Conforming to gender stereotypes is pretty silly. What if a dude doesn't like football? Or maybe he wants to knit? Or maybe he likes going to his kids' plays more than their sports games?
Society impresses upon us that there are certain things "real men" must like and do and things we simply cannot do. We cannot enjoy dancing. We can't care about our appearance a lot. We have to act certain ways, and there are things we can and cannot say.
Men aren't really allowed to talk about their feelings. Men aren't really allowed to have feelings, beyond some certain base ones (e.g. horny, rage, anger), and certainly nothing nuanced. We're allowed to have relationships with other men, but we can't really talk about emotions with them. We're not really allowed to bring guy friends together with girl friends (other than to hook up). A lot of men would say you can't even have "girl friends," since all women are romantic/sexual objects, ultimately.
Isn't that incredibly limiting? Isn't it insulting and degrading?
I don't mean to get too preachy, and I don't want to push the rhetoric too far when I say that feminism can be liberating for men, but it's capacity as a tool for self-advancement is powerful. When you can see how society has molded your own personality, your patterns of behavior and even your friends around expectations of gender conformity, it truly can be eye-opening to break free of that kind of gender conformity.
Now as I've written in the past, I think there's positive things that men are expected to conform to. But be it in shredding the bad or embracing the good, I find that I live much more intelligently and with much more self-respect when I've made those choices, rather than being forced into them.
So if you need another reason to be a male feminist, here it is: buck society's gendered expectations of what it means to be a "man," and be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, but do it because you want to do it.
Much has been written about female sexual agency, and how according to traditional notions of sexuality, it's sublimated to the masculine.
Also, however, male sexual agency is reduced by traditional notions of sexuality. Unlike women, whose sexual agency is always supposed to be "off" until a man wants it, men's sexual agency is always supposed to be "on." We always want to have sex -- when it's appropriate, when it's not appropriate. We're already supposed to be horny; we always want it. Moreover, if a women wants sex, and we don't want it, something's very wrong with us.
I find that all very dehumanizing. I have agency. I can choose to do things, or I can not choose to do things. I can want things, and I can not wants things. Although I'm not a straight, cis woman, I would suspect that this might be the kind of feelings women have about their own agency.
But there's another argument to be made about all of this, and I'm intrigued in it, because it's the kind of the argument that appeals to the some of the emotions that I suspect are behind some of the Men's Rights Activists (MRA). If you don't know about MRAs, well, they're, shall we say, interesting folk. They're generally explicitly anti-feminist, anti-woman and pretty friggin misogynist. Another male feminist, over at the blog Man Boobz, chronicles them very well.
So now, if you read a bit of the MRAs write, they're a pretty frustrated folk. A lot of them want to get laid. A lot them really hate women. A lot of them have, or at least they write about, a lot of negative experiences they have with women. Some try to use pick up lines to meet women, while others follow other stereotypes we feminists ascribe to men, just viewing women as objects.
But I think a lot of the source of these feelings is that these men (and most cisgendered straight men who aren't feminist) have bought into this notion that we're always horny, we always want to have sex, and we have to pursue it. I think it's one of the reasons why you'll frequently hear men claim that men and women can't ever have a platonic relationship. How can you, if the only thing on your mind is how you're going to screw this woman? If we're always horny, how can we have genuine relationships with other men, who after all, are our competitors?
I don't know if arguments like that are really going to be effective with some of the MRAs. My mantra is always: don't preach to the choir, don't preach to the damned, preach to those who can be saved. But if some of those underlying emotions behind some of their anger towards women is from an inability to recognize that they don't have to be horny all the time, then maybe this is a kind of tactic that would be effective in reaching some men.
Okay, so you're a feminist, or at least you think that's where you're going.
You might be thinking that now's the time to jump in! Go to a feminist discussion, a book group, see some speakers, read some books, comments on some feminist blogs!
It's good to be eager, but as a beginning feminist, it's best to be a passive consumer of feminism when you're first going into feminist safe spaces.
Now that might be a new phrase for you, "safe space." What is it? Well, it's one of those things that men generally don't have to worry about -- a place where everyone who is present feels safe and comfortable expressing themselves about whatever topic they might want: feminism, queer theory, racial issues, etc., etc. The mainstream man can always talk about just about whatever he wants. (On the other hand, the queer man, the feminist man, the man of color, they can't, but remember, we're talking about "majority men" right now).
