Why men should stop calling themselves feminists

When Emma Watson posted a tribute to the late Alan Rickman by highlighting one of his quotes about feminism, she faced a swift backlash for what some people idiots claimed was a gratuitous promotion of feminism (because promoting feminism is a bad thing and famous people are never quoted in memoriam?).

It’s always good overall, I think, when men can say the word feminism without looking like they’ve just smelled something funky. Although it’s helpful that not all men (or women) think it’s a dirty word, not speaking derisively about the movement for women’s liberation is a basic minimum of decency. If the bar has been set so low that men are lavished with praise for verbally recognizing that women are human beings, this is a solid argument for sustaining the topic in public discourse, to be sure.

The question is: who should shape and own that discourse? Lately there have been numerous instances in which men – especially white men of means – take up the mantle of feminist and instruct other men to do the same. While some women don’t have a problem with this I think it’s worth exploring why some women do because talking about feminism, whether it’s being done by women or men, is not a gender-neutral practice.

The words, ideas, and actions of men carry more weight in society. Females and males aren’t just individuals but also members of social classes which are defined by specific criteria: who they’re perceived to be, how they’re expected to behave, and how they relate to each other. Men hold certain things in common, with some variation thrown in the mix such as nationality, ethnicity, economic class, and sexual orientation. The same goes for women. The result is a complex web of social groups, some of which are organized according to hierarchies i.e. structures of power. The internal commonalities that differentiate males and females from each other are one such example. Of all the topics imaginable, sexism is the subject for which sex-based inequality matters the most. When men and women talk about feminism they’re doing so from privileged and underprivileged positions respectively.

As well-meaning as all of this is, it presents some significant problems. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that men need to be a big part of the conversation, I cringe. Men should critique the system of gender (masculinity and femininity) and talk about what they can do to dismantle it. Most importantly, they should elevate the voices of women, especially marginalized women such as women of colour, indigenous women, immigrant women, poor and working class women, lesbians, disabled women, etc. – bearing in mind that many women belong to more than one of these groups. Organizations like A Call To Men UK do a great job of advocating for the well-being of women and the reason for this is that they take responsibility and they listen to us. Men acting as the face and voice of feminism and taking up space in the movement is actually the last thing that feminism needs. There are loads of intelligent, charismatic women who can (and do) discuss feminism more articulately, more accurately, and with more credibility than men ever can. Why should they have a platform to speak our truths?

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I believe that men should never identify as feminists – and certainly not any time they feel like it as Trudeau suggests. A man, especially one who enjoys multiple levels of privilege, dictating who can or should adopt this title and when smacks of hubris and paternalism. The benefactors of an oppressive system have no business setting the language and parameters of the activism that seeks to destroy that system. The conflict of interest here is obvious to anyone willing to see it.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend who, as soon as he found out I’m a feminist, was eager to tell me that he’s a feminist too. I thought, ‘Oh no. Here we go again’. I took a deep breath and told him that a lot of women aren’t comfortable with men adopting the label of feminist. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dismissed me. “That’s not my problem,” he said.

mftw

It’s always deeply disappointing when men who assume the good guy status ultimately prove themselves to be classic mansplainers. It’s become such a cliché.

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Ilana and Abbi in Broad City

Isn’t it convenient that there are two tranches of feminism that men can pick and choose from as though they’re deciding which ice cream tastes better and the one that’s most desirable to them happens to be the one that least challenges their privilege? This serves the purpose of creating a subclass of feminists who are deemed deserving of abuse and allows men to avoid questioning themselves while appearing virtuous. They can rest easy because they’ve been accepted by the good feminists. The real feminists.

jgl

There’s something mildly relieving about the few times guys manage to say something about sexism or feminism that isn’t misguided, stupid, or arrogant. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the Ryan Gosling memes because you’ve probably seen a lifetime’s worth and then some.)

It’s not wrong for public figures to say that it’s important to demand a shift in attitudes as Trudeau has said, but I have a feeling he means something different when he says this than when I do. I know I’m not alone in feeling that we’re far from done and radical change can’t come soon enough. We’re expected to be satisfied with minor advancements and I’m sorry (not sorry) but women have only ever made progress when we’ve fought for it. It doesn’t make sense to low-ball in what is essentially treated as a negotiation of human rights.

