Men in feminism

I find myself a little bit conflicted by my reaction to feminist men/feminist allies. We have a couple of great men who write here, and by no means do I intend to belittle their contributions or those of other men who are actively involved in feminist work. Not only do I think that power imbalance is destructive to everyone (though not in equal measure), I think it goes without saying that such an imbalance can’t be fought by women alone. So it’s not a question of whether men belong in feminist discussions or activism (though it’s not unreasonable to question in what ways and in which spaces).

The conflict I feel is in my reaction. I feel like I’m still inclined to swoon a little at men who ‘get it’, which means I’m still participating in the system that gives men extra credit for basically not being total assholes. If equality and the absence of oppression are not up for debate, then anything less than support for feminism (and other anti-oppression activism) is pure jerkery. So I very much want to encourage men to challenge their own assumptions, to recognize and speak out against sexism, and to contribute to feminist work, and I want to help any tentatively supportive men find ways to do so. But, for the sake of really getting at the roots of my own gender-based assumptions, I also want to stop myself from treating it as unexpected and deserving of gold-star status.

Perhaps even more importantly, I’m extremely frustrated that even (and perhaps especially) with respect to feminism, male voices are more relevant than female ones. If a woman challenges someone on an everyday sexist comment, a lot of people find it easy to dismiss her as shrill, bitchy, or as having a ‘victim complex’, but a man challenging the same comment is given more credence. I may be wrong, but I suspect male feminists/allies rarely encounter the eye-rolls and ‘oh, you’re one of those‘ reactions that I get on a regular basis. Male public figures who say something against sexism are newsworthy (which is part of the gold star swoon factor I described above) and so garner attention to the same things that are not noteworthy when said by women because they’re expected (and therefore whining, self-centred, or still beating that old, now irrelevant feminist drum). Thus yet again, the male voices get more power than the female ones. It’s tempting to want to use that extra power, because it helps with some practical measures of progress, but it comes from the exact foundation that we’re ultimately trying to fight, so we would have to simultaneously use it and challenge it.

It’s important to show men all the ways in which feminism, breaking confining gender boundaries, and equality are beneficial to society as a whole, and it’s important to encourage and appreciate the men who work against sexism. But it’s also important to fight situations in which male voices are given more credence than female ones, especially when what those men are doing is quoting women who were ignored when they said it in the first place. Personally, I still struggle to do either, in many cases, let alone both at once.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    This is a great post, and I think I need to reflect on it for a while before I’ll have all my reactions processed.

    I don’t think I “swoon” at male feminists anymore. I’m happy to meet them and I try to encourage them. I think there’s some legitimacy to that reaction, because in general it’s harder for men to see the flaws in the patriarchy, since it’s designed to look promising to them. For a woman to notice that patriarchy sucks is not such a huge accomplishment.

    For most of my life, I’ve tended to dismiss women who don’t get the need for feminism and simply fail to notice men who don’t get the need for it. I’m finally starting to lose patience with EVERY individual who doesn’t see the need for feminism and every other movement that seeks to remake the world into something where gender, color and other random factors do not impact the value of anyone’s life negatively or positively.

    I think it’s very important that female feminists (a) stop being overly critical of women who love the patriarchy, as if being women, they owe it to us to know better and (b) stop feeling neutral about men who love the patriarchy. If that means standing against the vast, vast majority of men and a smaller majority of women… well, who told you this was going to be easy? Commit, or there’s the door.

  2. says

    I rather enjoyed reading this posting; I must say that I relate to it in a not-exactly sort of way and it’s always nice to see one’s own confusions given some validation, however indirect, through someone else expressing the same concern.

    Firstly, I definitely agree that whether or not to recognize is a frustrating dilemma. By analogy, what would one do with a student who commonly fails tests and doesn’t bring in homework and suddenly gets a C- on a rather important midterm? The C- is hardly worth trumpets and fanfare, but it’s still above par. And I definitely have no easy solution for that.

    However, I find myself agreeing quite a bit with the third paragraph in the first response (by BetaCandy). I think that rather the entire point of gender equality is that it shouldn’t matter what gender someone is; one of the requisites in my head for being qualified as a sane and rational human being is to recognize that discriminating on irrelevant criteria is at the very least really goofy and quite potentially harmful. I understand that I can’t expect everyone to simultaneously have a light-bulb moment and get it all at once… and I also recognize that, whether or not gender *should* matter in understanding the problem, it *does* because it affects one’s background. I suppose in conclusion I would advocate encouraging men who do some part to promote gender equality but not praising them for it unless the contribution is significant.

