Redefining Masculinity: Are Feminist Men Getting the Job Done?

protesting violence - cartoonThis 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.

About aj:
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.


  1. Will Chamberlain says:


    Your post does highlight a serious problem – the lack of an alternative vision of masculinity in the feminist worldview – but it fails to resolve it. Your notion that “we should just stop defining masculinity” leaves men adrift. There are very positive aspects of traditional masculinity – mental strength, independence of thought, integrity, reliability, and an overarching pursuit of truth, that seem to be swept aside within your paradigm. To the extent it urges men to do anything, it urges them to feel guilty about their “privilege.” While the quisling betas Martin reports on in her piece would probably embrace that kind of tepid masculinity, you’ll have to excuse me if I pass.

  2. Excellent write up and I agree with everything you’ve said. Nice.

  3. Will:
    “There are very positive aspects of traditional masculinity”
    Sure.. There are very positive aspects to wearing corsets, too. Identifying as ‘masculine’ promotes an exaggerated expression of certain traits via grossly constricting and damaging other traits; the same applies to identifying as ‘feminine’, and of course also to wearing a corset.

    It doesn’t matter how you conceive of ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ — it’s the false dichotomy between them in culture that creates this problem. Changing their definitions, as has been done several major times historically, doesn’t solve the problem.

    AFAICS there are only two options in this specific arena which don’t constrain your ability to let yourself be a whole human being : identifying as {both feminine and masculine, that is, inalienably and fully both}, or identifying as {neither}. I’m currently moving towards the former.

    In my observation, there are two kinds of ‘male privilege’
    talked + written about by feminists: the privilege to behave badly (insult others, provoke them into fights, apply subtle or overt coercion, generally behave as if you are the only one that matters, etc), and the privilege of prioritization/coming first. The first category covers behavioral flaws that I’d hope you’d aim to correct anyway; the second covers things that are not your direct responsibility and you don’t really have reason to feel guilty about.

    So I think in prescribing careful self-examination, AJ is not prescribing guilt in any way except the guilt of looking back and realizing, ‘yeah, that was an assholish, inconsiderate thing to do, and !I did it!’. I think that’s a good thing to do as long as you move on and don’t dwell on it.

  4. I both whole heartedly agree and disagree with this post at the same time.

    I agree because individuals need to be recognized as individuals. To judge people based on unfounded or unattainable stereotypes denies that person the opportunity to utilize his/her gifts and talents.

    On the other hand, to say that masculinity and feminity cannot be defined simply shirks the challenge of self-realization and of reality.

    Men need to concern themselves with what being male means. Masculinity needs quit running from social challenges; men need to quit conceding that testosterone is bad; men need to quit pretending like men and women are exactly alike.

    Masculinity is defined by action.

    To speak in stereotypes, women are generally better suited to self-identify through adjectives. Men use verbs.

    Modern life requires more expression and communication than it does action: writing memos, describing products, organizing meetings, etc. So men often feel ungrounded and un utilized. Because of these societal shifts men have been unable to define their gender.

    If men want to define themselves and find something to be for, men need to take action: raise money for prostate cancer through Movember, go to a poker game, landscape the yard, begin a workout routine. Men are identified and unified through action.

  5. @Will – I did not see anything in aj’s piece suggesting we (men) embrace guilt. There is a huge difference between recognizing one’s privilege and seeing one’s character flaws and using both of those as an opportunity for personal growth and feeling guilty. Guilt is rather useless as it tends to suggest powerlessness. But we are not powerless. We can change the way we interact with the world around us. We can decide to embrace feminism as a way to creating something quite beautiful. Although we can’t simply renounce our privilege we can choose to not always act on that privilege. We can decide to be still and listen to women’s voices especially when it comes to their bodies and reproductive rights. We can refuse to take part in oppression and work with others to end systemic forms of oppression. We don’t have time to feel guilty. There is too much work to be done.

  6. This is a great post, AJ, and I’m glad to see that it’s generating so much discussion. If I could add something to the list, feminist men need to recognize that women sometimes need a woman-only space. We can complicate what it means to be a woman and deconstruct gender all day long, but at the end of the day, sometimes women (however that’s defined) need to have a space for themselves. It always surprises me when men get their feelings hurt by this – and I think it speaks to male privilege. Why should you have a right to participate? Why do you assume that you need to be included?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love feminist men. Heck – I’m married to one. But sometimes it needs to be women only.

  7. @Serena – I completely agree with you. Women absolutely deserve to have their own spaces. I have in fact witnessed this controversy first hand at a taking back the night rally. We had just finished the march, enjoyed some lovely conversation around the living room of a really big house, and were getting ready to take our seats for some group dialogue. After a couple minutes had gone by, the group facilitator asked all of the men to get together and spend thirty minutes having their own conversation in a different room. I can’t speak for the women in this case — but offering a moment for all of the men in the group to get together and talk, provided a life changing experience for me. We all discussed the myriad of ways in which we have been pressured throughout our lives to act a certain way, and how that process of socialization has impacted women in our society. All of the guys began to share really intimate stories about their lives, providing one of the most unique inner-personal experiences of my life.

    the point I want to make is that these spaces are important. Although feminist men and women (whatever those categories end up meaning to each person) must join together in solidarity, it is equally vital to maintain safe spaces for particular conversations. I don’t know what happened during that thirty minutes in the women’s group. Quite frankly, it’s not any of my business. All I know is that when we joined back together, every single person was a little more conscious & a little more liberated.