It’s not as though women have been sitting around at Stitch ‘n Bitch waiting for politicians to give them the green light. Women have been practicing feminism since well before male sympathizers were born. Women are the ones with the most at stake and we also happen to be the experts. So shouldn’t the experts be educating the public on how to move forward? If gender parity really is a priority in his administration, the best way for Trudeau to demonstrate that is to step aside and let women speak, and not just about feminism but every other issue too because we are people, after all, and we have a lot of smart things to say about every topic under the sun. The only way for us to change the fact that men’s words carry more weight is to take some of it and place it on the other side of the scale.

The truth is, very few men know what they’re talking about. Time and time again we see men insisting that they’re feminists and that they know what feminism is and how we should go about it, only to end up stepping in it. Then they track that garbage all over the place without even realizing it. When do we say, enough?

We can pluck examples from a wide variety of men with the same predictable outcome. The most ridiculous case that comes to mind is when porn actor and serial abuser James Deen was lauded as a feminist and “feminist” publications had to backtrack when his misogyny became too embarassingly obvious to rationalize.

A lot of people laughed when Pope Francis said, “forgive me if I’m a bit feminist” and then went on to say, in the way that condescending men are wont to, that women are just so fantastic because they do the care work while men do all the talking. But are other spiritual leaders much different? For instance, what about the Dalai Lama, who proudly wears the feminist label?

It didn’t take long for him to screw up. Just one year later self-identified Buddhist feminists went into damage control after the leader made an unequivocally sexist comment. Oops! When asked whether he supported the idea that the next Lama could be a woman, he enthusiastically said yes (watch at 4:52) but he followed this up with two assertions. The first was that women are biologically wired to be more affectionate and compassionate than men – that familiar stereotype that’s been used for centuries to force support roles on women and deny them other forms of employment. The second was that this woman would have to be very attractive or else she wouldn’t be of much use. Visibly shocked by this, the interviewer asked him if he was joking and he confirmed that he wasn’t. He clearly wasn’t. But even if he had been joking, which many Buddhists insisted was the case regardless of appearances, sexist jokes aren’t funny (how many times do we have to say this??) and they definitely aren’t feminist.

The term ‘male feminist’ exists because females are the default feminists. We’re the default feminists because feminism is a political movement that organizes for the liberation of females from male domination. If I’m being brutally honest? Very few men are interested in destroying this system and those who say they are almost always get in the way. The biggest hindrance to progress is the fact that any given man is far more likely to perpetuate sexism than to challenge it. Women participate in this system as well as a result of our own social conditioning, but with one key difference: relatively speaking, men have power and women do not. The potential for men to divide, derail, and sabotage feminism through their mere presence is enormous.

From this angle, members of the oppressor class referring to themselves as the liberators of the people they oppress is itself an act of domination, whether intentional or not. It’s not for men to decide what or who is feminist. It’s disrespectful to feminists who work hard, take risks and make sacrifices. They shouldn’t have to share the well-earned badge of feminist with people who not only hold power over them but will never understand what it means to be a woman in a culture that hates females. If a man insists on calling himself a feminist despite all of this, he is anything but; that it’s a matter of respecting women’s boundaries should be enough for him to back off. Feminism belongs to women, as do the words we use to signal our support for the struggle.

There are a lot of things men can do to help women, some more effective than others. As Helen Lewis explains, whereas men often want to be part of the feminist conversation – as many believe is their right – the most valuable contribution men can make to feminism is to take on the burdens that have for so long been the responsibility of women. It’s not glamorous or fun but that’s not the point anyway.

Apparently this needs to be said: men are not entitled to feminist spaces, nor do feminists have any obligation to listen to what men have to say about the women’s liberation movement. It’s great when they reject masculinity but if they’re just performing a different stereotype, or they think their gender divergence means they’re not really men, then gender roles are left intact. When it comes to men and gender, true nonconformity means abandoning one’s allegiance to masculinity along with any notion that one’s sex is correlated with one’s personality.

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Being an ally to social causes shouldn’t be about personal identity and it shouldn’t matter whether you’ve taken on a particular status because having a shiny happy image doesn’t help anyone but you.

