There is something rotten in modern American manhood, especially straight, white American manhood.
That might be too obvious of an understatement, but let’s run with it.
A friend, who is a single mother, occasionally shares things on social media about some of the awkward and horrible moments from her online dating life, as well as other shockingly offensive moments of sexism and misogyny that she encounters simply by being a woman online. I think of it as a public service for women — a kind of field guide to douchey behavior — but it’s also a service for men (that is, of course, if men are willing to shut up and listen), about the prevalence of toxic masculinity online and in real life.
I think the kind of public sharing this friend is doing (as well as a few other women I know) is one of the more interesting and personal social experiments going on right now. In the ever-fraught tension between women and men, Feminism and Patriarchy, such public shaming of badly behaving men seems daring and, also, a bit dangerous (if you want to read a litany of horror stories about shitty men — everything from murder to pettiness — go read the Tumblr When Women Refuse), but ultimately valuable.
Before the internet, when women had horrible encounters with shitty men that fell short of sexual assault or rape, their face-to-face talks with other women were, more or less, private and rarely got far beyond their immediate circle of friends. Men were often not involved in those discussions, unless they happened to be gay, or otherwise deemed safe, and so the bad behavior by men often went unchallenged. It also probably appeared less pervasive since there was rarely the influx of “me too” posts from women not normally in the same social circles, nor the odd defensive tip-ins from male trolls. Social media is giving women a platform to air their grievances about men in a much more public and democratic way, and to inflict some justified public shame onto those men who think women only exist in the world to service men’s sexual appetites and prop up their fragile egos.
Of course, this public act of calling out men for their boorish behavior online invites backlashes
of every kind — ranging from angry and vindictive threats of physical harm (including threats of rape and murder) to plain old mean comments about a woman’s looks, and from benevolently sexist pledges to defend a woman’s honor to the whiny and defensive “not all men” vein of comments.
The internet is a fiercely toxic place for women, and that is entirely the fault of men.
I wanted to get that out there early.
The second thing I want to get out before I get to the meat of why I don’t want to be called a Feminist is this: to one degree or another, I have been guilty of several minor sins and transgressions that this friend, and other women, have experienced; sullen, not-all-men whininess and defensiveness, certain benevolent sexisms, and a sense of self-important entitlement to a woman’ attention, etc.. Basically, when I was younger, I was one of those pathetic chumps who thought, I’m a nice guy, why doesn’t she want to be with me? I like to think I’ve been listening and learning over the last forty-five years and, even though I’m by no means perfect, I am trying to excise those unexamined, ingrained Patriarchal reactions that come with being a straight white man in America. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes, even at forty-six, I fail, but I hope that by admitting to my own sins before continuing no one will think I’m engaged in an extended version of the “not all men” whine, or a boys-will-be-boys argument, nor that I’m mounting some holier-than-thou lecture, and, finally, so no one thinks I’m claiming to be that current manifestation of entitled male chicanery — the Male Feminist Champion.
In fact, I hope to find a different label for men who are anti-Patriarchal, but that’s not really why I’m writing this.
So, back to my thing here . . .
I originally sat down to collect my thoughts on and around my friend sharing some of her online dating experiences, and some other emotionally abusive personal interactions she’s had to endure. I had hoped to write about the things I’d learned by observing the interactions between men and women on her posts, and so on. I hadn’t planned on, nor am I going to tell her story, nor try to explain it in detail here, but one of the things my friend brings to light is the presence of men in the literary world who seem to champion women writers . . . as long as these men then get something in return, especially sex. Then when these men don’t get what they want for supposedly boosting a woman writer’s career, they get angry, abusive, and aggressive in an attempt to undermine the woman’s career, punish her personally, or frighten her into silence.
Often, these men have, in the past, presented themselves, or were presented by others, as champions or allies of women writers — even as Feminists (usually with little or no proof). Then something happens and their entitled, sexist world view spills out. This dynamic is present in a lot of creative areas, not just literary: it’s there in the art world, and in theatre and in cinema. It’s even present in the corporate world, I’m sure. It is the most toxic version of Benevolent Sexism, which is a form of sexism that appears to support the notion that women can do whatever they want, but that they need men’s protection and help to be able to do it. Benevolent sexism is offensive all on its own, and demeaning to women, but it turns truly toxic when the men who practice it expect some form of sexual payment in return for their supposedly “benevolent protection” or support of women, which is, of course, conditional on these men getting what they want.
