Tribute to Prof Geoff Dench RIP, author of ‘Transforming Men’

The following is an extract from the start of Will Collins’ article ‘Of Frogs And Men’ in The Illustrated Empathy Gap website on 9th July 2018. The full article is available here http://empathygap.uk/?p=2429

 

In 1996, Professor Geoff Dench – who died two weeks ago – published a book “Transforming Men”. Apparently he did not choose the title himself. Dench used the fairy story “The Frog Prince” as an allegory for the state of gender relations in the West. There is a curious consilience with the present here, and Jordan Peterson comes into it. But first, Dench’s argument – and starting with the story itself…

A young princess, still very much a child, who spends all of her time playing, ventures outside the palace grounds and enters the wild forest beyond. Her golden ball, which she values more than anything else, falls into a pool (or well) and sinks from view, leaving her heartbroken.

To her surprise a frog appears and speaks to her, offering to retrieve her ball for her if she promises to be his friend. In her childish grief for the lost ball, and carelessly disregarding the future, she agrees. So the frog restores her ball to her.

The princess returns to the palace, where she is later embarrassed by the frog who has followed her, and who now insists on her keeping the promise of friendship. She is reluctant, but her father, the King, insists that she honour her commitment.

So the frog is allowed to participate in the civilised activities of the palace, such as eating at the table and sharing the princess’s food. After contact has become more intimate, variously expressed as the princess kissing the frog, or allowing him to sleep on her pillow (with the result, in some versions, that she begins to feel more friendly towards him), the frog turns into a prince.

He declares that this is in fact his original and true form, and that by befriending him the princess has removed him from the spell of an evil witch. They marry – for the princess has now matured – and go off in a gold coach to live at the prince’s own castle.

In what way did Dench interpret this fairy story as an allegory for gender relations? Dench was a social anthropologist and naturally comes at the matter from that perspective. For Dench the key anthropological problem for a society to solve is how to make constructive use of men. Think primates: the males are a law unto themselves. Or, better, a lawlessness. They make little contribution to the troop (see, however, the comment from Joseph, below). There is, of course, no pair bonding amongst primates; no paternal resourcing. Arguably, the anthropological inventions of family and society are key to the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens. Not that Dench would express it in that way.

But he certainly argued strongly for the crucial importance of family. And families include fathers, and fathers mean patriarchy. Aargh! But Dench did not understand patriarchy in the feminist sense – namely a conspiracy by men to oppress and exploit women. For Dench, patriarchy was a piece of theatre, a subterfuge expressly designed to tie men into familial relationships whose purpose was twofold: to extract benefit from men whilst minimising the threat of men reverting to a feral state. From this perspective, patriarchy is closer to an exploitation of men by women rather than the reverse. This aligns with my own view as expressed in The Empathy Gap, though Dench would not have taken my evolutionary approach to it.

So, to the interpretation of the story. A frog is a feral male – or a free male, if you will: a male who is not a patriarch, a family man. A Prince is a male bound into society – and society (or the ‘moral economy’) is predominantly female. As a boy, and a member of a family, a male starts as a Prince. As he becomes mature, however, he becomes independent and loses his initial status as a Prince. He is no longer accepted by female society and has become a frog. Most adolescent males know what it is to be a frog. It is specifically female society which rejects the young man, so, in the myth, it is a witch – the analogue of female society – which casts the spell which turns him into a frog.

To re-enter society – to become once again a Prince – the frog must avail himself a second time of female magic. To this end he must perform some service of great value to a Princess. That done, the Princess becomes locked into an obligation which – it is notable – the King, the existing Patriarch, enforces. The externally enforced obligation is essential, because the Princess is initially repulsed by the frog.

The allegory makes explicit female power over men: to turn them into frogs or frogs into Princes. The presumption of the story is that any frog must prefer to become a Prince. But the twist for our times is that a frog may prefer to remain a frog, despite the dangers of the forest. Being a Prince sounds grand, but actually means duty and obligation, in contrast to the freedom of the forest. And as for the modern Princess, she is no longer so keen on transforming frogs, and her Patriarch, the King, has been usurped by his wife, the Queen, who does not enforce the old rules. As Dench writes,

Girls no longer want to be dependent, even nominally; and boys are losing hope of being turned into princes. It is time to re-write the story as a fin-de-millenium lament, or even a horror story. In it the princess refuses to accept the loathsome frog as a partner after all. Her power to perform good magic is thereby wasted; and the original spell of the witch, far from being broken, remains unchecked and grows in strength. Soon the princess’s father, the king, abdicates and turns back into a monstrous and malevolent frog himself, and starts abusing the inhabitants of the palace. Bereft of leadership, the kingdom slips into feuding and chaos, its citizens selfish and unruly; and the forest of individual desire starts to encroach upon the formerly meticulous and orderly palace gardens.”

Patriarchy was only ever a piece of theatre, a con, and the status of Prince in part illusion and in part reward. Surely the Witch and the Princess were playing for the same team, working the prince-frog-prince scam. In which case, was the “Prince”, who was never truly a prince, never really a frog either? Or is my cynicism merely my froggy tendencies triumphing over my princely tendencies?

In a curious recent resonance of frogs, enter Pepe. And enter Kek – in ancient Egyptian mythology the deification of the concept of primordial darkness. Enter Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau, on whom the relevance of The Frog Prince is not lost, as made explicit in their discussion of the metaphysics of Pepe. In The Frog Prince the choice of frog as the creature into which the Prince is turned is appropriate because, herpetophiles aside, frogs are generally perceived as physically repulsive, especially to beautiful, self-regarding Princesses. But there is something deeper here. The frog is a mythological archetype. Being amphibian, the frog mediates between two states of being. Water represents chaos, and frogs being at home in water, are the emissaries of chaos. The explosion of popularity of the Pepe meme saw the ubiquitous frog deployed to represent absolutely anything. Being the emissary of the primordial, Pepe naturally inclines to the glorification of misrule. As Jonathan Pageau has explained, the universal applicability of the Pepe meme is because, as a manifestation of chaos, it can instantiate anything. Chaos is at the same time nothing and everything. A frog is empowered to pull a specific instantiation out of the infinite potential of chaos, such as a golden ball from water.

 

Reference

Dench, G. (1998). Transforming men: Changing patterns of dependency and dominance in gender relations. Transaction Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to top