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.

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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.

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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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How not to start a conversation with a feminist

As a feminist who is very active on Twitter, I receive daily unsolicited replies from people I don’t know, many of whom happen to be men. This post may not serve much of a purpose beyond providing catharsis for feminists who go through the same thing but in the optimistic hope that there are men out there who truly want to speak to feminists in a way that doesn’t end up making things worse, this is a guide for you to follow. Good luck!

Most of the men who engage feminists online are attempting to do one or a combination of the following:

  • gaslighting
  • harrassingopinion_maxedout
  • mocking
  • belittling
  • trolling
  • derailing
  • co-opting
  • obfuscating
  • silencing
  • condescending (AKA mansplaining)
  • pretending to play devil’s advocate when they’re really just trying to waste women’s time, make them angry, and then throw their frustration back in their faces

A common reaction to this is, “but I’m not like that!”. Actually, I hate to tell you but a lot of you are, including those of you who acknowledge your male privilege. When it comes to how men talk to women they very often fail to see how their sexism manifests in subtle ways. Maybe you don’t see it but we do. Does it mean everything you say is wrong? Nope. But when something you say or the way you say it isn’t being received warmly, that’s your cue to take a step back.

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It’s the responsibility of men to continually interrogate their beliefs and assumptions. It is not the responsibility of women to explain over and over and over again things that men can and should figure out for themselves. Approach carefully. If you don’t, you may very well get your head bitten off and if you’re dealing with a feminist who takes shit from no one, she will give zero fucks about how that makes you feel. Here’s a case in point of how things can progress if you come off as a typical mansplainer. Go ahead and take a look…

Was I too harsh? Personally I don’t think so. And anyway, I don’t care.

If you’re a man reading this and you take nothing else away, let this be the one tip you remember for as long as you live: never approach a woman with the attitude that you know something she doesn’t. If the first thing a man says to a feminist is “you’re wrong” or “that’s not true”, from that point on he can have no reasonable expectation of not being told to go jump off a cliff into a fiery abyss.

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The amount of arrogance women have to deal with on a daily basis is not something you should be adding to if you consider yourself an ally (forget calling yourself a feminist). A classic pastime of chauvinists is to pretend they’re asking genuine questions when they’re really just trying to pick at straws and make a show of putting women down. Maybe you’re not one of these losers and you have good intentions. Pay attention anyway – this is directed at you too.

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What’s a better approach? Before you launch into something like, “Well, actually, I think…”, the best thing you can do is to ask questions. Ask, don’t tell. Know that women don’t want or need your insight. When it comes to feminism and women’s issues, it’s our turf – the only turf we have in this world – not to mention our area of expertise. It’s your turn to sit down, listen, and learn. Take the time to consider what women have to say and if you’d like to explore the topic further or you’re looking for clarification, you’ll most likely find that you’ll be met with patience and respect.

Men like Ricky Gervais who make a career out of being offensive are applauded whereas women aren’t given that kind of latitude. But guess what? We swear too, we fart, we burp, we talk back, and we might even offend you. Get over it! It’s more than possible that your shock and the negative reactions you have to women who are less than friendly toward you stem from your expectations about how we should and in fact do behave.

There’s also a lot of talk about privilege checking but not enough understanding of what it means in practice. You may think you’re a nice guy and you can verbally acknowledge your male privilege all day every day but that doesn’t cut it. If you truly understand what it means for you to have a great deal more power than women in this society, it shouldn’t surprise you that your ego will have to take a back seat. If you initiate a conversation with a woman, never forget that you’re a member of the oppressor class – that always matters. No woman owes you their attention or regard. No woman is obligated to listen to what you have to say.

A major goal of the project of patriarchy is to erode the physical, emotional, and social boundaries of women. So when a woman tells you she doesn’t want to talk to you, go away. I have an annoying habit of trying to end a conversation that’s going nowhere and then seeing a subsequent response and jumping back into the conversation. The point is when you’ve been told clearly that it’s over, leave it.

Another thing you should avoid saying is, “I’m on your side”. If you have to say this to a woman, chances are she doesn’t agree with you and I’m willing to bet she understands her side better than you do. This is another scenario where you might think you’re helping but you’re actually in the way. Rather than continue trying to convince her that you get it when you obviously don’t, refer back to my first piece of advice: ask questions.

