Lately, I’ve felt the need to revive an old argument, and trot out an updated version to see if it sticks this time. In the past, it never met with much success because I wasn’t quite sure how to overcome people’s tendencies to use personal experiences to attempt to negate a broader, more general truth.
That type of argument – the personal exception seen as proof against the truth of a broader, common generality – would, inevitably, be the derailing point when I would ague that, although men can and should support Feminism, they shouldn’t call themselves Feminists. The word, for men, is too culturally loaded and that, among men, especially the ones we need to most desperately reach, it puts up a barrier to the kind of discussions that could be beneficial to short-circuiting the Patriarchy and, actually, helping advance the idea of gender equality.
Usually, the discussion was diverted into the personal exception cul-de-sac by someone who would argue that her father or brother called himself a Feminist, or was “more of a Feminist than some women she knows,” or by a man, proud to call himself a Feminist. Both would argue that these feminist men were unafraid to admit they had a “feminine” side (I did say this was years ago), or were soft and gentle, and quickly followed that with wondering why I was so afraid admit those same things about myself and call myself a Feminist. Now, while it’s great that there are men comfortable with being called Feminists, and who can so freely admit to having nurtured the gentler human traits the Patriarchy would separate them from, that still leaves a few million men in the world who have been socialized and trained that to successfully navigate their masculinity they must begin by ruthlessly and sometimes violently negating the half of themselves that the Patriarchy has defined as “feminine,” “soft,” and “weak.”
I had such little success with my argument that I eventually gave up and, for a while at least, began to call myself a Feminist rather than try to debate the thin linguistic line I was try to draw so that I wouldn’t be seen as some kind of concern troll, or patriarchal apologist. Then, especially in the last couple of years, I began to notice a backlash against men who called themselves Feminists. There was the Salon article (all inks below) on the “Macktivist” – a man who calls himself a Feminist, and pretends to be an ally, but ends up being an abusive and manipulative sexist. There was the article from NY Mag’s “The Cut” that encouraged men to consider not calling themselves Feminists. There was the Guardian piece by a Feminist explaining why she will never date a Male Feminist. After those, and a number of other articles over the last few years asking if it was even possible for a man to be a Feminist, I began to rethink my argument that it’s not a good idea for men, even ardent, “good guy” supporters of Feminism, to call themselves Feminists now that it’s become an apparent tactic for narcissistic, psychopathic men to further abuse and manipulate women.
So, let me say for the benefit of any Feminists reading, I am an ardent supporter of Feminism. The goal of eradicating restrictive gender norms, and allowing all people to embrace the full spectrum of human capabilities as they wish, is one that I share. I am not suggesting that men stop supporting Feminist organizations or Feminist aligned organizations, or any other pro-woman’s rights and health endeavors. However, as a lot of the “How-to” pieces linked below suggest, men should not attempt to assume leadership roles in Feminist organizations where they might run the risk of telling women that they’re doing Feminism wrong (hell, we all know some men will do this anyway and never call themselves Feminists at all – it’s the perfect example of male self-entitlement to tell a woman she’s doing Feminism wrong while not knowing a damn thing about it). One of the reasons for Feminism is to break down the gender binary and make it acceptable, even passé, for women to be in public, economic, and political leadership roles that were once held only by men. That means the first thing men need to learn and accept is how to step aside, step back, and let go of the expectations of traditional manhood.
But, here’s the thing – if Feminism is about breaking down the Patriarchy and freeing us all from the diminished gender roles it enforces, then men especially need to find a way to fight the irrational anti-feminist suspicion a lot of men have that Feminism wants to turn them into women, or homosexuals. Yes, Feminism is good for women and also men, but putting down the Patriarchy can’t be done with the men who support it being seen by the frightened male opposition as weak, subversive followers (or to be blunt and politically incorrect, pansies, fags, wimps, pussies, bitches, etc.). To truly support Feminism, men have to help put down the Patriarchy from the “masculine” side too. Feminist men have to engage with those fearful, resistant men in a positive, productive manner. After all, women have helped prop up Patriarchy from the feminine side for generations by berating and brow beating other women into submission (think Phyllis Schlafly or even Ann Coulter); however, because those women were supporting the status quo they didn’t need a named banner to march under. Now, as I’ll address later, language is important, and in order to fight the ingrained linguistic divisions that are necessary for maintaining Patriarchal structures, I think we do need a banner for pro-feminist, anti-patriarchal men that gets those men past the reactionary patriarchal fear that a lot of men have about being seen as weak and effeminate.
