Why It’s Becoming Harder To Be A Male Feminist (And Why This Is A Good Thing)

Men have always had a place within feminist movements, though exactly what role they have to play within feminism is something of an awkward subject. This awkwardness is not inherent, for (barring perhaps certain forms of radical feminism) there’s no intrinsic incompatibility in the idea of a male feminist—gender equality is something that anybody can strive towards.

That being said, feminism isn’t about men, and it shouldn’t be co-opted by men claiming to speak on behalf of women. Thus, there is a need for sensitivity when one considers how men can play an active role in feminist projects without paradoxically telling women how best to achieve their own emancipation.

Some men, in both the first and the third wave of feminism, however, have managed to navigate this tricky territory, occupying a less than trivial position in promoting and supporting feminism either ideologically, socially, or politically. [Incidentally, I can’t think of any male second-wave feminists at all! As usual, comments with suggestions are appreciated.] Thus, whilst there are principled reasons for being cautious about the role that men should play in feminism, there are still active roles that men can and have played to help achieve gender equality.

However, this is beginning to change.

Feminist and queer zines have been a grass-roots outlet for feminist self-expression for a long time, but over the last few years or so projects of this sort have burst out into the mainstream, largely thanks to the rise of social networking. Sites like The Everyday Sexism Project (and its Twitter account), Mansplained, and (one particularly close to my heart, given the subject area) What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? are examples of grass-roots projects aimed at giving women a chance to voice their experiences of sexism.

[Recommendations for similar online projects are welcomed in the comments.]

These sorts of movements and projects are fantastic for a number of reasons. For one, “if you don’t experience this kind of abuse, it’s difficult to believe it exists (particularly if you’re a man and this just isn’t part of your daily experience)“. These sites give a sense of the sheer pervasiveness of sexism that can’t be achieved by the reports of a single person, which can easily be dismissed as exceptional. Dismissing over 20,000 voices all reporting the same sorts of stories over, and over, and over, and over again is far less plausible.

For another, the anonymity of the internet provides a context within which people can share such stories without fear of judgment or repercussion. Aside from the fact that this sort of forum removes the potential for dismissive or mocking reactions, making people more likely to share their experiences, in the case of stories that relate to professional contexts this sort of anonymity is absolutely crucial, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

However, at a more fundamental level, these sorts of projects mark a shift towards a type of feminism that aims to articulate the experience of women without theoretical, ideological, or political mediation of any kind. Whilst men can detail the theoretical reasons in favour of gender equality, or work to promote political and legal equality, one thing men cannot do is explain what it’s like to experience sexism. In this sense, these movements leave no room for men to try to speak on behalf of women, and this is something that every male feminist should be happy about.

That being said, if you do consider yourself a male feminist, there are still things that you can do to show solidarity in response to these projects. For example, Hollaback! encourages people to call out acts of street harassment and stand up against sexism of the sort documented in Everyday Sexism. Similarly, on the academic front, there’s the awesome Gendered Conference Campaign, which male philosophers can help to contribute to by refusing invitations to keynote at conferences that have no women speakers.

Without a doubt, however, the best thing that male feminists can do in response to these projects is to listen. Quite simply, we don’t know what it’s like to deal with sexism on a daily basis, but these projects provide a window into that experience that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us. Sexism comes in many forms, many of which aren’t obvious if you haven’t been on the receiving end (I know I’ve been guilty of mansplaining on more than a few occasions, and if it hadn’t been pointed out to me I’d probably still be doing it now without even realising).

By paying attention to the experience of women, male feminists can combat sexism in the most efficient way possible: by calling it out wherever we see it, including in our own behaviour—whether obvious or subtle.


Variation on a Theme by Andrew Brown

Brokeback Mountain: it’s disturbing to watch these men feel each other up

Watching Ang Lee gaining Taiwan’s first Best Director Oscar in years, I found myself wondering: is men kissing each other passionately a perfectly wholesome film topic? This wasn’t a bit of pretend kissing. Jake and his Australian co-actor, Heath Ledger, were properly smooching with each other, thrusting each other with full force on the ground. They both showed pure, naked, fierce, animalistic fervour of a sort that one doesn’t naturally associate with two men – or two girls for that matter. Quite honestly my initial reaction was one of shock. I felt rather as I would if I’d bumped into two drunken guys groping the hell out of each other outside a Soho gay bar on a Friday night – a bit unsettled. The photographs of the cowboy men will be all over the papers tomorrow, because they’re dramatic and sensational.

With those cowboy lovers – and I realise this will probably sound appallingly homophobic – I couldn’t help retching at the thought of their rough beards scraping the sides of their cheeks. Would it bother me to see one of my own sons ferociously Frenching another man by a campfire for people’s entertainment? I’m really not sure. Possibly. On the other hand I might be proud of his skill as an actor. I know full well that, as a heterosexual, it’s none of my business, but it’s what I thought and felt. After a few minutes I’d got used to it. But, then, you can get used to anything, can’t you?

[Disclaimer: It should be blindingly obvious, but since we’re on the internets (where it is apparently obligatory to turn off all sarcasm and wit detection mechanisms upon arrival) it can’t hurt to emphasise: this is satire.

And for anyone that missed it, the target of the aforementioned satire is a fantastically ignorant post by Andrew Brown on his Telegraph blog called “Women’s judo: it’s disturbing to watch these girls beat each other up”. In short, the lack of femininity in Olympic Judo apparently offends Brown’s patronising sexist sensibilities. Perhaps I’m alone on this one, but:

  1. I find women’s judo entirely wholesome thanks, Andrew, just like everything else that women do that’s none of my fucking business. Then again I have a feeling that the question was just rhetorical, so perhaps I shouldn’t have answered.
  2. Similarly, I’m not sure if I was supposed to be included under the banner of this amorphous ‘one’ that has strong feelings about which qualities are ‘naturally’ associated with women and which aren’t. Just to set the record straight, though, I’d like to opt out please.
  3. Protip: It’s not the fact that you’re a man that means that it’s none of your business what women choose to do with their lives or their free time. The wonderful thing about sexism is that it comes in all shapes and sizes.
  4. I’m glad that you have “got used” to the unbefitting spectacle of women doing something other than pushing out babies. Turns out that you really can get used to anything, no matter how “unwholesome” or “unnatural” it is. Next thing you know we’ll be giving them the vote!]