the male feminist paradox

Let's start in the far corner:

"We're told over and over that any action that doesn't involve men is radicalism, is separatism, is fringe. For credibility, for legitimacy, for mainstream appeal, we need men... in order to achieve our goal of liberation, we have to have a greater influence in the world, a louder voice. They tell us, and it seems to make sense, that we need men to model good behavior for boys, since boys won't listen to us, and so our movement must go out of its way to court men for their credibility."
- Male Feminists are Unicorns

"Men's relation to feminism is an impossible one ... the point after all is that this is a matter for women, that it is their actions that must determine the change and redefinition ... my desire to be a subject there too in feminism - to be a feminist - is then only the last feint in the long history of their colonization."
- Stephen Heath

Allow me to mansplain 'mansplaining': Patronising explanation by some man to some woman of something the woman knows fine well about already - if not better than he could know. (Also the very common ill-founded contradiction of their views.)

And allow me to mansplain the Male-feminist Paradox: "If you're not part of the solution to sexism, you're a part of the problem - and sometimes even then." (Since society at large grants men a certain status and at least negative freedom. All men are voluntarily or involuntarily oppressive, and lots are voluntarily. A small number want to work against this influence.) But can I do feminism?

[Disclosure: am man, am cis, am breeder]

Is it possible to be male and feminist?

1. Sure! We'll use our privilege against Privilege!

"I'm pretty good at thinking, and I'm ok at speaking; how may I be of service? Let's see - one of the more insidious expressions of sexism is the credibility gap between a man and a woman presenting the same information; let's close the gap using the gap." Can it be so simple?

Well. Self-identifying as a feminist is too easily a means of ducking male privilege without really changing your mode ("fauxminism"). I'd add that self-identifying as a "pro-feminist" is too easily a means of ducking obligations of social justice.

It is maddening to be aware of the power relations that surround you, soaking every thing anyone does. You can't but be changed.

A few prominent examples (insofar as any deviant is really 'prominent'):

  • John Stoltenberg, m-f emeritus (Dworkin would hardly have put up with him otherwise)

  • Paul Kivel, right-on educator, though loud.

  • Robert Jensen, a journalist who's energetically seen the light, or at least a light.

  • the "3 Michaels" of male academic gender, Kimmel, Flood and Messner. (bizarrely, there's a fourth prominent Michael, Kaufman. Colonisers.)

  • and (more sensational and egotised) David Futrelle.

...and some disgraced ones

2. No.

"First, what the fuck is up with men calling themselves feminists? I don’t call myself a feminist, because it’s not my call whether I am or not. It’s women’s call ... Making a big melodramatic display of tagging oneself with the “feminist” label seems like transparent male cookie-seeking at best, and cover for some seriously nefarious wackaloon shit at worst..."
- Physioprof

Well, that's the most macho way of putting it possible, but yes. If I were challenged on my use of 'feminist', could I insist, however politely, that my power-position does not necessarily disqualify me? That an 'us' and 'them' dialectic set up by segregating by gender can only make things worse? Seems dubious.


- "Feminism is a movement developed by and for women, voice for the voiceless."

- "Men can never really understand what it is like to be a woman (extra premise: & this is necessary to feminism)."

- "Must not rely on men to make feminism credible, because this reinforces shitty discourses."

- "If conceded, men might eventually dominate the movement (& dilute it)."

- "There are too many cases of abuse by 'allies'. It is an unworthy risk"

- "We're not segregating by gender; we're segregating by unjust power."

I'm not convinced that tact and empathy can't compete with shared experience. But the point stands:

3. You tell me.

It isn't up to me if men can can or can't be, and if I am or amn't one. Anyway I don't need membership to support it, and the support is anyway the point.

Are male feminists needed?

Notwithstanding the point in the opening quote (that very-long-term progress against gender will be a matter of changing parenting and male role models): it's outwith my jurisdiction.

(The bigger utopian picture, where the liberation of all genders follows from the final dissipation of the patriarchy is accordingly everyone's business. What might have been called 'feminism-masculism'. Except we seem to have let the word "masculism" slip away to the anti-feminists; derp.)

What would it take to be a male feminist?

"This process of changing a mental framework — of "feeling like shit" — is something everyone from a privileged group has to deal with in order to work honestly and effectively with a less-privileged group. It's difficult, and it's probably the reason more progressive men aren't feminists — because becoming a feminist man means giving up the idea that you're one of the good guys, and recognizing that male privilege affects everyone, good guy or not."
- Anna North

If it is possible, some criteria suggest themselves:

a. Self-aware: Admits his privilege, and tries to limit it. (e.g. doesn't interrupt, doesn't mansplain, gives the women in his life their due autonomy & voice.)

b. Media-aware: Boycotts media that objectify and degrade women. (to counter the line, "Sure I’m a feminist; I love women!") Perhaps this could shift to "criticises media he sees that..." since you shouldn't simply shun controversy - e.g. watching The Help to analyse its treatment of race for yourself.

c. Socially aware: Is aware that many institutions he's tied into oppress women...

d. Active: ...and works to change or protest them. Most importantly, calls out sexism by men in his personal life. Problematise!

e. Feedbacked: When acting, makes sure he's reflecting women's lived experience.

f. Able to listen: Does not lead except by invitation. (This 'follower' status will rankle with many. So what? Sit down, please. Also jars with a certain intellectual tradition which is keen on impersonality.)

g. Knows the mens can wait. Doesn't insist on equal time for men’s issues in feminist spaces. ("Feminist men need to understand that their liberation from standards of masculinity goes hand in hand with smashing patriarchal social structures." - Megan Milanese)

h. Seeks understanding: i.e. has read more than bitty blogged basics of feminism. (Does this seem arbitrary, and pretentious? Well, it ain't the former: unless he respects the movement enough to listen to the ideas and react to their often deeply unsettling challenges, he can't be. The goal is understanding, and it ties in with (e).)

i. Promoter: Encourages women in his life to defy gender roles, at expense of own prestige/control. (This conflicts with criterion (a) when you're faced, as I often am, with unfeminist or post-feminist women. Do we have a right to reject liberation?)

j. Untagged. Is not a self-promoter, not a white knight. "Self-naming and self-identified labels mean nothing. There must be substance to the label they identify with, substance to who they claim to be." - Lucky Nickel

k. Takes care.

Is this so strict as to be alienating? ok kewl.


A more frivolous question:

Do I get to wear my ^ t-shirt? I've had more encounters and challenges about gender, good and bad, wearing this tee than all others combined. It genuinely does jolt people to see the word i) worn proudly and ii) on a man (even if on my effeminate frame). But it could also be seen as the egotistical, self-honorific thing.


Am I just whining? Is the above itself colonisation, a cry of "wat about the mens?!" (or 'boo hoo hoo, damned if I don't, damned if I do')?

Well no. First, cos I hope that that objection entails feminist spaces should not be hijacked - not that we shouldn't speak about men in general.

But also because paradox need only be occasion for pain if you are possessed by your need to make the world make sense. Incoherency is destructive because it offends a very common view in intellectual aesthetics (i.e. metaphilosophy, a.k.a. spirituality), not because it is intolerable or nihilistic in itself. I don't suffer from Platonism, much, anymore, so I will sit myself down in this paradox, and wait.

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