Can Men Really Be Feminists?

*** My views and opinions have changed since the initial publishing of this article—a sign of genuine skepticism and critical thought at work. I no longer think men ‘should’ identify as feminists and am very concerned about the radicalization of the political left. Censorship, cancel culture, gaslighting, etc. cannot be weaponized to promote equality—a violent means will never achieve a peaceful end. That said, I do still believe men and women alike are harmed by the mentality of patriarchy, and that radical self-responsibility and warrior-like courage can help usher in peace and prosperity for all. ***  

The other day I read a thought provoking article in The Atlantic written by the author of Wonder Woman, Noah Berlatsky. The piece stimulated an internal dialogue which I felt was worth sharing:

“It’s true that sometimes male feminists, myself not excluded, imagine we’re brave allies, altruistically saving women by standing up for them,” Berlatsky observes. “But dreams about men saving women are just another version of misogyny — and, in this case in particular, totally backwards. Misogyny is a cage for everyone. When I call myself a male feminist, I’m not doing it because I think I’m going to save women. I’m doing it because I think it’s important for men to acknowledge that as long as women aren’t free, men won’t be either.”

If you’re a male feminist or feminist ally because of “mothers, wives, and daughters” or to fulfill a desire to help “save women,” you’re helping to perpetuate many of the misogynist values feminism seeks to eradicate.

Contrary to the tired trope about “mothers, wives and daughters” that generally gets thrown around in arguments about why men should care about women’s rights, men should be feminists because the lives of the women and girls they have never met and will never meet matter. Particularly in a culture that does not encourage men to cultivate or express empathy, this thing of giving a basic shit about people you don’t know is itself a kind of radical act. But Berlatsky’s point that “misogyny is a cage for everyone” also captures another reason that I think men can and should identify as feminists. Because of course men should be outraged at the violence experienced by women and girls and the systems that dehumanize them, but framing men’s relationship to feminism exclusively as men’s relationship to women’s status in the world erases the fact that men are also harmed by patriarchy, toxic masculinity and entrenched cultural and institutional sexism.

The scale is aways going to be different, of course. I’d never try to argue otherwise. Cultural norms that hold women as mothers and caregivers above all else mean that women get paid less than their male colleagues for the same work, and that women disproportionately put their personal and career ambitions on hold in order to care for children and others. But these same norms also leave men questioning their masculinity or doubting their self-worth if they want to stay home with their children. These things aren’t the same, but they both matter.

The same could be said about dominant narratives around sexual assault. Women and girls make up the majority of victims of sexual violence, but a culture that straight up says that teenage boys can’t be raped makes it almost impossible for male survivors to come forward. Destructive ideas about sexual male entitlement are at the heart of rape culture and the reason that so many women and girls are victimized in their lifetimes, but they also feed into this idea that men always want sex, which makes men who have been victims of rape question whether or not what happened to them even counts as a crime. It took a really, really long time for this to even become a crime. These same norms also encourage men to have really warped relationships to desire and sexual satisfaction. This stuff hurts women the most because of the violence it engenders, but it hurts men, too.

There are plenty of important questions to ask about how men can be feminists without making themselves the center of the movement. About the work of listening and boosting versus erasing and derailing. About how men get lots of applause and accolades for doing very basic things — like not violently abusing women. About how many men don’t identify as feminists because they are deeply invested in upholding the systems — like patriarchy and white supremacy — that benefit them. And Berlatsky’s point about the line between the male saviour complex and being a legitimate force for positive social change is well made. But we can have all of these conversations while acknowledging that men who identify as feminists aren’t just cheerleading for women — they’re fighting systems that tell them that being a good listener makes them a pussy, or that they shouldn’t share their emotions, or that straight men can’t have intimate friendships with other men, or that rape in prison is hilarious.

Feminism’s relevance to everyone has been articulated and re-articulated throughout the history of the movement, and I was reminded of this again over the weekend when I read an interview with actress Mackenzie Davis, who said she couldn’t understand why “feminism” feels like such a scary word to some people.

“Feminism is rooted in racial rights and gender rights, and all of those things intersect, and to say that that’s not something you can stand behind — it confuses me,” she told the Times. “I think it’s a really great word.”

So do plenty of men.

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