This has been an exciting week when it comes to men, masculinity, and feminism. From so called “men’s rights” groups, to male feminists strategizing about ways in which masculinity can be redefined; the male-feminist hype has definitely surfaced. I’ve always operated from the assumption that men are completely capable of being feminists. Hell…i’m a feminist. With that being said, things tend to get tricky once you move past the basics.
Can feminist men contribute to feminism? If so, to what extent? Do men threaten the feminist agenda? How do the perspectives of queer men differ from heterosexual men, and what does that mean in terms of feminism? Is rejecting hegemonic notions of masculinity enough? The litany of questions could go on for days, and the responses to those questions could last even longer.
The point I want to make is that this shit is complicated. Feminist men have a responsibility to come to terms with the privilege that is associated with their assumed position under patriarchy; a process that is most certainly not easy. It requires a great deal of unlearning, questioning, and internal struggle. When you spend your entire life conditioned into a socialized masculinity, it becomes difficult to break from that mold. This is particularly true in a culture that threatens men who don’t conform to heterosexist standards. Hell, I can recall exactly what it was like to be a closeted gay man in high school. I remained conscious at every moment about the way that I walked, talked, laughed, stared. I self policed myself because I knew that if I didn’t, there would be hell to pay. Picking my face up off the locker room floor every day of gym class wasn’t an option. Repressing my authentic self, on the other hand, was the easiest way I knew how to protect myself.
I am a feminist because I don’t think that anyone should have to live that way. Feminism isn’t just about women. It is about the ways in which we are all implicated by power structures, norms, and unrealistic expectations. Clearly there is plenty of room for men in feminism. The more important question becomes…where do we go from here?
This was a reoccurring question at last weeks unprecedented event on St. John’s University campus in Collegeville, Minnesota. The National Conference for Campus-Based Men’s Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups gathered a room full of men to brainstorm the detrimental expectations associated with hegemonic masculinity. Over 200 individuals from nearly 40 different colleges and multiple organizations were in attendance. Courtney E. Martin offers some critical analysis of the event,
This contemporary movement of gender-conscious young men is largely identifying themselves in terms of what they are against. They’re not rapists. They’re not misogynists.
They’re also not particularly effective in imagining what they do want to be. Case in point: back to Wong at the chalkboard. The negative associations with masculinity poured off the tongues of these feminist-friendly college kids. They’ve taken Women’s Studies 101. When their buddy says, “That’s so gay,” they spit back, “That’s a sexual identity, not a dis.” They let a few tears fall during the Take Back the Night March. They devour Michael Kimmel’s Guyland and proselytize about Byron Hurt’s documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. This generation is saying no to toxic masculinity.
But what are these young men saying yes too? We’ve all failed to envision an alternative.
Although I agree with a large majority of what Courtney is saying, part of me thinks we should cut the guys a little slack. I mean, we have to start somewhere, don’t we? In fact, many great feminist thinkers have made the argument that it is necessary for us to reject old systems of thinking before laying out a blueprint of the future. Revolution isn’t easy, and it most certainly doesn’t happen over night, however; I do understand where Courtney is coming from. As feminist men, if all our time is spent on problematizing masculinity and defining what we are not, then when are we going to decide what we are?
In asking this question, I think we have to be cautious about how we totalize feminism. There is no ONE male identity. There is no ONE feminist identity. So I think we can assume that there can be no ONE male-feminist identity. Assuming a category of “acceptable” masculinity assumes that we even know what the hell masculinity and femininity is. Let’s be real: we don’t.
Progressive men all over this country are redefining their lives in a meaningful way. They are rejecting old notions of masculinity and involving themselves in a struggle to end gender based discrimination. I can’t predict where we will go from here, however; I can hope that we see a little less ‘men’s rights groups’ and a little more feminist identified men.
Here are some personal suggestions of mine on how to bridge the gap between men and feminism:
1. Don’t believe the hype. Feminists aren’t man-hating militants. Just because you’ve met one of them doesn’t mean they are the poster child of the feminist movement. Speaking from personal experience as a gay man, the feminist community has, with out a doubt, been the most welcoming place I have ever found.
2. Give stereotypes the boot. Meeting social expectations of what we should or shouldn’t be keeps us from finding our authentic self. The best way to redefine masculinity in a progressive way… is to stop defining it. We don’t need a definition to make ourselves better human beings.
3. Come to terms with your male privilege. This is probably one of the most difficult tasks. It requires a great deal of self reflection; in fact, chances are that you won’t like what you see at first. Absent this difficult and painful task, feminist men are destined to replicate the same old sexist behavior.
4. Become an active member in the feminist struggle, rather than a passive consumer. There is no excuse to scapegoat your responsibility for the oppressive socio-political structure that we live under. Get your ass moving and find out how to make a difference.
Andrew (AJ) is a vehement progressive, youth activist, and reproductive justice organizer. When he's not busy with the movement, you can usually find him dancing in the club or watching trashy reality tv.