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27 Comments

Filed under Canada, Feminism & Gender, Politics & Society

27 responses to “Why men should stop calling themselves feminists

  1. Men mostly say they are feminists in order to try to silence women. “I’m a feminist, stop criticizing me.”

    Since real feminism inevitably makes men uneasy, since power never gives up without a struggle, “quit criticizing me, I’m a feminist!” is pretty thin fare.

    The appropriate male response to feminism is to listen to women. If they want to try to teach other men about feminism, fine, as long as they don’t screw it up. If they think the woman in question is doing feminism wrong, it’s not their job to teach her, because that implies women cannot teach other about our own activism movement.

    “I’m a male feminist” tends to mean “I’m not getting attention! These women are ignoring me!” Which is kind of the whole point.

  2. So many people fail to acknowledge a gender hierarchy. This is an even greater problem when men are being allowed in the movement to define feminism for us. What men are doing in feminism, is using our movement to compare feminist women who don’t live up to their standards, or socio-political view points, to oppressors, while ignoring their place in the oppressor sex class. Even in other oppressed groups, women are the most affected because of their sex. This makes women’s struggle unique and separate from men’s. It’s unfair to gloss over that fact because of the concept of equality between the sexes. Women’s reality under patriarchy is different from men’s. I totally agree that because of this, women should have the upper hand in the movement. You went through all the good arguments against men calling themselves feminists in this post. It really is always the same typical, privileged, arrogant behavior being displayed by the men who call themselves feminists. It’s actually sexist social norms that allows feminism to be taken more seriously by society when it’s being promoted by men. And which also allows men to take advantage of women in the movement by being seen as more level headed and logical. I’m glad you went into men rejecting masculinity only to go into the feminine gender role, it’s amazing that this was ever seen to be feminist.

    • One thing leftist men do is insist hierarchies must be based on artifical constructs such as inferior/superior race, or class. They then argue that sex isn’t a construct so it can’t be a hierarchy, when in reality hierarchies can be based on any actual difference just by inventing an artificial construct to use to frame it.

  3. Reblogged this on wolfwomanofthenorth and commented:
    “The benefactors of an oppressive system have no business setting the language and parameters of the activism that seeks to destroy that system. The conflict of interest here is obvious to anyone willing to see it.”

  4. Pingback: How not to start a conversation with a feminist | Lavender Blume

  5. This seems to be quite sexist. It seems to me that what you are saying is that men are unable to be something that women are based on their gender. This is interesting because my understanding of feminism is that it’s about equality. Perhaps you are confused?

    • Feminism is about liberation of women from male oppression. By definition it should make men feel uncomfortable, not welcome them in.

      It’s possible for men to respect feminism and try to explain it to other men, but feminism works best as a women-only independent movement.

      • Are only human females in the clutch of this oppression, or does it extend to other non-human female animals?

      • Well at least we are making progress through conversation. Perhaps someday you will stop hating men.

        • Perhaps some day you will stop making assumptions about total strangers you encounter on the Internet.

          My feelings about men have deteriorated over time. Y’all did it to me. Look to your own house. I gave men the benefit of the doubt for decades, and now you say perhaps some day I will stop hating men?

          I still know a few men I consider friends. I just raised the bar a great deal. As a result, I have much nicer male friendships, without all the insults and gaslighting and parasitism and manipulation and sexual harassment and various and sundry other sorts of abuse.

          But most of the people I talk to online these days are women, and they are people who don’t pull any of that crap either. It’s a lot harder to find men who aren’t jackasses, though.

  6. Dmh

    This
    ” … the best way … to demonstrate that [gender parity really is a priority] is [for men] to step aside and let women speak, and not just about feminism but every other issue too because we are people, after all, and we have a lot of smart things to say about every topic under the sun.
    The only way for us to change the fact that men’s words carry more weight is to take some of it and place it on the other side of the scale… ”
    The empowerment of women cannot be “given” by men, but by women *practicing* their power, to even change society, if they find it necessary.
    The “stepping aside” by men, is the most feminist thing they can do, the one thing that can actually empower women.

  7. Saying “Men can’t be feminists” is like saying “All white people are in The KKK”, don’t you think? Your article seems to imply that all men are rapists & are begging for a repeal of the 19th amendment, etc.