Another version of this is when men develop actual, valid, public reputations as good-guy male Feminist champions and then passively — without coercion, threats, promises, or expectations of reward for their pro-woman actions, take advantage of women. This seems to be the dynamic that was revealed about Joss Whedon in the very public open letter by his ex-wife, Kai Cole. And it’s the thing that made this essay shift its tack from something short about a few snappy comebacks to sexist men, to trying to think-out-loud about the seemingly inevitable self-destruction of “male feminists.”
Kai Cole’s open letter about her ex-husband basically tore down his image as a good-guy male Feminist champion. A lot of people were, and, I assume, still are, upset about both the letter, and also Whedon’s alleged behavior (a Whedon spokesperson says the letter contains “inaccuracies”). Either way, the seemingly unassailable icon of good-guy male Feminism turned out to be just another womanizer unable to keep his dick in his pants, and unable to refrain from cheating on and deceiving, his wife.
Now, I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds around the beliefs I’ve come to hold regarding sex and marriage vis-a-vis monogamy, and how monogamy is hard and not ideal for everyone. That’s another post altogether (listen to Dan Savage’s “Savage Lovecast” if you want the source material for my ideas), but it goes something like this: monogamy is hard and not for everyone, and just because you got married doesn’t mean you stop being sexually attracted to other people, and it doesn’t mean you give up your opposite sex friends. Monogamy simply means you refrain from fucking people other than your spouse, and that can sometimes be hard to do, so don’t destroy the marriage just because there’s ONE slip up. However, if you like sexual variety and you can’t give that up even though you’re married, then let’s hope you’ve chosen a partner who also likes sexual variety so that you and your partner can negotiate, and mutually enter into, an open relationship. But, open relationships are just as hard as monogamous ones because open relationships require just as much, if not more, trust and communication. If you want an open relationship and your partner doesn’t, you should have figured that out before you got married, and if you can’t keep to monogamy then get divorced before you ruin each other. Deception is the sin, the transgression, and the wrong perpetrated, not necessarily the sex itself.
In other words, if Joss and Kai had negotiated a mutually acceptable open relationship, and Kai had been able to pursue sexual relationships outside of the marriage as well, then we’d have nothing to talk about here. Joss’s infidelity is an issue specifically because Kai believed she was in a monogamous relationship, and Joss let her believe she was in a monogamous relationship while he, demonstrably, was not in a monogamous relationship.
So, to be clear before I go any further: my intention in the rest of this post isn’t to defend Joss Whedon. It appears that he violated the marriage as it was understood by Kai, and as the both of them then presented it to the public, and he deserves to be called out for his infidelity and punished appropriately (divorce, etc.). But to get at what fascinates me about the rise and inevitable downfall of the male Feminist hero in general, and why I am back to not wanting to be called a Feminist, I will have to explain how I think Whedon ended up the way he did, and to do so, it may appear to a casual reader as if it’s a defense of his actions, when it’s not.
So, let us proceed. There will be many more cul-de-sacs.
There have been plenty of people offering up their takes on the Whedon issue. For a while it was hot news for Whedon fans, and it was, and possibly still is, sadly, an appealing distraction from the socio-political train wreck coming out of Washington DC and America in general, even though it plays well into the bigger social concerns about toxic masculinity and its effect on, well, the world. I’m sure essays like this one have been bouncing around the internet on blogs and click-bait sites, but, I’m not really interested in getting into the social media hot-take post-mortem dissection and screed fest that is specifically about Whedon’s shattered street-cred as a male Feminist ally. I’m more interested in the mechanics of this situation, and how it works for all men who have been acknowledged as “Male Feminist allies” and who have then taken a fall for one Patriarchal transgression or another.
This post from the writer John Scalzi, which was in response to the media flurry after Cole’s letter, caught my attention. In it, he sought to clarify a few things with regard to his own Feminist label, and one of the things that stood out for me was the idea of “passive Feminism,” which is, basically, a man’s ability to step back from the Feminist fight for equality without being thought to have given up his fundamental belief that women should be treated equally.
Women who take up Feminist causes (and even those who think they haven’t) are in that battle all the time by virtue of being women in this society. Patriarchy, in response to Feminism, has made everything a woman does somehow weighted or conflicted — or both. Is the straight married woman who becomes a stay-at-home mom giving in to traditional gender roles (was she forced into it by a traditionalist husband?), or did she and her husband make a rational, practical decision where both parents were equal candidates for the stay-at-home parent role? Why do some high profile conservative women in the media and in politics, who are obviously benefiting from Feminist advances, and who have gained access to the levers of social and political power, seem to support causes that would undermine their very ability to do what they’re doing? — and so on. Should women dress how they like, or dress to be taken seriously by men when, in truth, some men will criticize women no matter what they wear, and that very duality means women have to be prepared to defend their choices (if not themselves), which is something men never really have to do.