    In reference to the general response incited by men vs. women speaking out for gender equality, I am prone to agree (although I get the sense that some such figures do so more out of narcissim (look, I’m thoughtful!) rather than actual concern). I wonder whether or not, though, the disparity between the responses may be emphasized by the publicity.

    On a smaller scope, the rolling of the eyes is still quite common regardless of your gender; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received it myself in attempting to temper or confront an inappropriate comment that someone has made. One does get a “you’re one of those” sort of response; it just becomes apparent that the category of “those” is slightly different. Most often, it feels like I’m being rejected for rocking the boat: the sense that I’ve just ruined everybody’s fun just a little bit and they don’t feel like anyone was being hurt… so why did I have to complain? Of course, I believe that, indirectly, people were being hurt. But, as I’m sure we all know, it’s kind of hard to explain that in the three seconds that you get before you’re tuned out.

    That said, I’m willing to bet that the reaction isn’t nearly as severe. In scenarios where the coworkers with whom I’m speaking are of the frightening “good ol’ boys” mentality, I actually get the opportunity to leverage that very mentality I dislike in order to sway their opinions. I have no compunctions about making use of this leverage, but I have on a number of occasions become frustrated with the perception that I feel they get: that, by speaking out, I am filling my expected role as a protector and that I’ve only just validated their assumptions. Of course I’m protecting, just as I would for anyone in any situation where I think wrong was being done and just as I’d hope would be done for me. But again: three seconds.

    As a summary to this long and rambling response: I hear you. It’s a maddening catch-22 that’s inherent to the problem. And thanks, by the way, for bringing it up; it’s reassuring to know that it’s not just me. :)

  3. says

    It’s reassuring to me, too, to know it’s not just me. :)

    I like the way you put the idea that even though it *shouldn’t* matter, it *does*, because one of the things that we as feminists are trying to get people to recognize is that decisions can’t *ever* be made in a vacuum of gender neutrality (so, for instance, the citation of statistics of how many women choose “nurturing” careers or express a desire to get married in support of gender stereotyping needs to be busted). By pretending that we can, in some way, break out of that mold enough for me not to notice that it is, in this highly gendered world, challenging for men to recognize the problems with that, I’m not giving enough credit to the fact that the system is still there.

    This is (as is my wont) getting kind of circularly esoteric, but something about the way you put that made something click for me, so thanks. :)

    Oh, and:

    although I get the sense that some such figures do so more out of narcissim (look, I’m thoughtful!) rather than actual concern

    Agreed. And damn does it annoy me.

  4. says

    I’m glad my rambling was helpful. :)

    Honestly, what I would like to see and tend to encourage is that gender *doesn’t* matter[1]. The only reason it does in many people’s decision making is because they seem to hold to a set of peculiar and seemingly arbitrary premises. Frankly, on no level of which I am conscious do I usually even *notice* if people with whom I am dealing are male or female, similar to the way I tend not to notice what color their hair is or whether or not I’ve eaten today (not that I’m advocating that last one) and I find that people tend to react positively to this.

    So I suppose I see that vacuum as a goal… but yeah, in the very real and practical sense, explanations of and approaches toward the present cultural situation have to take into consideration the present bizarrity.

    Honestly, it almost seems like some sort of weird Rubix cube or something — the solution is circularly dependent on the puzzle. Grah.

    [1] Excepting medicinally, of course. It confuses the hell out of me that people assume that I know how a car works because I have a Y chromosome but they don’t print two columns on that little FDA label on the back of all the food. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I see a bottle of iron supplements advertised for women and the nutritional facts say that each tablet contains 150% of the DRA…

  5. SunlessNick says

    When Beta Candy first made the Narcissist Feminism post – http://thehathorlegacy.com/narcissist-feminism/ – there were a few minutes where it was listed in the latest list, but not available to view. By chance, I was at the site right then, and so couldn’t read it at first.

    Which left me wondering what it was about of course. I wondered if it was about this, specifically men feeling entitled to this:

    I feel like I’m still inclined to swoon a little at men who ‘get it’, which means I’m still participating in the system that gives men extra credit for basically not being total assholes.

