In a recent post, I mentioned in passing that I do not call myself a feminist even though I consider it to be an honorable label and would like to think that I am supportive of the causes that feminists advocate for. Kat Stoeffel writes that it is a good idea to refrain from doing so.
I have a handful of straight male friends I consider to be feminists. They know when to speak up on behalf of a female friend or colleague, and they know when to sit down, shut up, and listen. They’re working through their issues about women without foisting them upon the women in their lives. They gently explain feminism to other men in the woman-bashing conversations that happen behind even the most progressive closed doors. And they would all sooner die than call themselves feminists.
I can’t say I blame them. There’s something suspicious about anyone eager to identify with the oppressed. Many men seem to reach for the “feminist” label first to shore up their sensitive-dude bona fides and, second, to get a little female validation.
And although we can all agree men should care about feminism, the professional male feminist is a singularly ignoble creature in today’s media and politics landscape.
One of the hardest parts of coming to grips with the depth and breadth of the patriarchy is recognizing that there are no exceptions. Maybe you didn’t, personally, do anything wrong, but you were still born into a power structure that gave you unjust rewards. The system — whether it’s the patriarchy or white supremacy or capitalism — does not offer special exemptions for individuals with good intentions.
I feel the same discomfort about now-popular cry of “We are X” whenever there is an atrocity committed against some group X. It is meant to signify solidarity with that group by identifying oneself with them, but since it does not carry with it any risk of paying a price for such an identification, it risks coming across as purely no-cost symbolism.
The origins of “We are X” may lie in the famous scene in the 1960 film Spartacus where Spartacus starts to identify himself so as to avoid the Romans meting out collective punishment to his entire army because they could not identify him. Before he could do that, other men stand up and say “I am Spartacus”. But that action was to shield the identity of their leader, not merely to express support.
(In the comments on that clip, one wag says that in cafes and other places where you have to give a name so that they can call you when your order is ready, he gives the name Spartacus so that he can stand up and shout out in response “I am Spartacus!”)
Rob Grigjanis says
Of course, the problem with everyone saying “I am Spartacus” was that everyone, including Spartacus, ended up getting crucified.
Mixed feelings. The label ‘feminist’ has been so blackened and misused, that a whole lot of folks who are honestly feminists--that is, they believe gender isn’t a source of inequality between people, and that the gender-based inequalities and misbehaviors perpetrated on women need to be called out and fixed--run away quickly when that word gets thrown around. This is true of both men and women. “I’m not a feminist, I just believe men and women are equal so I called out that jerk who was putting down women.” Because the term has been so blackened, that many people insist all true feminists are man-hating lesbians (and they say that like being a lesbian is a very bad thing).
The people who embrace the term often don’t mean what I mean. Some of the men I’ve met who embrace it see themselves as knights in shining armor, out to rescue women from the evils perpetrated on them by society. But then, there are a fair number of people who will make everything be about themselves.
I like conversations where people don’t say “I am a [ally to oppressed group]”, but instead say, “I have a practical idea for fixing [this particular injustice]” or “I’m doing this particular thing to help fix [particular injustice]”.
Pierce R. Butler says
I was going to ask if I could at least call myself “pro-feminist”, until I read
consciousness razor says
That may be true, but saying instead that you consider yourself a supportive/sympathetic ally (or something along those lines) is also not a very costly thing to do. If this is supposed to be a convincing argument against one, then why isn’t it just as good against the other?
I think these -ism labels are useful for informing other people about what sort of ideology you have. They let you do so easily, succinctly, transparently, with terms/concepts which are already at least somewhat familiar to many other people, etc. Expecting them do some other kind of work on top of that is a little strange. Maybe you should just toss out those kinds of expectations.
If you think of yourself as an anti-racist, for example, then I think you should just say so, no matter what your skin color may be. There may be times when you’re not really living up to that, as well as some times when it’s more like others are just are policing the term to exclude certain people from the club they would like it to be. But whatever’s really going on, your actions speak for themselves, with or without the labels. So focusing on the labels seems like the wrong thing to do anyway.
But it does bother me that the implication is that men can’t/shouldn’t be feminists or that they shouldn’t admit this openly or some such thing…. Why not? I know perfectly well that there are examples of some who aren’t genuine or are doing it for their own nefarious reasons, but it’s also easy to find examples of women who are doing the same types of shit.
The fact is that these are ideological positions which are still not terribly popular and which are opposing some very entrenched and powerful forces in our society. Given that, I don’t think it makes any sense to make large groups of people feel like they should be excluded somehow. You should want all of the help you can get, and it seems very counterproductive to argue that they shouldn’t even feel comfortable saying out loud that they have the same ideology as you (which I think means they merely agree with you about it … not that they are you, that they have to deal with these issues in the same way that you do, or anything like that.)
That was my view, pre-transition, to not call myself a feminist but to still speak up and let my actions do the talking (e.g. when I was a security guard in the 1990s and regularly interacted with the Elizabeth Fry Society).
Actions versus self-labelling became very telling in the past year, when all the “pro-BLM” white people suddenly disappeared after the election. And it’s amazing how many claim the A in LGBTQIA means “allies” and claim it for themselves, erasing Aces in the process.
John Morales says
Calling oneself a feminist is boxing oneself.
Fraught, too. Claims such as “I’m a feminist but…” instantly become problematic; indeed, unless one is well-versed in feminist theory and history, it is all too easy to be exposed as a poseur.
And, of course, with that claim comes the expectation one should be an activist.
In passing, I’m amused that Kat considers those people feminists when they themselves do not. Even more amused at the claim that “There’s something suspicious about anyone eager to identify with the oppressed.”, as if identifying as a feminist were about identifying themselves with “the oppressed”.
