Saturday, 14 May 2011

Feminism and Men

Dear Readers,

Apologies for the lateness of this post - there have been some technical problems with the Blogger site over the past few days.

However, we hope you'll find it was worth the wait for this post by our newest guest blogger.
Lashings x

Feminism and Men

by Guest Blogger Dan

I’ve been trying to write something on my involvement with feminism for the last three and a half years or so. And, no matter where I start, I always end up at the question of what men can or should do in a feminist political space.

Fairly essential to feminism for all its diversity, is the acknowledgment of a patriarchal society in which women are oppressed. And men have no small hand in the creation and perpetuation of this inequality and oppression. For any man to accept some of these basic ideas is to instantly be forced to answer some difficult questions. If I am indeed a man, what has my role been in oppressing others through my unconscious excercise of male privileges? What are those privileges? What does that culpability then say about my character, my perception of myself – and further down the line, about the very formulation of my identity and my relationships with others?

Feminist theory provides a bedrock from which to articulate new ideas about a more equal society and reformulate concepts of self-hood, free from definition by the masculine. Different theorists, of course, have different ideas about how exactly this happens – but there’s discussion about how women can ‘be’ apart from a crude gender binary and prescriptive notions of the masculine and the feminine. Through destabilising (or obliterating) particular constructions of gender, the masculine is cut adrift. Without the solidarity of sisterhood, and the connotations of brotherhood evoking odd, distasteful spectacles like lukewarm beer in plastic cups and misogyny or fruity robes and esoteric mumbling, men who want to enact a synchronous change are left in a difficult position. A response is demanded, but it’s equivalent to having your house (built on foundations of FAIL) politely demolished and then having to start again when you know sweet bugger all about building. And probably don’t even have a high vis jacket.

This post is not a critique of feminism, or a demand that it pander to the demands of men who can’t be bothered to educate themselves. What it is aiming to say is that figuring out what to do as a proto-male- feminist is pretty complex, because there hasn’t been a lot of moving towards it systematically before. Of course, men have reacted to feminism in a variety of ways, some more prominent, others less so. From what I know, I tend to divide them into three camps: Reactionaries, rehabilitators and another word beginning with r which means collapsy-fall-down with self-loathing types. The reactionaries, we all know too well. The angry, misogynistic people (often in suits or pointy hats) that blame all the world’s problems on feminism and the collapse of the traditional family blah etc blah. These can be ignored as 99 times out of 100, they’re too busy frothing at the mouth to actually have a meaningful dialogue with.

The rehabilitators take a wounded masculinity, given a sense of self- awareness by feminist critique and attempt to address the problems with masculinity that feminism raised; looking to be kinder and more involved in parenting, seeking a sense of ‘truer manhood’. However, it often does so at the cost of assuming that there is such a thing. A good example is the Mythopoetic movement, started Robert Bly and others. The belief that there’s the sense of ‘true’ and ‘healed’ man- hood can be reached by the re-appropriation of masculine language and activities to encourage fraternal bonding and mutual nurture, correcting the faults of the past. Typically, rehabilitationist approaches to masculinity might involve weekend retreats, fishing, hunting, discussion, drum circles – all designed to give some kind of safe space for men to ‘be men’, but with lessons learnt from the cultural challenges of modernity. It’s a lot more positive than reactionary flailing, but to me, it still feels mawkishly sentimental and still perpetuates a false ontology of difference. Which, if it ever became properly consolidated, would still remain horribly oppressive for those that reject traditional tropes of masculinity. And more importantly, it still fails to challenge deeply embedded power structures which draw from a discrete, ‘objective’ set of masculine and feminine traits which are used to police and maintain appropriate standards. Feminist critique here will have achieved little more than an amendment of this set of masculine traits and perhaps an extension of the feminine. The essential categories which are the machinery of oppression, however, still remain.

The third camp are the ones that got the message. They know that some aspects of masculinity are poisonous and ultimately damaging. But with the destruction of so much and nothing to replace it, it becomes impossible to move beyond to anything better. So, as with above, men either re-use old material or throw rocks at you. The ones that do accept the points made by feminism about masculinity sit, shattered and wracked with guilt and shame, feeling like there’s no way out. It reminds me significantly of my experiences of religion as a teenager; feeling so utterly destitute and hopeless – and that somehow this constitutes justice. That somehow you’re tainted, dirty and guilty for things that go so far and above and beyond your control that you don’t have the capacity to change it, despite a desire to do so. Yet because of your complicity and guilt, your misery is right, just and fair. And in a feminist context, a man’s attempt to act to solve women’s problems (on their behalf) is part of the patriarchal system that causes the oppression in the first place. In short, you’re directly part of the problem – as is (potentially) everything you say, do, think or touch. The risk of reduplicating of male privilege and subtextual misogyny is an ever-present in any male political engagement.

So, some men embrace traditional feminine, passive roles and attempt to eschew all forms of traditional masculinity. In doing so, it only exacerbates and deepens the problem. I’m reminded of a short primer called Men Against Sexism by John Snodgrass; it was an excellent set of essays written in the late 70s, which represented the dawning of male consciousness of itself. But underlying the solid writing is a raw, almost tortured sense of guilt and shame that spills out from time to time. Again, this isn’t an appeal for feminists to play nicer with men or saying that they should be less angry. Because men need to acknowledge that women have the right to be angry. To get pissed off with patriarchy and the status quo; with cat-calls in the street, with earning less, with being labelled as the primary carer for children even after the past century of struggle to change things. There is culpability involved, but not on an individual level which says ‘You caused the suffering of millions of women. You totally suck’. But it does represent what I’ve experienced in coming to terms with some aspects of gender as a man – and what I’ve seen in other men.