Getting men to actually give up their power, prestige, and privilege is doomed to a slow, perpetually back-sliding affair if our best appeal is for them to “get in touch with their feminine or gentler side” or to profess that the patriarchy hurts them too, when, in fact, the Patriarchy also strongly rewards them for conforming. And the appeals to these men to consider how their sexist actions harm their mothers or sisters or daughters mostly ends up only fostering the prevalence of benevolent sexism (which is essentially a stance that women deserve all the same rights as men, but they need a man to protect them and their rights).
Those of us men who support Feminism know that to really get out from under the Patriarchy we have to confront sexist, patriarchal tendencies among our fellow men, and for a lot of us, those men we have to confront are the socially, politically, and even physically more dominant and violent among us. In a case of using the personal to support the general, I’ve been told that I don’t have to start with the violent meat heads yelling at women on the street, but that I should start with my male friends. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of male friends, and the ones I do have are already on board. When I encounter sexist men, they’re mostly strangers, and I have no idea what that man is capable of nor how violently he’ll react to me – and I’m not alone in that. The straight male world is built on dominance and intimidation. It’s also rife with a reactionary fear of being seen as un-manly, girly, gay, weak. Things that threaten a man’s illusion of power, of the fragile construct of straight manhood, are often met with anger and defensiveness, if not outright violence, in order to reestablish that sense of power and control. The Patriarchy shores up that fragility for a lot of men by rewarding their aggression, and so the damaging price they pay for their powerful, prestigious (but fragile) position in society is worth it even as it cripples them emotionally, kills them physically, and isolates them in their old age. A prime example of that is every young man who risks a lifetime of permanent bodily injury for a ten year career in the National Football league: the potential for the adulation, the money, and access to celebrity women, for some, far outweighs the risks presented by repeated concussions.
Men are in an interesting catch-22 when it comes to subverting the Patriarchy. The patriarchal system tells us we must be leaders, fighters, and dominators. We are supposed to take charge, get things done, solve problems, and not feel any of those soft, “feminine” emotions. And there are great rewards for doing that. But we also fear the humiliation and taunts that come from failing at those things, we fear being seen as weak among other men. For those men who are already seen as weak, or effeminate, there is the additional fear of physical violence at the hands of other, more aggressive men who need to assert their power and keep that negative lock on things they’ve been told not the think or feel. A lot of men come to support feminism because there are aspects to the Patriarchal demands of being a “man” that are uncomfortable and stressful, even unattainable, like the need to be seen as a leader, as strong, as a fighter, or a cocksman. We come to Feminism because we know that when it becomes more acceptable for women to be in powerful positions side-by-side with men, then the more acceptable it will become for men who recoil at the traditional masculine gender role to be who we are. But, ironically, in order to change other men’s perspective on issues of gender it requires a man to embrace those very same traits they’re often uncomfortable with and that they’re trying to subvert. To get past the barriers of fear and aggression other men will engage in to push away the threat of the so-called feminine, we have to first don the heavy armor of patriarchal manhood, display our bona-fides as real men, just to get through the defensive perimeter. It’s fighting fire with fire, and it has the same kind of bad logic as claiming to bring peace by waging war. It’s no coincidence that some of the men most successful at talking to other men about the dangers and risks of traditional, patriarchal male gender roles are former pro football players, former cops and soldiers, or former gang members, i.e. men who inhabited, at some point in their lives, an idealized, glorified embodiment of manhood. Changing that dynamic, changing the requirements among men about who has the authority to comment on manhood is one of things that could happen if men who support the dismantling of the Patriarchy had a banner to rally under instead of rallying under the Feminist banner, or behind the individual ex-football player, ex-cop, ex-solider, or ex-gang member. All journeys to manhood have to become valid, not just the ones through combat, either the ceremonial variety of sport, or the actual variety in war zones and drive-by shootings.
Patriarchy is insidious, pervasive, and deeply ingrained, even in the Feminist women attempting to subvert it. Heterosexual relationships, for the most part, unknowingly reinforce it. Commerce, and its retinue of marketing, advertising, and entertainment reinforce it. Even our language trips us up and traps us in gendered cul-de-sacs. Having a banner to rally under that does not linguistically trigger male defense mechanisms against being perceived as threateningly “not-manly” would give all kinds of men the cover to do the kind of work that needs to be done among men.
