Can a Man be a Feminist? A Disputation.

Posted on March 9, 2011


This whole line of inquiry is a little bit self-defeating. If I, a man, decide that men like me cannot legitimately call themselves feminists, then I’ll be stuck with the dilemma of how a non-feminist can possibly presume to say who can and cannot be a feminist. With this potential paradox hanging over the whole discussion, it seems that I am doomed from the start. The obvious solution to the dilemma is to stay out of the question altogether and leave it to a woman, whose experiences will better qualify her to come to a conclusion free of self-contradiction.

The problem is that, like so many other feminist issues, women do not agree. The question of the male feminist is a significant sticking point in feminist circles. Meanwhile, I am trapped in male feminist identity limbo. There is good reason to find some way to make up my mind, as the question has significant real-world consequences. The countless men around the world who are sympathetic to the radical proposition that women are people will certainly have some kind of effect on feminist consciousness raising. What follows is this long-winded disclaimer is an attempt to survey the current state of the debate, and to justify my personal decision to apply the feminist label to myself.

Late one night last summer, I was walking home from my favourite suburban bar with a few friends. These particular friends are principled, interesting, intelligent people, but it bears mention that our most frequent topics of conversation revolve around zombies, beer and other intoxicants, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It was therefore somewhat surprising that on this particular walk home, the topic of feminism came up. I don’t remember what segue brought it up, or who first mentioned it (we were coming home from a bar, after all), but the first mention of the word “feminism” was met with the same kind of derision frequently expressed by well-meaning men who nevertheless don’t really know what the word means. I put a quick stop to that by announcing that I am a feminist. This made their heads explode a little bit, but the perceived inconsistency of my feminism allowed me to dodge the arrogant mansplainey dismissal that feminists frequently face, and we actually had a really productive conversation.

This was just one relatively insignificant drunken conversation in which I was able to use the fact that I am a man to potentially change the minds of two people. But I think it may well reflect a more common phenomenon. There are lots of men out there who would be happy to support feminism, except that their image of it is dictated entirely by Maxim Magazine. These people are very unlikely to listen to any woman who openly calls herself a feminist. Feminist men have a unique way to engage with these people. In a perfect world, productive dialogue would not be gender exclusive regardless of the subject being discussed. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and it is up to us to exploit whatever holes are left open by patriarchy. It would seem, therefore, that practical concerns mandate that men who sympathize with feminist goals call themselves feminists.

On the other hand, there is a very good philosophical reason for men to avoid the label. Feminism is primarily about women’s struggle against oppression and men like me can never have a true understanding of the methods and consequences of patriarchal oppression. I can read feminist theory (something I don’t do nearly enough of), and keep track of feminist blogs in order to educate myself as best I can, but my understanding will never advance beyond the merely academic. This is not merely an epistemic matter. It is impossible to come to a reasonable solution without a full understanding of the problem. A feminist man with the best intentions can therefore unwittingly be part of the problem because he does not fully understand it.

In the spirit of this point, I think a quote is in order:

“When it comes to oppression, people can fight against it (and I strongly encourage them to), but they will never fully understand it unless they are subject to it. People with male privilege, no matter how much they are aware of their privilege, won’t be able to get rid of that privilege to fully understand the oppression that they are a part of (part of privilege is being complicit in oppression, even if you are aware of your privilege).”

Accordingly, perhaps it is better for a man with feminist sympathies to classify himself as a feminist ally, or something similar.

I have decided against this course of action, for a somewhat paradoxical reason: Men qua men have their own unique experience of oppression. Before I go on with this point, I have to make one thing very clear: I am not arguing that I my experience of sexism is anywhere near that of the average woman. It isn’t. Not even close. But the points brought up by the Men’s Rights Activists who seem to be the ubiquitous opposition in Internet feminism are somewhat valid. What MRAs tend to miss is that all the ways that society is biased against men are the result of the exact same structure of oppression that biases in so many more ways against women.

As a male in my early twenties, I am expected by society to be really good at at least one team sport, to drive a nice car really aggressively, and to be willing and able to chug a six-pack of Coors in under an hour. In reality, I’d rather spend that hour sipping on a Dieu du Ciel, I have no intention of ever owning an automobile, and I’d be happier running as fast as I can into a brick wall than playing a team sport. Some men would call me effeminate for having these tastes, and that particular choice of wording is precisely my point. The patriarchal bullshit that demands I be a sociopathic douchebag jock is the same patriarchal bullshit that frowns on women who spend too much time on anything other than their appearance. I therefore have a purely self-interested reason to identify with the feminist movement not just out of ethical concern that I not be complicit in the oppression of half the human race, but also because I experience the negative effects of patriarchy in my own small way.

Feminism, of course, refers etymologically to a woman’s struggle which I can never be fully involved in. But so long as it is defined as a belief that gender roles are bullshit and a commitment to eliminate patriarchy in all its forms, then it is a movement with which I must associate myself for both ethical and self-centered reasons. I must recognize that my perspective is limited and that I have no right to take an kind of ownership of the  movement, but I am nevertheless, proud to call myself a feminist.