If a woman makes a choice that doesn’t seem to jive with, or can’t be rationally defended as, a “Feminist choice,” then, well, judgement from the peanut gallery will be handed down. That kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t criticism is mind-bendingly paralyzing. And it’s something men who support Feminism don’t have to deal with. Passive Feminism, being a uniquely male privilege, means a husband can make a decision about the time he spends with his kids, or time he spends at work, and not have it be counted for or against his Feminist belief that women should be paid equally, or that women should be free from the fear of rape.
That all got me thinking (again) about the role of men in the fight for gender equality, and about the problematic condition of being a man in a deeply ingrained Patriarchal system who is in favor of smashing that very Patriarchy, and who calls himself a Feminist. To me, calling myself a Feminist presents a barrier when trying to reach the men around me who are struggling to live up to the Patriarchal demands of traditional manhood (which includes a fear of being seen, in any imaginable way, as “feminine”). But what other label works?
Scalzi describes a similar arc to his feelings about applying the term Feminist to himself that I have gone through. I discussed my own no-yes-no flip-flop in a previous post on this blog (see here). But to sum up: I believe women should be treated equally, but, in the beginning, I didn’t want to call myself a Feminist (in fact, I didn’t believe a man could call himself a Feminist since he wasn’t a woman). After a while, however, I got tired of trying to skim that delicate linguistic line between believing the tenets of a thing, but not calling myself by its name and said, fine, I’m a Feminist. Then, of course, the douche canoes came along, calling themselves Feminists, but actually using the label to leverage themselves into abusive power relationships with women, and now, again, I’m reluctant to call myself a Feminist if only to avoid the suspicious are-you-really-a-Feminist side-eye I get when I say I’m a Feminist.
I’d rather people judge me by my actions, rather than my label, because people will see the label first and expect a certain level of performance that I may not be able to live up to at all times. It’s a thin self-defense, but . . .
Cole’s open letter about Whedon, and Scalzi’s essay, strangely, have brought me right back to the desire to find a term men can rally under and which represents an actual movement that both sociologically and philosophically supports Feminism, and complements it. At the same time it would help to advance “gender equality” by getting men to focus on changing men. We should have a “men’s movement” that supports Feminism, understands it deeply, but focuses on the process of men changing other men’s perceptions, rules, expectations, and definitions of masculinity in a positive way and from within the framework of “manhood.” Something like that would help undercut the pervasive, damaging effects of Patriarchy on men.
So, first off, I don’t think men should become standard bearers for Feminism. Let’s stop attempting to attain or assign the label of “male feminist” whatever (icon/champion/hero) to men. When men get involved in Feminist organizations, they should stick to support roles. In other words, they should bring donuts, sit in the back, shut up, and listen without getting defensive. Men then need to go off on their own and think about and alter their views, thoughts, and behaviors among other men. Then, when men do speak out, it should be about what men can and should do to change in parallel to women, and not about what they can do to protect or defend Feminist positions, which women are doing a fine job of protecting and defending themselves. If we listen to women’s stories about their personal and professional lives, we’d know that, as a society, we still encounter moments, even in the most enlightened spheres, where people will sometimes defer to the seemingly most confident white male in the room as the leader even when a more qualified and experienced woman is there.
It’s a sign of Patriarchy’s prevalence in our mental architecture that men get labeled as “Feminist champions” in the way Whedon did — it’s not that it can’t be true that a man is a champion of Feminism – but it is a manifestation of a fundamentally Patriarchal system to elevate a man to that status. There are wise men out there who lend their privilege to the act of elevating women’s voices, and that’s a good thing, but we always seem to end up praising and valuing the man’s act of speaking over the message itself, thus elevating the male act of Feminist support over the Feminist message.
It happens quite regularly: a privileged white man chooses to elevate or amplify a Feminist voice, but then people react to the man speaking and not the woman’s message the man is attempting to amplify. Patrick Stewart was featured in a meme that kind of subtly gets at this.
Here’s Stewart under a quote he supposedly made, bearing a placard calling for the defense of women’s and girls’ rights. This image, when it first appeared, made the rounds in my social media circles. But what came of it except an elevation in Stewart’s popularity? Did male involvement in N.O.W., or Planned Parenthood increase? Did donations to Amnesty International increase? I’m sure Stewart himself has continued to donate to and support the cause (he seems to be an honorable man), but how drastic has the drop in support been among his admirers since the initial appearance of this meme? What is going on now with Amnesty International’s fight to protect the rights of girls and women (I bet a woman could tell you) (here’s Amnesty International’s page on Gender, Sexuality, & Identify, too).