I am, by no means, a linguist, but I was often baffled by those who laughed off or criticized my early arguments that men who support Feminism shouldn’t call themselves Feminists. In their efforts at greater inclusion and acceptance of women, Feminists have made great arguments that show how the language of Patriarchy itself works to suppress them, but the idea that men who support the destruction of the Patriarchy should call themselves something other than Feminists hasn’t really caught on, or been accepted. Maybe they thought I was saying men should take Feminist works and philosophy and simply slap butch new covers on those texts – like when Dr. Pepper pushed their low-calorie version as a “manly” diet drink by putting it in a gray can – rather than have men do their own work and thinking for themselves on the issues of gender conformity, and the ugliness of toxic masculinity. Certainly, men should make themselves aware of Feminist thinking, but they’re not going to be successful at breaking down the Patriarchy if they simply regurgitate it. We have to do our own work, and my question is what do we call that work when it’s not focused on what women want to achieve concerning the value of womanhood, but what men want to achieve concerning new ways to value manhood?
For Feminists, embracing certain masculine traits to fight the Patriarchy is a good thing. Within the strict divisions that are built into Patriarchy, claiming the prized human traits reserved for men is empowering. When a woman stands up to the Patriarchy and shows she can be just as assertive, strong, knowledgable, and skilled, it advances the cause – even though the Patriarchy will try to label her a bitch, or a whore, or a man-hater. It’s hard, but embracing the strength that was once denied women permanently carves out that spot for the next woman. The reverse, however, is not as true for men – or at least it doesn’t feel true when it comes to men embracing the human traits that Patriarchy has denied them and defined as weak and undesirable for men. Yes, we’re getting better at accepting certain types of non-traditional men, like stay-at-home dads, and gay men, but it’s progressing at a much slower rate. And this haphazard, micro-approach provides little to no support or armor for those straight men who appear to lead lives wrapped up in traditional gender roles, but who wear those vestments awkwardly, or even painfully, and want a way out.
Stepping out of the traditional, public roles that men have held is usually done alone. Those men who leave the traditional masculine gender structure behind then have little or infrequent contact with the men who are still enmeshed in the Patriarchy. When they do, it’s often rife with insults and misunderstanding. In fact, for stay-at-home dads, it really doesn’t matter what they call themselves because the situation itself is coded (see stories linked below). So, where does that leave the men who support the destruction of the Patriarchy, but wear business casual, or tool belts and hard hats, or badges, or an expensive suit to work but aren’t “the boss?” A person could work through Human Resources departments, anonymous call-in lines, and trust in non-retaliation clauses to fight individual acts of sexism and injustice, but that does very little to change the status quo. How do men who support an end to the Patriarchy collect and advance the hard work of shattering men’s silence into a cohesive body of work that will allow them to talk about the ways the Patriarchy cripples, demeans and dehumanizes us, so that we can make a concerted effort to stop turning into monsters and potential threats to women and children?
Those with power, status and privilege, and who are invested in keeping it, won’t give up their power without a fight. When a system is set up to automatically grant privilege and power to one group (straight white men), and set up to maintain that structure by devaluing everything that might subvert it, then those in the power position will perceive any change in their status as a loss, a defeat, and a diminishment rather than a gift. In the Patriarchal system, it’s very function is to force men to run away from weakness, to fight it, repress it, and in that dynamic, it makes sense to men that women would want to “give up” their weakened position as “not-men.” So, a lot of men resist the changes proposed by Feminism because, within the Patriarchal dynamic, anything that is not manly is weak, shameful, degraded, and even though they might see that the Patriarchy hurts them, the hurt is made endurable by a combination of the rewards Patriarchy bestows upon them, and the humiliation they feel they’ll have to endure for failing to live up to those demands.
