Term’s finished, so I’ve finally got round to catching up with all the fantastic stuff written on this site at the start of the year. This article engages with (or is at least inspired by) one of my favourite pieces – “Soul of a Man under Feminism” by A. MacDonald. I do not know the author (sorry if I actually do!), but like him I define as both a straight male and a feminist. A lot of what he said resonated with me – especially the remark that “Our society fetishizes struggle and adversity which leaves the privileged in a reality gap. It’s an envy of struggle through an ignorance of struggle.” For me, middle-class guilt defines almost everything in my life. It has turned me rabidly cynical, that constant, all-knowing guilt. Oddly enough, however, I experience it slightly less when it comes to feminism. Because this article risks falling into unstructured rambling due to the “disordered and circular” nature of such experiences highlighted by MacDonald, I will present the points I want to make separately:
- Firstly, my experience of feminism has actually been very different to what MacDonald describes. I’ve never felt excluded or “part of the problem” or even particularly confused. The feminists I know, and they are fewer than I would like, have all been extremely welcoming and friendly, and actually an embarrassingly happy bunch of people. My encounters with them have been characterised by joking and light-heartedness, though obviously they often hold much anger and frustration beneath the surface. None of this has ever been directed at me. I have three sisters but none has ever told me that “there’s just things you’ll never understand” (as MacDonald’s did).
- I do get a lot of surprise, however. Mostly from non-feminists. When I manned the student Feminist Society’s stall at fresher’s fair, I got many derisive snorts from strangers. A lot of my friends who happened to see me came over and congratulated me on actually being a male feminist. Even I was shocked at how much this happened. However – unusually for me – this didn’t make me feel guilty or unwanted or out of place. It merely stoked my feminist anger to a slightly higher notch – a slight sensation of outrage that the world is still so amazed by the concept of men not being happy with the gender status quo. One more thing that we need to change.
- I don’t buy the idea that our experiences define us so radically that we cannot understand where others are coming from when they describe their feelings and emotions to us. I have read my Foucault – and yes I do agree that people are fundamentally shaped by discourses and cultural power, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate or empathise beyond this. I am a social anthropology undergrad – my discipline is founded on the practice of people integrating across discourses. A European goes to Indonesia and lives there for a long time – eventually they can understand what’s going on in that culture as well as any “native” and they are capable of explaining this back to other Europeans who can in turn comprehend it. Yes there are problems with cultural assumptions and so forth, but these can be identified and eliminated. Anthropology *has* essentially thrown off its colonial past. My point is that while men and women tend to have very different experiences in life and thus become very different people, it’s ludicrous to imagine that they cannot possibly comprehend the experiences of each other, especially when they have so many shared cultural referents.
- In fact, I’m even offended by the suggestion/implication (again, this has not come from any feminists I know) that I am incapable of knowing or caring about the problem of “women” or of any type/group of humans. As if the constructed boundaries separating us were greater than our shared humanity. As if the suffering of others doesn’t bother me or touch me, as if I can’t know or even imagine what it’s like to suffer. I *am* a feminist. Not in a detached or intellectual way. Feminism for me is highly emotional and experiential, founded utterly in my horror at the various gender-based realities that I have become aware of either first-hand (yes, men do get gender discrimination, and no, it’s not as anything like as bad as what women get on average) or via what I’ve heard from/seen in others. This is not a complicated or unusual state of affairs. It happens frequently in millions of people every day.
- I’m not a big fan of the idea that you can teach men to be feminists by following certain rules, as suggested in this article (though I do support *most* of what it calls for). That reeks of categorisation. You don’t have to tick boxes to “be” a feminist, whatever gender you define as. Feminism is personal – it emerges in each individual for different reasons and is composed of different feelings and experiences – we mustn’t essentialise it. I also dislike the idea that the author might view me as attractive by virtue of my feminism – it just feels uncomfortable, as if I was being judged as a person on the basis of my opinions/ideologies (though to be fair the author is mostly talking about actions).
- Refusal to categorise or essentialise is also key for thinking about the vast numbers of misogynist women and the male feminist heroes, both famous and little-known. For the majority of feminists (in my experience), I’m stating the obvious here, so I shall state it again, just to be clear: Men and women are equally key to ending the gender problems we care about. The categories themselves are central to these problems, because the problems are largely structural. The patriarchy is not a literal conspiracy, it is a social phenomenon that was not consciously created. Surprise at the creature known as the male feminist only indicates how much we still fail to appreciate structural and discursive power and how much we continue to cling to essentialism. Here comes the but.
- BUT. But, it is equally ludicrous to say that feminists are man-haters, or to blame them if they are. Not just because most don’t hate men. It’s ludicrous to say that feminists are man haters because – even if they are – saying so allows you to reject everything else they also are. Or more precisely, it allows you to miss the fact that feminists, as already explained, *are* not any definable thing or even set of things. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen wonderful articles and brilliant analyses completely rejected out of hand merely because the author has indulged in a generalisation/stereotype/homogenising narrative/portrayal of “men” as evil. Sure, 90% of the time I agree that the generalisation was inappropriate, and these problems are endemic in feminism and need to be dealt with. But it shouldn’t detract from the point being made. Worse, the dismissal is often arbitrarily extended to all of feminism, which is then branded as dogmatic and fringe.
- It is not a contradiction with my points about structure and categorisation to say that male people DO generate and sustain the majority of the problems feminists care about. The vast majority. People defining as women suffer BY FAR the most. The two genders tend to have PROFOUNDLY different experiences, so while I still stick to my point, above, that we can always empathise across experiential differences, this often requires A LOT more effort than we might imagine. It especially requires that all concerned LISTEN to each other, really listen, and make a strong effort to hear what is being said without one’s customary ideological or gender filters. Those who fail to do this should rightly be the subject of scorn and anger. They certainly make me furious, though I understand why it happens. Further, while the patriarchy is NOT a conspiracy, and seeing it as such can make us adopt misguided tactics for dealing with it, it DOES behave pretty much AS IF IT WERE a conspiracy. So casually treating it as such in our articles and conversations is not surprising, unforgiveable, nor the end of the world – though I do agree it should be avoided as much as possible.
I’ve veered far from my original thoughts about being a male feminist, but as I hope you can see, I think the issue is relevant to more or less all of feminism. I would love to develop these thoughts further!