Now, to make the case with a personal example, here’s a brief story about something that happened to me after the 2016 election. It’s the not-so-positive version of the male voice being seen as more important than the message.
I take my cues on Feminism primarily from minority Feminists because I believe that if we elevate women of color to the point where those women have the same rights, access, and privileges as someone like me — a cis gendered straight white male — then we, as a society, no longer have a reason to discriminate against people because of their gender or race. I vote with and stand with black women because doing so, to me, is the antithesis of white male self interest.
So, in the spate of hot-take analyses after the 2016 Democratic failure, I shared an opinion piece on Facebook that was written by a black feminist. I shared it without adding any comments of my own because there was nothing I had to say that hadn’t already been said by the author. The essay (which I can no longer locate, dammit) was critical of white Feminists who failed to support Hillary Clinton and who, instead, voted for one of the third-party candidates, or worse, Trump. I was promptly scolded by a white Feminist who said that I – as a strong Feminist ally — should know better than to share such a critical article because by doing so I was actually reinforcing the Patriarchy.
I was baffled, and in a way, I suppose I still am. I had chosen to amplify a black Feminist voice — yes, it was one that felt betrayed by her white feminist sisters — but instead of hearing the message, what this person saw was a man criticizing women. The actual message in the essay was, however slightly, clouded by my white male presence.
Aside from gender, the other tines in the fork of Patriarchy are race, wealth, and sexual identity. Again, I wish I could find the article because the author made, I thought, excellent and specific points about how the black women who’d supported Hillary Clinton throughout her political career felt betrayed by middle and upper class white Feminists who chose to ignore Trump’s threat to the social and economic programs that poor women, especially poor women of color, rely on, because, as white women, the loss of access to healthcare, childcare, job training, food stamps, and so on wouldn’t really affect those white ladies at all.
I shared the article because, as a white man, in a mostly white society, I have very little contact with women of color. If I don’t seek out their voices, I won’t hear them. Consequently, I know a lot of white women on Facebook, and I can see their friends lists, and I know they also lack access to a wide range of minority women’s voices. So, I shared the article, probably subconsciously expecting my white maleness to blur the message in some way, but still hoping it might wake up a few people to the way white privilege operates. I just didn’t expect the criticism to come from the person it came from.
The irony of not being able to find that article right now.
Patriarchy, after all, is a tiered system: rich, straight, white men on top, and non-white poor, gay and trans women at the bottom. For whites, especially those who aren’t straight white males, their whiteness is a veil they can sometimes hide behind. Via the poisonous gift of racism, white women can, and often have, ignored women’s issues that are complicated by, or intersect with, race and poverty, such as access to job training, affordable childcare, reproductive healthcare, and even affordable, healthy food. That white veil has been common to Feminism from the beginning. Read the Combahee River Collective Statement, read bell hooks (I need to do more of this myself, I’ve not read bell hooks since the Philosophy of Feminism class I took as an undergrad 2o+ years ago). Feminist women of color can all tell you stories about the racial and economic tone-deafness of privileged white Feminists better than I can since they have first hand, personal experience.
But that’s another story for another post.
The Patriarchal system, with its undertones of racism and classism, surrounds us as if we were fish in water and, strangely, it is something I’ve often thought clouded some of the Feminist writing that I have read over the years, as well as most of the in-person discussions I’ve had with Feminist women and pro-Feminist men. The most obvious example of this problem is the tendency, still, to assign a gender to emotions and emotional intelligence in such a way that it reinforces this myth that women are naturally complex and adept emotional Swiss Army knives, while men are emotionally incapable of being more than blunt, rusted butter knives. Yes, there are some cognitive and emotional differences between men, but the fact is this: a Patriarchal system is built to steal emotional complexity from men — just as it steals the privilege to be assertive and angry from women. In other words, Patriarchy demands that women and men each be only half of a human being.
Now, Feminism is doing an outstanding job of reclaiming women’s human right to be assertive and angry, strong and powerful, but in truth, it’s not doing a very good job of helping men reclaim the half of their humanity that was stolen from them. Take a look at how prevalent and powerful the fear among men still is at being called “a girl,” a “sissy,” a “fag,” and so on. But, you know, it’s not Feminism’s job to reclaim those things FOR and on behalf of men. It simply tells men they need to change, and it should and does provide some broad suggestions about what that change should be (like stop raping women), but it is, ultimately, men’s responsibility to figure out how to change themselves in response to the changes in women.
I’m getting a bit off-track here, so let’s reset back to the issue of Passive Feminism, but keep that idea of men’s voices overriding and drowning out women’s voices even when men are pro-Feminist.
