Feeling you giving me directions I don’t need… Can men be feminists? No.

Over the past week, a strange amount of energy was devoted to the question of whether men could be feminists.  It’s important that, in a movement designed to empower women, men know where they stand.

The recent brouhaha started off with Corinne Grant’s post specifically about the term ‘male feminist’.

I could slide here into a discussion of comedians as social commentators.  I don’t know if this is true in other countries, but I feel that social commentary is dominated by people who are better at being funny than insightful.  Grant fits into this category along with Tim Minchin and everybody involved in The Chaser.  Catherine Deveny would fit into this category but she’s not funny.  There’s probably another post in here somewhere about our need to be entertained rather than informed, but this post is about why guys can’t be feminists.

The boring answer is that it depends on what we mean by ‘feminists’.  I’ve spoken to a lot of people about this topic over the last week, with people much more intelligent than me.  What’s striking is the diversity of the term.  Does it mean ‘a person who thinks that men and women should be equal’?  Does it mean ‘a person who critiques social power structures which disempower women’?  Is it both?  Is it neither?

I’ve surprised at least one of my friends by being both conservative and having an understanding and appreciation of privilege.  It goes to show that you can be both conservative and not stone stupid.

I think — and I could be incorrect — that ‘feminist’ has to mean something more than just ‘believes in the equality of men and women’.  People who are advantaged by privilege are in the worst position to judge what is ‘equal’.  In the Andrew Bolt case, far too many people thought that it was ‘unequal’ for racial minorities to be granted protections in law denied to the white majority.  What they failed to grasp was that the legal protection was to bring them on equal footing with our socially guaranteed protection.  Nobody is going to attack me for being white.  Using exactly the same language, we can disagree wildly about what is ‘equal’.

But if feminists are just those who critique the social structures which disempower women, we’ve neutered feminism into a dry academic discourse.  Feminists are those who write the US-centric essays about unpacking privilege.  Feminists are those who can reposition Marx’ material dialectic into a gendered discourse.

I don’t mean to disparage feminism as an academic endeavour.  I’ve got a low opinion of gender studies as a discipline, but the quality, meaty, intelligent output is superb.  It’s just that it’s filled with so much guff (probably a by-product of its links to Continental philosophy, which has the same problem.  The great stuff is magical, sublime, and exceptional.  But most of it is rot).

But if it is this academic endeavour, guys aren’t part of that project either.  Part of privilege is that society renders the power structures invisible to those who benefit most.  We’ve normalised it: it’s the background stage upon which we strut our funky stuff.

In truth, ‘feminism’ is probably going to sit in the grey area between the two extremes of the popular and the academic.  But the arguments as to why a guy can’t be a feminist at either end still apply in the middle.  There’s no way for a guy to not think like a guy.  We’ve been socialised to do it.  Feminism requires non-guy thinking.  It’s the external critique to show us that the things we think are ‘normal’ or ‘obvious’ or ‘default rational’ aren’t.  That critique, that discourse, can’t happen if we’re on both sides of the fence.

But — as an extremely learned and excellent friend of mine pointed out — in making this argument, I’ve dichotomised gender.  By dividing the world into two groups — those who can be feminists and those who can’t — along gender lines, I’ve forgotten the fluidity of gender.  What about trans-folk?  Are homosexuals similarly unable to critique the dominant masculinist mode?  Is it just a certain kind of guy who can’t be a feminist?

The long answer is: I don’t know.  There are so many conceptual issues with gender fluidity that I think the brutal ‘Guys can’t be feminists’ needs to take on some subtlety and nuance that I can’t muster here.

The shorter answer is: maybe there might be exceptions, but when we’re talking about guys being feminists, we’re not usually talking about anything except cismen who declare proudly that they’re ‘male feminists’.

Guys can’t be feminists.  Not really, at least, because merely by interacting with the world, we’re taking advantage of all the privileges we don’t need to acknowledge.  We won’t understand what it’s like to be women and, frankly, the guys who describe themselves as feminists are sort of pretending that they do.  Guys should be content with ruling the world and stop trying to conquer and dominate the spaces created by women to advance their equality.

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9 thoughts on “Feeling you giving me directions I don’t need… Can men be feminists? No.

  1. I don’t see why we have to restrict ourselves to ‘feminists are just those who critique the social structures which disempower women’. Clearly men can be in favor of and actively work to promote the advancement of women / equalities of the genders (or sexes, whichever is appropriate in this context). So, what, we have no word for this type of person? Or at least according to you that word is not feminist.

    Even if I do accept that a male cannot fully grasp the female situation, I’m not sure why I would want to exclude what seem to be allies. And I am not sure why a male could not defer to females for the purposes of judging the present state of equality.

    • Why not ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘ally’? We don’t have a word more specific than that for pro-queer straight people, or pro-PoC white people, but we still seem to function ok with those.

      • Well, I’m really not so much concerned about there being a special word for this type of person – and the other minority groups you mention don’t even seem to have their own label for themselves (at least not one that I can think of) so it’s not exactly analogous – as I am skeptical of the reasons given for men not fitting into the word that already exists. What I mean to say is, to me, the essential characteristics of a feminist does not require having a particular type of gonad, and I don’t really understand the motivation for arguing that it does. The important distinction in my opinion seems to be are you or are you not in favor of and working towards gender equality. There are many men I know who I would consider more feminist in that regard than many women I know.

        Actually, I would rather refer to myself as a gender-egalitarian or something like that.

  2. “What I mean to say is, to me, the essential characteristics of a feminist does not require having a particular type of gonad … The important distinction in my opinion seems to be are you or are you not in favor of and working towards gender equality.”

    Exactly. I don’t see why there needs to be such dichotomy at all and a belief that men can’t want equality for all human beings. Why not see men and women as people. Just people. And gender equality just means women not being discriminated against or denied the same rights as everybody else just because they have a vagina. It’s just like wanting equality for a person with dark skin – a person with white skin can want equality for a person with dark skin.

    “People who are advantaged by privilege are in the worst position to judge what is ‘equal’.” Men don’t need to ‘judge’ what is equal, just understand, perhaps from women themselves. As long as privileged people (in this case, men) are open to what is required for equality to occur, then it is possible for them to participate in making gender equality a reality.

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