Sometimes, when a male feminist newly becomes interested in feminism, they want to join a group, maybe on a college campus, maybe a local book club, or just start commenting on blogs and forums, and begin discussing feminist issues! It's great to be eager, but remember, you're going into someone else's established safe space, knowing a lot less than they do. People aren't interested, generally, in spending a lot of time going off topic of whatever it was they wanted to talk about to educate you about what feminism is. If you really feel a need to go to a group like that and can't hold yourself: be a passive consumer. Listen.
Before you go out and participate, try to make sure you've done as much educating of yourself as reasonably possible. Be familiar with Feminism 101, read some FAQs, learn a bit of jargon, and then when you have at least a basic vocabulary of self-expression, along with the wisdom to know that it's not all about you in these types of groups, then go to a group and talk about issues.
But always remember, most women have years if not decades of experience acknowledging, discussing and experiencing first-hand a real-world system and a philosophy of ideas that we've only just been introduced to. That's not to say men can't make substantial contributions to feminism (indeed, we do), but I doubt a female feminist ever came out of a feminist group having met a man and thought, "That guy was too humble and timid." It isn't feminists' responsibility to tolerate us coming in and messing up their stuff; we need to self-educate ourselves as best as we can before we participate in the movement.
#1: You're Probably Not
If you think you're a male feminist, well, you're probably not. Not yet anyways.
Let me explain.
If you're reading this post, remember, I'm writing from the perspective of a male feminist, writing to the newly awakened feminist.
As you're perhaps discovering feminism, I've found one of the more useful metaphors is that of the recovering alcoholic. Perhaps you've had a epiphany, some moment, large or small, where you observed something of the patriarchy, something misogynist, or some chauvinist twit that just make you think, "Gee, I don't like that, and I don't want to be that."
Well, now that you've seen a glimpse, soon you'll see it everywhere. And like the recovering alcoholic who slowly realizes that their personal life was structured around their disease, you might too begin questioning some of the ways your own life has gone.
You see, the difference between the male feminist and the female feminist is that we have a privilege, a privilege of not being subject to a system that subtly or brutally oppresses women. It's a darn great privilege not to have to worry about that. But for women, well it's staring them in their face, unblinking, from the moment they reach a tender age where they experience some discrimination, or violence, or some other manifestation of the system in which we live (so I'm told).
Most women, regardless of how whether or not they self-identify as feminists are the products of feminism. Even a Sarah Palin or Ann Coulter, rabid anti-feminists both, could not have survived and persisted in the world of their mothers or grandmothers, though they might deny it. We know (and perhaps they do too) that their positions in society aren't the same as their forbearers, and that they are breaking a mold in achieving what they have done.
But we men don't have that experience. Feminism is rarely something that lives with us in our everyday lives from a young age. We don't have many self-identifying male feminist role models, and we don't have the kind of experiences that deeply and profoundly affect us at a young age as women do.
So when a man comes to feminism, even with an "Aha!" moment, it's sometimes a slow progression of realization of the system. Maybe you once made sexist jokes and catch yourself now. Maybe you never really liked some of the activities you once did, or some of the TV, movies, books or culture you once consumed. But as this realization slowly creeps up on you, remember, we're not really feminists, not yet anyways -- we're recovering chauvinists, striving to achieve a feminism we hardly know.
So take that with you, as you begin exploring feminism, and be cognizant of our ignorance, of our privilege, and the chauvinism that intentionally or not, we still possess.
A question I get, as a male feminist, is how I came to feminism. While it might seem a bit personal, and hard to extrapolate to a wider audience, I think my personal experience is very illustrative of something that all feminists need to do.
Although I didn't identify as a feminist probably until I was in high school or college, I always held the fundamental political beliefs of feminism. That is, I believed in equal wages, was in favor of laws banning forms of discrimination, and supported women politicians. I was a rather typical "liberal" and "nice guy" in that I believed in a great many abstract policy objectives, but I didn't incorporate any of those beliefs into my daily life.
As I moved to college, a bunch of my friends entered a men's feminist group and I sort of tagged along, though enthusiastically, and I learned a lot more about feminism. I starting reading a lot of feminist blogs, starting buying a few of the less academic-y books out there and reading those too.