    Then I wondered about the comment I made to the Film/TV post about the blandly perfect beauty standards required by Hollywood – http://thehathorlegacy.com/if-male-actors-had-to-be-as-blandly-perfect-as-female-ones/ – and whether that had sparked it off, where I listed a variety of women I find hot and/or beautiful.

    Since then, two realisations.

    1. It’s not all about the man. (You’d think I’d know that one by now).

    2. If it was, I’d have it coming. The point I was trying to make was a real one, and I meant it – but on a different level, making that list couldn’t be anything but a request for special kudos.

    Mea culpa, and I thought I should admit to that. Privilege has a lot of ways to creep up on you.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Nick, your reaction to the post title is a normal reaction. Being an ally makes you necessarily self-conscious (going by my own experience commenting on blogs about racism); that willingness to introspect is necessary to being a good ally. Once in a while you’re going to examine yourself only to find out it wasn’t about you – that’s just a statistical likelihood. But it’s the willingness to question your own behavior that makes you a good ally.

    I took your list of attractive women in the same vein. The post I wrote laid out a very stark contrast between how women’s and men’s looks are evaluated in an appearance based industry. I too was making a list of actresses I find beautiful to see if I beat the curve, you know?

  7. Firebird says

    Tvyn said (a very long time ago, the post came up in comments because of a comment much more recently, and the topic is on my mind) “one of the requisites in my head for being qualified as a sane and rational human being is to recognize that discrimination on irrelevant criteria…”

    I’ll stop there because it was “discriminating” that jumped out at me. Male allies recognize the discrimination and feel compelled to act. Men who cannot comprehend our position do not recognize the discrimination. The ones who recognize and approve the discrimination are fairly few and far between in my experience; perhaps this is the answer to the problem. Yes, if it was a matter of choosing consciously to support discrimination, becoming an ally would be nothing to applaud; but overcoming a lifetime of cultural conditioning is a difficult and painful process of self-awakening that requires discipline, self-questioning, changing habits of thought and behaviour, admitting mistakes, humility…its not easy or fun.

    I’m not saying it isn’t what every man, every heterosexual, every white person, every abled person, etc ought to do; and I do not believe that any person who has undergone the process can safely be proud of it (see the requirement of humility above, unfortunately), but I am not ashamed to be grateful to and proud of them for doing it.

  8. Alastair says

    Good article as always, but there are a few points I think you’re going wrong on.

    Firstly, as Tvyn said above, I do find myself on the recieving end of some rather disparaging remarks when I try and put people right on feminist matters. The differece is that instead of calling me “one of those” people say ” but you CAN’T be one of those – you’re a man”, meaning a whole different set of assumptions I have to tackle before I can even get to the original sexist remark I commented on.

    The second is in terms of men being given more credance than women when speaking out about sexism. Yes, this is in part a matter of men’s opinions being generally valued higher than women’s, but the other side is that we’re speaking from within the “system”. A white person critiscing another white person for being racist will probably have a bigger impact than if a black person had pointed it out, an American critiscing other Americans attitudes to Canada will have a greater impression than if a Canadian was doing the complaining. I think it’s a natural thing to see more “value” in people who take issue with their peers attitudes than if someone outside of their group does the same, because the person within has to break the social norms associated with their group to benefit society as a whole.

    Apart from that I’m still divided about the praise issue. One view almost perpetrates the sexism by giving men such credit for their views, but the other side seems a bit arrogant, that finally these men have caught up with the feminist, and about time too. No solutions there, beyond encouraging EVERYONE to confront sexism.

  9. Al says

    I’ve read a number of articles on this site recently and I’m always quite content with what I find – everything here just makes sense to me. This article in particular made me really ask myself what I think of male feminists… and also made me realize that I don’t know any. Not personally, anyway.

    Then again, I don’t know many people who identify their views in politics, philosophy, etc. as feminist at all. Most of my female friends, and a few women in my family all try to take a flavor of the ‘empower women’ thing… but no, no one is a feminist. It’s kinda strange, or I think so. I think that that’s why I can’t picture myself reacting any differently to a person who takes a feminist stance based on their gender; I’m just happy to see another person doing so, woman or man.

  10. James says

    Excellent read. As a male feminist on a college campus, it has been striking to me how much ‘extra credit’ I get for something I feel that I should be doing anyway. In my circumstances, it may just be due to the rarity of male feminists on campus. However, I will note that the swoon has largely disappeared from the more active feminists on campus.