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I’ve worked hard to overcome my deeply ingrained tendency to want to please others and gain the approval of men. It’s a challenge to want to be kind and compassionate while at the same time maintaining my politics, especially when it’s clear that softening them will only leave the door open to more status quo sexism. I’ve learned that men know, at least implicitly, that females are socialized to be passive and accommodating, they know we fear the loaded slur ‘bitch’, and they take advantage of this. Because I put myself out there and can be quite mouthy, I come across men who think I should be nicer to them. I just don’t have the time or the energy to be bothered with their feelings. If a man comes out of nowhere acting like a bull in a china shop, why should I care if I’m perceived as an asshole? Emotional manipulation is one of the most common ways that men try to silence women so as time goes on I’m less and less concerned about what random dudes on the internet think of me. I do genuinely want to engage with people where there appears to be room for growth but the only way I can do that and maintain my sanity is to weed out the jerks and idiots. Self care is a feminist imperative.

Frankly, women are too damn busy getting by to make it our business to educate men about how to treat us. Those of us who are interested in getting our hands dirty and digging down to the root of patriarchy know that men behave the way they do toward us because fundamentally, consciously or subconsciously, they don’t see us as fully human. Misogyny isn’t just a synonym for sexism; it literally means hatred of women. Men and women are not valued equally in this society because men have internalized a constant barrage of messages that tell them females are inferior, less capable, less important, less intelligent, less knowledgeable, and not to be taken seriously. You may think you’ve sufficiently hedged this process but I guarantee you haven’t escaped it. Mature women who see this system for what it is are still unpacking their own internalized misogyny well after their children have grown up. What makes you think you’re not sexist?

It’s naive to expect that we can fix the problem by speaking kindly to men who know they can get on just fine being dominant and oppressive. It’s unrealistic to think we’re going to rewire the brains of grown men who are on some level unwilling to see just how bad things are. Managing men’s behvaiour is a cosmetic approach that takes up too much female energy as it is. It’s far more liberating to let men know point blank that whatever they think and whatever they believe, we women don’t care. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad. Men need to get used to hearing women say stop, no, goodbye, and shut the fuck up.

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If you can deal with this, maybe we can be friends.

How men are using gender identity to deny male privilege

Anyone who has delved into the topic of gender identity has likely heard about the diverging understandings of gender according to queer theory (gender is an arbitrary, personal, unqualifiable feeling) and radical feminism (gender is a social construct with well-defined parameters). This disagreement comes down to how womanhood and manhood are defined (although for reasons obvious to feminists, the nature of womanhood is much more frequently debated) and what we’re ultimately supposed to do about sex/gender stereotypes.

For centuries, women have struggled to break away from the expectations regarding how we’re supposed to look, act, think, and feel. While debates rage on about what it means to be a woman or a man – or a proper lady or a real man – there are people who want to identify as something other than what they were born as or how they’re expected to be. While it’s often said that the reason for this varies from person to person as it’s a purely personal choice, this individualistic approach fails to take into account the inequality between the sexes. This is critical to understanding what’s happening and why because a system whose goal is the dominance of males over females will necessarily seek to define womanhood and manhood, femininity and masculinity, in such a way as to perpetuate that supremacy. It attempts to do this at every opportunity and within every social movement, arguably most aggressively when done under the guise of progressive politics. Once a theory regarding gender is adopted by those who identify as social justice advocates it becomes nearly impossible to question a doctrine already presumed to be revolutionary.

Are we willing to consider that some of the ideas promulgated by such groups could in fact reinforce structures of power rather than challenge them? Is it possible that gender identity is one such example?

The first clue is the prevailing assumption that gender identity exists in a sociopolitical vacuum. We see that where there are males and females, males are able, by virtue of their simply being male, to exert greater physical, sexual, economic, and political power. We see that they enjoy this privilege even when they’re not trying to wield it and are unaware that they have this advantage. The fact that some males feel uncomfortable about this privilege doesn’t undo that privilege. The fact that some males don’t feel comfortable with masculinity and are punished when they don’t conform to it doesn’t change the fact that relative to women, they are still constructed as the dominant class. It is not possible in a patriarchal system for men to be both the oppressors and oppressed relative to women.

Here we have a person who in no way whatsoever presents as female or feminine demanding we agree that he is not something he clearly is. Furthermore, he claims that to question this is violence, making it impossible to be on the right side of history in his estimation without denying reality. He insists we ignore the fact that we can accurately predict what any random person would perceive him to be and that this perception, and not his feelings, is what determines how he is treated: as a man, in contrast to how he would be treated if he were a woman.

