Anecdote 1: Last year, I gave a talk at the Women of the World festival about body hair and sexism. A male feminist friend watched it, and texted me to say that men are affected by similar pressures when it comes to the body, just in different ways. I replied that nine out of 10 eating disorders are suffered by women, 95% of cosmetic surgeries are carried out on women, and I had yet to meet a man ashamed of the hair on his legs. All the same, he insisted, If I’d taken account of men’s experiences in my talk, I could have gained more allies.
Anecdote 2: I am discussing street harassment with a male feminist friend. He says that men are more likely to experience violence on the streets than women. I wholeheartedly agree, then continue talking about street harassment. I’m instructed that if I expect men to be allies in the feminist movement, I can’t talk about wolf whistles and arse pats when men are at risk of having their teeth kicked in.
Anecdote 3: In the pub, a group of friends is discussing the obstacles that a girl born today may have to face as she grows up. A male feminist friend says that in his law firm women with three children are now becoming partners, and in 20 years – he can guarantee – the glass ceiling will no longer exist; the real problem, as he sees it, is male students dropping out of law degrees. The next day, he emails to say that he calls himself a feminist, and implies that if feminism is to be more than reverse sexism, men’s issues must be taken into account. He includes a link to a Wikipedia entry on men and feminism.
These are not isolated incidents, and, for the record, I respect all of these men: they are good, smart people. But I don’t think I want them as allies any more than I want to start calling myself a “genderist” because Joss Whedon thinks “feminist” sounds icky. The question for me is: why do these men describe themselves as feminists, if they feel unable to talk about women’s issues without shouting “but men!” or insisting that the movement for equal women’s rights compromises its focus in order to make men comfortable?
I have a theory. Somewhere along the line, someone came up with a pithy, witty test for feminism that might be illustrated as follows:
And it’s clever, right? I don’t know who first used this trick, but Caitlin Moran riffs on it in How to Be a Woman, and Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel’s The Guy’s Guide to Feminism has a great passage (that you can listen to Kaufman narrate here), asking the reader whether he might have “caught” feminism, which is really just a variation of the above.
The test is fun, to the point, inclusive: it gets people on board and gets more men calling themselves feminists. Allies – huzzah!
But it’s also kind of lying. You need to believe some other important things in order to be a feminist, things that might be illustrated as follows:
Have you surprised yourself by getting a “not a feminist” result when you’ve been proudly calling yourself a feminist for years? Are you getting bogged down in semantics, shrugging “it depends what you mean by equality”, instead of answering the questions in the straightforward spirit in which they are asked? Are you feeling excluded from an equality movement that you instinctively feel you should be a part of? Even a bit angry that you’re excluded, perhaps? Are you thinking: “Fine then! If that’s how you want to define feminism – fine! But – be warned – you’re losing me as an ally.”
Don’t be angry. You don’t have to be a feminist. There are plenty of ways to be awesome without working towards equal rights for women. For example, if you answered “Who do you think is more disadvantaged by gender inequality?” with “Women, but I’m still more interested in talking about men,” that’s fine. Maybe, like Tom Matlack, who founded the Good Men Project, you are a pro-feminist: that is, someone who supports the goals and objectives of the movement for equal women’s rights, but who is actively working on male issues. Gender initiatives like the Good Men Project move us towards a more equal society, which benefits women in many ways, just like feminist initiatives benefit men in many ways.
And, please, if you are worrying about what feminism will do without you, stop. The feminist movement does not need you. It’s doing a pretty incredible job of tackling female disadvantage without pandering to reluctant allies.
Most of the feminists I know care about how gender inequality affects men. Of course they do – they’re egalitarians. And some also work on male equality issues. But feminism is a movement that seeks to achieve equal rights for women. This focus is necessary, because we live in a world of historically and culturally inscribed female disadvantage. If you don’t agree on this – if, every time someone starts talking about women’s equality, you feel the urge to argue that, nowadays, men have it as bad or worse, or you secretly fear that in 20 years women will be keeping men in cages or some such, then, very simply, you are not a feminist. – By Emer O’Toole © Guardian News and Media 2014
Image – AFP