This privilege that men have to be passively Feminist – to both believe in the equality of women while being able to disengage for periods of time from the day-to-day engagement in the struggle — is a hinge point I’ve been missing in my thinking about why men shouldn’t call themselves Feminists, and how a man like Whedon and other “defrocked” male Feminist Icons have lost their way.
The advances made by Feminism have come from women pushing back, day-by-bay, against the limitations put on them by our Patriarchal system. In addition to advancing the radical idea that women are people, one of the central areas where women have resisted the Patriarchy the most, and which is fundamental to every other area of Feminism’s resistance and progressiveness, is to resist the crippling notion that women should be passive. The term “empowerment” is tossed around so much in media representations of Feminism that it sometimes loses its meaning and gets taken for granted (here’s an article from the satire site The Onion that makes light of this: Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does). However, we forget, I think, that the basic idea of empowerment, is one of being an active agent in one’s life rather than a passive one. Being an active agent in one’s own life is something women still get criticized for doing, but it is the default expectation for men.
As a society, we value action over passiveness, and men are expected to take action and shun passiveness, but in truth there are times when passiveness is valuable, even wise. Women haven’t forgotten this, even as they’ve been embracing, fiercely “empowerment.” The problem is incentivizing the acquisition of passiveness, which is the trait that allows a person to step back, give room for others to speak and be recognized. It is the foundation of being a good listener. Men need to learn this trait, but it’s a challenge because of Patriarchy’s strict list of rules about what a “man” cannot be. For men, the kind of passivity needed to be fully human isn’t the passivity of apathy, but of empathy, and that is, in the masculine world, a sign of weakness, and weakness must be avoided, denied, and, when it shows up in a man, excised like cancer. Getting a man who is deathly afraid of being seen as weak to embrace something he sees as a weakness is as difficult as getting a child who’s afraid of clowns anywhere near a clown.
But finding a way to frame those emotions denied men, but allowed women, and which the Patriarchy deems less valuable is exactly the endeavor we, as men, have to undertake. That, I think answers a question I’ve been pondering for years and which I first encountered when reading the end of the Combahee River Collective Statement. At the end of that manifesto, they quote Robin Morgan from her book Sisterhood is Powerful:
I haven’t the faintest notion what possible revolutionary role white heterosexual men could fulfill, since they are the very embodiment of reactionary-vested-interest-power.
It’s not a woman’s job or responsibility to find that revolutionary role for men. That role, I’ve come to believe, is certainly not to be found within the ranks of Feminism. Every man who dons the mantel of Feminist (like Joss Whedon) runs the risk, whether they are famous or not, of putting themselves in a position to silence a woman’s voice, and to obfuscate their agenda whether that’s their intention or not. If men are going to fight the Patriarchal system, we have to be aware of — at all times — especially as men who believe in the fundamental tenets of Feminism – how deeply insidious and pervasive, both linguistically and socially, the Patriarchy is within our own minds, and how easy it is for us, by our mere presence in a room, to shift the focus of the discussion, and avoid our own inner conflicts.
When men have assumed the mantle, either voluntarily or involuntarily, of being a “Male Feminist” they have inevitably failed because the Patriarchal system within their own heads has gone unexamined. Their Passive Feminism takes over and their own privilege goes unchecked, or becomes mutated. In other words, men, by signing on to the Feminist cause as a “Feminist,” can find it easy to focus on making space for women while at the same time not really examining their own internal, ingrained, habitual ideas about manhood, masculinity, and the societal privilege and prestige that comes with being a man. Throw in some praise from women about being “a strong supporter or ally of feminism,” then mix that with some common human insecurities and obsessions, and that man is ripe to fuck up and become exactly the kind of man Feminists are leery of.
We live in a lonely world, and despite the lame stereotypical cliches, Feminists are not man-hating lesbians. They want men to be something other than chauvinistic, sexist, violent, and entitled. That’s a requirement for ending sexism and America’s rape culture. So, when a supposedly good-guy male Feminist ally comes along there will be, naturally, women who will show an intimate interest in him. He appears to be, after all, someone who won’t abuse them, stifle them, or feel entitled to their bodies when they don’t want to share their bodies with him, etc.
But sex, as Dan Savage says, is older than we are and more powerful. It will win out, which means that if a good guy Feminist ally shows up, then there will be at least one Feminist woman who will be sexually attracted to him, and that DOES NOT, make her “needy.” So, because sex is older and more powerful than we are, that’s why monogamy is hard, and why open relationship demand regularly maintained lines of communication. Sex will also use whatever social, mental, instinctual, and emotional tools available to get what it wants — even among us lowly plebes who aren’t Hollywood producers, which, now, finally, brings us all the way back to Joss Whedon.