But of course, he’s not saying he’s a man and he’s not saying he’s a woman. He’s just refusing to say which he is because he’s special, unlike all the “cisgender” people who we’re to believe are walking stereotypes perfectly accepting of the expectations that gender foists upon them. What’s more, “ciswomen” are told that we actually identify with femininity – you know, that collection of traits that have latched themselves onto females and just happen to be deemed inferior to masculine traits? Those supposedly inherent female characteristics meant to engineer our servitude and submission? Gender identity claims that gender is a binary (or a spectrum – gender defenders can’t seem to get this straight), slamming the door on the critical feminist discovery that gender is in fact a hierarchy.

It’s all well and good to recognize that sexist attitudes and bias exist, but how do we explain how they arise and how they continue to be so insidious? The answer is gender: gender is the mechanism by which patriarchy is reproduced. But Kappel doesn’t want to hear about that because he’s too busy figuratively manspreading his way into women’s spaces under the guise of being an oppressed non-male. If you thought this regressive ‘non-male’ bullshit is too ridiculous to gain any traction in feminism these days, think again. People like Aaron Kappel and Sam Escobar avoid the actual violence they would encounter from people men who attack gender non-conforming (GNC) people while demanding access to all of the grievances of visibly GNC people.

This is the trick of the non-binary/agender label when harnessed by men: it’s a way of denying one’s own privilege by neutralizing sex and gender. Reality is overridden by an identity which is activated by mere thought and utterance. That identity is then sanctified and protected. Those who do not comply are policed and shamed. Quite simply, men like Kappel know they’ll be exposed if they dispute the existence of male privilege so they’ve finally found a way around it: male privilege exists but it doesn’t apply to them because they’re different. Presto! A get out of male free card. It may be hard to believe people are falling for it but they are, including women who consider themselves to be feminists.

A common practice in gender identity politics is to single out and vilify women while being careful not to criticize them as women per se because that would make the misogyny all too blatant. Instead, women are criticized as feminists – or a certain type of feminist – because the goal is to validate the idea that there are good feminists and bad feminists and the feminists who accommodate non-binary dudes are the only acceptable ones. All of this works out just fine in a patriarchal context because uncompromising feminists are already presumed to be angry [insert sexist slur here]. So if you were expecting pseudo-feminist organizations to give a platform to men who write whiny, self-validating pieces about how they’re being victimized by terrible women, you’d be justified.

Because that’s exactly what Aaron Kappel did. It’s a common feature of mainstream feminist media like The Establishment, which describes itself as a multimedia site run and funded by women. The site published Trans-Exclusionary Feminists Cannot Exclude My Humanity, in which Kappel says he’s a non-binary (trans) person because he doesn’t embrace stereotypically masculine things. He claims to have felt like the girls he socialized with, although how he could know how these girls actually felt, he doesn’t explain. His language is hyperbolic from the outset: anyone who believes he’s a man is somehow saying he’s not human, that he doesn’t exist, he doesn’t have rights like everybody else, etc. He seamlessly transitions from telling us how sensitive and tortured he is to talking down to women (I’m sorry – certain feminists) he claims are violently excluding him because their struggle for liberation from men like him won’t bend over backwards for his feelings. Feelings he believes can’t possibly be the natural feelings of men. Feelings that make him a not-man. What makes you a man, apparently, is thinking and feeling a particular way – but don’t ask what this means. We’re told it’s up to each person to decide, even though we all know exactly how masculinity and femininity are characterized. When it all gets too complicated, we can just pretend we’re something other than the thing we want to avoid being associated with.

The crucial thing to note here is that while gender identity adherents talk a lot about feelings, in the grand scheme of things it’s not really about feelings. It’s about power, which Kappel reveals here:

Feminism was a direct response to oppression, and oppression lives within us all.

What does it mean to say that oppression lives within all of us? That we all experience oppression? Oppression is characterized by inequality; if everyone experiences it then there is no inequality and there is no oppression. The term is rendered meaningless when feelings are equated with oppression and are given precedence over political movements that seek liberation from social hierarchy.