Also, this: “they know when to sit down, shut up, and listen”. A feminist virtue, apparently.
(Also, I notice the whole snippet featured in the OP is written from a cisnormative perspective)
Well, I would describe myself as feminist, though I am not a cis woman. When I examine who I am to my core, I find convictions and perspectives that I can only call “feminist,” maybe even “radical feminist.” I think they arise out of a history that it would take too long to describe, except to say that the gender system in the culture I live in felt oppressive and just plain stupid starting when I was quite young, and the ideas in feminism are what enabled me to make sense of myself and the world.
I don’t go around proclaiming “I am a feminist” because I don’t see the point, it’s just a label. I don’t really care if you call me a “feminist” or “not a feminist,” I’m still the same person. Besides, if you call yourself a feminist, then you get people telling you who you must be and believe if you’re a “feminist.” And there are all these debates that seem to be based on the idea that the way to change something is to call it something different. In my view, what matters is not what you call yourself, or what other people call you, what matters is what you do. I don’t base what I do on whether it fits into some sort of feminist “principles,” I simply try to Do The Right Thing, as Spike Lee put it. It is just that The Right Thing is usually consistent with my understanding of feminism, and frequently not consistent with what the dominant culture here (=USA) wants me to do. Whether you think that makes me a feminist or not is up to you.
John Morales says
Or maybe with “Ich bin ein Berliner” in 1963.
Rob Grigjanis says
John @8: Or “I Am The Walrus” in 1967.
I think there are people on both sides of this issue who do not sincerely believe that men can be feminists. What do you think the whole “SJW” label was invented for? A bunch of right-wing bozos saw straight, white men supporting the marginalized, and because they couldn’t imagine anyone doing this for the right reasons, chose to see this as a bunch of “white knights” trying to get laid, or whatever…building up their left-wing street cred.
So is it surprising that men who are, in fact, feminists choose to eschew the label? I see this more as an act of cowardice than an act of solidarity. If you support equality…if you support equal pay for equal work…if you are working to remove the barriers that keep women from pursuing certain paths in life…if you believe that women deserve to exist in society without being judged or harassed for their choices…you are a feminist. Own it.
And as far as symbolism goes, as long as you’re doing the work…as long as you are working to understand the plight of the marginalized, and engaging in political activism so that your voice is heard…it MATTERS that you call yourself a feminist. It matters, because that word has a meaning, defined by the women who are fighting for their rights, and identifying yourself with the label is a way to tell the world that you support their GOALS.
Of course some people are going to be lazy and self-serving and use the label to describe themselves without actually working to advance social justice (or worse, working AGAINST equality whilst using the word “feminism” to describe their behavior). And of course, because these peoples’ voices tend to be louder and more influential than those of the women whose rights we’re all fighting for, people like this have the ability to dilute the meaning of the word, to make it anodyne and non-threatening to the existing power structures. This is going to happen regardless of whether people like you and I adopt this label. Why should we let them control the conversation? Why do they get to be “feminists” but we, the actual allies, shouldn’t be?
I know a lot of women…all of them (pretty much) openly describe themselves as feminists. And in shutting up and listening, I have learned that they WANT people like you and me, allies, to use the word to describe ourselves too. The more actual feminists there are, the more influence the movement has, and the more likely it is that it achieves its objectives.
John Morales says
Evidently, “they” doesn’t include Kat Stoeffel.
I think the criticism, that men sometimes use the label to describe themselves without actually fighting for equality is absolutely valid. And of course there is going to be diversity of opinion amongst female feminists on what words should be used by allies and when (in my experience, no social movement operates with completely homogenous opinions). Incidentally, I find it amusing that it is, as of now, utterly uncontroversial to describe oneself in terms of what one does NOT support. Anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-Trump, anti-MRA…perfectly fine. But to ascribe to oneself the values of a marginalized group, to take on the label “feminist” in solidarity with women everywhere who are fighting for justice and equality, and backing it up with actual action against the patriarchy…is still viewed as “suspicious” by (some) feminists and (pretty much all) anti-feminists (because some people, no matter their beliefs, simply cannot believe that men can call themselves “feminists” for unselfish reasons).
Power structures exist. To break them up, we need overwhelming numbers of people who are all united in their goal. And being joined under a label is useful. Whether that label is feminist or not, I don’t really care. Perhaps we can reclaim “social justice warrior” and use it in a positive manner, fighting those who work to preserve the status quo (or worse, those who want to make society MORE inherently unequal and unjust). But speaking from my own experience, I am proud to call myself a feminist. It is no different than being a climate justice activist or socialist. I think it’s important to contextualize one’s life within affirmative belief systems, to be FOR things rather than merely against them.
@1 RobG: the problem before that one is at one hand that the real Spartacus and his soldiers got crucified anyway, whether they stood up and shouted something or not. At the other hand the movie Spartacus and his soldiers did not get crucified at all, because that had been illegal for a while at the time the movie was made.
Analogously, I don’t say “I’m an ally” to oppressed groups, as I don’t feel that it’s my place to decide whether what I’ve *accomplished* deserves that.
One could say “I believe in feminism” or “I believe in anti-racism”, and/or that “I try to act on those beliefs all that I can.” Or some such.
Rob Grigjanis says
mnb0 @13: Yeah, I was talking about the film, in which the rebels were offered their lives (as slaves, of course) in exchange for Spartacus. Not sure which movie you saw, but the one I saw certainly had a crucifixion scene.
PS The Dutch look pretty good against Ukraine.
Rob Grigjanis says
And in the short time since my last comment, Ukraine has scored twice. The Dutch looked in control.