So, give a good-guy male Feminist even a semblance of power over someone’s career-like a film and TV producer — and we have the makings of a tragedy. That very dynamic is clearly evident, according to Kai Cole’s quotes from her ex-husband’s letters where he attempted to explain his infidelity. According to Cole, Whedon stated that, as a respected and powerful producer, he found himself suddenly surrounded by “beautiful, needy, aggressive young women.” I would certainly question Whedon’s use of the word needy; however, remember, Patriarchy is insidiously ingrained in the psyches of both men AND women. In a classic Patriarchal system, women can gain favor and protection by granting sexual access (if you haven’t, you should read Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha to get a good solid grasp on the function of sex in social primates — or humans — if you will), and the men who are granted sexual access then feel they are entitled to it.
A patriarchal society fetishizes male power, grants emotional and sometimes financial rewards for the exercise of it so, my guess, is that the women Whedon had affairs with weren’t “needy,” — (beautiful, aggressive and young, yes, but not “needy”) and they were simply seduced by a combination of his reputation and power, and blinded by a lack of awareness regarding the underlying truth driving their attractions that is the ingrained Patriarchal system inside our own minds. They were simply obeying a subsumed and unexamined set of rules about the application and exchange of male and female power — as was Whedon. It takes two to tango, as the cliche goes (here’s where it might start to sound like a defense), and since no one has claimed to have been sexually assaulted or raped by Whedon (at least as far as I can tell with a quick Google search), then those affairs, although dishonest, must have been tolerably consensual.
And, as I mentioned earlier, dishonesty is the real sin, not necessarily the sex. And Whedon was being dishonest with the women he had affairs with, and, more importantly, he was being dishonest with his wife. At least that is something he seems to have (thankfully) admitted to in the quotes Cole provided in her letter.
For Whedon’s part, the kind of attention he got from women after Buffy became popular was probably something that had rarely happened to him before, and he took advantage of that to satisfy some latent, unexamined desires that were then supported by the fundamental entitlement that comes with maleness in a Patriarchal system. I doubt the real reasons are that tidy, and I don’t know a thing about Whedon’s life as a young man before he became a successful writer, director, and producer, but I am going to speculate about what happened based on my own experience as a formerly shy, nerdy, boy who had a lot of female friends and turned into a pro-feminist man.
From what Ms. Cole’s letter suggests about Whedon leads me to believe that he was the kind of boy growing up who was aware of how badly women were (and are) treated in society, and he didn’t want to be seen as one of those “jerks.” In the era he and I grew up in (he’s only 7 years older than I am), benevolent sexism was common, and mostly unacknowledged, which often made it the posture men would assume if they were sympathetic to women’s unfairly diminished “situation” in society. The best way to help women, they would have thought (as I did when I was growing up in the 80s), would have been to adopt the traditional male posture of kindly protection (benevolent sexism). Sadly, what rides the coattails of benevolent sexism is the false and entitled belief that a man’s kindly protection of women should be rewarded by women. When that kindly protection isn’t rewarded, some men feel they are justified in getting angry, some withdraw — all, I think, become a little bitter (at least until they realize that benevolent sexism means that even though they’re being a kinder, gentler dick, they’re still being a dick).
So, when a man’s kindly protection of women is rewarded — even if it’s accidental — it feels like a fucking million dollar jackpot to a man enmeshed in Benevolent Sexism. What makes it worse is that, if a man hasn’t really considered the way that Patriarchy has set him up to believe he should be rewarded for behavior that was last useful when humans were NOT apex predators or members of vast city-states, he begins to think that sexual reward is something he should expect, or worse, something that he deserves. That’s the irony here: even though he grew up with a feminist mother, even though he probably didn’t want to be a Patriarchal jerk, and even though Whedon adopted Feminism, his unexamined privilege to engage in Passive Feminism and his core indoctrination in Patriarchy’s Benevolent Sexism came along for the ride. Then, into that liminal space between Active and Passive Feminism and his unexamined Patriarchal sexism, stepped our old nemesis, mutual sexual desire, temptation, and lust.
Here was a self-professed, male Feminist, encouraged by his wife to achieve the fame he’d wanted, and who got famous for writing a strong female character (Buffy), and who suddenly found himself surrounded by young, beautiful, ambitious, strong willed women enmeshed in a brutally competitive industry. To rejigger the famous line from Field of Dreams, build strong female characters and young, beautiful, aggressive, and ambitious actresses will come. Along with that will come Hollywood competition, and in a Patriarchal system, with sexual animals, our old, powerful nemesis will come out. I’m sure someone saw the train wreck coming, but then again, a Patriarchal system finds a way, at least in the past it did, to excuse male indiscretions — for a while at least.