There’s a lot of talk about intersectional feminism going on right now as a feminism that must validate queer theory and gender identity. Intersectionality provides the critical insight that there are simultaneous axes of power which compound marginalization and shape how specific groups experience oppression (e.g. white women experience sexism but not misogynoir). The problem is that along with that insight, other ideas, which are anything but feminist, slipped in through the back door. A new generation of feminists has been weaned on a stealthy vocabulary of terms and phrases that functions as a kind of script, but unless they have a road map that shows them how these ideas are connected and where they come from, how do they know if they’re going in the right direction?

Take the concept of heteronormativity, for instance. It’s often discussed as a standalone problem, but it’s actually a fundamental element of patriarchy because it dictates how males and females are supposed to behave relative to their biological sex. More specifically, this entails marriage with men being the head of the household and women being assigned the role of wife and mother. Effeminate gay men and other GNC males are victims of discrimination (typically in the form of violence by males – a derivative of masculinity) insofar as they violate the rules of masculinity. Why is this seen as a bad thing? Because a male who doesn’t exude aggression, strength, and power is viewed as a wuss. A sissy. A pussy. A bitch. This behaviour implies femininity and anything associated with females is inferior.

Of all the things GNC men experience, including those who convincingly pass as women, their male socialization inculcates them with negative views toward women and instills in them a sense of entitlement. Gay men still make more money than women and they enjoy the gamut of male privileges. They’re not threatened with corrective rape the way lesbians are. They don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancy or a lack of reproductive care or justice. They don’t experience femicide, female genital mutilation or breast ironing. They don’t grow up being made to feel ashamed of their breasts, vaginas, and the painful, exhausting, and messy process of menstruation. Their bodies aren’t mined as sexual commodities to any comparable extent (transwomen are certainly an exception) and they’re not exploited as surrogate mothers. The bodies of women are the source of reproduction of the species and hence the source of all labour. In short, the oppression of females is both social and biological in nature. Who else but a misogynist would deliberately erase this fact? There’s also no distinct axis of oppression in the form of hetero or cis supremacy; what is termed ‘cishetsexism’ is an explication of patriarchy. Nowhere within the framework of sexism do women, feminist or not, oppress men, GNC or not.

Zoom out and the picture is clear: taking into account white supremacy and economic class, at the top of the hierarchy we find rich white men and at the bottom we find poor women of colour (and in a colonial context I think indigenous women deserve a special mention here too). This is a simplified representation, of course, with many ethnicities, nationalities, and other social groups organized within this system. There’s a lot of overlap. But intersectionality is not supposed to be a weapon for men to use against women. It does not mean feminists have to save everyone who thinks they’re oppressed. Feminism was not a direct response to oppression, full stop, as Kappel claims. It was and is a direct response to male supremacy. While radical feminism ultimately aims to dismantle all forms of hierarchy and domination and anti-racism must be an integral part of its politics, feminist politics that do not centre females are not feminist by definition. Now why would men like Kappel fail to mention this? Male privilege, perhaps? Misogyny? Here we have yet another man bulldozing through the incriminating truth to remind feminists that we’re supposed to be here for him. He gets to set the agenda – via a platform created and funded by women, no less. Women, know your place.

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No matter how females identify, our being visibly female marks us as targets. No amount of eschewing certain pronouns, titles, or identities insulates us from this. And just as you can’t identify your way out of being oppressed, you can’t identify your way out of being a member of an oppressor class. Agender and non-binary men would do well to remember this.

Whatever your views on gender identity, it can’t hurt to look a little more closely at a concept that remains a mystery to most people but is shaping legislation around the world. In the following talk, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Warwick, deconstructs gender identity and clarifies the aspects and implications of this doctrine:

An open letter to Fightback: how the left fails women

Yesterday I received my last copy of Fightback (Issue 91). Some of the leftist analysis in this journal is decent and I feel that the meager $20 I paid for a yearly subscription was well spent. I will not, however, be renewing my subscription, the reasons for which I’m providing in an open letter because they speak to the challenges that women often face when we try to organize for our rights within leftist circles.

In the first article in this issue, The niqab debate: A weapon of mass distraction, Joel Bergman correctly and articulately describes Stephen Harper’s hypocrisy in trying to present himself as a defender of women’s rights through his grandstanding around the niqab. Harper says that the practice of covering a woman so that only her eyes are visible is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women”. If we’re being honest, it’s impossible to imagine how a culture that renders women essentially invisible while allowing men to dress as they wish can not be considered to be anti-women. An egalitarian culture would see this as unthinkable. We’ve heard the argument that veiled women, especially those who have immigrated to Canada, wear the niqab by choice. How many of these women’s families would be supportive if they decided they wanted to wear jeans a t-shirt with nothing on their heads? The niqab is not a female creation and it is worn within a social context that does not afford women autonomy or equal status.