  8. I have become more and more sceptical of attempts to “redefine” masculinity, simply because masculinity represents a gender-role no matter how it’s defined. Masculinity has had many different meanings over the past 3,000 years depending on society, social class, age etc and I don’t think coming up with a new version is going to help much.

    The point of any definition of masculinity or femininity is simply to place some form of peer pressure on others to conform; Susan Brownmiller’s line “all women are female impersonators” holds true for men as well (i.e. “all men are male impersonators”). With men, there is a huge amount of importance in avoiding losing face to other men, and this is policed quite heavily (though how depends on social class, local culture etc) and conforming to “masculinity” is how one achieves this. here’s a copy-paste from a post I did a while back that mentioned this phenomenon and how I think it works:

    A good description of how this works can be found in Richard P. Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” when he writes about students in Brazil, and how they reinforce one another’s fear of being seen as less intelligent, if they ask questions:

    One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: “If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, ‘What are you wasting our time for in the class? We’re trying to learn something. And you’re stopping him by asking a question.’”

    It was a kind of one-upmanship, where nobody knows what’s going on, and they’d all put each other down as if they did know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a high-handed attitude, acting like it’s not confusing at all, telling him he’s wasting their time.

    This, in a nutshell, is what happens a lot with men as the students, and masculinity in general. The event described by the student only needs to happen to you once or twice (indeed, you only need to see it happen to someone else once or twice) and you learn not to do it again, and you learn also to be the one doing it to the next guys, because “it’s the only way you’ll learn”, and the only way they’ll learn to do it to the guys after them. In Norah Vincent’s book, Self-Made Man, we see a description of this happening and how these systems work in practice, which is one reason why in my review of the book I was so enthusiastic about it being a core text in understanding gender politics.

    I think that what the men discussed in the OP are doing is learning to stop policing traditional masculinity, although there’s a tendency to want to police it into something else instead (which is where the idea of finding a “new definition of masculinity” comes from). But if we understand first the role that male policing of masculinity plays in upholding inequality and negative consequences for both genders, then I think it’s easier to avoid doing it without looking for something else to say “be like this instead”.

  9. Bravo SnowDrop, I love your comment.

    @Patrick: I think your comment illustrates for me, very well, the point of this article. Your comment describes one man’s perspective on what it means to be a feminist man, and then generalizes what masculinity, and with it, femininity, mean.

    I have to disagree with these generalizations. I know many women of action. And most every man I’ve known well has become quite into self-expression and communication as soon as other men leave the room. And from what I understand, many men can be quite emotionally open and ‘adjective-ish’ in private company with men they trust.

    The difficulty with any definition of either masculinity or femininity remains in the restrictions it sets, for those who do not identify with that particular definition.

    I feel that Courtney Martin does make a very good point at the end of her article though. She mentions a possibility of placing higher emphasis on some of the advantages, some of the positive aspects of being a feminist man. These bear repeating. If sole emphasis is placed on what not to do, it may not have as much impact. Enlightened self interest beats privilege guilt every time.

  10. “enlightened self interest beats privilege guilt every time”

    couldn’t have said it better myself Gwenyth. Thanks for giving such awesome insight!

  11. I really appreciate this commentary, aj. It says some of what I wanted to say after reading Martin’s article, and says it more eloquently than I probably would have.

    I would also like to echo (I think) David G’s comment, by saying that it seems to me that, if we’re going to go the route of “redefining” masculinity, the fundamental place to begin is to note that anything that is traditionally masculine–good or bad–isn’t the exclusive domain of cisgendered men, any more than anything that is feminine is the exclusive domain of cisgendered women. If we start there, then we can redefine ‘em all we want, and I’ll be happy. :)

  12. Really great point jeffliveshere.

  13. Actually, y’all lost me.

    I was a self-identified feminist through college and actually into my first decade of marriage. But as I observed the devastation wrought by feminism on the collective psyche of American men, through their systematic emasculation of all men, and the effect that has on my own boys . . . I quit.

    That’s right. Quit being a feminist. I’m still a progressive, still work for reproductive and gay rights, but I’m not a feminist. At this point it is far more a gynocentric set of ideologies for the promotion of female interests and issues than it is a serious attempt at gender equality. I see the attacks on all masculinity by the feminist establishment as an attempt to close down any legitimate debate between the genders. And I see the effect of two generations of hypergamy and misandry, and I can’t take it any more. I will not raise my boys in a culture where their masculinity is not valued, appreciated, and celebrated. I will not raise my girl to hate men as a default, and see them as ATM machines and stepping stones to more successful men.

    I’m done. I’m devoting my considerable resources and efforts to supporting men’s rights and redefining masculinity without female input, advice, or consent. And I’m not alone. Google Manosphere and Red Pill, and see what all the dudes have been murmuring about when there aren’t any women around.

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