“I’m a male feminist and…”

So many times I’ve seen the line trumpeted so proudly in discussions related to feminism: “I’m a male feminist and…”

And so many times I’ve rolled my eyes and said/thought: “Here we go again.” Apparently my fellow dudes, some of us need some explaining of what a feminist is, and why men can never be perfect feminists (neither can women, for that matter, but for men it’s even harder) and therefore why those of us who are commited to the cause should avoid trumpeting it so loudly whenever we talk to someone about feminism. (If you’re going to bring out this line, please be self-effacing about it at the very least “I’m one of those mythical male feminists, and…”) Because some of you are letting the side down, making those of us who really buy into feminism appear to be, at best, anthropomorphic personifications. Here’s the checklist of the problems that are usually accompanied by this small statement:

  1. That statement is usually followed by something along the lines of “…but the patriarchy is bovine scatology1!” or “…but I have overly broad criticisms on the concept of privilege!” or “…but you’re taking away credibility from feminism by covering all these small issues!”.
  2. Even when the person saying these words genuinely believes them, they often haven’t really considered just how huge a statement “I am a feminist” really is, let alone “I am a man and a feminist”. You need to be ready to back that sucker up. Being a feminist is about more than just thinking you believe in equal rights, but we’ll get to that soon.
  3. The offender often uses their “but I’m a feminist!” excuse to attempt to drown out the contribution of the women (or potentially the male allies of said women) engaging in discussion. The irony is astounding, but not in the least surprising. Even actual male feminists do this now and then, but at least they usually realise it and apologise.
  4. Introducing yourself into a group with a statement that essentially says “Hi, I belong in this group!”, without actually saying why, is actually quite rude.
  5. Sometimes we get the tragically misleading “but I think X for men is just as bad”. This is not the oppression olympics- comparisons shouldn’t be competitions.

Essentially, it’s as if you walked into a meeting of the Labour Party wearing a business suit over a t-shirt of Che Guevara and well-shined shoes and said “Hello esteemable comrades! I am a revolutionary communist!”. Of course you are going to get laughed at, and mercilessly deconstructed. That’s because you didn’t treat the people you’re claiming to belong with like, well, people. You treated them like stereotypes, and you didn’t take the time to get to know them. Let’s go through the counter-checklist of what you need to be aware of to avoid looking stupid if you’re going to be a guy and engage in feminist discourse:

  1. Consider that the core concepts of feminism are already well-explained, well-accepted, and well-critiqued. If you come up with something blazingly original, please mention it with appropriate caution, but it’s not exactly being a feminist to throw the baby out with the bathwater- don’t dismiss the rest of the widely-accepted theory without a better reason than “because men have problems too.” You are probably speaking from your privilege if you think that the patriarchy is a concept that goes too far, or if you don’t believe in privilege, or if you don’t realise that dealing with a flood of minor sexist problems every day is as bad as dealing with big sexist problems, and that the little problems, if unchallenged, give misogynists and sexists the courage and validity to move on to making bigger problems.
  2. Men as feminists are in a supporting role, even though we realise this is difficult and foreign to some of us. As men who realise that women are a positive force in society that is overall of equal value to men, if you were really a male feminist, you would take some time to merely back up a fellow feminist you were getting to know before trying to introduce your own ideas and critiques, so that you she had a real demonstration that you respect the independence of women and the value of their ideas. In addition to that, commiting to feminism is a huge step. You don’t just get to say “I believe in equal rights for women!” to people who already agree with you and then you’re done. You’ve not really proven yourself until you’ve gone out to bat for women in a difficult situation. You’ve not had it hard until your manliness is challenged repeatedly for what you believe in. Feminists have credentials, too. 🙂
  3. Men as feminists acknowledge the many ways in which they are privileged, which means that we know that if we want to be taken seriously when viewing women as equals, we have to listen harder than we speak. This is because in non-feminist society, women who speak with men on equal terms are viewed as being rude, loud, and arrogant, if men even give them a chance to have their voice heard by being quiet long enough. If you want to call yourself a male feminist, you need to be ready to be a voice among many, instead of the voice.
  4. Being used to being a minority report of sorts, feminists and their allies are largely familiar with labels and the problems they bring about. We know about this sort of thing. We’ve seen the “ex-gays”. We’ve seen the “I’m a woman and I think those feminazis are nuts” conservative frontwomen. Simply, we know all about people who’ll try to adopt a label to hurt us. You won’t be judged by your labels if you approach serious feminists. You’ll be judged by your actions and your words. And if they don’t agree with your identity, we’ll call you on that. You should come prepared to have your privilege pointed out, and if you venture into the deep end, they can be pretty merciless about that.
  5. Unless you are pretty atypical for a man, (f.ex. you are gay, bisexual and unable to pass as straight, or noticably gender-nonconforming) you probably will not directly empathise with most women’s feminist concerns, making it really hard for you to judge how important they are in any objective way. It is best to let the person actually dealing with a problem decide how important it is, unless you have a good reason to mistrust them. Secondly, while men may have problems, we can attack the source of a lot of them by solving the systematic oppression of women, and the other problems that are not effected by protective and demeaning attitudes to women are either very small or have their own dedicated causes fighting against them already.