Nevertheless, the government has deliberately created confusion about the personal identification process involved in citizenship. We know that the hegemonic “culture” that Harper refers to is a contrived notion that seeks to paint every brown-skinned Muslim with the same extremist brush. He wants us to think they’re all current or future terrorists and a horrifying percentage of Canadians agree with him. Part of what’s so sickening about the niqab debate is that conservatives have nothing to teach anyone about women’s rights.

But neither do leftists, it seems. Only in a patriarchal society could individuals outraged by the niqab attack the women wearing it and not the men who enforce this code of conduct. When we see New Democrat support in Quebec swinging toward the nationalist Bloc Quebecois as a result of this debate, we have to wonder about the class consciousness of people who only consider voting for the two parties in Quebec that can be described by some measure as progressive. White working class and middle class men have traditionally organized around economic class, but there are other forms of class oppression which Marxism still fails to address.

Simply put, why is a man writing an article about women’s rights? Couldn’t Fightback find a woman to write on this topic? Come to think of it, why are all four of the articles in this issue – and almost every article in every issue I’ve ever read – written by men? Let me explain why you picked the wrong person to cover the niqab debate and women’s rights. Bergman writes:

“In supposedly fighting for the emancipation of women, the Harper Conservatives, in alliance with Quebecois nationalists and liberal feminists alike end up using the state to once again take away women’s right to choose.”

I’m sorry? Choice is a keystone of liberal feminism that can apply to literally anything a woman might decide to do because making that decision in itself is considered to be empowering, including wearing a mini skirt or a hijab, being a submissive in a BDSM relationship, or stripping. To deny a woman her agency, as this theory goes, would be anti-feminist. Basically, the guy writing about women’s rights is trying to critique a branch of feminism, which he gets backwards but is actually a proponent of, without even knowing it.

But here’s what sent Fightback sailing into my blue box:

“The niqab cannot be legislated away. What is needed is to create the conditions in which women themselves choose to reject it. The only real way to do this is not through state imposition and policing, but through building a mass united movement of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression and against the capitalist system itself which forms the cement foundation, perpetuating all of the rotten garbage that we see in our society today.”

None of the women who could honestly call themselves feminists are suggesting that state institutions be used to prevent women from wearing the niqab. More importantly, only a member of the dominant class can afford to believe that a mass movement of oppressed peoples will do anything other than prioritize the goals of the privileged class. How do men, who are members of the biggest oppressor class on the planet, imagine they’ll help to bring about women’s liberation when so many of them imagine themselves to be educated on women’s rights but have never bothered to learn feminist theory? I don’t want to organize alongside Marxist men who repeat all the mainstream feminist talking points only to go home and watch violent, misogynistic porn. I don’t want to surround myself with “comrades” who think that socialism is the answer to patriarchy because I’ve seen far too many lefty men use the same tactics as their conservative brethren to silence and bully women.

The next time Fightback runs an article on women’s issues, I hope you’ll demonstrate your commitment to women by elevating our voices and actively challenging the pervasive culture of male entitlement. You might also consider providing more feminist content. The class analysis of radical feminism is something that anti-capitalist movements could greatly benefit from. You see, capitalism grew out of a patriarchal, white supremacist ideology – not the other way around. After all, there would be no market in capitalism for women’s bodies in the first place if men didn’t think they existed for their own use and abuse. There are plenty of women who would have done a better job of analyzing this topic, among others, including those outside the realm of women’s issues. No one will believe that you believe that if you don’t hand over the microphone.

‘Real’ nations and ‘real’ men

In my last post I wrote about deconstructing the language of ‘great nations’, ‘Canadian values’, and even ‘American values’. By questioning what is meant by these phrases, I hoped to explore how they erase historical and ongoing inequalities. There are many other ways in which mainstream discourse impedes progress by framing these discussions in specific, calculated ways.

