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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.