Women and Feminism are doing a fine job of defining “womanhood” for themselves and claiming the aspects of humanity that the Patriarchy attempts to deny them. However, it’s not their job to then define manhood for men. Feminism’s very existence requires that men have discussions among themselves about what manhood should be now that womanhood has become something new. Since Patriarchy is a reactionary structure that relies upon strict gender divisions, we have to acknowledge that there is also a strict linguistic division to that structure. That means that no matter how developed and nuanced Feminist thought is in relation to gender differences, men locked up in the Patriarchal construct are going to automatically react in a negative way to the word “Feminism” even when it comes out of another man’s mouth. The Patriarchy’s very nature means it will condescend to a woman demanding equality, and the two sides of ambivalent sexism will swing into action to attempt to control her. Hostile sexism, the rape culture, will attempt to keep her in line with threats of violence, while benevolent sexism will concern troll her into silence by pointing at hostile sexism and claiming to protect her from that if she’ll just obey him. These same tactics are used to keep men in line as well. Rape and sexual violence disproportionately affect women, but men are also raped and gay and transgendered men are still attacked because of their sexual identification, which the Patriarchy sees as a threat to its order. That means that straight men seen as effeminate are also threatened by this same violence if they confront the Patriarchy.
So, again, how do the men who support the destruction of the Patriarchy get past this reactionary defense system that goes to full, aggressive red alert at even the linguistic suggestion of “not-manliness”? Saying we have to make the word “Feminism” and the movement it labels more acceptable is accurate, but linguistically a challenge.
To get at my point, I want you to think about these words and your emotional reaction to them, without trying to rationalize the definitions: stink, odor, smell, scent, fragrance, aroma.
In modern English, they are often defined very differently. Stink and odor are often given negative definitions to match the emotional connotations you probably felt when you read them. Smell is mostly neutral. Scent, fragrance and aroma are given positive definitions to match our positive emotional connotations. However, prior to the Norman invasion, all English had were the words stink (from Old English stincan) and smell (possible of Old English origin, but not recorded until Middle English since there don’t appear to be any cognates in other languages) (http://www.etymonline.com/), and both were used in relation to good and bad olfactory experiences. Odor came to English from the French, where it also did double duty for good and bad smells. Scent was also from the French and was solely a hunting term until English adopted it. Fragrance came to English almost unchanged from Latin through French and always had a positive connotation. Aroma was adopted into English from Latin and Greek in the 13th Century, and became a synonym of fragrance by the 18th Century. These words helped us describe more precisely, a much wider range of olfactory encounters.
In Old English, we had two words and both did double duty to describe the two varieties olfactory phenomenon. Whether you were smelling a roast chicken or a rotting chicken, it stank. To differentiate what kind of stench it was, we had to throw an adjective in front of it – wonderful, or terrible. However, once English adopted odor, scent, fragrance, and aroma, we could relegate those harsh, blunt Old English words (stink, stank, stench) to the negative category. Our language, and our range of understanding expanded by relieving certain words of having to do double duty and allowing them to absorb emotional connotations.
In matters as rigidly formed and strict as gender in a Patriarchal system, it seems, at least to me, to be an impediment to rely on one word to represent the kind of sea change that needs to happen in order to finally break down a system that is built on separation. Look at all the linguistic gymnastics that are happening around gendered pronouns and words because of our awareness of transgender and inter-sexed people. The standard binary of he and she doesn’t work for them, and they are making a strong case that they shouldn’t be forced to pick one. So, why should we refuse to give anti-patriarchal men their own banner? Unifying the movement for gender equality and fairness under the rubric of “Feminism” seems, and perhaps even feels logical, rational, and reasonable from one standpoint, but Feminism – despite its obvious benefits to both genders- is a word and movement that is, because of Patriarchy’s gendered and linguistic divisions, saddled with an intensely fear-filled and threatening suggestion of impotence to a lot of males. Inherently, Feminism’s goal of allowing women to define what womanhood is, and can be, automatically generates the additional question that, if women become something more, something different, then what do men become? And with men virtually trained not to think about that, much less open up and talk to other men about what it means to be a man, telling them to adopt a term weighted with emotional implications of non-masculinity, non-manliness, and a movement that doesn’t seem to require anything of them but surrender, seems to be a hurdle we shouldn’t continue to force them to leap.
The question of what men should become, or rather what they must become in order to free themselves from the damages of Patriarchy is for men to determine, isn’t it? It’s not women’s responsibility, or duty, to tell men what they should become.