Recently, David Cameron said that Jamaica should “move on” from the legacy of slavery. While this oft-repeated attitude is sometimes softened with a polite admission that the trauma is ongoing, the carefully selected people who are given a platform always avoid addressing the structural oppression responsible for these circumstances. Activists and observers have consistently pointed this out, as in these tweets by Eric Ritskes:

Telling marginalized people to get over their material reality is like holding someone underwater and telling them to breathe. If they drown, well, it’s their own fault. We’re expected to manufacture some semblance of justice within the boundaries of this logical framework. We know this is true because every tiny step forward, even when it’s accompanied by a step or two backwards, is supposed to be celebrated as a win, like the house of cards has collapsed and we can finally exhale. If you deny this you’re ungrateful and committed to anger and victimhood. We live in a post-racial, post-patriarchal society, remember?

There are more articles than anyone can read about how terrible it is that certain groups of people are just so unfortunate. We are filling pages and vats of tears over how bad we feel for these poor souls but very few people name the problems or identify the root causes. Writing for Maclean’s Magazine about the living conditions of First Nations in Canada, Scott Gilmore claims, “A real nation would not let this happen… We care more about postal service, child care and tax credits for the suburban middle class than we do Aboriginal issues. What kind of a nation are we?”. Gilmore gathers that since we allow this poverty and disenfranchisement to persist, the upshot must be that we’re not actually a nation.

But we are not a people, not a nation, not really. If we were, we would not be able to ignore each other, ignore other Canadians, the way we ignore the Aboriginal community.

No, we are not a people. We are different groups of different peoples. Different ethnicities, different sexes, different religions, different socioeconomic statuses, settlers, Métis, indigenous peoples, etc. We do not all share the same identities, interests or needs, owing to our experiences and the limitations we face. Moreover, our society is comprised of classes of people who do not enjoy equal power. It’s the absence of class analysis that makes articles like this one effectively useless when it comes to eradicating problems such as poverty and violence.

No, we are not a people but we are a nation. A very real one – just not the kind that we can or should be proud of. Canada is in fact a colonial state, a constitutional monarchy led by elected officials whose victories are produced by a disastrous electoral system. Our legal institutions still view First Nations as wards of the state via the Indian Act, with many other laws since passed that violate their inherent rights, including those protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (at least on paper).

With a few exceptions where indigenous leaders and groups have made some headway particularly in Latin America, even countries that have achieved independence are marked by deep racial, gender, and economic divides. Is Australia a real nation? Of course it is. The fact that Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals and other marginalized groups is abhorrent doesn’t detract from its status as a nation; the truth is, the state itself as well as many of its citizens have a vested interest in denying these rights.

A real nation as Gilmore understands it is a nation that treats people better somehow (he’s not quite sure how) but remains a political construct composed of institutions that are designed and controlled by people who possess the power to do these things. But that’s not all. A larger category of people – including the ones in charge – are the benefactors of these institutions. As for the poor people who get trampled underfoot, that’s not collateral damage. They’re the intended targets. Stepping on their backs is how we get ahead. The land we occupy, the resources we extract, the paths we clear to make way for pipelines, and the waste and pollution we produce – someone has to pay for that development. This often happens in the form of environmental racism.

In Canada, the treaties were supposed to guarantee a nation-to-nation relationship. First Nations and the Canadian government were to trade and share resources and co-manage. There was never any agreement that settlers would make decisions for First Nations. But they do. And that’s what Canada, a real nation, looks like. So what would we call a nation that respects the treaties? A decolonized one. A lot of settler Canadians have never even heard of this idea.

Privilege is having the luxury of theorizing about other people’s problems, failing to offer meaningful analysis or solutions, and failing to identify who is responsible but getting published by a major news outlet anyway. This is the limp shrug with which Gilmore ends his essay:

I don’t know who to be more ashamed of, our politicians or us.

Privilege is thinking that you might be able to blame other people for a system that you yourself benefit from and participate in because you can afford not to acknowledge white supremacy. Apparently, all we have to do is be nice folks who express sadness for other people and hope that someone gets their act together. There’s no need to challenge the ideologies that underpin power imbalances, and after all, why would someone like Gilmore want to do that? According to his LinkedIn page, he’s a co-founder of and owns equity in an advisory firm that works with the extractive sector, the most destructive driver of imperialism, capitalism, and ecocide on the planet. Why does he think people need to hear what he has to say about injustice? Oh, right. Privilege.

