“Male bumblers are an epidemic,” and gaslighting’s only a small piece of it.


Until Friday evening, I’d never seen the 1944 film Gaslight. Consequently, my grasp of “gaslighting” has been rather feeble, but no more.

At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson explains: “What is gaslighting? The 1944 film Gaslight is the best explainer.

 … The term “gaslighting” comes from the movie, and so its definition is rather specific: when a person lies for their own gain to another person so repeatedly and with so much confidence that the victim begins to doubt her own sanity. And, as the film puts it, a bit of Stockholm Syndrome develops as well: The victim, now uncertain that she can perceive reality correctly, becomes dependent on the gaslighter, more attached to him than ever.

The trope has been repeated throughout film history (The Girl on the Train is a great example), but Gaslight still holds up — especially in a week where people are throwing around terms like “gaslighter-in-chief” to describe the newly inaugurated president. And if you can stomach watching Gaslight, it’s a useful reminder that just because you feel like you’re going crazy doesn’t mean you are.

As with the baseball player who retires the other side with a circus catch, then homers on the first pitch in the bottom of the inning, the first article to cross my eyes this morning contains a Gaslight reference (thanks to JS for sharing the piece on Facebook).

For decades now, the very idea of a duplicitous, calculating man has been so exceptional as to be almost monstrous; this is the domain of cult leaders, of con artists, of evil men like the husband in Gaslight. And while folks provisionally accept that there are men who “groom” children and “gaslight” women, the reluctance to attach that behavior to any real, flesh-and-blood man we know is extreme. Many people don’t actually believe that normal men are capable of it.

Here’s the introduction. It is highly recommended reading.

The myth of the male bumbler, by Lili Loofbourow (The Week)

Male bumblers are an epidemic.

These men are, should you not recognize the type, wide-eyed and perennially confused. What’s the difference, the male bumbler wonders, between a friendly conversation with a coworker and rubbing one’s penis in front of one? Between grooming a 14-year-old at her custody hearing and asking her out?

The world baffles the bumbler. He’s astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all, let alone that he was perceived as using it. What power? he says. Who, me?

The bumbler is the first to confess that he’s bad at his job. Take Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who testified Tuesday of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team, which he ran and which is now understood to have been in contact with Russian agents: “We were not a very effective group.” Or consider Dave Becky, the manager of disgraced comedian Louis C.K. (who confessed last week to sexual misconduct). Becky avers that “never once, in all of these years, did anyone mention any of the other incidents that were reported recently.” One might argue that no one should have needed to mention them; surely, as Louis C.K.’s manager, it was Becky’s job to keep tabs on open secrets about his client? Becky’s defense? He’s a bumbler! ¯_(ツ)_/¯

The bumbler doesn’t know things, even things about which he was directly informed. Jon Stewart was “stunned” by the Louis C.K. revelations, even though we watched someone ask him about them last year. Vice President Mike Pence maintains he had no idea former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was lobbying for a foreign power — despite the fact that Flynn himself informed the transition team back in January, and even though Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) had written Pence — who was head of the transition team — to that effect as far back as Nov. 18, 2016. Wait, what? said Pence in March. Surely not! Really?

There’s a reason for this plague of know-nothings: The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

Breaking that alibi means dissecting that myth …