Given that I have a blog and podcast titled Feminist Masculinity, you might guess that I watch a fair number of videos regarding feminism, masculinity, and adjacent topics. That is why the YouTube algorithm, through its wise and not at all destructive recommendations, showed me a number of videos making fun of the idea of male feminists. From Bill Burr’s thoughts of a male feminist while on a date, “If I just agree with her, maybe she’ll touch it!” to Joe Rogan’s assertion that all male feminists are creeps, I found myself drowning in a sea of comedians and entertainers all telling me that male feminists are the absolute worst.
I’ve heard all of these things before, and they’ve become mundane, but I still wasn’t ready for a tweet that landed on my timeline from someone that I respect as a feminist that read, “All male feminists are sexual predators”. I must admit that it felt pretty shitty to read something like that when my first experiences of feminism were soul-expanding and liberating. When I read bell hooks’ “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” for the first time at the recommendation of my social work research professor, I cried. She gave me language to speak about my experiences as a man who could never quite find a way to fit in to the culture of patriarchal masculinity but had been trying and trying for years anyway.
So yes, when I read that tweet and watched those videos, I became defensive. I came up with a number of reasons why these people were wrong. I thought about writing this post as a manifesto against feminists who are gatekeepers to men becoming allies in the movement. I texted a friend my frustrations and got ready to sit down and start writing when it dawned on me that I was quickly becoming the “Not all male feminists!” guy. I wrote an article last year, which described the trope of “Not all men!” as unhelpful and distracting at best, and actively harmful at worst. How had I fallen prey to the very behavior I had called out? After all, I’m “one of the good ones.”
I stepped away from my writing station, took a couple of deep breathes, and I started to think it through. In a conversation with Marty Liccardo on my podcast a while back, we discussed how part of accountability for men in our culture is recognizing the quotidian ways that we do and have normalized or perpetuated harmful stereotypes and ideas. I thought back to all the times in high school and my early days in college when I saw the number of women I had made out with, (Mormonism would prevent me from “scoring” in the traditional sense) as a status symbol. I thought about the number of times I kissed or touched someone without asking or how often I had shamed women for what they were wearing. Even though I’ve grown past those things, and I’ve learned better, I am not just automatically absolved of my actions and the impacts of those actions.
Equally, I thought it important to unpack the current culture of male feminism and take ownership of that as well. Someone I respect deeply tweeted about how often she, as an editor of a women’s magazine, received submissions from men who identified as feminists and who would berate her or push back when she had to inform them that their submissions wouldn’t be published. I had to grapple with the fact that feminist men have often pushed into occupations that were dominated by women and have quickly risen to the top of hierarchies simply because of their gender. I had to acknowledge the ways in which I have entered feminist spaces and demanded too much of the spotlight.
I also tried to understand where these behaviors came from. I went back to bell hooks’ “white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchy”, and started to realize that scores of male feminists are playing out these tired, old scripts from oppressive systems that have come to overlap and entangle themselves in our lives. Imperialism influenced the way men, and particularly white men, think about space whether physical or conversational. Imperialism’s core doctrine is that if there is land or profit to be gained, anything can be taken by force or invaded, regardless of who or what is already there. A culture of white supremacy and patriarchy endow cisgender, heterosexual, white men with the confidence that society was built for us. This unearned privilege when unexamined can lead us to believe that we inherently deserve to be heard and take up space no matter what we’re saying or where we are.
Bill Burr unintentionally spelled out capitalist influences in his joke about the male feminist who sees his “feminism” as a purely transactional method of receiving sexual favors. Capitalism teaches that everything is for sale if only you are willing to pay the price, and some male feminists undoubtedly consciously or unconsciously apply this poisonous idea to their relationships with women, which they believe can be bought with some token solidarity or performative allyship. Feminism too has been repackaged by capitalism as a commodity, a lifestyle that one can portray through consumption. In this co-opted form of feminism wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and hanging the right art on your walls can serve as a disguise for those unwilling to put in the real work of transformation.
All of these sources of misconduct and predatory behavior do not excuse men, especially those who identify as feminists. To continue to quote bell hooks,
“As long as he is attacking women and not sexism or capitalism, he helps to maintain a system that allows him few, if any, benefits or privileges. He is an oppressor. He is an enemy to women. He is also an enemy to himself. He is also oppressed. His abuse of women is not justifiable. Even though he has been socialized to act as he does, there are existing social movements that would enable him to struggle for self-recovery and liberation. By ignoring these movements, he chooses to remain both oppressor and oppressed.” — Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
What I intend to do by pointing out these oppressive influences on male feminists, is simply to acknowledge the work that must be done to invite male-identified individuals into the struggle of feminism in healthier and more productive ways. That work must be largely individual. We cannot do the type of introspection and learning and unlearning that this transformation requires for these men. They can only do it for themselves.
My own efforts in this direction have been awkward and halting. I have submitted articles to feminist publishers. I have spoken over women who have been here longer and know far more than me. I have enjoyed success in my field that I know was due more to my gender identity than my abilities. I have made mistakes and missteps in my feminist journey, and I know that I will continue to make them. I am convinced that my failures and growth can be used to help others to avoid or leave behind the traps laid out by dominator culture. I’m trying to be open about them in the hopes that we can make personal accountability more accessible to men who are still buying into patriarchal notions that they cannot show the slightest chink in their armor.
After all of this, I am left still thoroughly convinced that all men can and should be feminists, and I believe that in order for men to work toward that goal, they must begin by looking inward and taking the time to effect real change in their own lives. Feminists of all gender identities have a role to play in their efforts, but that role is not meant to be coddling maternalism. I don’t expect every feminist to keep a cookie jar on their counter so they can toss men snickerdoodles as they struggle to break free from their own buy-in to oppressive systems. I do however think that we must fiercely holding individuals and the systems that inform their actions accountable without ignoring or discounting men as lost causes. In my experience, this is becoming the norm, and we are beginning to see men engage with feminism by divesting themselves from the oppressive cultures that they are heir to. It is my hope that this trend continues, and that our efforts to affect change in those cultures will be aided by the addition of more and more feminists of all backgrounds.
Originally published at https://feministmasculinity.com on January 27, 2021.