Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Not All Dead White Men

Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age


Donna Zuckerberg


Harvard University Press, 2018

Hardcover. 270 p. ISBN 978-0674975552. $27.95 / £20 / €25


Reviewed by Pat Thane

King’s College London





This is a profoundly depressing book describing the intense misogyny expressed by some far-right American white males on the Internet. More surprisingly it also describes and analyses their use of classic literature of ancient Greece and Rome to lend legitimacy to their ‘reactionary vision of ideal white masculinity’. Zuckerberg writes with authority about both the Internet and the classics. She reveals that she is a sister of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has two other siblings and a husband working in social media and lives in Silicon Valley. She also has a Princeton PhD in Classics and is founder and editor-in-chief of an on-line Classics magazine.

Her concern is with the ‘manosphere’, particularly a large component of it, known collectively as Red Pill, composed of the sort of men who send coordinated death and rape threats to outspoken feminists, a feature of (anti-) social media that makes some of us avoid it ‘Digital Hermits’ Zuckerberg calls us. These men are convinced that ‘Western civilization’ has severely deteriorated because it has become ‘gynocentric’, discriminating against men, especially since women got the vote and still more since the growth of feminism in the later twentieth century. The Internet has given them unprecedented power to share and spread their ideas, influencing vulnerable people. Zuckerberg fears their numbers are growing, that they have been empowered to become even more outspoken by the election of Trump to the Presidency, and that the US is entering ‘a new dangerous phase of American masculinity in the internet age’. She quotes one ‘manosphere thought-leader’s comment: ‘[Trump’s] presence [in office] automatically legitimizes masculine behaviours that were previously labelled sexist and misogynist’ – as some of us would still label the language and behaviour they condone and seek to promote. They believe that ancient literature expresses age-old values which laid the foundation of all that is valuable in ‘Western civilization’ but has been overturned and must be revived in order to reinstate ‘traditional’ patriarchal culture in which women have no decision-making power outside the home and ‘white men are the guardians of intellectual authority’.

Zuckerberg aims to help women understand the ideology and tactics of these men in order to challenge them and protect themselves. The Red Pill is collective name for a disparate set of groups. The name is borrowed from the film The Matrix (1999) in which Keanu Reeves is offered the choice of a blue pill to make him forget the unfair reality of the world around him, or a red pill to teach him the truth about it. Also, the organisation originated among Republicans in probably the only country in which red is the colour of right- rather than left-wing politics. Members of this ‘manosphere’ believe it their duty to threaten outspoken feminists, for they are ‘convinced that sexism …is really a form of enlightenment and that they are the only logical people on the internet’. They are racists, believing that interracial relationships are causing ‘white genocide’. Calling themselves ‘men’s human rights activists’, they aim to eliminate laws and social norms they believe oppress men, including those concerning divorce and child custody and support laws which were liberalised in the twentieth century because they oppressed women. There is a sub-group of ‘pickup artists’ specialising in perfecting and disseminating techniques for seducing women.

The Red Pills appeal selectively to classical literature to demonstrate the immemorial truth of their opinion that human nature has always been the same: women were always parasites on male providers, incapable of independent judgement and needing male training and guidance. These are the views they believe ‘Made America Great’, which must be revived to make it ‘Great’ again. They say they are inspired by ancient Stoic advocacy of emotional self-control and self-direction, which they believe is confined to (all) men, signifying their moral superiority over women who are (all) irrational and emotional. In reality, says Zuckerberg, the Stoics believed that virtue has no gender, though their language can sometimes appear misogynistic. They also believed they were ‘citizens of the world’ in contrast with Red Pill nationalism.

Ovid’s early poems appeal to them by giving instruction, to both men and women, on how to seduce, even rape, the opposite sex, though classical specialists are never sure how far he was being ironical rather than serious.  But Red Pills are serious in partially following his advice in the belief that women for all time have been designed by nature (not culture) to be sexual objects, then mothers, dependent on men, and any woman pursuing education or a career is unnatural. They refuse to believe that any woman’s refusal of sex is serious and think rape gives them sexual pleasure: ‘No means No, until it means Yes’. They offer on-line instruction on how to ‘punch through’ women’s resistance. They are also convinced that women have always falsely accused men of rape far more often than they have actually experienced it, despite international evidence to the contrary. For this, they blame radical feminists and their supposed belief that all heterosexual sex under patriarchy is rape. They use the complex, ambiguous, variously retold story of Phaedra’s false accusation of Hippolytus and his tragic end to support their view that men suffer more trauma from false accusation than women do from rape: ‘They like being treated like shit’. They argue that the accusations are further proof of female irrationality and their need for control by men. The SlutHate website proclaimed: ‘…women are property. When a woman mouths off, a man needs to beat her senseless until she shuts up’, but it was shut down, it went too far even for Red Pill.

They further support their contention that their views belong in a long-established moral code by citing the work of Herodotus and Livy as evidence that rape was widespread in the ancient world and women’s consent unimportant. Much of their evidence is of rape in wartime. This is still a major concern but is hardly a sign of traditional civilised values to be prized. Again they overlook the nuances of belief and practices in societies very different from twenty-first century USA. There was no word for rape in ancient Greek or Latin, it was not always a crime and never when committed against a slave. A woman’s consent was not required for marriage in Greece, her male relatives decided for her, though it was required in Rome. Zuckerberg comments that classical scholars disagree about how far women were oppressed in the ancient world, but no-one argues that their situation merits emulation today. But Red Pills invoke this world to justify their argument that ‘women must have their behaviour and decisions controlled by men’ including ‘diet, education, boyfriends, travel, friends, entertainment, exercise regime, marriage and appearance including choice of clothing’ and be punished if they disobey, for ‘the very survival of Western civilization is at stake’.

Zuckerberg concludes this alarming account with some reassurance: ‘It is extremely unlikely, of course, that the fantasies of the Red Pill will become reality…. Realistically … their numbers are too few and their views too extreme for the Red Pill to have any significant political impact’. One can only hope so. She points out that ‘their analyses of ancient sources rarely display much understanding of context and nuance’ and that these texts have more positive uses: ‘a long and rich history of brilliant progressive and feminist thinkers using ancient Greece and Rome to understand patriarchy, oppression and resistance, from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler and beyond’. When, shortly after the 2016 US election, she expressed this view in an on-line article, she faced a ‘troll storm’ of hundreds of anti-Semitic tweets and emails and threats of sexual assault and shooting, including from prominent Red Pill supporters fearing that a liberal interpretation of the classics would undermine their claims as protectors of civilised society. 

Zuckerberg attempts to challenge ‘the age of digital misogyny’ by describing the disgusting views expressed and demonstrating that ‘nuanced feminist interpretation of the classics can counteract Red Pill distortions’, for ‘the ancient world remains a valuable toolkit for thinking through the issues and concerns that plague us today’. But she also shows very clearly how ‘The Red Pill has made going on-line and voicing opinions perilous for women like me’, that their opinions are unavoidable by users of social media and that ‘Feminists deserve a better internet’. Undoubtedly so, and it may take much more than questioning sexist distortions of the classics to halt such aggression. The book prompts one to ask how widespread is such violent misogyny in all the other countries within the world-wide web? Donna Zuckerberg has been courageous to expose this deeply nasty world, far more so than those of us even more persuaded by her account to remain Digital Hermits.


Cercles © 2018

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.