(This post is the first in a week long discussion between Lauren and I about feminism. The discussion emerged after Lauren posted a video about why she is not a feminist, to which I wrote an open letter to Lauren in response. Lauren and I then agreed to take part in this call-and-response style discussion, in which we post questions/prompts for one another to reply to. Lauren will post her response on youtube in a day or so, at which time she will also pose a question to me (which I will reply to on this website). You can learn more about the backstory and format of the discussion here, where I also explain my approach to the discussion.)
It was hard to settle on a single question to start with, but I suppose we have a few rounds of this ahead of us, so here goes.
The question I ended up settling on kind of expands on ideas I wrote about in my original reply to you. I’m hoping that you can engage with some of the feminist ideas about masculinity and femininity that I described in my response, and address why you see these ideas as being oppositional to the project of making men’s lives more livable. Before I get to the ultimate question, however, I want to elaborate a little more on what I mean.
One of the main ideas that I tried to convey in my original post is that feminism helps us understand and confront not only the violences and inequalities facing women, but also the problems facing men. I tried to describe this in terms of the ways that gender norms (which feminists challenge), also work to entrench ideas about what it mean to “be a man”. These ideas contribute to some of the deeply harmful conditions in men’s lives, which you raised in your video. Included among these are the expectation of strength, stoicism, and suppression of emotion, which help shape which labor fields men occupy, how men are often taught to respond to emotional distress, and how society responds to them when they fail to fully embody masculine norms (e.g. by being a victim, by being nurturing, by not being the primary breadwinner, etc).
Perhaps another way that I should have described this, is that feminism doesn’t only challenge the way the misogyny devalues women, it also challenges the way that misogyny devalues that which is deemed feminine. (Here is a great article about this from the perspective of a feminist man). Feminists often address the devaluation of the feminine by critiquing, challenging, and breaking open gendered binaries in order to create new possibilities for being and acting in the world. Here is just one example of this:
- Rational/Emotional: The characterization of women as emotional, and thus irrational, goes back for a long time in history. This discourse has played a role in the medical treatment of women (e.g. the invention of female “hysteria”), the treatment of women in science (see Sandra Harding’s work), the lack of recognition of emotions as a site of knowledge (here you see the operation of another gendered binary: objectivity/subjectivity), the way that women are characterized in the work place and when running for public office (e.g. the focus on whether Hillary’s emotions will make her unfit to lead), the exclusion of women from combat, and more. Many women can attest to the ways their expressions of emotion are used to characterize them as “crazy”, and to dismiss their voices and valid arguments about their worlds. This discourse, which treats emotions as feminine, irrational, and undesirable, also in turn makes emotions something that men are taught to suppress. This disregard for emotion impacts how men are expected to behave, to deal with emotional, psychological and physical injury, to interact with others, and to labor in their jobs. The fact is, however, that men are emotional, men need emotions, and this feminization and devaluation of emotions hurts men.
There are many more of these binaries that feminists challenge, including: man/woman, productive/reproductive, objectivity/subjectivity, rational/emotional, mind/body, public/private, political/personal, culture/nature, active/passive, perpetrator/victim, protector/protected, and global/local. I could elaborate a lot about this, but for the sake of brevity, hopefully you can go back and see where I already allude to these in my previous post (e.g. productive/reproductive in terms of breadwinning and caregiving; feminists challenging victim/perpetrator narratives). If you want, I’d be happy to elaborate more on this in another post.
The point I’m trying to make is that when feminists fight for the revaluation of the feminine and for the breaking down of these binaries, they are also opening up terrain for men to express emotion, to buck norms of masculinity that route them towards harm, to claim a role in childrearing, and to be treated fairly when they are victimized. Even the very binary of male/female can be broken open when we examine (as feminists like Judith Butler do) how the presumably natural characteristics of sex and gender are in fact deeply social, and thus open to change.
So, all this build-up was to set up this related set of questions:
With so many of the harms you point to in your video being fundamentally shaped by the very gendered binaries that feminists challenge, why don’t you see feminism as a project that improves men’s lives? Don’t you agree that a project that challenges the devaluation of femininity would also help to address many of the harms men face? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to look to feminists as allies rather than opponents?
Now here, I just want to note that the topic of how to be an ally and how to act in solidarity is already really prevalent in feminist activist and scholar communities. The role of white people in on-going Black Lives Matter protests is just one example of the continued need to engage in discussions about solidarity and voice, and feminists (and particularly feminists of color) are active in these debates. Feminists often talk and debate on issues of how to create solidarity across difference and how to hold each other accountable in being better allies. When feminists challenge one another to be better allies, however, it’s usually premised on improving a movement that is already so deeply invested in equality and which already has so many tools to understand and confront the ways that power operates through gender, race, class, and sexuality. In this regard, I’ll agree there is room to talk about improving feminist allyship for men experiencing particular harms (male rape victims being a good example). This is not to say there aren’t feminists doing this work though, because, as I have argued, there are many feminists speaking on issues affecting men. Your assertion that feminists are silent is unfair and inaccurate. There is always room to improve though, and discussion and critique is undoubtedly part of how feminists challenge each other to do so. In fact, talking about this would be deeply in line with existing internal debates about allyship among feminists. In these discussions, feminists may also have some very valid questions about how men’s rights groups act (or don’t act) as allies to them as well, and they might point out the stakes for women when men’s groups dismiss, diminish, deny, and derail real valid struggles to improve women’s lives. So, maybe the real heart of the issue is: How can we improve allyship and build solidarity between feminists and men (who may or may not be feminists themselves)? How can we do this without disregarding or ignoring the real and powerful work feminists are already doing? And, how can we do this without dismissing feminism itself, which (I really hope you see) presents so many tools for addressing the harms done by restrictive gender norms?
I know that’s more than one question, but I hope it makes sense why I place them together. I look forward to hearing your first response.
All the best,