Finally, look, I know that many of the people saying this sort of thing really do think they’re commited to minority rights like feminism. But in their mind that doesn’t involve anything hard. They think it doesn’t involve being isolated every time they’re supposed to laugh at a joke that shows hatred to women. To them, it doesn’t involve trusting women to make decisions about their own life and body, it doesn’t involve fighting with women for their reproductive rights, for their freedom from religious oppression and for self-determination in otherwise less egalitarian countries, fighting for the assumption that rapists are to blame for rape, not “sluts who asked for it”, and it doesn’t involve any self-examination of their own attitudes, and whether they contribute to sexism. In short, the people bringing up these phrases that we’ve all heard before are armchair feminists.

Most of us don’t have the patience to deal with people who think this way- because feminism is a field deep enough to get lost in, even in fields that might sound very narrow to outsiders like say, native American lesbian feminism. So here’s part of why I started writing about gender issues here: Because although I’m a feminist, I am so patient that I practically belong in a hospital. Because although I’m angry about it, I’m also caring enough that I won’t be merciless. (and male enough to have a little distance from the impact of sexism) If you want to learn about hard feminisms2, then stick around. But you better be ready to have what your father taught you challenged, because in the parts of the ‘net I frequent, we tend to stick to what mother taught us3. And even then, we’re often suspicious that she listened to father too often. 😉

1Yeah, now and then, Winston Peters comes up with something funny. 🙂
2Unlike homers, you’re allowed more than one.
3Unless she was a conservative frontwoman or casual antifeminist. Then we pick an ersatz mother figure.

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8 Responses

  1. Interesting. This is pretty similar to my take on things: men who label themselves feminist or pro-feminist should first spend a lot of time listening. And then listen some more. And then realise that you’re here to support, but not to lead (as most men, it seems, feel entitled to).

  2. I think the other critical part of what I’m saying is also that many men come to basic feminist ideas with the impression that they have not been critiqued by men before… (whether they agree or disagree) and spout the first thing that comes to mind. Men have been at this for a while, too- you’re a newbie either way. 🙂

  3. Not sure if I’ll have time this week to drop back and compose a more substantial reply, but in case I don’t…

    This was a terrific read Ari and reinforces some semi-organised-opinions I’ve had about this at a subjective level for many years.

    Cheers,
    Z

  4. Ari, indeed. I had just this kind of experience today. If I keep my mouth shut, a female feminist says what I’m thinking better than I would.

  5. “Secondly, while men may have problems, we can attack the source of a lot of them by solving the systematic oppression of women, and the other problems that are not effected by protective and demeaning attitudes to women are either very small or have their own dedicated causes fighting against them already.”

    So just off the top of my head, is poverty something that can be solved by solving the systematic oppression of women, or is it ‘very small’?

  6. Poverty has plenty of dedicated causes fighting against it. That said, I think it’s possibly that there are families out there in poverty or relative poverty that would be much better off if a woman had been given the choices that ought to be her right- whether those choices are reproductive options, employment options, or social options. 🙂

  7. Wow. I love this post.

    I love it!

    (Sorry to throw in my comment almost a year too late, but I just got here :))

  8. No problem, late comments are useful too. This is what the recent comments bar is for. Sorry for taking so long to reply, but I’m glad it was a good read.

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