Men can fight Patriarchy without calling themselves feminist

Emer O’Toole @ The Guardian newspaper writes about men and feminism with the message that being “pro-feminist” is good enough, you don’t need (and shouldn’t claim) the label “feminist” unless you are all about women’s issues specifically.

Specifically, she complains about the whole “What about teh MENZ?” arguments, and gives three examples of situations where men calling themselves feminist have brought up men’s challenges when she’s been discussing women’s challenges. Her anecdotes appear to display different motivations for men making their argument. The first is the “tactical men’s issue”, which is to say, “Make the men feel included and they’ll want you to be equal with them” – a dubious claim at best, I would say. The second is the “philosophical men’s issue” (although with a touch of “tactical” as well), by which I mean where the issue is raised as a similar social issue that should be given equal effort in order to be “consistent” or “fair” – I’ll get onto why this is often disingenuous in a moment. The third is raised as a “Relax – you’ve won men’s issue”, which is to say, “This issue was a problem but now it’s affecting men instead” – which tends to be a blinkered claim and trying to take issues piecemeal instead of viewing things as a social structure.

I think O’Toole is off-target when she writes, “if they feel unable to talk about women’s issues without shouting ‘but men!'” It’s not that they are unable, or even unwilling, to have those conversations, and maybe sometimes they do have them.

The issues raised in her anecdotes: male body-image problems, street violence against men (raised in the context of street harassment), and “men dropping out of law degrees” (in the context of discussing the glass ceiling) – may well be important issues to discuss. Actually, I think the last one is a huge phoney red herring and the guy deserves a smackdown, but hey. Anyway, male body-image crises and violence committed against men are things we can say clearly are Bad Things that should be Dealt With. If that is the case, why is it that most men only seem to become concerned about them when a feminist starts talking about a parallel women’s issue? Where is the vocal movement against male-victim violence, and supporting male victims of violence, all the rest of the time? Where’s the campaign for images of “normal” male bodies to be a part of movies, advertising, etc? (Although it’s a lot easier to find examples of non-perfect non-model male bodies than it is the equivalent of females, I would hazard).

I will from time to time raise these and other men’s issues in the context of a feminist discussion. My aim in doing so is to look at how the causal and conceptual relationships between these problems mean fixing one helps fix the other. A point that O’Toole acknowledges: “Gender initiatives like the Good Men Project move us towards a more equal society, which benefits women in many ways, just like feminist initiatives benefit men in many ways.” Call that the “strategic men’s issue”, if you will. Incidentally, I and others in the “pro-feminist” camp have issues with Good Men Project, for instance, figleaf @ Bad Men Project whose tagline is or was, “Because nearly everything that goes into the idea of a good man is just the Patriarchy talking” – and it’s absolutely not true that GMP is “The conversation no one else is having” (as their “™” tagline states), and it hasn’t been for a while. But they are certainly a positive addition to the debate.

There is another explanation for these men’s remarks, that takes into account the curious tendency of them only to appear in certain contexts. I think men who call themselves feminist (and, even though I don’t call myself feminist, this goes for me too) sometimes fear being “left behind” – as women push for liberation from their constraints, we men feel as though the (sometimes much lesser) issues that plague us will be forgotten and never get fixed. There is a fear of a New Gender Order forming that somehow leaves men out in the cold. I vaguely recall a BBC docu-drama a couple of years ago dramatised some of the events surrounding the negotiations for the end of apartheid in South Africa. In this dramatisation, one of the White delegates at the debate told the ANC leaders, “We are afraid of what will happen if we give up control. We know what we did to you, and how could your people not want revenge?” [paraphrased from imperfect memory]. Regardless of whether that exchange actually happened or not, the sentiment is at the core of the “tactical” or “philosophical” men’s issue. It is perhaps more explicitly the basis for the “Relax – you’ve won” men’s issue. Deep down, we men know that women have it worse, and we fear that if feminism doesn’t include men’s issues, then one day we will suffer that fate instead.

This fear is not a helpful emotion, and acting on it by bringing up men’s issues only in the context of feminist campaigns proves to be counterproductive. It creates an oppositional motion when what is needed is a co-operative motion. Men need to be able to work on feminist issues without always relating it back to men’s issues, and vice versa – but most of all, we need to work on the underlying issues of Patriarchy, race and class (some people call these combined, “kyriarchy”, but it’s an awkward concept and covers up the very significant differences between these dimensions of oppression). Anything that helps end Patriarchy will be likely to help women more than it does men, but it will certainly help reach the end goal of gender-liberated society.

Incidentally, I don’t think the aim of “equality” is much good for feminists or pro-feminists, because I don’t like the sound of “equally oppressed”, even though it seems some men (especially anti-feminists) do. Liberation seems a much better goal.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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