    I do feel that in my experience, some messages are much better received by men if a man is delivering the message. Whether it is a feeling of more similar backgrounds (regardless of whether that is actually the case) or just a subconscious need for male affirmation I’m not sure. At this point I just chalk it up to societal norms and hope they’ll change their attitude once they learn more. I don’t believe that they would ever express an outward desire to hear it from another male though. In the past, I’ve noticed that the most outwardly sexist guys typically just call male feminists who try to communicate with them gay/sissy/whatever slang is in vogue.

    I’ve had a few conversations on this topic, and I think the conclusion that always comes from it is that for the time being it is a necessary evil. Once the foot gets in the door, men who are open to the idea of feminism tend to pay more attention to the women in whatever group I’ve gotten them to attend a meeting of. I don’t like that a lot of guys need to hear this stuff from other guys, but at the same time I’d be naive to think that gender roles don’t play a part in activism when they do so in so many other facets of life. My primary hope in talking to men in this regard is that they’ll eventually recognize how ridiculous it is that they had to hear the message from someone with a penis before they really started to listen.

    However, I didn’t really mention what Alastair said: “You can’t be one of those-you’re a man.” Does come up. Though I believe it’s easier for me to get past this than it is for the feminist women on campus to get past the standard “one of those remarks,” it does provide its own set of challenge. The difference here is that if someone asks me “Do you really think that?” I feel like I’m getting somewhere with that person. On the other hand, if a woman in the same discussion as me hears that, it’s generally directed in a much more disparaging sense (ie they’re really saying “You can’t possibly believe that!”). But yes, there are some unique challenges to men talking to other men about feminism. I’ve been called a traitor on more than one occasion.

  11. says

    We are ALL conditioned to take certain messages more seriously from one gender than the other – usually men, unless it’s a “woman’s topic” like housecleaning, child-rearing or application of makeup. So yes, the man who hasn’t really been introduced to feminism or why we still need it would most likely take that message more seriously coming from another man. Also, a man isn’t part of the group feminism is perceived as (over)benefiting, so again, he gets more cred. Still, if the message reaches him intact by any method, that’s better than not at all.

    And that’s why a female feminist can get dismissed so thoughtlessly – there’s a perception that we want to switch over to a system where women dominate men and get all the perks. This is especially common amongst people who have never even perceived of equality – who think someone must be on the bottom and someone on the top. I have serious difficulty even getting some people to conceptualize “equal but different.” They just don’t believe life works that way.

  12. says

    My two cents (@ no one in particular):

    I’m a male feminist. But having only read a few basic feminist texts and only recently having “discovered” the feminist blogosphere, I feel underqualified to say anything other than I want to help/

  13. says

    That’s okay! That’s how I’ve felt every time I’ve started to understand the problems of a group I don’t belong to. I realize (a) they have legit complaints, (b) I want to help them and (c) I will probably make it worse if I try to help because I really don’t know what I’m doing yet.

    Over time, you overcome C through engaging with people in the group you want to support. For a while, maybe even years, all you can do is state that you support them. Even that is something – a big something, if you state it in places where the privileged aren’t expecting to be challenged, particularly by someone from their own demographic.

  14. Lobo says

    I’m a male feminist. I think that I can offer some perspective analogously: I work with nonprofits that support persons with disabilities. I rattle off that verbage to distance myself from the attitudes I’m swimming against; namely that people are their disabilities, or need help and not support, the whole pity party aspect of it. I hate that. I give people tools to improve their lives, same as a teacher, nurse, doctor, therapist, addiction specialist, social worker, lactation consultant, whatever… there are plenty of jobs where people work with people in such ways.

    You hit the nail on the head: I don’t want extra credit for something that I think everyone should already be doing. Yet nearly always, I get some variation of “That’s so nice of you, helping -those- people.”

    So, why am I a nice guy for thinking 20% of the population should also be treated like people even though they have disablities? Does treating those with vaginas like people make me a saint? Let’s just call them penis-challenged, that’d be big of us. It’s frustrating on this side too.

  15. says

    Hello there,

    This is a really interesting site which I happened upon only today. It really piques my interest because as a Communist I am a feminist-by-default(though I consider myself quite radical on this issue), but it is doubly interesting because of my personal interest in film.

