On the value of the label “Feminist”

I’m male-bodied and, despite being genderfluid, typically cis-presenting for the sake of (possibly over-) caution about non-binary/feminine presenting (although the experience of just having long, feminine hair and receiving abusive street harassment factors into my calculation of the risks). That puts me in the camp of privilege-having re: gender.

I have seen many different takes on the debate of whether men should use “feminist” as a name for themselves, from Jemima’s “Any men in the feminist movement calling themselves feminists would inevitably make the movement centre around male voices and male concerns,” to Amanda Marcotte’s “Men need to go about this the same way. Don’t like strict gender norms? Become a feminist.” These positions, and various ones in between, all being expressed by plenty of women who identify themselves as feminist (AIUI Jemima doesn’t ID as feminist, but I’ve read women who do use “feminist” to describe themselves use the same arguments and analysis). I find it hard to settle with either absolute declaration, but frankly, this is not my fight, and this post is all about why.

Men, too, have different takes on the matter. My favourite is perhaps summed up as, “some men have ‘feminist’ thrust upon them”. Chris @ Writing About Writing describes how his gender politics led to him being described by others as feminist:

However, whenever I started to bring up actual specifics, like pay discrepancies or gender portrayals or sexual assault or human trafficking or even the way traditional gender roles tend to disadvantage BOTH men and women in different ways, people would begin to use this word to describe me.


I would deny it, of course. “No no no…this is about equality.” But for some reason, they would not be convinced.

I realized that it pisses off exactly the sort of misogynists I like pissing off. It rocks the boat of exactly the mealy-mouthed, diplomatic, Ted Fucking Mosby, Me-From-2010, equalist, status quo lovers I wanted to shake up. It seemed to stand for all the things I actually, really, honestly stood for rather than just their unctuous homage. It went beyond platitudes and bumper stickers, and I liked it because of that.

It was what the world saw of me and what the world wouldn’t let me forget, and so now I wear it like armor.

I am a feminist.

I like this story a lot more than Drew Bowling’s version @ Role:Reboot about the same question, but in his version of “not claiming the name”, “feminist” is something to aspire to have applied to you: “And besides, it’s one thing to call myself a feminist, but it means a whole lot more when others label me as such.” A label to be earned from women. I shouldn’t have to explain why that is a deeply problematic position to be taking, in the context of women’s traditional roles under Patriarchy of (a) comforting and (b) validating men (by virtue of acting as gatekeepers – usually analysed with respect to “access to the fuck”, but applies to other validations of worth).


Suppose we’ve got a man who wants to call himself feminist. What’s in it for him?

The suspicion is often that he’s a Nice Guy, and what he’s hoping is that all those cute leftie chicks will want to suck his cock if they know he “values” their “equality”. I’ll be honest, although I wasn’t quite that bad in my younger days, when I most vigorously wanted the name (or oscillated between that and Chris’s starting point) – yes, I was a bit of a Nice Guy back then. I hope I’ve got better now.

Then there’s the reasons Chris outlined in his article, when he came to accept the name being thrust upon him (more reasons are given than just the passages I quoted, btw).

Related to that, there is the “shield”, men who feel very vulnerable when they attempt to challenge other men on their sexist shit, and being able to claim identity with a movement rather than just being a single reed can give men the courage to stand up to that.

For some it is a badge of acceptability, the “feminist cookie” for being “not a jerk”. This is the “validation” problem I identified with Drew’s article on Role:Reboot.


What’s in it for me?

At various stages in my life, as noted above, I have taken various positions on my claim to “feminism”, ranging from “I’m a feminist! Fuck me please!” through “I’m male & therefore unworthy of ‘full feminism’ but I can be an Ally!” to the “Equalism not Feminism!” on the minus column, and “Of course I’m a Feminist, I believe in gender equality!” through “Patriarchy hurts men, too! I’m an Ally!” to “Women get to choose, not me.” on the more positive side.

Where I’m at today is, “What the fuck use is this word to me anyway?” It’s the politics that matters, not the label I or anyone else applies to it, and there are an awful lot of feminists out there whose politics are quite disgusting to me (e.g. TERFs, SWERFs, KERFs, and their liberal feminist kin in exclusionism and/or paternalism); or women who claim “feminist” from a right-wing angle to account for their personal success as a virtue, but who piss on other women from a great height.

Few people have insisted on calling me feminist. Calling myself feminist, it turns out, didn’t give me that extra courage needed for those confrontations; I still feel the need to be cautious and not get beaten up. And plenty of people have awarded me the “not a jerk” cookie without using the word “feminist” to do so. (Also, I think everyone’s a jerk at times no matter what, we should just do our best not to be. So, again, not much use, and you can save the cookies.)

All-in-all, “feminist” is a word that does nothing to help me as a label for myself.

Engaging with feminist thinking and gender/sexual politics has been very useful. It is through these that I found the language and foundation through which to accept my non-binary gender ID and my non-hetero sexuality (I usually say “bisexual” but what that means for a genderfluid person is a bit too convoluted for me to parse easily, but I don’t like “pansexual” because I don’t lust for all genders, at least, not equally). It provided a framework through which I could conceptualise BDSM as Not A Bad Thing (because feminist women who are Submissives and/or masochists are real, and hearing how they centre BDSM on women’s desires helped). TERFs and their ilk aside, it gave me the language to accept and understand the diversity of gender, and how gender is constructed separate from physiology (i.e. primary and secondary sex characteristics vs all the social coding). And it showed how there are things that can and must be changed on a structural level.

Feminist thinking has helped me directly, and has shown me how to be a better revolutionary. But listening to women who for various reasons (usually to do with how established or Establishment feminists have treated them, on various axes of privilege) don’t identify as feminist, but are pro-gender liberation and anti- those other, negative, forms of feminism I mentioned above, also helped me in the same ways.

I think the best way for me to engage is to be a fellow-traveller rather than in any way claim membership (or even ally-ship) of their movement. Gender politics affect me as a male-bodied not-quite-cis, not-quite-man-enough, bisexual kinkster in ways that they don’t affect women, and they affect women in ways they don’t affect me (and usually those are worse than the ones that affect me). I believe the end goal of gender liberation (not merely equality, but that too) is a good one, and that even when something doesn’t affect me directly, if it is contrary to those goals then opposing it will end up making things better for every person.

If some people want to use “feminist” to describe my “fellow-travelling”, that’s fine by me. It doesn’t matter to me whether you call it a manually-operated excrement relocating tool (MOERT) or a shovel, as long as I’m using it to clear away the shitheap that is Patriarchy.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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