Now that we’ve established that the concept of real nations is nonsense, I’d like to turn our attention to the concept of ‘real’ men. It goes something like this: real men respect women, real men smoke cigars in their man caves, real men curse and grow facial hair, real men do this, real men do that. There’s loads of this crap everywhere. AskMen.com, for example, lists Traits of a Real Man, which they claim is “the only handbook you’ll ever need to becoming a real man”. You’ve already heard the drill: it starts with “strength, reliability, and action” and goes from there. Because women are weak, unreliable, and passive, I guess. Well, women and men who aren’t real men. If you’re a man who hasn’t mastered these traits, don’t worry. Old Spice offers a short cut to this coveted status. You just have to get past their ridiculous marketing and buy their stupid products. You didn’t think it would be free, did you?

Imagine extra terrestrials observing a conversation about masculinity here on Earth and trying to make sense of it.

“So if real men do all the things that make them real men, what does that make other men?”

“I don’t know. I mean, they’re men too, aren’t they?”

“Well, what else would they be?”

“Men who are losers?”

“But then they’re still men.”

“Wow, these humans are dumb.”

Yeah. All men are men. I know, it’s a tad confusing. That’s because masculinity is bullshit. But I’m not just being flippant here. As feminist Sue Veneer demonstrates, the repercussions of this framing are serious.

Well worth a read, she expands on this here by explaining that this phrasing “implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen…”. She adds:

By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.

Michael Salter also does a good job of demystifying this subject in “Real men don’t hit women”: Constructing masculinity in the prevention of violence against women. Ultimately, there is no version of masculinity that’s healthy. Men don’t have to act in any particular way to prove that they’re men. We can see that they’re men. It’s not a big deal. There’s no need to make a drama out of what that means. Acting in a considerate, respectful manner and challenging hierarchies of power is pretty much all that’s needed to be a decent human being. Everything else is pure invention.

Whether we’re talking about real nations or real men, we need to recognize that behind this language lies a tightly woven web of beliefs that are harmful to everyone, especially disempowered groups of people. Many of us probably wouldn’t ascribe to these beliefs if we took a closer look. Let’s get real: pretending that behaviour is exceptional when in fact it’s systemic is a time-honoured method of maintaining structural oppression.

Women need fierce leaders

Some people are calling for the resignation of a Progressive Conservative bigwig who mocked the weight of Alberta’s Health Minister. I won’t repeat his words here, but suffice it to say that he claimed that a woman who is overweight is not qualified to set health policy.

Criticizing someone’s appearance rather than their conduct is superficial and childish. It’s a classic straw [wo]man tactic. Women are scrutinized at a rate much higher than what men experience, especially when they occupy prominent positions, so it can’t be explained away simply as fatphobia or body shaming. In their article on the Health Minister the National Post consulted Clare Beckton, executive director of Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, who said that the comments would never have been made about a male politician. She said:

“It’s misogynist. It’s inappropriate… Since when has appearance had anything to do with legitimacy in terms of your intelligence and ability to be a legislator?”

Beckton said the body-shaming episode is evidence that stereotyping and bias against women politicians are still real issues.

She’s exactly right. But then… this:

“There are a certain number of people who still want to pull women down,” she said. “It’s a small minority of men who would make these kinds of comments. They’re not the majority.”

What purpose does this statement serve?

Here we see another example of hedging what would otherwise be insightful analysis with yet more #NotAllMen apologism. This is the sort of thing you might expect to hear from a random man pulled off the street. But we’re talking about a spokeswoman for a women’s organization. One that advocates for female leadership, no less. One might assume that by extension this makes the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership a feminist organization. Is it? Perhaps a bit of skepticism is in order.

A Google domain search shows that the word ‘feminism’ hasn’t appeared on the Centre’s website since 2012 (one of two times, the first being in 2011).

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There are several mentions of the word ‘sexism’.

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Not too many. And we know that sexism is a friendly way to say ‘patriarchy’, and that word doesn’t show up once on the site.

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On its website, the Centre states that it “works with a wide range of partners to enhance women’s influence and leadership in public life, in Canada and internationally”. When you click on the link to their sponsors, only one is listed: Goldcorp. A corporation that according to the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected Peoples operates on 85% of indigenous territory and whose activities have contaminated their environment. Volumes of human rights and environmental abuses have been documented, particularly in jurisdictions where Goldcorp enjoys weak regulation and enforcement.