Now, not all of us men who call ourselves, or get called “Feminist allies” are powerful Hollywood writers, directors, or producers, and yet we stand an equally good chance of committing the exact same sin as Whedon. There is a fundamental tension created between men and women when the unexamined, almost subconscious Patriarchal tendencies that are present in both genders come into contact with sexual desire and the higher brain functions where thought and reason happen.
In the book What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future, the editor, Rebecca Walker, writes “I also hope that women […] will reflect deeply on their part in maintaining the male charade. If we want men to be different we must eroticize that difference, and stop saying we want a man who can talk about his feelings, only to marry the strong, silent type who ‘just so happens’ to be a good provider.”
Like all things between the genders, that sentiment, which is a call, in a way, to mindfully employ Sexual Selection and gene-culture co-evolution (dual inheritance theory), is both an invitation for positive change and a doorway for abuse. Remember, sex is older and more powerful than we are, but we are in possession (at least we tell ourselves we are) of choice and free will. So, yeah, if women say they want sensitive, thoughtful men who are in touch with their emotions, and who are pro-Feminist, then they should fuck men who are sensitive, thoughtful, in touch with the emotions, and pro-Feminists.
The problem is, Patriarchy tells men that, to be a real man they should be fucking a lot of women — and anything a man says to accomplish that is ok because, in the Patriarchal system, women who want sex are whores and women who say they don’t want sex actually, secretly want it, they just need to be convinced they want it. This is how you get guys calling themselves Feminists thinking it’ll help them get laid.
If a good guy male Feminist Champion hasn’t done his own internal work to undermine the Patriarchal wiring in his own head, things will probably get ugly quickly if he’s confronted with women who are in the process of “eroticizing a different type of man.” Things won’t get ugly because of the women, whether the women are vulnerable or defended doesn’t matter — it takes two to make a mistake after all (unless it’s rape and that’s the rapists fault 100%). Things will get ugly because the man slips unknowingly into a Patriarchal reward mode and begins to think this attention from Feminist women is a reward for his righteous “Feminist” action. It’s a complex version of “I bought you dinner; therefore, I deserve a blow job.” And, strangely enough, the reason that shitty belief among men persists is because, well, sometimes, sexual desire doesn’t give a damn about why we think something should happen. If a man thinks he deserves a blow job as payment for dinner, but doesn’t say it out loud, and the woman, ignorant of his expectation, gives him a blow job because she (for whatever reason) wanted to give this guy a blow job, then that guy has no reason to reconsider or change his shitty expectation because, somehow, he still got the blow job.
In my opinion, for a man to be able to call himself a Feminist, he has to be operating outside of, or in violation of, the Patriarchal system. And to do that, the man has to be as much of an outsider to the system as we can manage — even if only partially — which means he must be gay or transgendered. But here’s the thing about gay and transgendered men . . . they typically aren’t wrestling with whether to call themselves Feminists. The LBGTQ cause and the Feminist cause are, in a way, conjoined via every transgender woman and lesbian Feminist.
As a cisgendered straight white male who believes in the Feminist (and LGBTQ) cause, I can support and be an ally to those causes (donate money, time, etc.), but I shouldn’t be out in front of those causes acting as a voice or representative for those causes. Yes, it’s important that white cisgendered straight men be seen supporting Feminism and LGBTQ rights, but they should not be the tip of the spear, so to speak. First, I shouldn’t do it because I have the privilege to step away from those causes if they get too rough or challenging, which, really, makes me a fair weather champion, and second because, if my voice becomes too loud in those spheres it could — by virtue of the Patriarchal value system — become the focal point and override the message. That means that when I fail, stumble, act badly, I run the risk of damaging the cause in the eyes of those whom the cause is trying to convince to change. Also, it’s an excuse to leave undone the work of changing white cisgendered straight men from the inside.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the important aspects of Feminism was altering the notion that women are passive agents in the world and moving them into being active, empowered agents. Men have always been seen as active, empowered agents, it’s the primary male virtue in a Patriarchal system. It’s here where the insidious nature of Patriarchy – and that tendency I’ve noticed among Feminists and pro-Feminist men alike to speak about fighting the Patriarchy without seeming to fully extricate their own language and perceptions from its very structure — makes itself seen.
The following statements should be so obvious that they don’t need to be written here, but I’m going to be pedantic and put them here anyway: In the tiered, hierarchical system of Patriarchy, especially American Patriarchy, it first splits human traits, virtues, and characteristics into separate camps: male and female. It then places the male traits, virtues, and characteristics above the female traits, virtues, and characteristics. When men and boys, women and girls, display traits not associated with their gender they are punished — sissies, fags, pansies, dykes, bitches, whores — and society attempts to force them back into the approved mold. Since Patriarchy places the “male” traits and characteristics on top of the hierarchy, they are, within that hierarchy, seen as more valued, just like the men who embody those traits. Female traits are then seen as less valuable, just like the women who embody them are less valued than men (but valued highly as property).