    • That is a complete straw man. Men cannot be feminists for the same reason white people can’t be black activists.

      • I’m white and I’m perfectly comfortable with holding ups sign saying “AREST ALL KK MEMBERS” so therefore I CAN be a blacks’ right’s activist. 7 if I were Martin Luther King Jr. I’d let whites hold up such signs alongside me at protests. What is your answer to that, may I ask?

    • The people who challenge the brutal power of men while being subject to its destruction are women and those women call themselves feminists. You don’t get to call yourself what we call ourselves. Even men who are true allies stand by our side knowing they do so without taking the risks we do. They respect our boundaries. They know that even if they’ve unpacked all the anti-female bias they were raised with, they will always have the privilege of not having been born female.

      Not all white people are members of the KKK, but they don’t have to be. White people are born into a culture that teaches them to value the lives of people of colour less, to diminish their actions, to ignore their concerns, and to believe that they have chosen their lot in life. It’s all very unfortunate, so many white people say, but they’re not big bad racists and there’s really nothing they can do. But that’s not true.

      All white people benefit from white privilege and all men benefit from male privilege. If you don’t like it, it’s not the job of people of colour or women to make you feel better about it. And if you don’t want to be considered a rapist, then you can start adjusting your attitude by listening to a woman when she says ‘no’ and looking at your own behaviour. Then you can get off your ass and tell other men that they should stop abusing, exploiting, objectifying, raping, and killing us. Women owe you nothing.

      • The 2nd to last sentence of that post, Lavender, the part that says “Then you can get off your ass and tell other men that they stop abusing, exploiting, objectifying, raping and killing us”, is saying, “Michael, get off your ass and be a feminist.”. Therefore, you agree that men can be feminists.

        The fact that Maritn Luther King Jr. day is a national holiday, the African American characters are depicted as good people in multiple US tv shows, comics, and movies, & that women are allowed to vote, join the army, run for president, and be CEOs, and are representative positively and a s strong, good-minded people in multiple movies, tv shows, etc. says to me that I was never raised wit bias against women or africans.

        • I’m not telling you to be a feminist because the whole *premise* of the argument is that ‘feminist’ is a word that refers to liberation-seeking females, by default. The argument was clearly laid out. It’s not my responsibility to do your thinking for you. But don’t worry – based on your comments here, it’s pretty clear you’re too arrogant and entitled to be an ally to women (or an ally to anyone who isn’t white and male) anyway. Before you worry about what label to wear, read some radical feminist texts first. Don’t get ahead of yourself, golden boy.

        • And that’s as much space as you’re going to take up here with your bad faith responses. If you want to be a dick, do it somewhere else. Subsequent comments from you won’t be approved.

  8. Is the question of whether men can be feminists based in some way shape or form on how feminism is defined? After all, there are distinctions between different ‘flavours’ of feminism, are there not?

    I know feminists who argue it is about equality. For my own sake, it is about teaching my daughter she can do anything a boy can do, and about creating a society where no door is closed for her.

    • How many times do women have to say no before you megalomaniacs accept that we’re human beings and our boundaries are not a challenge? Read the goddamn article. If you’ve already read it, read it again. Read it as many times as it takes for you to understand that when a movement is named after a group of people (feminism = for females), that means everybody else is excluded. If you’re still fuzzy on what that means, “everybody else” in this case means males. FEMINISM IS NOT ABOUT MEN. FEMINISM IS NOT FOR MEN. It it were, it would be called something else. But it’s not. Accept it and move on.

      You don’t know what it’s like to be female, to grow up as a girl, to become a woman, and live every day of your life as a woman in a world dominated by men. You will never understand, you will probably never truly care, and the only reason you’re even thinking about it now is because you have a daughter and among the genuine feelings of concern I’m sure you have for her, you most likely feel an implicit sense of ownership over her. You have no idea the kind of bias you’ve internalized as a man and the sort of damage you can do with the influence and power you have over the lives of women and girls, so stop trying to intellectualize something feminists have not only studied thoroughly but lived. The visceral trumps the abstract, so don’t presume to come here and debate with women. Whatever opinion you have about feminism is irrelevant. The solution is simple: mind your own business and just try your best to be a decent human being.

  9. Pingback: Can Men Be Feminists? | XY Feminist

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