    First off, it is natural to feel conflicted when dealing with cultural issues like this. While we work to change the world we must also admit that our views and ideas are shaped by our own experiences in the world. Struggle and change produce new conflicts and we must work to figure out the best solution.

    On the subject of male feminists, I can totally see what you are getting at, but I would argue that male feminists need support from females as much as possible. Males who step outside the social norms and respect feminism face serious ostracism, ridicule, humiliation, and isolation not only at the hands of men, but most women as well.

    I believe that one reason why more men don’t embrace these values is that they see only costs and no reward. They feel isolated because if they express their unconventional views they more often than not are attacked as weak, whipped, or whatever.

    Lastly, one must remember that feminism cannot exist in a vacuum. The subjugation of women was a result of certain objective historical factors, and if we do not look at the struggle for women’s liberation in the context of the greater struggle for democracy and the elimination of class society, we would be struggling in vain. Capitalism has proven very effective at easily co-opting any kind of identity politics movement.

    Anyway, that’s my two rubles.

    (Not expecting any swoons or pats on the back)

    • says

      On the subject of male feminists, I can totally see what you are getting at, but I would argue that male feminists need support from females as much as possible. Males who step outside the social norms and respect feminism face serious ostracism, ridicule, humiliation, and isolation not only at the hands of men, but most women as well.

      I believe that one reason why more men don’t embrace these values is that they see only costs and no reward. They feel isolated because if they express their unconventional views they more often than not are attacked as weak, whipped, or whatever.

      Do you realize everything you’ve said here applies to women equally? Let’s break it down.

      Females who step outside the social norms and respect feminism face serious ostracism, ridicule, humiliation, and isolation not only at the hands of men, but most women as well.

      Yep, definitely my experience.

      I believe that one reason why more women don’t embrace these values is that they see only costs and no reward.

      Women have told me this. In fact, women have told me they’re better off allying with men – even misogynistic ones – because allying with women won’t get them anywhere. And practically speaking, it’s true.

      I think all equality-activists need to try to support one another, because everyone else will be busy making them as uncomfortable as possible. But if you think men need special support in this area, I not only disagree, but think you are perhaps not realizing what women feminists go through.

  16. says

    Ok I had a much longer comment to add to this but there was some kind of error so I’ll be brief this time. First of all, I do not think that men and women get equal flak for embracing feminism because it depends on the culture you live in. For example, I can express rather “radical” feminist opinions in front of Western women, particularly Canadians, English, Australians, and some Americans, and they often respond positively. Perhaps this is because even though Western liberal societies are in fact quite misogynistic, there’s this idea that they are “supposed to be equal.”

    But alas, I’m living abroad in Russia where even slightly progressive comments on the women issue leads to bizarre looks and rants from the local women. Don’t even get me started on the men and the foreign expat men. Before I met my fiance it got to the point where my ideal conversation partner for socializing was a major rarity- a Western woman living/working in Russia. This was the only way you could have a conversation which A. Didn’t revolve around women because every conversation amongst foreign male expats will inevitably end up there. and B. was with a female with a modicum of self-respect as a woman.

    Of course I acknowledge that people cannot fully perceive other peoples’ experience so trust me when I say that I do not doubt your experience in the least.

    • says

      First of all, I do not think that men and women get equal flak for embracing feminism because it depends on the culture you live in.

      Yes, but you made no cultural distinctions. You simply indicated that men deserved more support than women, and that’s what I disagree with.

      For example, I can express rather “radical” feminist opinions in front of Western women, particularly Canadians, English, Australians, and some Americans, and they often respond positively.

      But I can’t, at least not in the US. That was my whole point. Most US people seem to think “feminism = man-hating”, so if I say “I’m a feminist” I’m understood to have just said, “God, I hate men, they’re so bleah.” Many US women therefore seem rather anxious to separate themselves from feminism. So I’ve actually seen women respond positively when a MAN says something feminist, but once he leaves and I voice agreement, they chide me for being a man-hater. I believe they think a man expressing a feminist sentiment is being incredibly (even ridiculously) kind and must therefore receive a kind response, but a woman expressing the same sentiment is a hater of men and should be chided.

      Seriously. I know there are women feminists all over the US, but I only know one offline. And your first comment suggested that you deserve more support for your feminism than I deserve for mine. If that’s not what you meant to suggest, then backtrack and clarify. Otherwise, you’re just basking in male privilege.

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