It is important that men have a discussion about changing manhood, and it’s important that we avoid violence and the tendency to fall into “benevolent sexism (see this entry on Ambivalent Sexism).” It’s also important that we not look to women with the expectation that they will tell us what we should become. We should, certainly, understand Feminism, talk to Feminists, and check our progress against theirs to make sure we are complimenting that progress and not undermining it or defeating it. But deciding what men should become in response to Feminism is men’s work among men, so, should we really call it Feminism when the first impediment to it’s acceptance is an inherently emotional and reactionary recoil from the unexamined emotional implications of the word itself?
From a transactional, economic standpoint, social change that doesn’t occur through force occurs through a perceived benefit to changing over keeping what a person already possesses. Patriarchy devalues the feminine. It elevates the masculine. Those two things, feminine and masculine, are only amplifying constructs of a Patriarchal social order that both cripples and rewards us by the degree to which we conform. Feminism has, for decades, made the explicit case for women’s expansion into and value within all aspects of human endeavor – empowering women from the home to the boardroom – but Feminism hasn’t, really, made such an explicit and detailed case for men’s expansion and value within all aspects of human endeavor – and it shouldn’t. Men have to make the case that it’s just as manly to be a stay-at-home dad as it is to be a CEO or a quarterback. Some are trying, but to me, it feels piecemeal, and even a little ignored.
So, what do we call ourselves? What banner do we fly? The National Organization of Men – NOM? That would be a joke in a heartbeat. In the early Nineties, there was the “Men’s Movement” centered around Robert Bly’s book Iron John and Sam Keen’s book Fire in The Belly. Bly’s efforts to examine manhood quickly descended into joke-land complete with woodland retreats of business executives where they pounded on drums in a circle while dancing nude around a fifty foot wooden penis. And Sam Keen’s thoughtful, philosophical approach only made small waves and was quickly overshadowed by it’s religious spin-off, The Promise Keepers, which has actually ended up pushing a Christian feel-good re-embracing of traditional masculine gender roles (a lot of your active male anti-choice champions are Promise Keepers). Then there came the Men’s Rights Movement, which does have a point that the courts disproportionately grant child custody to the mother, but has predominately become a haven for aggrieved white men who want to believe that they’re the new discriminated against minority. The Men’s Rights Movement is what happens when we don’t effectively address the emotional, connotative barrier that exists within the Patriarchy in relation to perceived gender roles and differences. Remember that, when someone has been disproportionately privileged, suddenly having to share that privilege feels to them like oppression, even though it’s not. We need to find a way to make the case that sharing privilege is actually liberating. The only problem is there’s no place to collect all of those arguments and philosophies.
Should we call it, simply, the Anti-Patriarchal Movement? Should we try to reclaim the “Men’s Movement?” Men’s Detox? Masculinity Anonymous? Manism? Masculinism? None of them really work, do they?
I’d encourage everyone to watch the documentary, The Mask You Live In, and then think about what you would call this hodge-podge of men, seemingly working in isolation, who are trying to defuse toxic masculinity. Some are working in prisons. Some are working in schools. Some are working on athletic fields. What shall we call them so that they and others like them can rally together to help change the definition of manhood?
Bibliography of links.
The Quandary (a list of answers on Quora to the question “What is the male equivalent to Feminism?”)
Anti-feminist males attack (male backlash)
The public semi-intellectual is it possible?
The Rules from women
Beware the Macktivist (Feminist backlash).
quote: The word “feminist” can be used by men to falsely excuse themselves from that accountability. And that’s the reason why too many women in my life are more vigilant around men who call themselves “feminists” than men who don’t.
I think the first lesson in Better Male Feminism 101 is recognizing that feminism is a space for women. It’s true that men need feminism too, but men clearly possess more latitude in the social landscape. Male feminism is often about men advocating for a seemingly remote ideology that will eventually circle back to them, granting them even more privileges than before. Women, by contrast, often claim feminism not just as an ideology, but as a way of pushing back against episodes of sexism and abuse. But take it from this male feminist: The prize will never come. There is no reward for being male and not being a macktivist — it’s just something #yesallmen should aim for.”
The Eager Boy (where my argument started):
NY Mag: The Cut
Beware the douche canoe
Logical, yes. winning, eh.
Stay-at-home-Dad Pro? Con?
It can be bad (Time)
Patriarchal insults, Hello,
A Reading List:
Fire In the Belly: On Being a Man by Sam Keen
Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi
As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl by John Colapinto
Misogyny: The Male Malady by David D. Gilmore
The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men by Lionel Tiger
What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future edited by Rebecca Walker