Dear Male Feminist,
Thank you for your interest in gender inequality. We agree that these imbalances are a concern for everyone, not just women. Of course, binary distinctions like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are themselves somewhat archaic: feminism is dynamic and fluid, and its relevance washes across the spectrum of gendered identities. But if Male Feminist is how you want to brand it, by all means, don’t let me stop you.
It is this notion of Male Feminist as a brand that I really want to speak to you about. In short, we’ve got some problems. Before I begin, I wish to clarify one fact with the full conviction we’re both aware of how thoroughly saturated it is with irony: some of my best friends are male feminists. Really, I’m being serious. In fact, I can’t think of one guy I know well that doesn’t intuitively understand that gender privilege is a major player in broader power dynamics, and that they therefore need to keep an eye on the assumptions they make about how their lived experience differs from others.
This is where things begin to get a little tricky. These chaps, unlike you, cringe at the label ‘Male Feminist’. This is not because they are bigots, nor is it because they have any opposition to feminism. In fact, aligned as they with the feminist movement across all its varied and diverse manifestations, they get a little worried that if they adopt the label, they might come across as patronising, as if they are trying to co-opt something that has a long and complex history for their social media brand, or as if it might be interpreted as them actually really not getting magnitude and the seriousness of the whole gender inequality thing at all.
Even Vice Magazine – Vice Magazine! – has figured out that this is some tricky ideological terrain. Their first piece of advice is sound: read. We all should, and sometimes going back to material even older than what pops up in our news feeds. For example, bell hooks once wrote a book on the subject addressed specifically at men called – you’ll love this – Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000). hooks tells us that we need to ‘share feminism, to let the movement into everyone’s mind and hearts’, and to her male readers, she issues this invitation:
Come closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our lives. Come closer and know firsthand what feminist movement is all about. Come closer and you will see: feminism is for everybody.
Let me be clear: from this perspective, I agree with hooks. I absolutely believe men can be feminists, and I encourage it because feminism is at its core about ending oppression. I can’t speak for all – or, to be correct, any – other women, but I know I certainly would feel a whole lot better if there were more men who felt this way. That would mean ideally that there would be less men in the world who wanted us dead, who wanted to torture us physically and emotionally, and who wanted to harass and stalk us and our children.
These men are not feminists, even if they tell us they are: and sadly, sometimes they do. It is in this way that the Male Feminist brand has now been corrupted, because some who have adopted it consider it a free pass to act out their own passive aggressive (and sometimes just plain aggressive) misogynies. Because of this, the label Male Feminist is for many something that triggers suspicion. As one activist friend who has publicly rejected the term wholesale recently told me, ‘Male Feminists are not feminists, they’re just men who want to fuck feminists’. This is not all women’s experience with the label, but it is the experience of some.
I am not for one moment suggesting that it is impossible for men to adopt the spirit of feminism and to implement it into their own lives. There are a lot of good guys who align themselves with feminism if only to distance them from the chamber of horrors we see unfolding as Team Chauvinist escalates into some pretty terrifying newfound terrain. But just anecdotally, most of the people who I know who fall into this category would hesitate to identify publicly as a Male Feminist, because in this climate the label has backfired time and time again. The Vice article uses the phrase ‘feminist men’ as a possible alternative, but is the solution really just a simple rebranding?
As far as I am concerned, call yourself whatever you damn well please. But do so with the knowledge that things are complicated. Make sure you help, and don’t hinder, and accept the fact that right now the Male Feminists brand is developing a reputation for doing precisely the latter. The politics surrounding the Male Feminist brand may be confusing right now, but the rules for ideologically sound living are as simple as they ever were: play nice with your fists, your cock, your words and your thoughts. It will make things better for all of us.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!