I was once at a party, in college, where upon hearing someone identify themselves as a male feminist, a woman replied “There are no Quislings in the gender wars!”
The moral of this story is that people have a lot of feelings when they are in liberal arts school. And that Quisling is a great term, and one which should really be used more often. But also, that is, perhaps, not quite entirely fair. At least, it’s not fair if you think that men and women are really just people trying to work together, and not actively trying to destroy one another. I like to think of the relationship between men and women as not quite comparable to the one between Mothra and Godzilla.
But, in spite of that, male feminists do tend to rub some women the wrong way. Which seems odd, because they’re obviously trying! They are making an effort to be friendly about women’s issues!
I suppose we’re often initially skeptical of male feminists because, in general, people like causes that benefit them, personally. The ways feminism benefits men are slightly less obvious than than the way it benefits women. Frankly, if I was told that it was perfectly okay to think that members of the opposite sex were only there to have sex with me and bake me meals, I can see why that might be an appealing worldview.
Fortunately, people are capable of sympathizing with people who are unlike themselves, unless they are sociopaths. That is generally how we progress towards a kinder society. Men are certainly allowed to take an interest and care about women’s issues.
Especially because many of those issues – the big issues, like the wage gap, not the nit-picky issues like whether or not Brazilian bikini waxes are awesome – are issues that affect people, not just women. As a man, if you are a two income family, even if you are traditionally minded, it would be beneficial to you if your wife did not make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes (because then your family would be making more money, and, I don’t know, you can buy a new TV to watch tough man shows on. Shows about barbequing exotic animals). Likewise, it’s probably preferable to have a spouse who has the freedom to pursue a career she wants, and is made happy by that, than one whose stifled ambitions mean that she’s sitting around the house popping mother’s little helper. Those are ways feminism is helpful to men, and I think most men probably realize that those are good things. They are good things for people.
Most men probably see that, and if men who do say they support feminist causes, I think that’s great. Yay. Yay benefiting people.
But when I sit down with someone who identifies as a male feminist, I find I cringe a little bit.
Not because I feel that you’re not allowed to take interest in the issues of people different from yourself. I really do believe that the way we, as a society, benefit by that is not getting turned into pillars of salt. Not being able to sympathize with other people is kind of monstrous.
However, I think some women are upset by male feminists because interacting with them makes them want to scream “you can’t tell me anything about being a woman I don’t already know!” Well, maybe, but there are a lot of things going on with women who are not me personally that I am unaware of. Maybe a man interested in their dilemmas does know more about them than I do (if a man had recently returned from working with the Peacekeepers in Sudan, I would have no problem believing that he knew more about the difficulties faced by women in that region than I do).
However, when I interact with some male feminists, I do get the uncomfortable sense that they fetishizing female victimhood.
Only because they keep telling me, endlessly, about ways women are victimized. By society. Not by them. Not by them, at all.
When male feminists start lecturing me about how the world is not set up in women’s favor, they often do so with a sad puppy dog look on their faces. And it always makes me think two things. The first is “Stop talking about this with sad puppy dog eyes. The fact that women, say, are looked down on in many professions is a fact, but it is not terribly problematic for you. You have a penis. Your puppy dog face is trying to trick me into thinking that these are also your problems, but they are not. I am not tricked because I recognize that you have a penis. Our hearts do not beat as one on this.”
On some level, these men seem to expect that you will give them a cookie for recognizing that women have problems.
No cookies for being aware. That just means you are individual who is able to recognize some basic facts about the way the world is set up. It would be the difference between me saying “minorities still have problems in America” (because they do) and my saying “oh, my gosh, it is sooooo sad that minorities still have problems in America, but, black friend, I hope you know that I’d never try to oppress you because I’m not like that all.”
Really, no cookies for not being a part of a problem. If you have noticed that men rape women, and you are not raping a woman, that simply makes you not a terrible person. There’s really no need to make a puppy-dog faced production out of decency.
The other thing I find myself thinking is “you know, I think I can handle these issues myself. I do not need you to come down from a mountain and help me with all the issues.”
I’d actually have a much easier time dealing with a man who thought I was weak in some traditional way – that, for instance, I could not use my weak lady arms to carry my groceries (I do a lot of pilates, but please, by all means, help me with my groceries, I love it when guys – or anyone! – does that) – than the male feminists who want to patiently explain that the entire world is out to get me. And that, oh, gosh, it’s just so, so hard for women. Just so hard. But they understand.
I find that my sense on this ends up being reinforced given that male feminists only seem to talk about women who are victimized, and never women who are really overcoming some initial difficulties to do quite well. The conversation with male feminists rarely seems to be about how great Hilary Clinton, or, hey, Margaret Thatcher, is. It would seem like it ought to be, as they excelled in areas that are often more difficult for women to excel in.
I get the sense that, while female feminists find those women quite interesting and admirable, self identified male feminists rarely seem to. And why should they? They can’t heroically ride in and save those women from their victimhood. Those women sort of handled that on their own.
That doesn’t make them Quislings, but it does make them little better than dudes who still think that ladies can’t handle life because their lady brains are weak. Substituting “men are mean except for me” for “weak lady brains” doesn’t really make a terrific difference. We should expect women to use their inner resources to excel. It may be slightly more difficult for them than their male counterparts, but it is fair to expect every person to play the hand that they are dealt as competently as they can. Saying that they women won’t be able to do so – whether its because their lady brains are weak, or because society is just sooooo mean – is part of what stops women from trying.
The trick to being helpful in this regard is not to identify why women can’t do the things we want to do, but how we can.
Perhaps the answer, the next time some male feminist starts making a puppy dog face at you and telling you how understands that the patriarchy is being so mean to you is just to pat him on the hand and tell him not to worry his pretty little head over it.
Picture via David Farrar via H E A T H E R – M C C L U R E via Pinterest, The Iron Lady