I’ve been thinking a lot of the resurgence of feminism in pop culture, particularly its shift from an important political tool and into a passive self-identifier. A slew of hashtags, Beyoncé standing triumphantly in front of a glowing marquee, and Justin Trudeau’s smug proclamation of “Because it’s 2015” have made feminism accessible and appealing to the masses. Yet this is troubling to me. Of course any reasonable person can agree that the definition of feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” aligns with their beliefs and worldview, but we often forget the second part of the definition of feminism (being: “organized activity in support of women’s rights and interests”). Feminism requires more than slapping a label on yourself so you don’t look out of touch/like an asshole. It requires a commitment to ending oppressive structures of patriarchy and gender that are imposed on people in all facets of life.
I was chatting with a friend on the bus yesterday about male feminists, and how the bar has never been so low for men. My partner Davis is a feminist ally, and a very committed one. In all of his political activities, he strives for gender parity. He listens to and amplifies women’s voices whenever he can. Ours is an egalitarian relationship and he respects, uplifts, and affirms my lived experience. And it makes me so sad when people tell me how lucky I am, how rare he is, and how I should be so proud that my boyfriend actively works with and for feminist activism. Yes, I am lucky; yes, he is great and probably a rarity; but why the hell is it so countercultural for him to actually put his money where is mouth is and use his male privilege to amplify my voice and the voices of other women? I believe this is all rooted in the depressingly low standards of acceptable behaviour that men have inherited as a by-product of their patriarchal advantage. When a man takes precedence in a dialogue about a women’s issue, it shows us that we still have a loooooong way to go. When we give gold stars for the most basic acceptance of equality and acknowledgment of personhood, that is a bleak statement on our society. My boyfriend’s feminist allyship doesn’t make him a hero or a saint, it makes him a safe partner, which is the least of what any woman deserves (shout to his parents, Janet and Ralph, for instilling these values in all three of their sons).
Men receive absolution from their complicity in sex-based oppression because they haven’t violently raped a woman and are showered with praise and accolades when they hop on the Pop Feminism Bandwagon. The adoration grows, and often blots out the efforts of women, when a full-bodied understanding and implementation of feminist ideology is observed. Let’s take a look at two examples. The Twitter movement #NotAllMen of 2014 is an excellent example of how we collectively pardon men (and how they pardon themselves) from taking responsibility for their privilege and the benefits they reap from the social structures that have been designed in their favour. Your everyday “good guy” cannot possibly be a part of the problem for any number of reasons: he has female family members/is a gentleman/is chivalrous/has a female boss/has never raped anyone. The #NotAllMen defence glosses over institutional issues and symbolic, coded behaviour that fills everyday life. The second example I’d like to point you to is the Toxic Male Feminist. The TMF ranges in commitment and understanding and can come in many forms; there’s the young man who signed the UN’s “He for She” Pledge because “Emma Watson is hot and girls are into it” (note: this is an ACTUAL conversation I had with a peer), and then there are figures like Charles Clymer (I highly recommend checking this link out).
Male feminists are not always expressly toxic, neither should they be outright excluded from participating in the quest for equality. What needs to stop is the media obsession with men who proclaim feminism and regurgitate the feelings, demands, and ideology that have been developed through generations of grassroots female-led activism. When we put the Trudeaus, the Joseph Gordon-Levitts, and the Ryan Goslings on pedestals and in the next breath call female activists shrill and bitchy, we need to be critically assessing where feminism is going and who is sailing the ship.
So my words are not confused, men absolutely have a role to play. But it is one of allyship, education, and reform. Listen. Let women educate you. Leave spaces where your presence causes discomfort. Do not let your voice tune out the lived experiences that you’ve only just been made aware of. Check your motivation. If you’re labelling yourself as a feminist because it’s another way to meet girls, you’re doing it wrong. If you do so because you are appalled by the rampant domestic and international oppression of women and want to understand how you are both a piece of that structure and how to undo it, then you are by all means welcome. But if you require praise and fanfare, ask yourself why it’s necessary to receive validation for striving towards something so obvious and so essential.