did not come only from a few individuals we might dismiss as marginal “outlier” elements (which is not to minimize the horror and danger of such groups): army men who reportedly hosted a dinner in Lépine’s honour, the misogynist websites that still celebrate him, or masculinist groups that laid the blame for men’s alienation and anger at the door of feminism. University deans, professors, psychological experts, the police, even many students also condemned feminist politics as too extreme, divisively damaging, even claiming they were similar to Lépine’s extremism. Feminists were accused, even by Quebec student publications, of hijacking a tragedy to promote their point of view, of creating acrimony between men and women, of seeing the event only through their own “ideological lens.” Feminists’ difficulty in having their views heard rather than caricatured is all too familiar to those of who teach women’s and gender studies. Those with other political perspectives have ideas, however feminists are guilty of promoting ideology. Feminists, Blais suggests, were also increasingly constructed by the media within two paradigms: the reasonable/good and the radical/bad. The former group understood the suffering of men as well as women, the need for common cause and gradual reform, while the latter were too focused on radical analysis of patriarchy and male dominance as the problem.
While Blais does highlight some of the feminist debates about commemoration and violence, the book’s brevity and limited research focus inevitably under-emphasize how extensive these have been. It is an irony that feminists are portrayed as a monolithic ideological bloc, when that is far from the truth. Blais opens the book with a broad and pluralistic definition of feminism, but her own analysis tends to emphasize patriarchy as the defining element of women’s oppression. Other feminist writing contends that, while gender is critical to an analysis of oppression, other interconnected factors, including women’s class, ethnicity, race and sexuality, play a critical role in how they experience violence, whether they can escape it, how it is portrayed. In the aftermath of the massacre, there were soul-searching debates among women’s groups over the placement of a monument to the Montreal massacre in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, so close to the disappearance of poor and aboriginal women. Some feminist organizations refused to join the federal panel on violence against women after the massacre. Feminist scholars have also written about the perplexingly contradictory nature of commemorations as a tool of political mobilization against violence, and they have questioned different generational responses to feminism—after all, we now have students in our classes who have never heard of the Montreal massacre. How do we explain their “post-feminist” rejection of feminist discussions of systemic violence, asks American cultural commentator Wendy Chun. Is it an understandable—if self-defeating—survival strategy? The impact of the Montreal massacre on engineering as a profession, as Canadian historian Ruby Heap has shown, has also been complex, as anti-women practices are more often criticized, but feminism is still viewed with trepidation.
Blais’s pessimism, if sometimes overstated, is not without cause. While it is true parliamentarians no longer dare laugh at discussions of domestic violence as they did in the early 1980s, what does it really mean when they don white feathers? Individualizing discourses that locate the causes of misogynistic violence in “bad people, bad decisions or inadequate families” are still routinely invoked, stymieing an understanding of systemic violence. We can dismiss the inanity of right-wing American news commentators who want to blame racial inequality on absent, bad black fathers. But our own prime minister’s claim that the missing and disappeared aboriginal women are not a “sociological phenomenon” is just as mind-blowingly “ignorant,” to use the words of the Assembly of First Nations—a characterization many feminists would endorse. The solution, contrary to the logic of conservatives, is not simply a stronger dose of law and order.
Blais’s discussion of the problems of the past is therefore quite prescient: the tendency to individualize violence rather than confront its social roots, the media marginalization of strong feminist analyses in favour of more moderate commentary, and the difficulty we have in comprehending why misogynistic violence persists, despite other equality gains for women. Blais may be right: 25 years later, we should be thankful that feminist dialogue has enhanced public consciousness of violence against women, but we still have far to go if we want meaningful change.