Is it a coincidence that the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership is publishing reports such as The Pathway Forward: Creating Gender Inclusive Leadership in Mining and Resources? Here’s an excerpt:

The mining industry has the opportunity now to take leadership to capitalize on women’s untapped potential by increasing women’s participation on mining boards, in senior leadership positions and entry level positions.

In other words, let’s bring women – whom we didn’t care about until relatively recently – on board so we can exploit their labour too, all while scoring brownie points. What I want to know is why women are being asked to participate in ecocide. Why are we being encouraged to imagine the world, as women and workers, from a capitalist lens? Is that the compromise we’re supposed to make in order to be recognized as human beings and included in the economy – not even afforded the room to consider whether or not this is how we want to live? Radical feminists want to build a society that reflects women’s needs and worldviews, including those that challenge the current economic and social systems. We want liberation, not inclusion.

It becomes increasingly clear why the National Post, a conservative publication, would choose to print comments filtered through organizations like the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership. They knew they weren’t going to get a fundamentally critical analysis.

Feminism isn’t just about gender equality in the sense of having equal representation in government roles, executive positions, etc. This is just one of many necessary ingredients. Time and time again, we see that women have been socialized to internalize patriarchal attitudes and ideologies. There are powerful women who hope to gain the support of other women because of their shared sex, but such blind allegiance can be dangerous. Hillary Clinton may say a lot of great things about women’s rights but she also happens to be a shill for the military industrial complex. There can be no liberation for anyone, women especially, under imperialism and colonialism. It’s deeply racist to advocate for reproductive rights at home while sanctioning the massacre and torture of women abroad.

Women often compromise for the sake of likability and even safety, particularly when they represent an organization that wants to appeal to a wider audience. Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Clare Beckton seems to grasp the issues. She’s an intelligent woman doing important advocacy work. I just have a very difficult time accepting a woman of her knowledge and influence peddling what she must know is a falsehood; that a small minority of men are misogynists. How is that possible when misogyny is so rampant? Behaviour characterized by sexism and stereotyping is by definition systemic and thus cannot be the fault of a handful of people. It’s so much deeper than that.

My hope is that the women who speak for all of us will follow their feminist analysis to its logical conclusion, speak their truth as women, and resist the temptation to dress up controversial opinions in pretty packaging because when people look inside, they’re not going to like what they see anyway. Forget likability. Forget compromise. Women need fierce leaders.

“For the commanding man”: lathering up the male ego

A few days ago I was in the supermarket when I happened upon Old Spice body wash. I’ve seen the commercials so even though I’ve never bought this product I was somewhat prepared for the ridiculousness that is Old Spice marketing.

What kind of guy looks at this packaging and thinks, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds like me! Maybe now that uptight bitch at the office will notice me’?

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Of course, it’s all intended to be ironic in the ‘Yes, I know it’s stupid and that’s the point’ hipster vein. But acknowledging that something you’re deliberately doing is stupid doesn’t make it any less stupid (quite the opposite, actually).

If I recall correctly, at some point while I was in university men started to care about what kind of body wash they use. Deodorant was no longer just a way of making sure you didn’t reek. It was a surefire way to turn any woman close enough to smell you into your own personal sex slave. If I had to take a guess I’d say the marketing team at Old Spice wasn’t satisfied that metrosexuals were doing a good enough job of defending masculinity.

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The Old Spice family is a diverse one. Whatever your self-image and olfactory orientation, they’ve got you covered.

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Are you a big, burly bear? A swift-minded hawk? Or perhaps you’re a howl-at-the-moon type? No? That’s okay. Old Spice has loads of other manhood-validating options.

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DANGER!

I would love to set up a hidden camera in this aisle. Some of this stuff doesn’t even make sense. I can understand a forest being fresh, but what exactly does it mean to be fresher than nobility?

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“Life success”? UGH.

Now for a painful confession: there is one that I actually liked but I won’t say which one. I don’t want to give these weirdos any credit. Though I will say it’s not Denali – which is either really popular or sucks so much it doesn’t get restocked.

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Who knows? Apparently it smells like wilderness, open air, and freedom.

Anyway, whichever variation the Old Spice man chooses, at least he can be sure he won’t feel insecure in the shower. Because the male ego should never endure one second of not being stroked. Even while one is scrubbing one’s nether regions… or maybe that’s when it’s needed most?

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