To rehabilitate masculinity or reject feminist criticism isn’t a constructive response. Yet clearly neither is being frozen in inactivity. The desire to participate in activism is restrained and held in check by the knowledge that there will always be a subtle line that’s very easy to cross; if a man becomes too active in a feminist space, too listened to or too visible, then the danger of once again reduplicating male privilege comes to the fore; the privilege of being heard above others, the privilege of having a voice. Perhaps I’m over-analysing here. The fundamental problem is that ‘men’s liberation’ often manifests as a thoughtless mimesis of women’s liberation. In blindly charging off to fight for ‘men’s rights’, it assumes a parallel set of oppressions (or conditions for oppression) to be liberated from, proceeding without any analysis of the male situation. In the worst cases, men speaking about ‘their oppression’ serves only to try and invalidate feminism by assuming that in positing ‘male problems’ they cancel out female ones. It is assumed that women say that they have lots of problems on the basis of sex – and if this is the case, then must men have their own discrete set of gendered problems which require equal care and attention. That feminists solely focus on their own issues, therefore makes them massive sexists. I tend to imagine people making this argument dressed as Gumbies.

This appears to be the case with Men’s Rights Activists, scrabbling for the nearest perceived injustice and waving it around as proof of discrimination against men. For example, the idea that fathers are unfairly ruled against in child custody cases or receive only a miniscule amount of paternity leave is predicated on the assumption that raising children is the primary responsibility of a woman. Privilege and oppression are a mutually antagonistic pair – in this case, the perceived privilege of having custody of children is enabled through the perceived oppression of men’s rights as fathers not being recognised. There is something worth debating there, however the MRA position remains reactionary, uncritical and phenomenological. It sees the surface and inserts them into a narrative of mangled, repressed masculinity instead of a engaging into meaningful dialogue about the roots of the problem.

So, here I am after three years of comparative inaction. Still stuck on the question: What can or should men do? I find myself increasingly believing that there needs to be a radical move forward for men, but one that is made in close alliance and dialogue with the feminist movement. The terms ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘ally’ are appropriate when men are supporting feminists in activism, but not for sparking the kind of action that needs to happen if real equality is to exist and men are to disentangle themselves from the web of privilege and power that they currently occupy. Men need to be willing to stop, listen and then endure the pain that comes with recognising feminist critique – as it’s a very pale shadow of the pain caused to women by patriarchy across human history.

A movement needs to be created, not copied; one that complements, rather than duplicates. The aims will be subtly different, as the male context is a different one (Historically and contingently, made on the basis of physical signification and societal accident rather than written into eternity) - however, feminist theory is a powerful and necessary starting point for action. I envision debate, discussion and the evolution of ideas – open, safe spaces for mutual criticism, where people shaped by the construction of the masculine or feminine can dialogue.

The end point, I wish, would be a body of ‘those who once were men’, free to express and identify as they choose, retaining or rejecting what is chosen, but feeling not pressured to any one thing or role, with a body of supporting literature, philosophy and an organisational infrastructure to disseminate ideas, to genuinely enable a movement neither for women or men, but ‘people’ (Which somehow does actualise the vision of a neutral ‘humanity’, which isn’t implicitly masculine). This is not forgetting the complexity involved in men engaging with these ideas in the first place and the issues involved with setting up that dialogue. But this is where I am – and roughly what I’d like to see, starting one day in the future.


  1. Hannah Thompson17 May 2011 21:14

    This is a really great article Dan, I tip my metaphorical commie hat.

    What you say about reaching a stage of 'neutral' humanitarianism is exactly what the feminist movement should seek to achieve; the concept of having a 'feminine' and 'masculine' sense of oppression reinforces the concepts we're trying to smash. Women want to be equals within our society, not create something liberated and 'feminine' separate from that.

    Dialogue in a mixed sex and gender environment is always necessary to achieve female liberation on a level that makes a difference in a mixed society

  2. Great article, and very thought provoking. I must confess that some of it was a bit academic, and went over my head.

    But one of the messages I took from it was the need to open up spaces to talk about these things. Any ideas on where these spaces might be? A lack of such spaces seems (to me at least) a real block in moving foward

  3. Yeah, I find it difficult to articulate some of this stuff in non-academic language because that's sort of the way I try and thrash some of it out. I'm hoping that one day I'll manage to make it more accessible!

    Thanks for the comment, v. much appreciated.

    As for these spaces... As far as I can tell, they don't quite exist. At least, not anywhere near the extent that the feminist networks do.

    There's some fairly isolated groups that support feminist activism and work to raise consciousness, but not many out there. Getting something running was something I'd hoped to do in the future - hopefully if and when it does exist, the Lashers would be kind enough to help publicise it. For now, watch this space :)

  4. The London Pro-Feminist Men's Group might be of interest. This is how they describe themselves:

    "We have been meeting fortnightly for almost 3 years now. The aims of our meetings are:
    - to support each other in our personal struggles as men, including our efforts to rid ourselves of sexist behaviour
    - to raise consciousness with regards to sexism in our lives and in society
    - to discuss issues around gender politics generally
    - to plan what actions we can take as pro-feminists

    Though we are mainly a consciousness raising group, we also sometimes facilitated workshops and give talks, organized creches at feminist
    events, and participated in demos. This helped all of us tremendously in acknowledging, realising and working on our sexist behaviours!

    Our meetings are generally composed of different parts (see Usually we start with a round about ourselves, our lives, how we are and past experiences of sexism we were involved in. Then we talk about concrete action plans we have for the future. After a break we try to discuss a theme linked to gender and feminism (such as our fathers/mothers, homophobia, pornography, seduction etc.) always trying to start from
    our own life experience and then go to the global/more theoretical."

  5. Also, if you do want to set up your own group, we will of course be happy to help you publicise it!

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