So, when women move to claim the human traits denied them, that desire — even when it is met with derision, threats, abuse, condescension, and rage — is something men kind of understand, even if only subconsciously. In a hierarchical system, it’s OK to want or desire the traits the system places the most value upon — especially if those traits are somehow denied to other segments of society. Yes, the patriarchal mind will acknowledge, of course women want to be strong, powerful and in charge like men, but they can’t be and so we have to stop women from trying. However, because those “masculine” traits are valued by society and confer privilege, women continue to push for them. So, even if a man resists the idea of women’s equality, and disrespects women in general, he still minimally “respects their fight” as it were, even as he condescends to it because, if there’s one thing a man understands, it is the desire to be powerful. Maybe that’s why they take such glee in their boorish behavior and power.
The other side of that is, since the female traits are seen as less than by the Patriarchal system, men don’t really have an incentive to adopt them (this is where Ms. Walker’s statement above can be reinserted to undermine the Patriarchal structure), especially when doing so invites criticism and disdain for being “weak.” If a man happens to have any of those feminine traits, they are shamed into hiding them. Even women who are pushing to be accepted in male spheres are encouraged to repress their “lesser” feminine traits. It’s a catch-22.
Among women, it’s an ideal to attain masculine style social and economic power while still retaining their feminine aspect. But there is no real equivalent for men because the cadre of people who value “soft” men is still mostly limited to women. So, except when we have these brief romances with men like Joss Whedon before they’re outed as, well, frauds, men only seem to make a change if there’s a reward. And since all reward systems can be abused, we get men who purposely use the “male feminist” label to deceive women about their separation from traditionally Patriarchal views in order to gain sexual access.
That, fundamentally, is one reason why I don’t want to call myself a Feminist, even though I fully support Feminism and Feminist goals. If I go around calling myself a Feminist, how long before I crowd out a legitimate Feminist voice, then, make it all worse and do or say something that contradicts my claim? I’m not perfect, and as a cisgendered straight white male, there really isn’t much room for me to make a mistake if I’m out front waiving the Feminist flag. Maybe if I don’t call myself a Feminist, I can retain some humanity, humility, and a tiny window for grace and forgiveness.
Patriarchy developed because, at one point, both genders saw some kind of value in the division of labor it presented. Unfortunately, it has outlived its usefulness and transmogrified into something vicious and toxic to both parties involved, and men haven’t spent the time really analyzing it from inside the masculine identity. That lack of internal effort opens men, even the ones who legitimately support Feminism, to the kind of split that allows them to publicly tout Feminism while privately acting in contradiction of its ideals.
Men who support Feminism need to be working among other men, in masculine spaces (locker rooms, construction sites, the office), to change the minds of men about what it means to be a man. This will be infinitely more useful to the cause of Feminism than men calling themselves Feminists and talking about Gloria Steinem and bell hooks. If you would like an example of the kind of work I’m talking about, watch the documentary The Mask You Live In.
That isn’t to say men shouldn’t be reading Steinem and hooks, or other Feminist writers and thinkers. They should be reading them. Those writers and thinkers should be foundational to whatever positive, anti-Patriarchal movement men establish out there if for no other reason than being a Patriarch in a Patriarchal system is like that proverbial fish that’s not aware of the water it’s swimming in. Embrace women’s voices, start to see the water, and then start trying to get yourself out of the water.
Whedon, and every other man who has worn the Feminist label and then failed to live up to it has done so because they never really got out of the Patriarchal system in their own minds.
Perhaps, especially for straight white men, the primary beneficiaries of the Patriarchal system, it’s a daunting, near impossible challenge to completely extricate ourselves from the system, but we, as men, still have to try to do that hard and challenging work on ourselves. Thankfully, hard work is something we’ve been told we’re good at: men surmount impossible things, right? We take on heroic fights against daunting odds, and so on. Calling ourselves Feminists and parroting Feminist talking points, is a short cut to a shallow enlightenment, which is why so many of the men who have made a name for themselves under the Feminist label have then gone on to shame themselves by not living up to the ideas. It’s easy to recite the rhetoric of Feminism, but it’s another thing entirely to live a life free of those crippling, toxic, Patriarchal habits of thought and action that lead men to demean, damage, and devalue women.
John Scalzi’s essay: https://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/08/22/my-personal-feminism-2017/
p.s. Thanks for the edit McClurg.