But I still made sexist jokes among friends, I was still very much a "nice guy" (or so I think, in retrospect), and even though I had abstractly accepted feminism, I had not incorporated it into my personal life. I didn't view my world as a feminist, and I didn't treat my friends, women and men, as a feminist would.
One day, a friend of mine, a girl, who was then and still is one of my best friends, and I were hanging out. I couldn't tell you where or what we were doing, but I think we were perhaps on our way back from a party, or maybe going to one. She mentioned to me, very casually, "You know, Jeff, sometimes you make these sexist jokes, and they're hurtful."
It was in a very casual situation, and perhaps my remembrance of it gives it more weight than it really had, but that was my "click" moment. Somehow, that casual comment, even though I'd already read about and believed all these things about feminism, hammered home the fact that I was not living by the principles I purported to stand by. How I was living was hurting my friends, and not unlike other young people, my friends meant everything to me.
I've described it in a few other posts, but like a recovering alcoholic (chauvinist), I realized how my personal life was structured around the same societal forces I had read about. I won't pretend to now, and I certainly hadn't then, figured them all out, or struggled to remove them all, but I tried. And that was my "click" moment.
So there's a bit of a lesson here, even if only anecdotally. Speak up. If you have someone who says they're a liberal, a progressive, or even a feminist, and you see them engaged in a pattern (or even one instance) of sexist behavior or speech, call them out on it, but also tell them how it affects you. How you, their friend, someone in their life, is hurt by it.
That's something we all have to do, but especially male feminists. I say especially, because, unfortunately, a lot of guys will shrug off the protestations of their women friends when they call them out on sexism. While I didn't, in my anecdotal case, I know a lot of men who do, and I know that the pre-feminist me probably would have too.
As part of the continuing column, "Why Be A Male Feminist?" I present reason #2:
The Sex is Better
With the first reason being a little abstract, I figured I should hit off the second reason with something visceral: as a male feminist, the sex will be better.
A central tenant of feminism is sexual autonomy. This has the obvious broad policy implications, such as pro-choice policies and sex education. It has social and cultural implications, such as reducing frequent media practices like slut-shaming and objectification of people.
But as described in the first entry in this feature, feminism is more than broad based policy, but also individual lifestyle. Part of sexual autonomy means acknowledging the myriad influences that society has on our sexual choices and making those choices because we want to make them, rather than from societal pressure.
So, let's talk about what this all means practically. Well, if you're willing to acknowledge societal pressures to do or not do things, you can overcome those pressures or succumb to them, however you choose. It means communicating with your partner(s), respecting what they do and do not want. If you're able to communicate (and it takes practice), then you're able to achieve a very healthy openness.
Let's say it plain: if you can talk about sex openly with your partner, your sex will be better. Even though it isn't always easy, if you're both able and willing to talk about what you want, what you like, what you don't like, and give each other feedback, it gets better. A lot better.
It Makes You a Better Person
I have to admit that it sounds rather cliché, but being a male feminist makes you a better human being.
Let me explain.
There is a sort of spectrum among "men who accept feminism." It can perhaps be described in the simple phrase of "think globally, act locally." There are men who only think globally and do not act locally and those who do both.
Of the globally thinking: there are those who accept the political beliefs and policy positions behind feminism, such as pro-choice policies, equal wages, and other legislative remedies. That is perhaps what one might call the "least" feminism side of the spectrum.
Of those doing both: there are persons who have accepted feminism as a sort of lifestyle to guide their own personal actions, hence the "local." And for them, feminism is a way to become a better human being. Once you accept that feminism is an ideology or a way of looking at the world that is applicable to your own life, you cannot but accept that is an ideology of self-improvement.
Being a male feminist of that sort is like being a recovering alcoholic. If you read the descriptions of an "awakening" moment of a recovering alcoholic, you read how they realize that their very own lifestyle, from where they live, where they work, with whom they are friends, is based around their disease: alcoholic. So too, is the male feminist not truly a feminist, but a recovering chauvinist.
Our society is one built around chauvinism and misogyny, and it is the feminist who acts locally that realizes that their life too, is but a microcosm of that same system. And thus, the feminist realizes this, and begins acting, like the alcoholic, to slowly change even the tiniest parts of the world they inhabit into something better. By making things better, by fighting a system that denies humanity to others, they improve themselves, and they bring themselves closer to the humanity that society denies them as well.